My way-too-early look at the SEC West: Alabama plans to continue its reign
Until further notice, the SEC West belongs to Alabama, which is yet again the defending national champion.
The Crimson Tide are the only team in the land to make the College Football Playoff in its first two years of existence, shaking off a semifinal defeat to eventual champ Ohio State in 2014 to win it all in 2015.
The only legitimate threat to ‘Bama in the division of late is Ole Miss, which has toppled the resident bullies of the West in each of the past two seasons — that’s a first in school history. However, while the Rebels still have premier quarterback Chad Kelly, no program returns fewer starters from a year ago.
Arkansas can’t get over the hump. Auburn has QB issues. LSU is in the middle of a five-game losing streak to the Tide. Mississippi State is a mystery without Dak Prescott. Texas A&M has become the new Turmoil U.
If the division were an epic HBO series, then Big Al would be sitting comfortably on the Iron Throne.
Here’s my way-too-early forecast for the SEC West in 2016.
Head coach: Nick Saban (10th season)
2015 record: 14-1 (8-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 1 (3 5-stars, 14 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 1
Quarterback situation: For the third consecutive season, the Crimson Tide will be breaking in a relatively unknown commodity at the game’s most important position. It worked out just fine the past two times, as Blake Sims got ‘Bama to the College Football Playoff in 2014 and Jake Coker won the national championship this past year. Junior Cooper Bateman is the leading candidate to direct offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s balanced attack, although sophomore David Cornwell could threaten for playing time, too.
Offensive outlook: One way or another, the Tide are going to run the football despite the departure of the SEC’s single-season record holder for rushing yards, Derrick Henry. Sophomore Bo Scarbrough is the most likely nominee to be the next dominant ball carrier for the Tide, as he’s in the Henry mold at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. Sophomore receiver Calvin Ridley is an explosive playmaker out wide, senior tight end O.J. Howard can be a gamechanger between the hash marks and the blocking up front — with or without embattled junior Cam Robinson — should once again be among the nation’s elite.
'Door For Cam Robinson To Play in 2016 'Remains Open'' https://t.co/KpiUPYn4Jn
— TheHoundztooth (@TheHoundztooth) June 3, 2016
Defensive outlook: Few teams have to replace more talent on the defensive side of the football than Alabama, as a pair of first-team All-SEC selections (defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Reggie Ragland) are off to the NFL. However, two more first-teamers return in senior defensive end Jonathan Allen and senior safety Eddie Jackson. With as well as Saban has recruited cycle after cycle, every four- and five-star vacancy has a potential four- or five-star replacement waiting in the wings.
Toughest home game: Auburn (Nov. 26)
Toughest road game: Ole Miss (Sept. 17)
Possible upset alert: Tennessee (Oct. 15 in Knoxville)
Head coach: Les Miles (12th season)
2015 record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 3 (2 5-stars, 16 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 9
Quarterback situation: Junior Brandon Harris is the unquestioned starter under center, but he’s coming off a campaign that left so many fans of the Tigers wanting more. Of course, with a ball carrier like junior Leonard Fournette in the backfield, the system will most certainly continue to be more of a power running attack. That being said, he shouldn’t have so much trouble making big plays downfield to junior Malachi Dupre and senior Travin Dural at the receiver position considering how often defenses are forced to stack the box.
Offensive outlook: Fournette right, Fournette left, Fournette up the middle — the New Orleans native will once again be a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy and is a threat to crack the magical 2,000-yard plateau on the ground. Nevertheless, unless Harris evolves as a signal caller and completes more than 71 passes combined to Dupre and Dural, then the Bayou Bengals will continue to be too one-dimensional. Alabama completely shut down Fournette in 2015 (19 carries, 31 yards), which in turn hamstrung offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 14, 2016
Defensive outlook: LSU’s most productive defender in terms of total tackles and tackles for loss, linebacker Deion Jones, was a draft pick in April. On the bright side, senior cornerback Tre’Davious White (second-team All-SEC), senior defensive end Lewis Neal (third team) and junior safety Jamal Adams (third team) will all be wearing purple and gold again this fall. Junior Davon Godchaux and sophomore Arden Key augment a defensive line that should be able to rush the passer, plus senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith is one of the conference’s better tacklers.
Toughest home game: Alabama (Nov. 5)
Toughest road game: Florida (Oct. 8)
Possible upset alert: Wisconsin (Sept. 3 in neutral-site Green Bay)
3. Ole Miss
Head coach: Hugh Freeze (5th season)
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
Returning starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 6 (3 5-stars, 12 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 10
Quarterback situation: Full of swag, Kelly is coming off a record-breaking season in Oxford that could have sent him off to the pros a year early. A lot of his offensive teammates have since left the Magnolia State, most notably left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell — both first-round draft choices — but Kelly has as much pure arm skill as any passer in the SEC. He’ll simply have to do it all over again with a radically different cast of blockers, ball carriers and pass catchers.
Comparing Chad Kelly: Can anyone in the SEC top the Ole Miss QB? https://t.co/V0ozj3XG1i
— SEC Football (@SECfootball) June 11, 2016
Offensive outlook: With Tunsil and fellow bookend Fahn Cooper getting paid to play now (insert joke here with regard to the use of the word “now”), the current depth chart up front features just one senior, three sophomores and a freshman. That freshman, luckily, is five-star signee Gregory Little, who was the No. 1 prospect in the country at his position and could possibly be lights out like Tunsil was. Even if the receiving corps is in rebuilding mode after the losses of Treadwell and Cody Core, Kelly’s mere presence makes the aerial attack dangerous.
Defensive outlook: Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche may have been hit or miss depending on what tape you were watching, but he was a major force and isn’t replaced so easily. Departed safeties Trae Elston (first team) and Mike Hilton (second team) were All-SEC honorees in 2015, but so was junior defensive end Marquis Haynes (second team), who had 10.0 sacks. Junior linebacker Demarquis Gates returns as the unit’s leading stopper, although he’s going to have to do better than 2.0 tackles for loss in order to be a difference maker.
Toughest home game: Alabama (Sept. 17)
Toughest road game: LSU (Oct. 22)
Possible upset alert: Georgia Southern (Nov. 5 in Oxford)
4. Texas A&M
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (5th season)
2015 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 19 (8 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: The QB meeting room in College Station needs to have a turnstile installed based on all the comings and goings, as Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both transferred after sharing the starting job this past season — Tate Martell, a five-star recuit for 2017, dumped the Aggies shortly thereafter and just committed to Ohio State. But senior Trevor Knight, the former starter at Oklahoma and one-time Saban slayer, transferred in and won the job during spring ball. He’s ready to prove himself again after falling out of favor with the Sooners.
Offensive outlook: Knight will have an enviable array of wideouts to throw to, as senior Josh Reynolds, juniors Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil and sophomore Christian Kirk might make up the deepest unit in the conference. Kirk in particular is a superstar, recording 80 catches for 1,009 yards and 7 touchdowns as a freshman last year, not to mention a 24.4-yard average returning punts. Senior Avery Gennesy and sophomore Koda Martin have big shoes to fill at left and right tackle, respectively, what with Texas A&M being a breeding ground for NFL-caliber bookends recently.
Christian Kirk | #TheOpening CFB Alum POW
— The Opening (@TheOpening) September 28, 2015
Defensive outlook: Perhaps the single most terrifying defender in all of college football, junior pass rusher Myles Garrett will be in the conversation for No. 1 overall once the 2017 draft arrives. The 6-foot-5, 262-pounder was credited with 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, even with every opposing offensive coordinator specifically scheming against him. Beyond Garrett, senior defensive lineman Daeshon Hall and junior defensive back Donovan Wilson were third-team All-SEC picks a season ago.
Toughest home game: UCLA (Sept. 3)
Toughest road game: Alabama (Oct. 22)
Possible upset alert: South Carolina (Oct. 1 in Columbia)
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (4th season)
2015 record: 7-6 (2-6 SEC)
Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 9 (1 5-star, 11 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: Senior Jeremy Johnson, so brilliant in limited action backing up Nick Marshall previously, was a disaster more often than not when finally anointed the starter in 2015. Malzahn was forced to go to the bullpen and call upon sophomore Sean White, and while he proved to be a better passer than Johnson and tough as nails in the face of pressure, he simply doesn’t seem like a good fit for Malzahn’s scheme. However, junior-college transfer John Franklin III — originally a Florida State signee out of high school — could end up being Marshall 2.0 as both a runner and a passer.
Offensive outlook: With running back Peyton Barber somewhat unexpectedly declaring early for the NFL Draft, the backfield is even more unstable with the transfer of junior Roc Thomas to Jacksonville State. Senior Jovon Robinson will have an opportunity to be the bell cow in Malzahn’s offense, which is programmed at a frenetic pace and requires its ball carriers to go on pure heart at times. Ricardo Louis, Melvin Ray and D’haquille Williams are gone from the receiving corps, although freshman Nate Craig-Myers was a big-time recruit and could shine right away.
Defensive outlook: The Tigers only had one defender make All-SEC this past season, with senior safety Johnathan Ford earning a third-team nod. While Ford led the squad with an impressive 118 total tackles, that’s not necessarily a good thing when a defensive back is racking up so many stops. With Will Muschamp departing The Plains after just one season to take the top job at South Carolina, the much-traveled Kevin Steele is the new defensive coordinator and inherits a depth chart long on potential but short on production.
Former Baylor HC and current Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele about relating to his players- https://t.co/R4T4dRnOGO
— Front Office Focus (@thefrontoffices) May 24, 2016
Toughest home game: Clemson (Sept. 3)
Toughest road game: Alabama (Nov. 26)
Possible upset alert: Vanderbilt (Nov. 19 in Auburn)
Head coach: Bret Bielema (4th season)
2015 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 26 (1 5-star, 5 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: Gone is Brandon Allen, who completed 65.9 percent of his passes and assembled a 30-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio within the confines of what is typically a run-heavy system. Junior Austin Allen — yes, that’s Brandon Allen’s little brother — managed to stay atop the depth chart in spring practice despite the presence of USC transfer Ricky Town. It’s no secret that the younger Allen isn’t quite as gifted physically when compared to his older sibling, but surely he won’t be asked to carry the load offensively nearly as much.
— Feeding the Hogs (@FeedingHogs) April 23, 2016
Offensive outlook: Expect Bielema to revert back to more of a traditional ground-and-pound approach, even though he’ll have to do so without the services of NFL-bound running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Senior Kody Walker and sophomore Rawleigh Williams III averaged 4.4 and 4.5 yards per carry, respectively, in limited action a year ago, so look for their workload to increase dramatically. A breakout star could be senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, who has been overshadowed by the presence of second-round pick Hunter Henry.
Defensive outlook: The Razorbacks had two defenders make third-team All-SEC in 2015, and each returns for this coming season. Senior defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. led the way with 8.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, while senior linebacker Brooks Ellis paced the unit with 102 total tackles. The Hogs simply must play better on the back end, as they finished 118th in the country in passing yards allowed per game (275.2) and only two players picked off more than one pass all season long.
Toughest home game: Alabama (Oct. 8)
Toughest road game: TCU (Sept. 10)
Possible upset alert: Louisiana Tech (Sept. 3 in Fayetteville)
7. Mississippi State
Head coach: Dan Mullen (8th season)
2015 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 32 (1 5-star, 2 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: No pressure for Mullen, as all he has to do is replace Prescott, the best QB in school history and arguably the single greatest player to ever wear maroon and white. A pair of redshirt sophomores — Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley — have patiently waited their turn behind Prescott, with Fitzgerald the most experienced of the two. But Staley is probably the higher-upside option, being that he’s a monstrous young man (6-foot-6, 248 pounds) who grew up idolizing Cam Newton and has similar traits.
Offensive outlook: Prescott was the Alpha and the Omega offensively for the Bulldogs each of the past two seasons, so no matter who ends up lining up in shotgun formation for Mullen, he can’t possibly expect his new starter to be another one-man show. Senior running back Brandon Holloway needs to at least double the 92 carries he got in 2015, although he may have issues matching his career average of 5.1 yards per attempt behind what has been a suspect offensive line. While senior receiver Fred Ross will have a tough time catching 88 passes again, he’s a reliable No. 1 option in any passing attack.
Defensive outlook: Hail State only placed one defender on any of the All-SEC squads last year, but fortunately it was senior linebacker Richie Brown (third team), who finished with a team-high 98 tackles. He also led MSU with 5.5 sacks, which is a tribute to Brown’s pass-rushing ability but a damning statistic for the big boys in front of him. His arrival in Starkville was met with overwhelming criticism, but freshman D-end Jeffery Simmons was a five-star stud in high school and could contribute quickly following his one-game suspension.
Today in Sports: MSU freshman Jeffery Simmons' court date continued again https://t.co/9n5PmWoNOY
— C-L Sports (@CLSports) June 14, 2016
Toughest home game: Texas A&M (Nov. 5)
Toughest road game: Alabama (Nov. 12)
Possible upset alert: BYU (Oct. 14 in Provo)
John Crist is the senior writer at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SaturdayJC.