It's still way too early, but SEC West still looks like a 3-horse race
Just a few hours after the national championship game three weeks ago, I sat down to write a way-too-early look at the 2016 SEC West race on very little sleep. I had been thinking long and hard about since New Year’s night, so I was fairly sure what I wanted to say.
But after it was published, everyone thought I was nuts. Had I been up for days? Had I hit my head on the bed post? Had I taken a hard fall?
After all, how could anyone in their right mind picked the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide to finish THIRD???
So, I come to you three weeks and change later well rested with no bumps on my head. It’s still way-too-early, of course. Let’s look back quickly. Here were my 2016 SEC West predictions on Jan. 12.
- Ole Miss Rebels
- LSU Tigers
- Alabama Crimson Tide
RELATED: Jan. 12 Way-too-early predictions
And here are my predictions today:
- 1a. Ole Miss Rebels
- 1b. LSU Tigers
- 1c. Alabama Crimson Tide
Yep, I’ve wised up … but just a little. There’s a lot that’s happened since Jan. 12. First, players opted for the NFL draft the week after, but LSU and Alabama got way better when several stars decided to stick around for one more year.
And then National Signing Day rolled around and all three schools had great recruiting days. Alabama was slightly better than the other two, but not by much. All three were consensus top six classes. LSU and Ole Miss are talking about “best classes ever.” Alabama simply reloaded, as it always does.
And what all that means is that these three teams are going to be really good come the fall. I know I might very well be wrong on Alabama, but I’m sticking to my guns. I’m not a waffler.
But first, some knowledge. Here’s the schedule for the killer round-robin between these three:
- Sept. 17 – Alabama vs. Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss.
- Oct. 22 – Ole Miss vs. LSU in Baton Rouge, La.
- Nov. 5 – Alabama vs. LSU in Baton Rouge, La.
And here are my five best reasons for why I’m sticking to my picks for now. And yes, I do think there’s a difference between 1A-1B-1C and 1-2-3. Still, I’m on the Ole Miss bandwagon; it’s just gotten a little tighter the last few weeks.
- Ole Miss has a quarterback advantage: I don’t shy away from the fact that I’m a huge Chad Kelly fan. He was sensational in 2015 and played his best football on the biggest stages, first in the win over Alabama and then again at the end of the year when every game mattered. He’s going to have a monster 2016 – the 14-to-1 odds to win the Heisman are enticing – and the Rebels are going to score a ton of points. LSU, we presume, will give it a go again with Brandon Harris and Alabama enters the fall with a wide-open quarterback competition. Edge, a huge edge, to Ole Miss.
- Ole Miss gets Bama at home – and early: Ole Miss has beaten Alabama two years in a row and I think they benefit greatly from getting this game so early, on Sept. 17. I wonder how good Alabama’s offense will be in September. And even though the Bama defense has much more coming back than I was planning on, I think Ole Miss has the formula to score on them. Can Alabama say the same? Not right now they can’t.
- In the SEC West, Alabama has the roughest schedule: You see it above. Alabama has to play both Ole Miss and LSU on the road. Talent wins out always, of course, but winning on the road – especially in those environments – is really, really tough. This is a factor too: Alabama’s SEC East crossover game with Tennessee is in Knoxville. I know the Vols have never beaten a Nick Saban-coached team, but that’s got to end sometime. This is Tennessee’s best team since the Fulmer days. It could very well end this year.
- Ole Miss will learn from 2015 slips. The Rebels have a brutal September schedule (Florida State, Alabama, Georgia) but then it gets much easier after that. I think they’ve learned a lot after stubbing their toes at Florida and Memphis in 2015. I’m firmly expecting the Rebels to be much more consistent in 2016.
- LSU will make the necessary adjustments: Alabama has their number, no doubt about it. But with Leonard Fournette back and a defensive front that’s going to be scary good, the Tigers are going to want to show everyone that Les Miles is their guy and they will win for their coach. The players know how close they came to getting their coach fired last fall, and they’ll put it on their shoulders this go-round to have a better season devoid of an epic collapse at the end.
Can anyone else threaten in the SEC West? I don’t think so.
Auburn is probably the best of the other four teams, but I can’t see any of them breaking the three-way logjam at the top. The Tigers have an interesting mix of talent and should be dramatically better on defense in 2016. If Jovon Robinson turns into a 1,300-yard back and they can figure out the quarterback situation, they could scare some people.
Arkansas is coming, but they’ve got some huge shoes to fill at critical spots, most notably quarterback and running back. Texas A&M is fragile right now, and I’m fearful that if – or is it when? – things go wrong, they could dovetail in a hurry. Mississippi State just doesn’t seem to have enough talent to compete week in and week out. Not in 2016, though Dan Mullen has surprised us in the past.
This is going to be one heck of a race in the SEC West.
It’s also going to be a long six months waiting for it to get here.