The Wild (Wide Open) West

Outside the confines of Columbus, Ohio, away from all 318 hard core Pac-10 fans, and disregarding what’s left of Bob Stoops’ mind, the general consensus is that the SEC West is the most complete, talented and powerful top-to-bottom division of any conference in all of college football.

The evidence is compelling. Every team in the division won at least seven games a year ago. Four were ranked in the Top 25 at season’s end.  At various points four different SEC-West teams were in contention for a playoff spot.

Every coach in the division is considered a rock star by the fans of his program.  Some truly are.  Three have led their teams to national championship games.  Three have won national championships as part of an SEC staff.

Going into 2015, five of the seven SEC West teams are ranked in the pre-season Top 25. The teams most often omitted are Mississippi State, a ten-win team a season ago that spent time at number one, and Texas A&M.

Two of the teams, Alabama and Auburn, are ranked in the top five in most polls.

All seven SEC-West fanbases are quietly (or not so quietly in some cases) confident that 2015 is going to be a special season.  Almost all have designs on an SEC championship — and more.  All seven have legitimate reasons to believe that the SEC West is theirs for the taking.

Given that all seven play each other and given that only one can emerge as SEC champ, however, six sets of fanbases are on the verge of disappointment.

With just two weeks to go before we see the season begin to play out, here are the reasons for optimism, some sources of delusion and the probable reality for all seven West teams.

The true contenders:

Alabama
Why Believe: The biggest reason to believe Alabama has a strong chance to win the SEC West is because, well, they’re Alabama.  Under Nick Saban the team has won ten or more games in each of the last seven seasons.  Winning is contagious. The Tide has found ways to win when they weren’t the best team on the field. They’ve overcome days when the effort and execution wasn’t there. The Tide are the one team in the conference that can cruise through half its schedule (or more) on talent alone.  A slew of highly ranked recruiting classes and a bevy of five-star recruits on both sides of the ball gives Alabama an advantage even on those days when coaches struggle.

Why Doubt: Dynasties don’t last forever. It’s much easier to build a program than it is to maintain it.  When you look back at the great football dynasties in history, the majority last five or six seasons at a championship level at most. There are some that cruise along winning a lot of games, but championship-quality dynasties typically have a relatively short shelf-life.  From a historical perspective, Alabama has reached the down side of that curve. That reality will catch up to Alabama at some point.  Contrary to popular Tide fan opinion, Alabama can’t line up, run Derrick Henry 40 times a game and rely on the defense to bail them out.  No one wearing crimson wants to face it, but the Alabama defense has been in a slow decline over the last three seasons.  The Tide slid from first to fifth to twelfth in total defense and from 13th to 41st in third down defense.   Alabama has struggled with quality competition each of the past two years. Auburn, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and others have either pushed the Tide to the edge of the precipice or vanquished them outright often by punishing the Alabama defense.

The Tide won a year ago with a fifth-year quarterback throwing to a first-round draft pick.  Receiver Amari Cooper contributed 44 percent of Alabama’s catches and yards and half of the Tide’s touchdowns. That luxury no longer exists in Tuscaloosa.  But it’s not just Cooper.  More than eighty percent of Alabama’s pass catching offense is gone to graduation.  Alabama is near the bottom of the SEC in terms of returning players with game experience on both sides of the ball.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled, there are holes to fill in the backfield. Talent cures some of those ills, but not all.    From the outside looking in, there are plenty of reasons to doubt.

Verdict: Still Alabama. Road trips to Georgia, MSU and Auburn combined with back to back rivalry games against LSU and Tennessee at home are too much for the Tide to overcome unscathed. But for those looking for a massive falloff, it doesn’t appear likely.  Alabama could and likely will put up double-digit wins again, but even that might not be enough to win the SEC West or make the playoff.

Auburn
Why Believe What’s not to like about combining one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC with a defensive coordinator who’s proven to be among the best?  A year ago, Auburn was a fading second half defense away from winning every game but one.  A third down stop here, a shortened series there, a little better tackling, one more player where he was supposed to be and Auburn is a playoff contender. With just a touch more defense, the Tigers would be among the nation’s elite over the past two seasons.  Hold opponents to their season scoring average and there’s only one game in two years that was out of reach.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has proven he knows how keep offenses moving. Jeremy Johnson may be a first year starter, but most observers consider Johnson to be the best pure quarterback Malzahn’s had under center. Johnson probably won’t move the chains with his feet as often as two-year starter Nick Marshall did, but he does provide Auburn with a vertical passing game and the opportunity to stretch the field with routes other than the screen-bomb-screen combo that seemed to be Marshall’s forte.  Assuming receiver Duke Williams, rated one of the nation’s top receivers, stays focused and on the field and assuming one of the three backs vying for Cameron Artis-Payne’s carries can come close to the numbers Artis-Payne or Tre Mason posted in leading the SEC over the last two seasons, there’s no reason to doubt the Tigers will have opportunities to put points on the board.

Tiger defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, in his third tenure with the Tigers (one as an assistant) knows how to bring defensive intensity and improved technique. There’s talent on the defensive side of the ball, but far too often last season it seemed to be out of position or struggling with basic techniques. If Muschamp can get the defense to play close to its potential, there are no limits to what the Tigers can do.  Auburn was eighth in the SEC in total defense a year ago. An improvement to fourth, so long as the offense continues to produce at Malzahn’s typical rate, is enough to put the Tigers in contention.

A manageable schedule helps.  If the Tigers come out and put the clamps on Louisville as many expect, an afternoon tilt at LSU will set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Why Doubt: Johnson is a first year starter under center.  Other than Williams, the Tigers have questions at receiver. There is no proven tailback.  Malzahn has a reputation for putting up points, but the number of new faces at the skill positions will make him earn that reputation in 2015.

On the other side of the ball, there’s great anticipation over what Muschamp can bring to the defense.  But he’s still working with essentially the same group of players that struggled mightily down the stretch a year ago.

Verdict: There are a lot of ifs and assumptions in the mix.  But if the Tigers can do what they’ve historically done offensively under Malzahn and defensively under Muschamp, they’ve got just as good a chance as any to win the West, take the SEC and play for more.

Ole Miss
Why Believe: This is Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze’s last chance at a big hurrah for the moment.  So much of the talent he brought to The Grove with his splashy number seven  signing class in 2013 is at its end.  The Robert Nkemdiches and Laquon Treadwells will be gone after this year.  The Rebels took a step forward last season in a field-rushing, coach-crying win over Alabama, but couldn’t close the deal.  Ole Miss lost in heartbreaking fashion to Auburn, lost to LSU, lost badly to Arkansas and were demolished by TCU in the Peach Bowl. Ole Miss fans are confident that trend will be reversed in 2015.

Why Doubt: For all the ballyhoo over the 2013 class, the Rebels finished seventh in the recruiting rankings. Auburn was eighth. LSU was sixth. Alabama was fourth.  A seventh-ranked class is merely catching up to the contenders. Follow that up with a 19th ranked class (fifth in the SEC West) and 21st ranked class (sixth in the West) and the base just isn’t there to hang in with the big boys through an entire season.  Freeze is a good coach, but given the royalty that resides in the SEC-West, he’s second tier.

The Rebels are banking on the talents of a transfer quarterback who was dismissed from Clemson and was so appreciative of his second chance at Ole Miss that he got into a bar fight and was arrested in December. Chad Kelly may have the tools, but he’s only thrown 17 collegiate passes in his career. For every Cam Newton transfer there are two dozen Brent Schaffers or Jacob Cokers.

Add in an NCAA investigation into one of the 2013 recruits and there’s a chance for major distraction.

Verdict: Ole Miss will not finish unbeaten. Anything fewer than four losses seems to be a stretch. But in the reality that is the SEC West, the Rebels are probably the only team with the talent and coaching to appear a legitimate threat to either Alabama or Auburn.

LSU
Why Believe: Les Miles. And defense.  The Bayou Bengals have a history of tenacious defense and there’s no reason to think that trend will change in 2015.  Six starters return to a defense that was ranked first in the SEC in 2014. And what about Leonard Fournette.  Is he better than Georgia’s Nick Chubb or what?

Why Doubt: Quarterback.  LSU ranked dead last in the SEC in passing last season (114th nationally).  No LSU quarterback was in the top 15 rated in the league.  There’s no help on the horizon. Neither Brandon Harris nor Anthony Jennings showed he could be the answer, The pair are essentially the only options LSU has for 2015. There’s no risk-reward transfer from another program. There’s no five-star heir apparent waiting in the wings. The Bayou Bengals have to hope the defense can keep teams off the board while Fournette stays healthy carrying the ball 30+ times a game. It’s a formula LSU has used to be good but not great since it last won the SEC in 2011.

Verdict: If LSU had a quarterback, if you swapped the starter at any other SEC West team for the duo of Bengal signal callers, this is a team that could have playoff potential.  Of course this same thing has been said for much of the last ten years.  Miles is good for a wacky win or two, the Harris/Jennings combo is good for a loss or two and this is an eight or nine win team.  Again.

Not Gonna Get There

Mississippi State
Why Believe: Dak Prescott and didn’t you see what happened last year?

Why Doubt: Prescott doesn’t have the supporting cast he did a year ago.  No team that was ranked at the end of 2014 lost as many starters as the Bulldogs.  MSU returns one offensive lineman. No receivers. One defensive lineman. Two linebackers. One cornerback. There are teams on the schedule who will be gunning for State.  Back to back road trips to Auburn and Texas A&M may quell the Bulldog’s hopes early.

Verdict: Last year was a good one for the ‘Dogs.  One of the best ever. Remember it fondly, Bullies. Five or six losses wouldn’t be surprising.

Arkansas
Why Believe: Arkansas has a running game! Head coach Bret Bielma is going to show the SEC how real football is played.  Nine starters return on offense. Seven come back on a decent defense.

Why Doubt: Arkansas’s much vaunted rushing attack wasn’t the best in the SEC. It wasn’t second best. It wasn’t third best.  It wasn’t fourth or fifth best. The Razorbacks ranked sixth, middle of the SEC pack.  Four SEC West teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State) ranked ahead of them.  Leading returning rusher, Johnathan Williams (fourth in the SEC) is out for the season with an injury.  Regardless of what Arkansas fans or the Razorback coach think, the old pound away running game isn’t going to win consistently in today’s SEC.

Verdict: The Hogs will win a few and lose a few.  Probably finish with five losses or more, but along the way spoil somebody’s hopes.

Texas A&M
Why Believe: The confidence that emanates from Aggieland is similar to that which rises from Auburn. New defensive coordinator with a strong SEC resume (John Chavis, formerly of LSU) and an offense that has a habit of lighting up the scoreboard.  Seven starters including sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, who sparked a stunning upset of Auburn in his debut, return to an offense that was sixth in the league a year ago.

Why Doubt: Will Muschamp has his hands full resurrecting an Auburn defense that was eighth in the SEC a year ago.  The task facing Chavis is even more difficult.  The Aggies were dead last in the SEC in total defense and rushing defense by a good margin in 2014.  Bringing the Aggie squad back from the deep may be a project that takes longer than a year.

Until A&M proves it is among the league’s best, it isn’t there. Even with a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, who some Aggie fans are seriously deluded enough to consider the best of all time,  Texas A&M lost six games over two seasons and failed to take the SEC West title.  There’s no reason to think the 2015 Aggies can legitimately climb into the mix for the West title.

Verdict: A&M will likely find itself battling Mississippi State to stay out of the SEC-West cellar. It’s a fine cellar, the best cellar in the country to be exact, but it’s still the basement.

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