Projecting every SEC West team's peak season from 2013-2018
Thanks to the advent of NCAA-sanctioned redshirts — as well as gray, green and blueshirts — it takes about five or six years to truly judge the arc of a college football program.
If we take a step back and examine past results along with prospective recruiting classes, we can get a fairly decent look at the current trend of a program and whether its heading in a positive or negative direction.
We examined the SEC West under those criteria based on the 2013 through 2018 seasons to determine what each team’s peak campaign was or will be during that time frame.
It’d come as a surprise to few if Alabama were to claim another national title between now and 2018. But with new faces under center and out of the backfield in 2016, it’s tough imagining the Crimson Tide topping last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship.
The 2015 season witnessed running back Derrick Henry earn Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy since Mark Ingram accomplished the feat during the 2009 campaign. However, it was the Tide defense that dominated opponents, boasting the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense (75.7 YPG).
After season-ending Sugar Bowl losses in 2013 and 2014, Nick Saban hit the 14-win mark for the second time in program history as Alabama reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the eighth straight year. How long the legendary coach decides to remain on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa remains to be seen, which could have an impact on future classes. It’s not likely to ebb the Tide, but stranger things have happened when it comes to college coaches.
Numbers wise, the 2015 season was the best for Arkansas (8-5, 5-3 SEC) under third-year head coach Bret Bielema, who’s improved his win totals every season on the Razorbacks’ sidelines.
The Hogs will cope with the loss of Brandon Allen this year after the quarterback (3,440 yards, 30 TDs) had one of the finer seasons ever for an Arkansas signal-caller. With Brandon’s younger brother Austin Allen — plus a talented, but young backfield — it’s reasonable to assume there will be a period of adjustment in 2016 for the Razorbacks.
But the younger Allen is a redshirt junior and should gain invaluable time under center this year. Combine that with the experience that true freshmen RB Devwah Whaley and DE McTelvin “Sosa” Agim will also gain, and Arkansas could be a force come 2017.
The method to Bielema’s madness works, and Fayetteville is becoming a premier destination for recruits who fit his robust style.
Auburn has been in steady decline since losing in the BCS National Championship Game to Jameis Winston and Florida State in 2013. Gus Malzahn’s program has witnessed its win totals slide from 12-2 that year to 8-5 in 2014 before dropping to 7-6 and into the SEC West basement last season.
Jeremy Johnson was a freshman backup to quarterback Nick Marshall on that 2013 miracle Tigers squad that finished with the No. 1 rushing offense in the nation (328.3 YPG) behind the signal-caller and Tre Mason — both of whom rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
There’s certainly room for Auburn to improve, especially with the No. 9-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports, arriving on campus this fall. But it doesn’t likely appear to be happening with Johnson under center. The Tigers have proven to be resilient under Malzahn, but they’ll have to vastly, and quickly, improve to top the 2013 campaign.
Zach Mettenberger and Odell Beckham Jr. starred for an LSU squad that went 10-3 in 2013, capping off the campaign with an Outback Bowl win over Iowa. But that was before Leonard Fournette stepped a cleat in Death Valley.
Fournette has amassed quite a career as an underclassman. In two seasons, the running back has bruised his way to 2,987 career rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. This year — almost assuredly his last with the Tigers — comes with high expectations. Les Miles has built a strong team around Fournette that believes it can contend with anyone in the SEC West. If LSU can get steady play under center from Brandon Harris, then the Tigers’ confidence could be very well-founded.
Miles, despite recent job insecurity issues, has still managed to rake in plenty of first-class recruits and should give the division a headache for years to come. But with Fournette in his final year, 2016 could be something special.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: 2014
With all due respect to Mississippi State, it might be a while before the Bulldogs reach No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, such as they did during the 2014 season.
That’s not to say that Dan Mullen’s program won’t compete and win its fair share of games between now and 2018. Mullen is bringing in the No. 27 overall recruiting class in 2016 and the No. 16 class in 2017, as of right now.
Whether or not the next Dak Prescott is a member of either of those recruiting classes remains to be seen. Until then, the 2014 season, in which Prescott and the Bulldogs reached the AP’s No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history, is still arguably one of the best ever in Starkville. Mississippi State finished that campaign owners of the SEC’s top offense with 513.8 YPG, nearly 30 more yards per game than the next-closest conference foe Auburn (485.0 YPG).
OLE MISS: 2015
Not many teams have bragging rights over Alabama. Ole Miss is one of the few that can talk. The Rebels knocked off the Crimson Tide in each of the last two seasons. They might have to pull off the trifecta this year to top the 2015 campaign in which Ole Miss finished 10-3 and soundly defeated Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
Chad Kelly, who led the SEC in passing in 2015 (4,042 yards, 31 TDs), returns to Oxford for his senior year, but the Rebels have several key pieces to replace — most notably at left tackle, running back and wide receiver. Still, Ole Miss promises to be among the SEC West contenders when the dust settles in late November.
But with potential sanctions possibly landing on the doorstep of his program, the future of Hugh Freeze’s Rebels is a bit unclear. Traditionally a great recruiter, Freeze’s future classes are falling in rank, from No. 6 in 2016 to No. 22 in 2017 before dropping out of the top 50 when it comes to 2018’s haul. Granted it’s still very early in the process, but let’s hope it’s not an omen of things to come.
TEXAS A&M: 2016
Kevin Sumlin’s coaching seat is warming up in College Station but can be easily cooled with a dynamic 2016 season.
The deep Texas A&M wide receiving corps should benefit greatly from a veteran presence of Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight at quarterback. The Aggies will also see tremendous upside and growth as its No. 11 recruiting class from 2015 — including star wide receiver Christian Kirk — enters its sophomore year. Throw in DE Myles Garrett, perhaps the best defensive player in the nation, to the mix on the other side of the ball and Sumlin just might have the parts to reach nine wins, such as in 2013, Johnny Manziel’s final campaign at Texas A&M.
That is, if they can overcome a tough schedule that features a Week 1 matchup against UCLA, and a cross-conference tilt against Tennessee isn’t ideal. Fortunately, those games will take place at Kyle Field. It’s just a matter of finally putting it all together for the Aggies.