10 biggest questions about the SEC West in 2018
The SEC West is at a crossroads in 2018. With Alabama reigning over college football once again, and as Nick Saban strengthens his case for the greatest of all time, there is a new era of young coaches eager for a shot at the throne.
Texas A&M, Arkansas and Mississipi State start with a new staff this upcoming season, as new coaches Jimbo Fisher, Chad Morris and Joe Moorhead will give the division a new look in 2018 with their innovative offenses.
Meanwhile, former interim coaches in Ole Miss’ Matt Luke and LSU’s Ed Orgeron add to the group that will try to accomplish something that only Gus Malzahn can say he has done: beat Alabama.
What will the new landscape of this division look like? Let’s delve into the biggest questions of 2018:
10. What is the standard at LSU?
After a year and a half under Ed Orgeron, LSU has flashed some of its potential but ultimately shown little progress from the lackluster squads that got Les Miles fired.
The offense has been the problem in Baton Rouge for pretty much every year that didn’t include either Jimbo Fisher as the offensive coordinator or Zach Mettenberger as the quarterback. Adding Matt Canada last offseason looked to be a solid solution, but the Tigers were still No. 54 in yards per game and No. 84 in passing.
At times, LSU has looked hungry and nearly unstoppable under Orgeron, but he hasn’t come near the consistency of the Les Miles era. Gone are the days when the team could count on winning out of conference and dominating the lines of scrimmage – LSU struggled in that area in their loss to Troy, perfectly encapsulating the change.
LSU’s last 10-win season was in 2013 – is the Tigers’ time as an elite SEC team over?
9. Can Chad Morris recruit at Arkansas?
Arkansas has an uncanny knack for being in the 20s in 247Sports’ rankings; in fact, they have had a recruiting class in the 20s since 2010. The Razorbacks always have just enough talent for a good coach to turn them into an SEC contender, but never a haul comparable to LSU, Auburn or Alabama – until this year, that is.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of Bret Bielema before last season and the lack of a smooth transition to Chad Morris after it, the Razorbacks are at No. 72. Only two four-star prospects, LB Bumper Pool and QB Connor Noland, are headed to Fayetteville.
The new early signing period couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Hogs, as more stable coaching staffs were able to sew up the majority of their classes on December 20-22. According to 247Sports’ Barton Simmons, “about 65 percent of the total number of FBS prospects signed during the early period,” leaving schools like Arkansas to pick up the scraps.
This is no indictment of Morris, as his SMU teams were been able to achieve moderate success with recruiting classes in the 80s, but the SEC is a different ballgame.
8. What will the quarterback position look like?
LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and probably Alabama will have a new starting quarterback in 2018. While Danny Elting at LSU and Austin Allen at Arkansas are graduating, Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson transferred to Michigan and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts looks to have lost his job during the national championship game when freshman Tua Tagovailoa took over and looked like a veteran.
Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald are the safest bets in the division, though Nick Starkel certainly showed flashes for Texas A&M.
7. Is Gus Malzahn a good coach?
The answer usually seems obvious in the moment, but the bigger picture is less clear. Though no one would doubt that Malzahn has enjoyed his share of lucky breaks, he has also been able to engineer some of the best offenses in the conference.
In 2017, Auburn looked like the best team in America for two weeks – when the Tigers beat both participants in the national title game by multiple possessions – but looked average for parts of the season. Outside of beating Georgia and Alabama, the peaks included a dark horse Heisman candidacy by RB Kerryon Johnson and a 49-10 drubbing of Mississippi State, while the valleys were equally low. Auburn found a way to blow a 20-0 lead in Baton Rouge to LSU and lost in the Peach Bowl to Central Florida.
Though fans on The Plains will be more than happy with the Tigers’ domination of Alabama, this season left a lot to be desired based on how well the team played. Combine all of that with the fact that Malzahn has lost at least four game every season since his first and has exactly one bowl win as a head coach — the 2015 Birmingham Bowl.
6. How long will Nick Saban stay in the game?
Barring any major setbacks, Alabama is still the team to beat – both in the SEC and nationwide. Maybe one of those new coaches will build a machine that can challenge Nick Saban, but it seems more likely that he will retire of his own accord before that day comes.
Saban, who turns 67 next season, has done it all in the college football world. The good news for Crimson Tide fans, however, is that he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Shortly after Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ surprise retirement, Aaron Suttles of TideSports.com talked to Saban about the possibility of him doing the same thing.
“As long as I feel good, I love doing it,” Saban said. “I’ve said this before. I’ve been a part of a team since I was 9 years old, and it scares me to death to figure what it’s going to be like when I’m not a part of a team.
“As long as I feel healthy and I can do it, we certainly have every intention of trying to do it. If I felt like I couldn’t do it to the standard that I want to do it then I think that would be time not to do it. But I certainly don’t feel like that’s anytime soon.”
At the Tide’s championship parade, Saban reminded the crowd that they’re not done yet.
5. Can Jimbo win without Jameis?
Before this season, Jimbo Fisher was a no-brainer selection for a top-5 coach in America, but what a difference a season can make. After coming into the season ranked No. 3, Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles put up a fight against Alabama in their Week 1 showdown, but ultimately came up short. Instead of building on that loss, it was their brightest moment of the season.
A huge part of FSU’s struggles last season can be attributed to losing starting QB Deondre Francois for the year during their game against Alabama. Still, when was the last time an “elite” coach had a losing season? Yes, Fisher won a national title against Auburn in 2013, but his record without Heisman winner Jameis Winston has been good, not great. In the ACC, being above average can get you 10 wins a season. That’s not the case in the SEC West.
Fisher gets a fresh start in 2018. Resources won’t be an issue and no one’s doubting that the Aggies’ new head man can recruit, but it will be up to his staff to turn those recruits into a competitive team.
4. Is Nick Fitzgerald elite?
Former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough at the quarterback position. Where Miles saw a tight end, Mullen saw the player who we now know to be Dak Prescott. Similarly, Mullen only had to beat out UT Chattanooga for Nick Fitzgerald, who was listed as the No. 1,566 by 247Sports Composite.
Just like with Prescott, the Mississippi State system did wonders for Fitzgerald, who was the conference’s No. 2 leading rusher in 2016. In 2017, however, the dynamic quarterback took a step back. He threw one more interception (11) than he did the previous year, and his touchdowns fell from 21 to 15.
We’ll never know how the veteran QB would’ve finished off his redshirt junior season after a gruesome ankle injury knocked him out of the Egg Bowl, but one thing is for sure: Dan Mullen is gone, and so is his offense that fit Fitzgerald so well. Moorhead was able to lead Penn State to the No. 19 spot in total offense last year, but with elite talent that State probably won’t attract. How will the SEC West’s most proven QB respond?
3. What can we really expect from Matt Luke?
After the dumpster fire that was the Hugh Freeze scandal, former interim head coach Matt Luke seemed to be the perfect hire to calm the waters in Oxford. He’s an Ole Miss man from an Ole Miss family, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to see the university out of the dark ages of sanctions, regardless of how many Ls it piles up on his career record.
Perhaps Ole Miss will seek an established, big-time head coach once Luke has guided his alma mater through these rough seas, but what if he proves himself to be that guy? As for the time being, none of that matters, only what Luke can squeeze out of this depleted roster.
Patterson’s departure will hurt, but Jordan Ta’amu played well and Ole Miss landed a huge commitment from former Gator prospect and Army All-American QB Matt Corral. Now we may have a chance to see what Luke is all about.
2. What will Alabama look like with Tagovailoa under center?
Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa announced his presence to a national audience when he led the Tide to a comeback victory over Georgia in the CFP title game, but what’s next?
Alabama will have another offensive coordinator — Mike Locksley replaced Brian Daboll. Can Alabama return to its explosive ways, or will it return to the neutered playbook of last season that relied heavily on check-downs and QB runs?
1. Will Texas A&M ever turn the corner?
Texas A&M was a threat when it joined the SEC in 2012; first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin was looking like a great hire and young QB Johnny Manziel was taking the SEC by storm en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Things have steadily regressed since then, as Sumlin’s strong starts and November collapses became as reliable as the sunrise. With Fisher coming in and the school’s recent history of great recruiting, it’s possible that A&M could fill the void left by LSU as that next team from outside the state of Alabama. But then again, A&M’s success has always made sense on paper.
After three consecutive 8-win seasons under Sumlin, the administration made it clear that wouldn’t cut it in College Station. What, then, is the expectation for Fisher? In a division dominated by Alabama and expectations, something has to give.