Ranking the SEC West from best to the rest
Even though the 2016 college football season seemingly just ended, National Signing Day is less than two weeks away. Before we know it, spring practice will be here, too.
And now that the SEC’s NFL Draft early entry list is close to being finalized, it’s time to take a look at where things stand for each West division team. Here is where they rank right now, from best on down.
According to cbssports.com, as many as 16 Crimson Tide players could get drafted, including underclassmen Marlon Humphrey, Cam Robinson and ArDarius Stewart. Despite that potential exodus, Bama remains the top team in the division and the conference.
Nevertheless, Nick Saban’s squad has entered the offseason with some serious questions. For starters, will new coordinator Steve Sarkisian have Alabama’s offense clicking like his predecessor Lane Kiffin did for three seasons?
Will QB Jalen Hurts get better at protecting the football? And it will be interesting to see how the Tide’s defense bounces back after breaking down against Clemson.
The good news for Gus Malzahn is that some very important Tigers are returning in 2017. Leading rusher Kam Pettway, versatile safety Tray Matthews and Daniel Carlson, one of the best kickers in the country, all have at least one season left on the Plains.
Former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham is on campus, which already makes him arguably the Tigers’ best signal-caller. After AU went through three defensive coordinators in three seasons, Kevin Steele will be back to build on a solid first year.
Malzahn also will have to deal with two major departures. Pass-rushing specialist Carl Lawson is leaving early for the NFL, and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who called plays for most of last season, has taken the same job at Connecticut.
Check out the Tigers who are leaving early for the NFL: running back Leonard Fournette, safety Jamal Adams, wideout Malachi Dupre and defensive lineman Davon Godchaux. Those are tough losses for any head coach, let alone Ed Orgeron, who finally gets to show what he can do now that he no longer has an interim tag.
As many as 15 Tigers could be headed to the NFL, but Derrius Guice — the SEC’s leading rusher in 2016 — is returning. Plus, Dave Aranda had a fine first season as LSU’s defensive coordinator.
Orgeron is hoping that new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and returning QB Danny Etling will hit it off. Now all Orgeron has to do is figure out how to beat Alabama while producing at least a 10-3 record, which is what Les Miles averaged over his first 11 seasons in Baton Rouge.
Losing defensive linemen Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall along with wideouts Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil won’t help Kevin Sumlin, who also must find a replacement for QB Trevor Knight while figuring out how to prevent a fourth straight 8-5 season. But as he enters his sixth campaign in College Station, Sumlin does have a couple things going for him.
He has one of the best defensive coordinators in the country on his staff in John Chavis. And whenever Sumlin decides upon his quarterback for 2017, that signal-caller will be able to throw to Christian Kirk, one of the top receivers in the SEC.
The Bulldogs are losing at least 13 players to graduation/the NFL, but luckily for Dan Mullen, none is an early entrant. QB Nick Fitzgerald, who ran for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs in 2016, will be back to help Mississippi State try to improve upon its 6-7 mark.
Essentially swapping defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon for Louisville counterpart Todd Grantham
should benefit the Bulldogs. Granted, this year’s personnel will be different, but under Sirmon, Mississippi State was 110th in the FBS in total defense, allowing 459.1 yards per game. Meanwhile, Grantham’s Cardinals yielded 322.2 yards per contest to rank 14th.
Having center Frank Ragnow return for his senior season is definitely a positive for the Razorbacks, who might lose up to 15 players to the NFL/graduation. But quarterback Austin Allen and running backs Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley give Arkansas one of the best backfields in the SEC.
New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads steps in to replace Robb Smith, who took the same position at Minnesota. Rhoads, who went 32-55 in seven seasons as Iowa State’s head coach, inherits a defense that surrendered 426.6 yards a game last season to rank eighth in the SEC.
Following a 10-3, Sugar Bowl-winning season with a 5-7 campaign isn’t a great development if you’re a Rebels fan. Neither is the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss program for alleged recruiting violations.
Replacing Chad Kelly won’t be easy, but Shea Patterson has already shown flashes that he could be the next great QB in Oxford. Plus, defensive end Marquis Haynes is staying in school and needs just three more sacks to become the school’s all-time leader.