Way-too-early look at SEC West: Foolish to pick any program but Alabama
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: So long as Nick Saban is the coach, I’m picking Alabama to win the West.
There’s just no reason to go another direction at this point. The Crimson Tide have separated themselves from every other program in the SEC on the strength of seven straight No. 1 recruiting classes on Saban’s watch.
‘Bama returns only 11 starters — six on offense, five on defense — off a team that made it to the College Football Playoff for the third time in three years. However, Saban’s ability to reload at any position on the field is simply unmatched in today’s game. His second- and third-teamers might win the East.
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The Tide will have challengers, though. Auburn is creating a lot of buzz on The Plains and gets Saban and Co. at Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Iron Bowl will determine who goes to Atlanta, then let’s skip ahead to November already.
Here’s my way-too-early look at the West for 2017. Call it chalk if you must, but doubting Big Al would be foolish.
Head coach: Nick Saban (11th season)
2016 record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC, 1st in West)
Returning starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 1 (6 5-stars, 17 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 1
Quarterback situation: Just a sophomore this season, Jalen Hurts is the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Experts often wondered how dangerous the Crimson Tide could be if they had a true dual-threat at the game’s most important position, and that’s what they have now in Hurts. At times in 2016, the offense was equally dominant to the D. That’s really saying a mouthful when you consider Saban’s reputation on defense.
While Hurts did struggle to throw the ball consistently in the postseason, he’s still only scratched the surface of his potential.
Offensive outlook: There may not be enough footballs to go around with the depth at running back. Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Joshua Jacobs and B.J. Emmons all return, plus freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson have been added to the mix. Don’t forget that Hurts can be a devastating runner, too.
The receiving corps will be without ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard, but primary target Calvin Ridley is still in Tuscaloosa. Jerry Jeudy, a 5-star signee, flashed in the spring game and hopes to make an immediate impact.
Defensive outlook: Just like every year, there were big-name losses to the NFL Draft. Jonathan Allen, Marlon Humphrey and Reuben Foster were first-rounders, but they were no more coveted during the recruiting process than their eventual replacements. The depth chart will be no less talented in 2017.
The DBs could be special, particularly the safety combination of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison. Fitzpatrick is the smooth operator with cornerback-like cover skills, while Harrison is the battering ram with bad intentions.
Toughest home game: vs. LSU (Nov. 4)
Toughest road game: at Auburn (Nov. 25)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Florida State (Sept. 2) *
* At Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (5th season)
2016 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC, 2nd in West)
Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 9 (1 5-star, 10 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 9
Quarterback situation: No more with the duct tape and bubble gum for Malzahn. He has a legitimate passer now.
Jeremy Johnson was a bust. Sean White has a low ceiling. John Franklin III should be catching passes, not throwing them. But Jarrett Stidham, a transfer from Baylor, has the arm necessary to make all the throws both in and out of the pocket. Even if they don’t play any defense in the Big 12, Stidham’s time with the Bears was impressive.
Malzahn’s passing game has been missing a vertical element for quite some time. Stidham (below) could be the conference’s most important addition.
Offensive outlook: The best backfield combination in the league isn’t Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at Georgia. No, it’s Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson with the Tigers. They combined for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground a year ago. By the way, Pettway missed three games and Johnson missed one.
The receiving corps has a lot to prove, though. There isn’t a single pass catcher on the roster who had as much as 300 yards through the air last season. Still, Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton and Eli Stove were only freshmen and should improve.
Defensive outlook: Auburn was credited with just 25 sacks in 2016, and 13.5 of them belonged to end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams. Both are now in the pros. The Tigers have to get something out of former blue-chip recruit Byron Cowart. He’s been moved from outside to inside as a last-gasp effort.
Another critical loss is defensive back Rudy Ford, who did a little bit of everthing and was a sound tackler near the line of scrimmage. Senior safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts need to get their hands on more passes.
Toughest home game: vs. Alabama (Nov. 25)
Toughest road game: at LSU (Oct. 14)
Non-conference highlight: at Clemson (Sept. 9)
Head coach: Bret Bielema (5th season)
2016 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC, 5th in West)
Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 27 (4 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: 29
Quarterback situation: Not blessed with a gifted arm, Austin Allen put enviable touch and timing on display as a first-year starter.
Taking over for his older brother, Brandon Allen, the younger sibling exceeded expectations and led the SEC with 3,430 yards passing. But he did throw 15 interceptions and had multiple INTs in five of 13 games. It was no coincidence, of course, that the Razorbacks went 1-4 in those contests and were lucky to beat Louisiana Tech in Week 1.
There’s a lot to like about Allen, especially how tough he proved to be. That being said, he needs to learn how to avoid punishment.
Offensive outlook: Unfortunately, leading rusher Rawleigh Williams III had his neck issues resurface in the spring game and was forced to walk away from football. The good news is that Devwah Whaley is more than capable as the new starter and should do just fine. We all know the Hogs want to run it early and often.
Allen’s receiving corps must be rebuilt, as Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Dominique Reed, Cody Hollister and Jeremy Sprinkle were all seniors. The line said goodbye to Dan Skipper, as well. Frank Ragnow is the focal point at center more than ever.
Defensive outlook: There was also a lot of attrition on the other side of the ball. Gone is the best tackler on the squad, Brooks Ellis. As are the two top pass rushers, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. But is that such a bad thing? Arkansas finished 2016 eight in total D and 10th in scoring D.
It’s time for McTelvin Agim, Bielema’s lone 5-star signee since arriving in Fayetteville more than four years ago, to live up to his prior billing. A healthy Dre Greenlaw, who only played seven games last season, would be a sight for sore eyes.
Toughest home game: vs. Auburn (Oct. 21)
Toughest road game: at Alabama (Oct. 14)
Non-conference highlight: vs. TCU (Sept. 9)
Head coach: Ed Orgeron (2nd season) *
2016 record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC, 3rd in West)
Returning starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 7 (1 5-star, 14 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: 11
* Took over as interim coach in 2016
Quarterback situation: Danny Etling mercifully unseated the much-maligned Brandon Harris last season in Week 2.
To be honest, Etling’s best trait in the eyes of Tigers fans was, well, not being Brandon Harris. In the end, his completion percentage of 59.5 and TD-to-INT ratio of 11-to-5 didn’t set the bayou on fire. He averaged 7.9 yards per attempt, while Harris averaged 7.8 in 2015. The entire aerial attack needs a reboot.
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada had success in the past with the likes of Jacoby Brissett and Nathan Peterman. Etling (below) is his next project. There’s basically no experience behind him.
Offensive outlook: Somehow, the Bayou Bengals managed to replace Leonard Fournette in the backfield with Derrius Guice. Fournette is arguably the most celebrated ball carrier in school history, yet it was Guice leading the SEC in rushing a year ago. He’s set up for a monster junior campaign.
Receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are no longer in Baton Rouge, so D.J. Chark has to make the adjustment from downfield threat to No. 1 option. At tight end, Foster Moreau must be more productive than Colin Jeter and DeSean Smith were.
Defensive outlook: Pass rusher Arden Key is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the league if he can put it all together, although he did step away from the program for a stretch and missed spring ball. He is the Alpha dog for a front seven that featured a lot of now-departed seniors in 2016.
Linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley are now in the NFL, as are defensive backs Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White. While we know LSU always has an abundance of high-upside corners and safeties, those are big shoes to fill.
Toughest home game: vs. Auburn (Oct. 14)
Toughest road game: at Alabama (Nov. 4)
Non-conference highlight: vs. BYU (Sept. 2) *
* At NRG Stadium in Houston
5. Mississippi State
Head coach: Dan Mullen (9th season)
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC, 6th in West)
Returning starters: 13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 24 (4 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 30
Quarterback situation: Nick Fitzgerald is maybe the most intriguing player in the conference for 2017.
When he’s on, he’s a one-man wrecking crew. Fitzgerald can stretch the secondary with downfield throws and then bludgeon the front seven with bruising runs. At 6-foot-5 and a sturdy 230 pounds, he’s tough to wrap up and always seems to fall forward for an extra yard or two. If he can throw the ball better, watch out.
Nevertheless, he’s too much of a feast-or-famine QB. What Fitzgerald needs is consistency. He has to actually do it when facing some ranked competition, as well.
Offensive outlook: With Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert out of eligibility, the stage is now set for Aeris Williams to be the featured back. Too much of the burden is placed on Fitzgerald if he must be the primary runner in addition to the trigger man. Additionally, Nick Gibson had himself a strong spring game.
The Bulldogs dropped a lot of passes a season ago, even leading receiver Fred Ross. That doesn’t mean he won’t be missed, though. The offensive line is up in the air at this point. Martinas Rankin, the unit’s top tackle, could end up at center.
Defensive outlook: Up front, A.J. Jefferson is no longer there. Jeffery Simmons, who was initially a topic of conversation in the SEC for all the wrong reasons, played OK as a freshman and should progress in Year 2. But the defense’s two-time leading tackler, linebacker Richie Brown, also left town.
Look for a handful of JUCO additions and Power 5 transfers to make an impact for Mullen. Johnathan Abram and Brian Cole, recently of Georgia and Michigan, respectively, should be in the rotation at safety. Redshirt freshman corner Cameron Danztler has star potential.
Toughest home game: vs. Alabama (Nov. 11)
Toughest road game: at Auburn (Sept. 30)
Non-conference highlight: vs. BYU (Oct. 14)
6. Ole Miss
Head coach: Hugh Freeze (6th season)
2016 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC, 7th in West)
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 30 (3 4-star)
Preseason ranking: 46
Quarterback situation: Similar to Jake Bentley at South Carolina, originally there was no plan to play Shea Patterson in 2016.
But once Chad Kelly shredded his knee in Week 10, and with the Rebels going nowhere fast at the time, Patterson had his redshirt removed and started the final three contests. There were highs and lows, although it would’ve been nice to make a bowl game and get 15 extra practices. On the bright side, he was sharp in the spring game.
Reminscent of Johnny Manziel with his frenetic style, Patterson (below) makes things happen with his arm, legs and knack for improvisation.
Offensive outlook: Patterson won’t lack for explosive options in the passing game, even after the defections of Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Evan Engram. Engram most of all was a real difference maker at tight end, but Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown caught 78 passes combined last season as freshmen.
However, this offense has been grossly out of balance for quite some time. The last player to rush for 1,000 yards in Oxford was Dexter McCluster way back in 2009. Jordan Wilkins, who was academically ineligible this past year, has to return with a vengeance.
Defensive outlook: There’s nowhere to go but up for Mississippi on this side of the ball. The Rebs were horrid against the run a season ago and finished dead last in the league in points allowed per game as a result. Patterson shouldn’t have to score 40-plus every Saturday just to bail out the D.
DeMarquis Gates resumes his role as the top tackler in town, although more of them need to occur at or behind the line of scrimmage. Marquis Haynes is also still on campus as the No. 1 pass rusher, but he’s coming off a career-low 7.0 sacks.
Toughest home game: vs. LSU (Oct. 21)
Toughest road game: at Alabama (Sept. 30)
Non-conference highlight: at Cal (Sept. 16)
7. Texas A&M
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (6th season)
2016 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC, 4th in East)
Returning starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 12 (8 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: 37
Quarterback situation: The most uncertainty at QB1, at least among teams in the West, is in College Station.
Gone is Trevor Knight, who was nothing more than a one-year rental as a graduate transfer. Senior Jake Hubenak has the most experience, but he’s ideally a backup. Nick Starkel is coming off a redshirt, although he wasn’t a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. Early enrollee Kellen Mond was. He’s fresh out of high school, though.
Nobody separated himself from the others in spring practice. The battle resumes once fall camp begins.
Offensive outlook: The Aggies had the top quartet of receivers in the SEC last season in Christian Kirk, Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. Noil, Reynolds and Seals-Jones are all history. Luckily, Kirk is back for his junior campaign. He’s a serious weapon on both offense and special teams.
A&M’s two leading rushers from this past year, Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford, are still there and must take some pressure off whomever ends up pulling the trigger. They complement each other rather well and should be productive.
Defensive outlook: When compared to the rest of the conference, the Ags were below average a season ago against the run and the pass. This despite the presence of pass rusher Myles Garrett, a genetic freak who went on to be the top pick in the draft. To be fair, he battled injuries and was rarely 100 percent.
Not only is Garrett gone, but so is his D-end partner in crime, Daeshon Hall. Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham have to come out of the shadows as reserves and now be counted on as starters. Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson are both standouts in the secondary.
Toughest home game: vs. Alabama (Oct. 7)
Toughest road game: at Florida (Oct. 14)
Non-conference highlight: at UCLA (Sept. 3)