Overrated and underrated in 2015: SEC West edition
If not for a few high-profile missteps in bowl season, the national mania around the SEC West would be at a hysterical pitch prior to this season.
It may not take long for that to return, as Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M have high-profile non-conference games early in the season.
It’s a difficult division to parse and dissect. Doing so also is a risk in that someone, or some fan base, always is going to be upset or feel slighted. But we’ve reached that time between June and August — it’s prediction season. Rather than run from a healthy dialogue, debate and discussion about the upcoming season, we embrace it.
Here’s some elements of the SEC West that we feel are overrated or underrated headed into the 2015 season.
- Auburn, Texas A&M defenses. There are plenty of parallels here. The schools hired Will Muschamp and John Chavis at defensive coordinator, respectively. Both teams have a terror at pass rush — Carl Lawson and Myles Garrett. But there are depth issues (linebacker for A&M and defensive back for Auburn), and it’s going to take both coaches a year to transition the team to a different scheme, compile more overall talent and develop the talent that’s there. Fortunately, the Tigers and Aggies should feature stellar offenses. So the defenses don’t need to be Top 10 units, or even Top 25 units, for their respective teams to win a lot of games.
- Lack of QB talent in the SEC West. This is sort of a double negative, but the bottom line is the SEC West should feature some pretty good quarterbacks this year. Dak Prescott is a Top 5 quarterback nationally, at least preseason. Jeremy Johnson potentially is the breakout quarterback of the entire country in 2015. Kyle Allen could come close to 4,000 passing yards this year. Brandon Allen never will be a star, but at least he’s a senior who will take care of the ball. And whomever starts for Alabama and Ole Miss won’t necessarily be as bad as the worry-warts want you to believe. The SEC West won’t have to wait for players like Shea Patterson (Ole Miss) and Feleipe Franks (LSU) to arrive in ’16 to enjoy some pretty good quarterback play.
- Arkansas and Mississippi State’s slot in the 2015 standings. I have nothing against either school. I was one of the few media members projecting the Bulldogs to have an outstanding season last year, and picked the upset against Auburn before the season. But from an objective standpoint, there are reasons to believe these two programs will be competing to stay out of last place in the SEC West in ’15. (Yes, I know the Razorbacks demolished LSU and Ole Miss during a two-game stretch last season and played Alabama very tough.) Again, someone has to finish last, and likely it’ll be a good team capable of being one of the 25 best in the country. But don’t be surprised if it’s one of these two.
- Alabama’s Vegas odds. The sportsbooks are in a trance with the Crimson Tide, which haven’t entered a game as an underdog since the 2009 SEC championship game against Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators. Vegas again has installed Bama as a betting favorite to win the SEC, and one of the best bets to win another national title. I’m not in the school that suggests Alabama is in the process of a major backward step. I think the Tide are one of the SEC favorites, but no longer THE (singular) SEC favorite. Rather than being a dominant program, Bama is in the mix with Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU and others in 2015. Pegging them as the clear-cut, odds-on favorite is too much. Alabama faces more questions than it has since before Nick Saban’s second season in ’08.
- Arkansas RB Alex Collins. Again, I’m not trying to bash Arkansas (more on the Razorbacks in a second). Collins is a good player with great production within the team’s smash-mouth scheme. But I think for the first time we’ll see some separation from Collins and Jonathan Williams this fall. Back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for an upcoming junior in the SEC is very impressive. But Collins doesn’t have a single 100-yard game after Oct. 1, and really wore down late in both seasons. He’s been in Bret Bielema’s prodigious doghouse a few times. I expect Williams to get more carries by a marginal amount, and Collins may rush for “only” 900 yards this year. He’s a good back, but he’s not one of the best in the country.
- Arkansas’ front seven minus the Bermuda Triangle. The Razorbacks lost a trio of defensive standouts to the NFL draft, all from the front seven that clobbered even good SEC teams during the second half of last season. There are concerns with a thin linebacker group. Brooks Ellis will make plays from the weakside spot previously occupied by Martrell Spaight, and Khalia Hackett should be decent in the middle, but there’s no depth there. Don’t expect a drop-off from the defensive line, though. There’s not a Trey Flowers type player, but Arkansas can rotate two deep at every position. The Hogs are big, physical, should continue to stuff the run and also have capable pass rushers inside and out.
- LSU’s receivers. Fan and media attention has focused almost exclusively on the quarterbacks since early last season. But a dynamic and talented group of receivers also deserved a chunk of the blame for the Tigers’ offensive ineptitude in ’14. Travin Dural is the best deep threat in the SEC, but he can only run a go route. Four-star freshman Trey Quinn offered almost nothing, and five-star Malachi Dupre took some time to adjust to the college game. This year, Dupre could take over as a bona fide No. 1, D.J. Chark has been a pleasant surprise as a potential No. 3 and one would hope that Dural can develop a better all-around game. Expect the receivers to offer Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings more help in ’15.
- Alabama OT Cam Robinson. This may just be another boneheaded choice by Phil Steele, but the national analyst rated Robinson as a fourth-team All-SEC offensive lineman this preseason, meaning he rates 15 or more other offensive linemen as better. (He also slotted Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, a potential SEC Defensive Player of the Year, as a preseason third-team selection, and during his postseason list last year labeled several SEC players with the wrong position, but I digress.) The freshman All-American more than held his own against the SEC’s best pass rushers straight out of high school. Now that he’s been tested, it’ll be his turn to start testing other talented defensive ends around the SEC in ’15.
- Texas A&M’s offense. Everyone respects the Aggies’ offense. (OK, maybe not Alabama fans after last year’s shutout win against A&M.) The team scored 35.2 points per game post-Johnny Manziel even with an awful defense, a midseason quarterback change, a relatively lackluster season by the offensive line and youth at receiver. With Kyle Allen firmly entrenched as the starter, and a maturing cadre of pass-catchers, the Aggies are a threat to approach 4,000 passing yards this season. But the real aspect of this team that’s underrated is the running game. Sure, the team averaged 4.6 yards per carry in ’14, but couldn’t convert in goal-line or short-yardage situations despite a line featuring several future NFL picks. Hiring Dave Christensen this offseason is an underrated move overshadowed by the John Chavis coup. Christensen has instituted some technique changes that will help the Aggies become much better at running the ball. That should make A&M an even more dangerous offense this fall.
- LSU coach Les Miles. This one could be local to Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes. Not every Tigers fan expressed bitter disappointment at the end of last season, but it wasn’t limited to a vocal minority, either. During a season in which Mississippi State and Ole Miss were for a time legitimate Top 10 teams, Alabama won an SEC championship, Arkansas got much better and Auburn was out for revenge, LSU finished 8-5 with losses in three one-possession games. Miles led LSU to 44 wins in the previous four seasons. He’s claimed three SEC West titles, two SEC championships and one national championship in 10 seasons, operating in the most difficult division in college football. He has turned down overtures or rumors connecting him to several big jobs, including Michigan. He’s 56-24 against SEC competition. It’s hard to imagine LSU doing any better at head coach.