BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The SEC West remains one of the strongest divisions in college football.
With quarterbacks such as Jalen Hurts, Nick Fitzgerald, Austin Allen and Shea Patterson leading their respective teams, it’s hard to view anyone in the West as a non-threat.
Alabama is the favorite to represent the West in the SEC Championship Game for a fourth consecutive season, but that’s far from a sure thing.
Here are 10 burning questions that will help determine who comes out on top.
1. How far can Nick Fitzgerald take Mississippi State?
This Mississippi State roster isn’t overly impressive, but Nick Fitzgerald has the ability to make some noise in the SEC.
Fitzgerald finished the 2016 season with the third-most rushing yards for a quarterback in conference history — posting 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. His ability as a passer was spotty, but the hope is that he can continue to develop that aspect of his game.
The bad news for the offense is they have to replace WR Fred Ross, who led the team in receptions (72), receiving yards (917) and receiving touchdowns (12) in 2016. The good news? The Bulldogs’ offensive line — led by LT Martinas Rankins — should be one of the best that they’ve had under Dan Mullen.
2. What impact will Chip Lindsey have on Auburn’s offense?
Auburn ran the ball 69.1 percent of the time last season. That level of imbalance is absurd, but that’s all in the past now. The Tigers seem to have a new Sheriff in town.
His name is Chip Lindsey, and he brings an impressive offensive mind that should generate results for Auburn’s passing game. Don’t expect that to come at the expense of the run game, however.
What Lindsey will provide is efficiency, which will allow the offense to be productive through the air and on the ground. If we continue to witness the emergence of Auburn’s receivers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them have one of the most high-powered offenses in the SEC.
Of course, one key part of that is …
3. Can Jarrett Stidham put Auburn over the top?
Auburn led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season (271.3), and it does return four of its top five running backs. As a result, expect the Tigers to continue to field one of the best rushing attacks in the conference.
That formula did help them get to the Sugar Bowl in 2016, but it also prevented them from being able to hang with high-scoring offenses.
The arrival of former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham — in addition to Lindsey calling plays — should help create more balance on offense. Stidham passed for 1,265 yards and 12 TDs on just 109 attempts as a Baylor freshman in 2015. Triple those attempts — nine SEC QBs had threw at least 325 passes last season — and maintain similar results, and the Tigers are in business.
Will his presence be enough to give the Tigers a chance to bring down their in-state rival?
4. How will the offseason chaos affect Ole Miss?
Everyone knows about all the controversy surrounding Ole Miss. What we don’t know is how that controversy and coaching change will affect the Rebels’ play.
The offense lost their top two options in the passing game — TE Evan Engram and WR Damore’ea Stringfellow — who combined for 111 receptions, 1,642 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Still, the passing attack looks to be in good hands with QB Shea Patterson and a trio of capable receivers — Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf.
This Rebels have talent, but their success could be determined by their ability to put the chaos in the rear view mirror.
5. Can Alabama replace the departed pass rushers?
Alabama is expected to open the season ranked No. 1 in the country. (The AP poll will be released Aug. 21.) That isn’t surprising, but the Crimson Tide have some questions that need to be answered — particularly on defense.
Over the past two years, Alabama fielded one of the most effective pass rushes in school history. They averaged 53 sacks, but the unit took a massive hit with the losses of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
That trio accounted for 53.8 percent of the Tide’s sack production over the past two seasons — Allen (22.5 sacks), Williams (19.5) and Anderson (15).
If they want a chance to make it a record four SEC West titles in a row, they’ll need players such as Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Da’Shawn Hand to emerge as effective options getting after the quarterback.
6. Who steps up for Texas A&M at quarterback?
Days before camp opens, no one knows which quarterback will jog out with the rest of the starting offense against UCLA on Sept. 2.
It’s such as a toss-up that Bookmaker.eu has the betting odds at a near-even lock. The online bookmaker has senior Jake Hubenak as the slight favorite with odds at plus-145, but the two young gunslingers, Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, aren’t far behind with a plus-185 and plus-235, respectively.
That only speaks to how close this competition has been. SEC freshman quarterbacks enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts in 2016. With Kevin Sumlin on the hot seat, it’ll be interesting to see who he turns to with his job on the line.
7. How will Arkansas handle the loss of Rawleigh Williams III?
The Razorbacks unexpectedly lost last year’s leading rushing, Rawleigh Williams III, to early retirement. The Hogs’ workhorse ran for 1,360 yards — good for third in the conference — while punching in 12 touchdowns.
On top of that, Arkansas lost majority of its receiving production — 2,477 of 3,434 yards (72.1 percent) and 18 of 26 touchdowns (69.2 percent).
Senior QB Austin Allen returns after throwing for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, but will he be able to replicate that kind of success with all those losses around him?
The Hogs are optimistic Devwah Whaley is the answer. He’ll need to be.
8. How good can LSU’s defense be?
LSU will continue to unleash edge rusher Arden Key — who is arguably the best defensive player in college football. Having that caliber of player getting after quarterbacks is nice, but we can’t ignore all the talent LSU lost on defense.
Their top five leading tacklers — Duke Riley (93 tackles), Kendell Beckwith (91), Jamal Adams (76), Davon Godchaux (62) and Lewis Neal (60) — all moved on to the NFL. In addition, the most sacks that any returning player recorded last season — outside of the 12 that Key provided — was one.
The Tigers are known to have a stout defense, but will that continue to be the case this season?
9. Which team does the best job avoiding the injury bug?
Injuries always seem to impact division races.
Heading into its game against Alabama last season, Tennessee was down seven starters — and that was just on defense. If you don’t think that has an impact on the outcome, then I can’t help you.
Teams love to use the “next man up” battle cry, which, more often than not, turns into a desperate cry — for help. If the injury bug finds its way to any of these teams in the SEC West — yes, including Alabama — then it could quickly squash any chance that team has of winning the division.
10. Can anyone take down Alabama?
Alabama has lost four conference games combined over the past five seasons. Each time, it was a surprise.
So this continues to be the million dollar question as opening kickoff quickly approaches. Alabama has dominated the SEC West — winning four of the past five titles — and opponents are still looking for ways to slow them down.
Can Auburn give its in-state rival trouble with a newfound balanced attack led by strong-armed quarterback? Will a team like Arkansas or LSU find a way to replace the production lost en route to knocking off the Tide?
If history is any indication, that’ll be a lot easier said than done.