The SEC West has been the premiere division in college football for years, though it took a bit of a hit in 2014. There’s no denying it’s back now after an impressive 7-1 record in postseason games capped by Alabama’s run through the playoffs to yet another national championship.
Alabama has the nation’s longest winning streak now, resting at 12 games. Many will favor the Crimson Tide again next year. But not everyone (hint, hint).
So, with nary a hesitation, let’s move on to 2016. Here’s a way-too-early look at how the SEC West will play out next year:
Editor’s note: The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline is Jan. 18, so some eligible players could still apply for the draft. We’ve tried to accurately project their decisions ahead of the deadline and those are reflected in the ‘key losses’ category.
1. OLE MISS REBELS
Key returnees: QB Chad Kelly, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, WR Damore’ea Stringfellow, TE Evan Engram.
Key losses: OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Laquon Treadwell, DL Robert Nkemdiche, WR Cody Core, DB Mike Hilton, DB Trae Elston, RB Jaylon Walton.
Buzz: There are bandwagon riders, and I’m one of them. I’m well aware of the fact that many key pieces of that great 2013 recruiting class in Oxford are heading off to the NFL, but they are being replaced by what might be the nation’s best recruiting class when it’s all over. But Ole Miss gets my top pick for one reason, and one reason only. They have an established quarterback who will throw it all over the yard, will beat you with his feet and is so bold that he’s not a bit afraid of the Alabama defense. Chad Kelly is being left out of the early 2016 preseason Heisman talk and that’s a huge mistake. Ole Miss clears the hurdle, finally, next year. They beat Alabama again and then don’t screw up the rest of the way. That’s what an experienced, brash quarterback means in this league. And Ole Miss is the only team in the SEC West that has one.
2. LSU TIGERS
Key returnees: RB Leonard Fournette, RB Derrius Guise, QB Brandon Harris, C Ethan Pocic, DT Christian LaCouture, WR Malachi Dupre.
Key losses: CB Tre’Davious White, OG Vadal Alexander, OL Jerald Hawkins, LB Kendall Beckwith, S Jalen Mills, WR Travin Dural, LB Deion Jones, LB Lamar Louis.
Buzz: I know I’m contradicting myself a bit here, because I had LSU on a freefall in 2015 and that’s what happened. But I think the Tigers go into the offseason knowing that they have do more on offense than just bang Leonard Fournette up the middle. I think they will come up with a few new wrinkles, they’ll still have a solid defense and they just might find a way to get Brandon Harris to at least be a serviceable QB. They could be good from start to finish in 2016. The confidence meter, however, isn’t off the charts here.
3. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Key returnees: WR Calvin Ridley, WR Ar’Darius Stewart, RB Damien Harris, RB Bo Scarbrough, QB Cooper Bateman, LB Shawn Hamilton, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB Marlon Humphrey.
Key losses: DT A’Shawn Robinson, ILB Reggie Ragland, RB Derrick Henry, QB Jake Coker, OL, DE Jonathan Allen, DL Jarran Reed, C Ryan Kelly, S Eddie Jackson, TE O.J. Howard, CB/KR Cyrus Jones, OL Dominick Jackson, LB D.J. Pettway, LB Tim Williams, DB Geno Matias-Smith, PK Adam Griffith, DC Kirby Smart.
Buzz: Yes, I am well aware they just won a national championship and they have the best coach in college football. And yes, I do know they simply reload every year, but doesn’t there have to come a time where they slip back just a notch? I’m leaning toward 2016 being that year, a season where Ole Miss and LSU find a way to beat them. Alabama is losing practically its entire front seven, plus a few pieces in the secondary, more than likely. They’ll have a new quarterback, new running backs, and several new offensive lineman. If there’s ever a time for a slight slip backward, 2016 might be that year. And by slip, I’m talking like 10-2. Or, they go 15-0 and win another title. Can’t put anything past Saban.
4. AUBURN TIGERS
Key returnees: QB Jeremy Johnson, QB Sean White, DE Carl Lawson, RB Peyton Barber, RB Jovon Robinson.
Key losses: DL Montravious Adams, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Kris Frost, OL Shon Coleman. WR Ricardo Louis.
Buzz: The Auburn Tigers are the kings of bounce-back seasons, and they’re going to need one after a dismal 2015 where they won only two SEC games all year, and that despite a preseason No. 6 ranking. Sure, being ranked that high was a mistake, but this we do know for sure. There is still plenty of talent on this Auburn roster and if they can get any kind of production out of Johnson and White at the QB position, they could be in for a reasonable move up the standings.
5. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Key returnees: TE Jeremy Sprinkle, WR Drew Morgan, WR Keon Hatcher, LB Brooks Ellis, DE Jeremiah Ledbetter, DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
Key losses: TE Hunter Henry, QB Brandon Allen, OL Denver Kirkland, RB Alex Collins, RB Jonathan Williams, OL Sebastian Tretola.
Buzz: I might be underestimating Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks a little bit here, because I do love all their returning weapons at wide receiver and tight end. But they need to find a quarterback after Brandon Allen’s graduation, and they’re losing about three miles of rushing yards too. Factor in some key pieces learning on the fly and a team that has a track record of starting slow, and the Hogs might take some lumps early. I might be wrong about this, of course, so I’m throwing it out there. Fifth might be too low, but I can’t really see them any higher than fourth, at least for now.
6. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Key returnees: WR Christian Kirk, QB Trevor Knight, DE Myles Garrett, DE Daeshon Hall, S Armani Watts. S Donovan Wilson. WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Josh Reynolds.
Key losses: QB Kyle Allen, QB Kyler Murray, OT Germain Ifedi, OL Mike Matthews.
Buzz: This could be a dumpster fire in 2016 in College Station. We saw signs of it in 2015, with the shocking departures of two five-start quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray. For 2016, there’s plenty of talent back at wide receiver for whoever starts at QB, probably Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, but A&M already proved they could still struggle on offense even with all those guys. Same goes for the defense. There’s great talent there at spots, especially defensive end, but there are massive holes elsewhere. Another losing record in the SEC could spell trouble for Kevin Sumlin. Which would be too bad.
7. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Key returnees: WR Fred Ross, LB Richie Brown, LB Beniquez Brown, DB Brandon Bryant, DL A.J. Jefferson, QB Nick Fitzgerald.
Key losses: QB Dak Prescott, WR De’Runnya Wilson, CB Will Redmond, DL Chris Jones, CB Taveze Calhoun, DL Ryan Brown. OL Justin Malone, OL Rufus Warren.
Buzz: The Bulldogs have to replace QB Dak Prescott, and that’s going to be a monumental challenge. Prescott’s been so good the past few years that he’s spoiled everyone in Starkville. It’s likely Nick Fitzgerald will gets the nod at QB, but there are other holes around him – and on defense as well. They won games they shouldn’t have the past few years, and it’s difficult to see that continuing in 2016. Might be a rough year for the Bulldogs.