Who is Gone, Who is Back, Who Plays Who?

OK, signing day is just now in the books. The assistant staff is barely completed. Spring football is just over a month away, too. But is it ever really TOO early to think about another upcoming season for the SEC’s Western Division?

No, it isn’t. Not for most Bulldog football fans. For y’all more-patient types, humor the rest of us.

‘Humor’ is not a word to use easily around Mississippi State at the moment. Not with the Senior Bowl reminding that Dak Prescott is, indeed, moving on to professional football and taking his two-time All-SEC quarterback legacy along. Also leaving are three Bulldog standouts making an early exit in record-setting receiver De’Runnya Wilson, defensive tackle Chris Jones, and linebacker Beniquez Brown.

Coach Dan Mullen will also open spring camp (one, maybe two practices late the first week of March prior to spring break at last report) without defensive end Ryan Brown, cornerback Taveze Calhoun, offensive guard Justin Malone, and offensive tackle Rufus Warren from the November starting lineup. Dawgs’ Bite will take a much more detailed look at each position in-advance of spring ball starting next week, after signing day.

For now, why not look at our Division peers; their big losses to graduation or the draft, top returnees, and their SEC schedules? Why not, indeed. So going in alphabetical order:

 

ALABAMA (13-1, 7-1)

Yeah, yeah, we know all about those underclassman departures. Derrick Henry should be the first running back drafted and A’Shawn Robinson has to be at or near the top of the defensive tackle wish-list for most franchises.

What isn’t quite as appreciated about Alabama’s 2015 lineup is all the upperclassman impact. He only got one year but it was a good one for Jake Coker who belied the ‘game manager’ label with some darned big plays of his own initiative. Henry’s compadre Kenyan Drake was also a senior, as were the center and right tackle in that run game.

On the other side five seniors started on defense against State including two of the linebackers and their supporting free safety. Now combine those elders with the departing juniors, and it will be a very different lineup when Alabama opens 2016 on a neutral field against Southern California. For that matter the Crimson Tide has to visit fiercest West foe LSU as well as cross-Division rival Tennessee on the road.

They did catch a break with defensive end Jonathan Allen coming back to be the ’16 star, as well as Playoff star safety Eddie Jackson returns to keep making big plays everywhere. Elsewhere, of course they will re-stock.  But surely at some point the odds can catch up, and the replacements not be quite the same caliber…right? (Re: Kentucky basketball.)

Well, few will dare doubt—certainly not on record—that Alabama’s annual recruiting crops has top-tier talent waiting in the wings. Maybe not another Heisman running back, but is there a better returning West wideout than Calvin Ridley? Tight end O.J. Howard opted to come back as well. There will also be two more proven targets making the new quarterback’s development easier, and the Next Great Runner ready for his own turn.

Even in January it isn’t too early to expect the reigning national champions are the 2016 favorites. It just won’t be as strong an assumption as before what with LSU over-due to contend. Though, that won’t keep Alabama from being tabbed tops since SEC Media Days is dominated by local media anyway with contractual obligations to promote their team.

SEC Schedule: host Kentucky, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn; @ Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee

Top Non-SEC Opponent: Southern California in Arlington

 

ARKANSAS (8-5, 5-3)

The Razorbacks might have been the hottest West squad in the season’s second half, at least on offense. Were everyone to return 2016 might have been even better. That is not the case.

In fact, though only a handful of seniors started regularly, the most important one by-far was in our opinion the most improved SEC player of 2015. Quarterback Brandon Allen blew-up in his final campaign, not just in his skills but clutch-situation intangibles. That can’t be replaced easily, if at all.

Worse for his successor, lots of the folk who let Allen make plays have bowed-out as well. At Arkansas that starts up-front and along with graduations of the center and left guard the key tackle Denver Kirkland opted to turn pro. The ground game will have to be restocked as well because Alex Collins is leaving early as is injured Jonathan Williams.

And of course the best safety-valve receiver in the league if not the nation is gone. Junior tight end Hunter Henry will have his name called early in the draft.

Positives? All the wide receivers who mattered were underclassmen and coming back. So is the next great Arkansas tight end in Jeremy Sprinkle, though it’s worth wondering if he will be quite as productive without Allen’s sure instincts and defenses obsessed over Henry.

And the defense had only two, two senior starters, a defensive tackle and strong safety. The cynic might joke that having everyone else back from a defense that stopped nobody is not necessarily a good thing. But experience counts, even bad experience, and that will be a seasoned outfit for sure.

What 2016 will really be, is a judgement on how completely the program’s foundation has been re-set by Brett Bielma. Outside expectations are, well, nobody knows. Which seems to be how Arkansas likes it no matter who is in charge.

SEC Schedule: Host Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Florida; @ Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri; vs Texas A&M in Arlington

Top Non-SEC Opponent: at TCU

 

AUBURN (7-6, 2-6)

On the bright side, there is no way 2016 can be as chaotic as last season at Auburn, right?

Right?

Well, let’s try to overlook emotions swirling around a program under pressures from inside and out. ‘Hot seat’ gets over-used to a ludicrous degree these days anyways. What even outsiders recognize is a crossroads sort of season setting-up for Gus Malzahn that extends to the returning roster.

Actually were it not for some unexpected early departures Auburn might, might have gotten some real consideration as a West dark horse. Then both the offensive tackles opted out, along with running back Peyton Barber. That makes this a really difficult bunch to make early evaluations because so many of the returnees are rising sophs or juniors going into a second year as regulars. Maybe they all blossom; maybe the chemistry goes sour.

What Malzahn does have is something he needs most, an experienced quarterback in Sean White. He took frequent beatings once forced into starting action but also showed some creativity, even flair for making unexpected plays. He has his top two targets for tossing as well, Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis. The backfield isn’t bare either after Jovon Robinson netted 5.5 per carry

The defense is a mystery, again, what with one-year coordinator Will Muschamp going to South Carolina in a really, really odd head coaching hire. Now it’s --- in charge. Does he stick with the multiple system or be more basic? There’s a good core of defensive linemen to work with that ought be more mature with ends Dontavious Russell and Raashad Kennion and tackle Montravious Adams. Injuries messed-up the linebacker rotation early in ’15 but it was seniors sitting out usually and that at least gave their successors more SEC snaps ahead of schedule. The real strength may be in the secondary with Jonathan Ford and Carlton Davis and others who combined for lots of tackles and eight interceptions.

Also, after missing much of two seasons with injuries, star 2013 freshman defensive end Carl Lawson ought be healthy at last. That alone will make the Tiger defense better.

But how much better must Auburn be to avoid their next coaching change, which would likely take down the athletic director as well? We’ll find out by November. Oh, and booking CFP runner-up Clemson is not the easiest way to begin a turnaround.

SEC Schedule: host Texas A&M, LSU, Vanderbilt, Arkansas; @ Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama.

Top Non-SEC Opponent: host Clemson

 

LOUISIANA STATE (9-3, 5-3)

Ahhhh, LSU… Heaven (or the Other Place depending on your theology) grant you never change. Chaos Theory? No, in Baton Rouge it is a fact, a way of life. Though last November raised even Tiger standards as a failed coaching coup left Les Miles in stronger position than ever…

…up to the moment 2015 ended. Successfully, too, with a bowl victory that has raised other standards. Specifically for the LSU offense which sputtered through so much of the regular season, then blew out Texas Tech. Thing is, the bowl did not mean as much for Leonard Fournette since he needs no more promotion as a top Heisman contender in ’16 and the presumptive top running back. The guy at Florida State might have something to say about that of course.

No what December did was provide hope Brandon Harris will yet become a title-contender sort of quarterback after completing all those vertical strikes. Never mind it was against a really bad defense, plays like that show Harris is turning arm strength into accuracy. Maybe. He also gets his leading receivers back, notably burner Travin Dural.

What ought to really raise concerns around the SEC isn’t the runner, thrower, or catchers. Look at the line of scrimmage. Actually look at both sides. LSU lost just two of the nine Tiger big-boys who started in Starkville; offensive tackles Vadal Alexander (senior) and early entry Jerald Hawkins. No wait, it gets worse. Three of the returning offensive linemen are seniors; and so are three of the four defensive line returnees. Now maybe that is a comment on previous recruiting as LSU historically loses a d-lineman or two early to the draft. Still seniority counts and reports are young depth will be more along the old, super-gifted lines.

It did not get as much attention as the Alabama defensive juniors who passed on the draft, but cornerback Tre’Davious White defied scouting expectations. He’s back for a senior year likely to upgrade his draft stock from second to first round in 2017. He will be more effective covering outside with senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith and safety Lewis Neal dominating the middle.

Looking at the proven star-power, the expected improvement at quarterback, and so, so many seniors on both sides of the ball, why isn’t LSU the easy pre-season projection to win the West? Well, it gets back to the Chaos Theory. Conventional wisdom now is that even after defeating the coup, Miles’ status can never again be taken for granted.

Then again, when the heck has conventional wisdom held true at LSU? May that never change.

SEC Schedule: host Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Alabama; @ Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M

Top Non-SEC Opponent: Wisconsin in Green Bay

 

OLE MISS (10-3, 6-2)

A handful of peers lose as much when measured in sheer numbers. But besides Alabama of course nobody loses more sheer star-power, and even the Crimson Tide might return a larger portion of the regular lineup.

Simply, from the starting elevens in the Egg Bowl, ten were seniors and three more were juniors who have headed on to play for NFL paychecks. That is a lot, likely more than anyone could replace in one season regardless of prior recruiting.

Fortunately from a Rebel prospectus the key position remains in good hands. Though experts wonder if Chad Kelly coming back for a senior season was the correct choice. His vertical-game is close enough to NFL level already but he will struggle to have the same statistics as 2015. It’s not just losing the best one-on-one matchup in the game in Laquon Treadwell, or under-appreciated Cody Core to get to those vertical-pass spots.

It’s the guys who gave time to toss. Four of five blockers have to be replaced, and no points awarded for guessing where opposing defenses are going to attack this fall. The hope in Oxford is that eventually the ground game has to develop, beyond Kelly’s scrambles which only increase the risk. He’ll be looking for Damore Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboye and tight end Evan Engram early and often.

And the defensive lineup is an even larger rebuild job. End Marquis Haynes is the lone returning line starter and DeMarquis Gates the sole linebacker. Plus their safety supporters have to be replaced. The strong point should be corner-coverage with Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges.

It can’t be over-rated how much bringing back Kelly can ease a transition sort of season. Though keeping him upright and just surviving the schedule might be enough of a feat to impress the scouts. Who, of course, will be assembled en masse when Ole Miss opens against one of the preseason #1 candidates on a not-really-neutral site.

SEC Schedule: host Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi State; @ Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt

Top Non-SEC Opponent: Florida State in Orlando

 

TEXAS A&M (8-5, 4-4)

While LSU was having their late-season kerfuffle, things to the west weren’t exactly harmonious either. It’s just been more low-key in College Station where the initial glow of SEC membership has lost a little luster. Oh, the Aggies have been successful overall in three seasons.

But no West title has been won despite well-attested recruiting successes from Kevin Sumlin. And now expectations for 2016 are cautious for one obvious reason. Honk, if your team has a former Aggie on the quarterback roster. Two underclassmen, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, both bailed and not in a happy manner either. That leaves Jake Hubenak as the only experience passer, having completed 53% of 75 throws last fall. Or more likely the Next 5-Star Signee will jump-line on elders, which explains much of the turnover there. Heck, they’re already talking about who Sumlin will sign next year to trump the new guy.

Whoever earns or is given the job won’t have 1,200-yard rusher Tra Carson to hand the ball to. And the next-two leading runners of ’15 were, yes, the departed quarterbacks. Add to that replacing three linemen including early-entry tackle Germain Ifedi and the ground game looks iffy.

At the same time, that is not A&M’s priority. Nobody, not nobody in the league or maybe land returns more and better proven receivers. Well, that depends on the status of Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil, both suspended at the end of last season and in Noil’s case for the ’16 opener. Stay tuned on his status. There’s no such concerns for Christian Kirk and Rickey Seals-Jones. Or none outside 12 defensive coordinator offices, that is, who wish the NFL would take these two ahead of underclassman schedule.

Defensively the lineup should be in seasoned-shape overall. True, both interior spots in the 4-3 set need replacing. But when you have Myles Garrett on one end and Daeshon Hall on the other, well that’s 19.5 combined sacks returning. Free safety Armani Watts had 126 tackles in support or coverage as needed and like Garrett will be an early-entry of 2017. There’s also nickel-back Donovan Wilson coming off a five-interception year. Then again, this is a defense that wasn’t exactly a stone wall.

No one questions the talent level on this or any Aggie roster. Finding a running back ought be easy in Texas. Finding a quarterback has usually been easy for Sumlin wherever he works. The tougher part is satisfying an unrivaled fan base providing almost-unrivaled resources, and a 11-13 SEC record the past three years does not do the trick.

SEC Schedule: host Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU; @ South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn; vs Arkansas in Arlington

Top Non-SEC Opponent: hosting UCLA


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