Mississippi State’s turn on the biggest summer stage of college sports is July 12, with Dan Mullen and three to-be-named Bulldogs attending. This will be Mullen’s eighth such appearance, and that number itself is cause for pause. This 2016 season will give Mullen the third-longest tenure, ever, by a Bulldog football coach.
Well then, since from day-one Mullen has proclaimed winning the Western Division as his program’s ambition…why not take another advance look at the competition?
2016 sets up as a particularly volatile season. Graduation losses were significant enough at most West programs. But the roster of early-NFL entries from this Division alone could stock a franchise, not to mention a few transfers out.
So, before packing up the family for vacation (take lots of cash and sunscreen), how about a look at Mississippi State’s peers; their chief personnel losses, top returnees, as well as their conference schedules? In alphabetical order--
ALABAMA (13-1, 7-1)
We know all about the underclassman departures, premier defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and running back Derrick Henry. But the Crimson Tide doesn’t win the Playoff without some big senior seasons. Most obviously from one-year starter Jake Coker who was much more than just a game manager. Kenyan Drake complemented Henry in the run game behind seniors at center and right tackle.
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. That’s not ideal even for a program which since 2008 has regularly re-loaded.
Alabama did catch a break with defensive end Jonathan Allen coming back to be the ’16 headliner; as well as Playoff star safety Eddie Jackson who returns to keep making big plays everywhere in back of Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Elsewhere, of course they will re-stock. Nor does it hurt having a proven punter like J.K. Scott.
Few dare doubt—certainly not on record—that Alabama’s annual recruiting crops means 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, and Robert Foster’s pre-shoulder injury show last September was a sign of things to come. All of this is making the new quarterback’s development easier, and the Next Great Runner ready for his own turn. Also, lead lineman Cam Robinson seems to have survived a run-in with John Law. Alongside center Ross Pierschbacher and guard Alphonse Taylor it will be up to the usual standards here.
Still, about that new quarterback… Junior Cooper Bateman is nominally in front of three more including a touted rookie Jalen Hurts. At some point the odds just have to catch-up and throwing a fresh starter out there has to flop. Doesn’t it? The silence says it all, as gambling against Nick Saban’s system has been a losing bet so far.
Besides, next month it will be real ‘news’ at Media Days if a press corps packed with locals doesn’t tab their home team to take the West and SEC again. But there are enough questions, enough of a road schedule, and enough trending-to-LSU that maybe the voting won’t be so clear-cut as usual.
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 were as hot as any West squad in the season’s second half, on offense at least. Things are quite likely going to cool off considerably in 2016 though.
Though only a handful of seniors started regularly, the most important one by-far was 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. At least the leading contender is his younger brother Austin who ought have some extra insights if he beats out new guy Ricky Town.
Besides, lots of the folk who helped make most plays have exited as well. At Arkansas it all and always starts up-front and along with graduations of the center and left guard and most of all key tackle Denver Kirkland opted to turn pro. A lot will get asked of redshirt tackle Colton Jackson. The ground game will have to be restocked as well because Alex Collins left early as did 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 is, like Allen, a loss that looms larger than even his sizable statistics.
Positives? All the wide receivers who mattered were underclassmen and coming back, including a healthy Keon Hatcher. So is the next clutch-target 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.
The defense had two, only two senior starters, those being a defensive tackle and strong safety. Sure, a cynic might joke that having everyone else back from a defense that stopped just about nobody is not necessarily a good thing. But cumulative experience still counts, even bad experience, and that will be a seasoned outfit for sure. The twist though is will going more to the air, and thus speeding up the offense by Brett Bielma’s standards, put more load on the defense this year?
What 2016 will really be, is a judgement on how completely the program’s foundation has been re-set by this coaching regime. Outside expectations are, well, nobody knows. Which seems to be how Arkansas likes it no matter who is in charge or how he runs this show.
Plus, and this too can’t be over-emphasized in this club’s case, the toughest conference tests will either be at home or on a neutral field.
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)
It’s easy to overlook that if not for some unexpected early departures Auburn could be receiving some serious consideration as a West dark horse. And if a single new piece fits into place the Tigers can certainly do damage to any contender.
See, for all the ’15 struggles a lot of rising sophs and juniors got a lot of snaps. Maybe they all blossom; maybe the chemistry goes sour. Only real season will show.
Gus Malzahn does have two seasoned quarterbacks, and Sean White certainly showed guts under fire after taking over from struggling Jeremy Johnson. But juco John Franklin was brought in to win this job, period.
Who they will throw to is interesting as Ricardo Louis left. A lot is being asked of Stanton Truitt coming off a shoulder injury. Marcus Davis is a veteran on one end, and Auburn signed several fresh candidates for the receiver jobs.
The ground game is even less-known. Oh, early departure Peyton Barber can be replaced by Jovon Robinson. It’s re-stocking both tackles, who also tried turning pro too soon, that cause questions. Texas transfer Darius James has to take over immediately at one end of the line.
Defense is interesting for sure, with one-year coordinator Will Muschamp going to South Carolina in a really odd head coaching hire. Does Kevin Steele stick with the multiple system or be more basic? At least there’s a good core of linemen who 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 this gave their successors more SEC snaps ahead of schedule. Carlton Davis is a rising star at cornerback, and the secondary looks to be a strength overall with Jonathan Ford, Jamal Dean, Javaris Davis, a healed Joshua Holsey. 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.
Auburn did try cooling the hot seat talk with a bold contract extension, which will surely be thrown back in administrative faces if ’16 goes sour. Oh, and booking CFP runner-up Clemson is not the easiest way to open a turnaround. But if it works out…watch out.
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)
Math-y types call it the ‘Chaos Theory’. In Tiger Town it’s fact. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Six months after the failed coaching coup, is Les Miles really in a stronger position? Nah. All his survival, and an exciting bowl win did was raise expectations which only a 2016 West and maybe SEC title will satisfy.
Thing is, that bowl did not mean as much for Leonard Fournette since he needs no promotion as a top Heisman contender in ’16 and the presumptive top running back. A fellow at Florida State might have something to say about that of course.
No what December did was provide hope Brandon Harris can become a title-contender quarterback with consistent vertical-game production. The arm strength is certainly there. So are most of his best 2015 targets headlined by burner Travin Dural.
The real strength isn’t 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 September; offensive tackles Vadal Alexander (senior) and early entry Jerald Hawkins. Three of the returning offensive linemen are seniors; and so are three of the four defensive line returnees. 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 older and gifted tackle Davon Godchaux and end/linebacker Arden Key.
It also was a coup, the good kind, that cornerback Tre’Davious White defied scout expectations and returned for a senior year where he should upgrade his draft stock for ’17. 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 (bad kind) coup, Miles’ status is only as strong as how his Tigers perform on opening day. Against Wisconsin no less.
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)
Maybe a couple of conference peers lost more in sheer numbers. It’s unlikely any lost more of their star-power.
From the starting 22 in the Egg Bowl, ten were seniors and three more were juniors who left to play now for NFL paychecks. That is a lot to lose for anybody, anywhere; and even a string of successful recruiting seasons will be stressed to replace it all immediately.
Fortunately from a Rebel prospectus the key position remains in good hands. Maybe some of the experts wonder if Chad Kelly coming back for a senior season was the correct choice for his ultimate career. His vertical-game is close enough to NFL level already but it’s going to be a challenge 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 are awarded for guessing where opposing defensive coordinators are going to attack this fall. Expect touted signee Greg Little to crack the lineup immediately at tackle. The increased hope in Oxford is that eventually the ground game has to develop, beyond Kelly’s scrambles which only increase the risk to health and interception ratio. He’ll be looking for Damore Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboye and tight end Evan Engram early and often, along with the usual newcomers of course. A lot is being demanded from back Jordan Wilkins to take the pressure off.
On paper the defensive line looks like a rebuild. Reality is things are just fine here as long as returnees Issac Gross and Herbert Moore are 100% to go with end Marquis Haynes and some spring enrollees. The larger questions are behind the line where DeMarquis Gates is the sole returning linebacker. At least the strong points early on should be corner-coverage with Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges hawking balls back there, reinforced by a healthy Tony Conner coming back from knee issues.
It can’t be over-rated how bringing back Kelly eases a transition sort of season. 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. It’s a great big roll of the scheduling dice, but win that one and nobody will have made a bigger September statement.
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 chaos, things off to the west weren’t exactly harmonious either. It’s just been more low-key in College Station. Where, it should be said, 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 experience passer, having completed 53% of 75 throws last fall. Or maybe senior Trevor Knight blossoms at last. Or just as likely the Next 5-Star Signee will jump-line on elders, which explains much of the discontent there. Heck, they’re already talking about who Sumlin will sign next year to trump 2016’s 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 in the league 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 wished 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. A healthy Otaro Alaka at linebacker can certainly help.
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