With Ole Miss in NCAA's crosshairs, who's the next SEC West team that can give Nick Saban fits?
It looked like Ole Miss was poised to make a run at Alabama for SEC supremacy. The Rebels were getting some of the nation’s top athletes to come to Oxford, and for a few years appeared to be the next team to ascend to the top of the SEC football world.
But the ongoing NCAA investigation has proven extremely costly for the Rebels on and off the field. Once on the cusp of breaking through, after beating conference goliath Alabama in consecutive seasons (2014-15), the Rebels stumbled through a 5-7 season in 2016, the worst since head coach Hugh Freeze took over in 2012. And with forthcoming sanctions still lurking over the program, Freeze had his worst recruiting class at Ole Miss ranking only 12th in the conference and 30th nationally.
Ole Miss banned itself from going to a bowl game in 2017 and more sanctions certainly are possible.
The Rebels are no longer a threat to Alabama’s stranglehold on the SEC. No more so than the fleeting effort Texas A&M put forth as the Aggies burst onto the conference scene in 2012. That year they, too, beat Alabama — with a freshman quarterback sensation.
But that’s as far as the Aggies got to dethroning the Tide. Johnny Manziel played one more year at Texas A&M and then took his legendary status to the NFL. With it he took Texas A&M’s hopes of derailing the conference champions.
So, who’s next?
Which program is capable of challenging an Alabama program that has won three consecutive SEC titles, four in the past five, and six in the past eight?
Well, it’s a good question especially when you consider no other SEC team won 10 games last season. East Division leaders Florida and Tennessee were closest, with nine wins each, while Georgia, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M won eight.
That doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of the conference.
But there appears to be one program that could be on the rise. And if you’re looking for one that can knock Alabama from its lofty perch, you might not have to look too far from Tuscaloosa.
There’s a lot to like on the Plains, especially if transfer QB Jarrett Stidham is as good as advertised. He certainly showed what he could do as a freshman at Baylor, throwing for 1.265 yards and 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions during the 2015 season — one that was cut short by an ankle injury.
The dual-threat quarterback transferred to nearby McLennan Community College after Bears coach Art Briles was fired. He never played there and the top recruit in the nation is now at Auburn with three years of eligibility still remaining.
He’ll have one of the best running back tandems in the SEC, if not the nation, in the backfield with him in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
New OC Chip Lindsey will have plenty of weapons to work with. Head coach Gus Malzahn recruited a plethora of top wide receiver talent last year that look to learn and grow with Stidham, and the Tigers began to fill some gaps in the offensive line with two-time FCS All-American graduate transfer Casey Dunn from Jacksonville State.
Auburn’s defense is young and aggressive, and if DC Kevin Steele can somehow make up for the loss of sack artists Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, watch out.
The Tigers appear as of now to be the team with the best chance to supplant Alabama as the SEC champions.
And don’t look now, but the East might eventually factor into this discussion as well.
The West has won eight consecutive SEC titles, but if Kirby Smart can continue to put together recruiting classes at Georgia like he did in February, the Bulldogs could easily become that team.