Why it feels like the 2021 SEC West could be a repeat of the roller-coaster 2014 season
By the time we snap our fingers and mid-November is here, something tells me we’ll all come to quite the realization.
Man, the SEC West is 2014 all over again.
That’s not my way of saying I think Katy Perry is about to go on national TV and turn The Grove into a scene out of a movie, but hey, I wouldn’t rule it out. For all I know by November, Cardi B will start singing “Neck” during College GameDay in Baton Rouge and all hell will break loose again.
All hell broke loose in the SEC in 2014. Specifically, the SEC West. Besides Ole Miss stunning Alabama, we had Dak Prescott waltz into LSU and torch the Tigers. By the way, if there’s one single thing that defines how wacky 2014 was, it was that MSU was No. 1 in the first Playoff poll after knocking off 3 consecutive top-8 teams, all of which were in the West.
Think about this for a second. In 2014, 6 of the 7 division teams reached the top 8 of the AP Top 25 at least once. In the final AP Top 25 poll of September, here’s where the West teams stacked up:
- No. 3 Alabama
- No. 5 Auburn
- No. 6 Texas A&M
- No. 11 Ole Miss
- No. 12 MSU
- No. 15 LSU
Keep in mind, that was just before Ole Miss knocked off Alabama.
Madness. Pure madness.
Dare I say, the 2021 SEC West has the ingredients for another diabolical concoction.
Granted, going into October with 6 West teams in the top 15 might be a bit much. Those teams, to that point, were a combined 25-1. They weren’t just getting the benefit of the doubt from the pollsters. In those Power 5 nonconference games pre-October, those 6 West teams went undefeated. The lone loss to that point, fittingly, was the aforementioned MSU-LSU game.
It’s hard to project where exactly this year’s West teams will be heading into October, but take a look around. We’re likely going to see 4 West teams (Alabama, A&M, LSU and Ole Miss) start in the Top 25. That’s pretty standard, actually. I’d expect Auburn, if it doesn’t become the 5th West team to start in the Top 25, to be in the “receiving votes” category. The same could be said for MSU, which won’t start off anywhere near that lofty ESPN FPI ranking, but is still at least set up for a significant Year 2 improvement with Mike Leach.
Where it gets interesting is Arkansas, which was the odd team out in the West in 2014. It never cracked the Top 25, though in fitting 2014 fashion, it lost 1-possession games to No. 1 MSU, No. 6 Texas A&M (in overtime) and No. 7 Alabama. Oh, and it beat No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0 in late November, because of course it did. This year, Arkansas could be picked to finish No. 6 or No. 7 in the division, yet it figures to also be much improved after surpassing some low expectations in Year 1 of the Sam Pittman era.
If Arkansas beats Texas in Week 2 — something that’s neither a lock nor an impossibility — then there’s a good chance it would be a Top 25 team at 3-0 heading into a showdown against a likely unbeaten A&M squad. The key for that “6 of 7 West teams are ranked” scenario is the big nonconference game for each of those 3 possibly unranked preseason teams.
Do I expect that to happen? Eh, probably not. That would involve 2 of these 3 things happening:
- Auburn wins at Penn State
- Arkansas beats Texas
- MSU wins vs. NC State and at Memphis
It’s by no means impossible, though. That’s really the key factor in all of this. For the first time since 2014, I’d argue it feels like there are 6 teams in the West that could finish in the Top 25 and I wouldn’t be incredibly surprised. There’s not an obvious doormat like Arkansas was from 2018-20 (there was talk of 8 wins going into 2017).
The depth is one-half of the recipe to repeat 2014. The other half is the parity at the top of the league.
In 2014, look at all the games played against 2 West teams that were ranked in the top 15:
- Oct 4 — No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 11 Ole Miss
- No. 15 LSU vs. No. 5 Auburn
- No. 6 Texas A&M vs. No. 12 MSU
- Oct. 11 — No. 3 Ole Miss vs. No. 14 Texas A&M
- No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 MSU
- Nov. 1 — No. 4 Auburn vs. No. 7 Ole Miss
- Nov. 8 — No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 14 LSU
- Nov. 15 — No. 1 MSU vs. No. 4 Alabama
- Nov. 29 — No. 15 Auburn vs. No. 2 Alabama
What a wild 2-week stretch that was. Five games among top-15 teams from the same division. That’s insanity.
In that 9-Saturday stretch, we got an average of 1 top-15 matchup between West foes per week. It’s a bummer that “Wild, Wild West” is such an overused cliché because in 2014, it truly was that.
In 2021, here are the potential scenarios (“potential” being the key word) in which we could see top-15 teams from the West face off:
- Oct. 2 — Ole Miss vs. Alabama
- Auburn vs. LSU
- Oct. 9 — Alabama vs. Texas A&M
- Nov. 6 — LSU vs. Alabama
- Nov. 13 — Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss
- Nov. 27 — Texas A&M vs. LSU
Those scenarios obviously rely on Auburn and Ole Miss winning tricky nonconference games, but if that happens, there’s a pretty clear path to a top-15 ranking for both. Even with those things happening, that’s not 9 games with top-15 teams like 2014. Then again, of those 6 teams who played as a top-15 team, only 3 of them (Alabama, Auburn and LSU) started there. An Ole Miss team who started at No. 18 took down the preseason favorite Tide. That game was what sent the division into a frenzy.
Is there a candidate for that in 2021? Shoot, for all we know, it’s the same exact scenario. That is, Ole Miss stuns a top-3 Alabama team. It did everything in its power to make that happen in Year 1 of the Lane Kiffin era. Well, at least on offense. This year, no SEC team returns a higher percentage of its production than Ole Miss. Alabama, on the other hand, ranks No. 13 of 14 SEC teams in that department. Like in 2014, there will also be a new starting quarterback in Tuscaloosa …
Don’t get it twisted. That’s not my way of saying Kiffin is going to beat Nick Saban.
But if he does, I’m pretty sure that would blow up the college football internet.
You know, just like this legendary corndog moment did in 2014:
An upset of epic proportions is the only thing that’ll make those 2014 comparisons sound legitimate. A Saban disciple beating the master would certainly qualify.
The chaos levels would be ratcheted up if Alabama were to lose in early October instead of a November loss to LSU or Auburn, both of which we saw as recently as 2019. Interestingly enough, that’s when both Saban disciples (Kiffin and Jimbo Fisher) face Alabama.
The “yeah, but” whenever someone references 2014 is how it ended. It was a crazy year, yeah, but it still ended with Alabama winning the division and ultimately earning a Playoff bid. Still, though. At least we got 2 months of good, clean drunken West fun.
Even with the aforementioned roster turnover, Alabama will still likely be the overwhelmingly popular pick to win the division this year. In a way, though, you almost need that elite team to set the stage for a potential monumental upset. Going undefeated in SEC play in consecutive years is something Saban only did once, in 2008-09, but Alabama lost the 2008 SEC Championship to Florida, so 2 unblemished SEC seasons in a row still hasn’t been done since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Maybe it’ll happen in 2021, and with each passing week, we’ll be reminded that Alabama is in a tier of its own. Or, perhaps, the Tide can lose its first West game of the year just so that we can get the free-for-all West scenario that’s long overdue.
If we’re being honest, the West has been pretty boring the past few years. The 2017 Iron Bowl was the last time the division didn’t feel like it was decided by early-November (nobody thought Alabama was losing 2 of its final 4 games of SEC play last year to open the door for A&M).
Here’s hoping that changes in 2021. With the expected depth in the West coupled with the potential questions about a new-look Alabama squad, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if chaos ensues. The 2021 season could feel like a step back in time.
And if that trip includes Katy Perry and corndogs, well, sign me up.