10 bold predictions for the SEC West in 2015
Making a “bold” prediction in this year’s SEC East is like projecting a game MVP from one of the NBA All-Star rosters.
I searched far and wide for an upset pick to include in my bold predictions before realizing that any SEC West team could beat any other SEC West team and it wouldn’t be shocking.
It would be foolhardy to suggest that any of these seven head coaches will get fired. I can’t disagree with the boring, but historically consistent assertion that Alabama and Auburn will win the division.
So most of these predictions should not shock you. But here’s a look at some things I believe will happen in a delightful SEC West in 2015.
1. Auburn will win the SEC West thanks to a defense ranked in the national Top 15.
Will Muschamp is the $1.6 million man at defensive coordinator. But he may not be reason one, two, three, four or five that Auburn’s defense will get much better in 2015. Muschamp is a great defensive coach. But Ellis Johnson had a good track record until last year. The personnel is more important.
- Carl Lawson, one of the SEC’s best pass-rushers, finally is healthy after a torn ACL.
- Transfer safety Tray Matthews, the No. 1-rated member of Georgia’s 2013 recruiting class, is eligible to play after siting out last year.
- Five-star freshman Byron Cowart should add to the pass rush in a reserve role.
- Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy decided to forego early entry into the NFL draft.
- Montravius Adams, an immense talent at defensive tackle, finally seems ready to grow into that potential.
The Tigers will be good again on offense despite losing a prolific two-year starter at quarterback (Nick Marshall), one of the SEC’s leading rushers (Cameron Artis-Payne), arguably the No. 1 receiver last year (Sammie Coates) and a Rimington Trophy winner (Reese Dismukes).
But a much better pass rush, and therefore a much better pass defense, is what will elevate Auburn to an SEC West title.
2. LSU RB Leonard Fournette will lead the SEC in rushing.
Nick Chubb. Leonard Fournette. One player was the best back in the SEC in 2014. The other was the most hyped back.
Is it possible the two players reverse roles in 2015? I say yes.
Whomever rushes for more yards this season, they’re both future first-round picks, assuming good health. It’s one of those sports debates that’s fun, but doesn’t matter on the field. Winning an SEC rushing title doesn’t equate to being the best in the conference, either (see: Cameron Artis-Payne vs. Chubb last year).
Both Chubb and Fournette should get the ball a ton this fall. But I think LSU’s star will rush for more yards.
To boil down a topic on which I’ve written a few thousand words this offseason, Georgia will give some carries to Sony Michel and Keith Marshall, while LSU’s depth at running back is inexperienced. Fournette didn’t begin to grow into his potential until halfway through last season, and slight gains in LSU’s pass offense will help ease pressure on him.
I think Fournette carries the ball 250 times, averages more than 6 yards per carry and rushes for about 1,600 yards.
3. The state of Alabama will finish 1-2 against Georgia
The collective psyche of the SEC East may hit a new all-time low if the Tide and Tigers each crush UGA during the regular season.
Georgia, though, enters 2015 as the most complete team of the three. The Bulldogs will split the regular-season matchups with the teams from Alabama, taking out the Tide in Sanford Stadium, and then get revenge on Auburn in the SEC championship game.
4. An SEC West team won’t make the College Football Playoff, but six teams will make the final Associated Press Top 25.
Since Alabama knocked off Tim Tebow’s Florida team in the 2009 SEC championship, the SEC West has owned the sport of college football. Here’s a look at how far the SEC West champion has made it since that year.
- 2009: Alabama (14-0) beat Texas in the BCS Championship Game.
- 2010: Auburn (14-0) beat Oregon in the BCS Championship Game.
- 2011: Alabama (12-1) beat LSU in the BCS Championship Game.
- 2012: Alabama (13-1) beat Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game.
- 2013: Auburn (12-2) lost to Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.
- 2014: Alabama (12-2) lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
The SEC West (and more specifically, the state of Alabama) has been represented in the BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoffs for six consecutive seasons. It’ll be close, but don’t expect a seventh.
Alabama and Auburn still represent the division’s best shot at a College Football Playoff berth. But the teams aren’t quite good enough to survive their respective schedules with fewer than two losses.
However, six different SEC West teams will make the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, compared to just four last year.
5. Texas A&M QB Kyle Allen will lead the SEC in passing
The two top candidates to become this year’s All-SEC quarterback play for Auburn and Mississippi State. But Allen will lead the SEC in passing.
This prediction isn’t so bold considering Texas A&M led the SEC in passing last season by 300 yards. Kenny Hill represented a chunk of that figure. Allen doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game to his credit, and he’ll have to beat out Kyler Murray to retain the starting job.
But the Aggies boast the best collection of pass-catchers in the SEC in Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk and Ricky Seals-Jones, and an improved defense should give Allen even more chances to excel.
6. Five SEC West teams will go undefeated against the SEC East.
If you’re an East fan, don’t gloat too quickly about Georgia’s potential to end the conference championship drought.
I’m picking the Bulldogs to beat Alabama in Athens, Ga.. I also think Missouri will beat Mississippi State at Faurot Field. But I believe all five of these SEC West teams could finish a combined 10-0 against the East Division.
- Arkansas: at No. 25 Tennessee, vs. No. 23 Missouri
- Auburn: at Kentucky, vs. No. 9 Georgia
- LSU: at South Carolina, vs. Florida
- Ole Miss: vs. Vanderbilt, at Florida
- Texas A&M: vs. South Carolina, at Vanderbilt
7. Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson will finish as the SEC’s leading vote-getter for the Heisman Trophy.
Yes, I know Johnson only has thrown 78 college passes. Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston hadn’t thrown one before launching their Heisman Trophy seasons.
I’m not expecting Johnson to win the award, nor do I think he’ll be as good as those players. But he does play for coach Gus Malzahn, so he’ll put up big numbers. And he plays quarterback on a potential Top 10 team, the importance of which can’t be understated when we’re talking about Heisman Trophy voting.
I expect Dak Prescott, Chubb, Fournette and Derrick Henry to get some early-season Heisman buzz, but Johnson represents the SEC’s best chance to win the award.
8. The SEC West will finish 5-2 in bowl games.
Last year’s post-season face plant gave SEC detractors some factual information to deride the conference’s supremacy. (The high and mighty SEC West? Just 2-5 in bowl games!)
But let’s put that into context: injuries had ravaged Ole Miss. LSU’s defensive coordinator about to announce what felt like a betrayal to the team’s players and fans, leaving for a division rival. Mississippi State and Alabama looked worn down. Auburn lost a back-and-forth game in overtime.
If you’re a Big Ten fan and you’ve stumbled onto this story, I know what you’re saying: excuses. But the SEC West is too deep to finish 2-5 in bowl games again this year. I expect an about face during bowl season.
9. A vocal minority will (unsuccessfully) call for Les Miles’ job after LSU wins nine regular-season games.
We probably will go through a third consecutive season without a single coaching change in the SEC West. That’s a minor miracle considering the level of passion and the fact that conference football is a zero-sum game.
Failing to reach double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons, particularly if Brandon Harris and/or Anthony Jennings don’t play well, will incite further unrest in Baton Rouge, at least with a vocal minority.
At this point, LSU fans want SEC titles, not Top 25 finishes.
But Les Miles would be doing well to finish the regular season 9-3 in such a brutal division with a new defensive coordinator, the ritualistic annual drain of talent and concerns at quarterback. He’ll be back in Baton Rouge next season despite a few grumblings.
10. The Mississippi schools won’t have another “historic” season, but it will be more important.
The first-ever College Football Playoff poll positioned Mississippi State at No. 1 and Ole Miss at No. 4. For a huge chunk of the season, the Bulldogs and Rebels were part of the SEC championship discussion. It looked like the Egg Bowl could have — slow down for a minute to grasp the significance here — national championship implications.
Both teams fell hard, losing a combined six games after Nov. 1. TCU and Georgia Tech embarrassed them in big-time bowl games.
Ole Miss is a legitimate dark-horse contender in the SEC West. Mississippi State has been picked to finish last in the division. I believe the Rebels finish in the middle of the pack and the Bulldogs fall to seventh. We won’t see another year with both teams camping out in the national top 10.
In some ways, though, this season will be more important. Hugh Freeze, especially, has recruited well enough that Ole Miss as an annual Top 25 team is sustainable. Dan Mullen has created a brand around Mississippi State football and has made smart decisions to combat potential weaknesses, like playing backups more than any other SEC coach.
Last year was wonderful, and in some ways became the biggest story in the SEC. But the fact that each team will maintain a status of “good” to “very good” bodes well for the future.