Week: Minus OneWho Will Win the West?
Alabama. The Crimson Tide is the clear choice. Their eastern foes are – wait for it – UK and UT who, combined, won one conference game last year when they faced each other. (To be fair, UT often plays the Tide tough.) Bama also has a bye prior to their big games with both Texas A&M and LSU. It is easy to forget that Bama faced Texas A&M last year in a huge hangover game. The Tide had spent the two previous weeks in pressure-filled match-ups versus previously-7-0 MSU, and against highly-ranked LSU. The latter game was a classic, emotionally draining affair, won in the final minute – and Bama responded the following week with their only unfocused quarter of the season, digging a 20-0 hole against the Aggies which they could not quite climb out of. The bye in Week 2 says it all; I expect Bama to take the Aggies in Week 3 this go-round. And everyone else too – at least up to the SEC Championship. Bama, of course, did lose nine players to the NFL draft. Names like Milliner, Warmack and Fluker – and that was just in the first 11 picks. While a "re-load" can never be taken for granted, on offense A.J. McCarron is back, along with T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood. Seven defensive starters return. Alabama will remain plenty good.
Whether or not Johnny Manziel (photo at left) is playing, it is still hard to find a lot of losses on Texas A&M's slate. Coach Kevin Sumlin has slung a couple of remarkable seasons together – and though the Aggies will not sneak up on anyone this year, they will likely take second place in the West. Manziel, another running QB we will face, lost some support to graduation (most notably ot Luke Joeckel), but the Aggies still look formidable on offense. On defense, a lot of graduation losses may take a toll – especially on the line and at linebacker. The defensive outlook is further clouded by the fact that two projected starters in the secondary are embroiled in legal issues. Still, with the recent success, recruiting has blossomed and Texas A&M's potent offense should cover for the defense, assuming Manziel stays on the field. Texas A&M's climb in the West is also aided by the fact that the unbalanced schedule strikes again in Baton Rouge. LSU's eastern draws are brutal: both Georgia and Florida. In addition they are at Bama, and face A&M and TCU. They had eight players drafted last year from their defense alone. That is a lot of talent to replace and their QB situation always feels unsettled. Zach Mettenberger will lead an offense that returns nine starters. Jeremy Hill has been in trouble, but will run behind a very good O-line. LSU's offense will have to outshine the defense this year if LSU can remain top-tier. Vegas has LSU's over/under at 9. LSU could be very good and still lose four games with this rugged schedule and wholly reconstructed defense. They may prove to be "better" than A&M but, given their schedule, they will have a hard time finishing ahead of the Aggies in the standings.
The battle for upward mobility in the West focuses on the state of Mississippi. Last year Dan Mullen went from genius/hot commodity to mortal-without-answers as the season unfolded. MSU opened 7-0, albeit, as it turned out, against relatively weak opponents. The team limped home at 1-5 when the meat of the schedule arrived. There is much to prove this year as Mullen tries to right the ship. MSU is another team returning a solid O-line. This should work to the benefit of QB Tyler Russell and RB LaDarius Perkins (photo at right). Matters are complicated by a tough opener with highly touted Oklahoma State. MSU probably has enough wins on its schedule to reach a bowl, but it seems to be losing ground in the battle for "media-love" to their in-state rivals from Oxford. Hugh Freeze has returned big-time attention to Ole Miss Football, buttressed by a remarkable recruiting class. Once Ole Miss hits the field, however, things get serious in a hurry. Ole Miss – much as we did last year – has a worrisome, front-loaded schedule. After playing us and SEMo, they get @ Texas, bye, @ Bama, @ Auburn. So four of their first five are on the road, and when they finally get home, they face A&M and LSU back-to-back. Then, of course, it gets easier, but there is clearly a risk of early season implosion, especially after all the hype. Nonetheless, they have an experienced and now-healthy QB in Bo Wallace, and serious threats at RB in Jeff Scott and WR, Donte Moncrief. Their defense should be very good, too, including the Brothers Nkemdiche. Something has to give – expectations are very high and the early schedule is very tough. Pass defense may be the key to living up to the buzz.
Both Auburn and Arkansas have new coaches with good pedigrees. Gus Malzahn at Auburn finds himself at the helm of a team that did not win a conference game last year. The cupboard is not bare, however, and Malzahn could end the season looking pretty smart. A lot of starters return. The out of conference schedule is winnable, and Auburn could conceivably pull out two league games and find themselves in a bowl. Last year the offense was the problem. Auburn could not throw or score. Only twice in SEC play did Auburn eclipse 14 points – both times in blow-out losses. They averaged a paltry 10 points per game in conference. Offense is Malzahn's specialty, and it seems the bottom was hit last season. In Fayetteville, the Hogs do open with four winnable non-conference games – and then march into a buzz-saw: Texas A&M, @ Florida, SC, @ Bama . . . four pre-season top ten teams in four weeks. I am guessing that stretch will leave Bret Bielema longing for simpler times in the Big Ten. Arkansas lost a lot of talent from last year's disappointing team and it looks like the 2013 SEC campaign will be a re-building one for the Razorbacks. The SEC-West is a hard place to re-build.