The NCAA Tournament and the Draft are over. Now comes the long refractory period until football begins. We previewed the SEC East earlier. Here, we take a look at the vaunted SEC West.
Does Alabama have a weakness? Alabama have won three of the last four BCS titles. They are resounding favorites to make it four in five. The most pressing issue with this team is whether they have a weakness. We’ll begin with where they definitely do not. McCarron is coming back for his senior year at quarterback. T.J. Yeldon headlines what may be the best running back collection in the country. Amari Cooper (999 yards and 11 TD last year) is coming back for his (gasp) sophomore season. On defense, C.J. Mosley coming back is massive and gives them the nations’ best linebackers. The secondary, while not having an obvious successor to Kirkpatrick/Milliner, should be excellent too.
Concerns, though modest, are on the lines. On offense, they must replace Jones, Warmack and Fluker. Jones, the least talented of the three, was a four-year starter who won the Outland and Rimington trophies. Having Cyrus Kouandjio, among the best left tackles in the country, helps. So does getting to plug the other spots with Alabama recruits. They won’t be as excessive as last year, but it’s hard to see them being a liability. The defensive side loses Jesse Williams, Quinton Dial and Damion Square up front. That said, they have younger players who worked shifts last year and can be what Nick Saban wants from those positions in the 3-4: big, athletic and unheralded.
Even if they have questions, we must ask who will exploit them? Their toughest non-conference opponent is Virginia Tech. They play Kentucky and Tennessee from the East. Unlike every other team in the SEC West, they don’t have to play Alabama. Barring Texas A&M and LSU, they should win every regular season game with ease.
Will LSU rebuild its defensive line? LSU had a notable ESPN blonde level exodus this off-season. Eleven juniors left for the NFL Draft (not all of them wisely). Seven defensive players were drafted, including five from the first three rounds. What might have been the nation’s No. 1 paper defense heading into 2013 now faces an acute transition. Losing Kevin Minter and Eric Reid up the middle will hurt. The turnover on the defensive line could be devastating.
LSU lost two defensive tackles and almost every defensive end. They return Anthony Johnson, a probable first rounder at DT, for his junior season. The rest of the players are either unproven or have not arrived on campus yet. Johnson is the only returning lineman who had a sack last season. Even if they replace the starters, what was crucial for LSU last year was the depth.
The Tigers had players projected as All-Americans struggling to start. That depth allowed them to go full bore at teams for 60 minutes. What was an unrelenting wave of velociraptors for opponents could become manageable. That would place a greater onus on the offense. Mettenberger is coming back for his senior years. Like some of their running backs, but…uh…Les Miles.
Will Texas A&M have a defense? Texas A&M produced an unexpected wonder season in 2012, winning 11 games and upsetting Alabama. Their second year could be a bit closer to what was anticipated. The Aggies return just 10 starters, the fewest in the SEC. We’re not so worried about the offense. Manziel is back, along with most of their running game and their top wide receiver. The offensive line may not be the nation’s best without Joeckel, but it should be formidable. The defense, with just four returning starters, is another matter.
The Aggies lose most of their front seven. Damontre Moore is the name, but it is not just him. A&M lose five of their top six tacklers from 2012 and their top four tacklers for loss. Their top returning pass rusher had two sacks last year. Ability, experience and depth could all be issues. Spring game assessment of the defense was…hey, look at the offense! Texas A&M’s defense has work to do to be average. Average won’t help them fulfill preseason expectations.
Can Ole Miss overcome their torturous schedule? Ole Miss offers much to like for 2013. The Rebels scrubbed away the Houston Nutt stink last year under Hugh Freeze, returning to bowl play and leading the nation in moral victories. They bring back 18 starters, the most in the SEC, including the entire front seven on defense. There’s enough depth not to rush the three exciting five-star recruits just arriving on campus. That’s all swell. The problem is their schedule looks like something a Spanish inquisitor conceived.
Let’s run through their first four FBS games: at Vanderbilt, at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn. Time for back to back home games, right? Those are against Texas A&M and LSU. That’s four teams that could start the year ranked in the Top 15, before Halloween. They still have Arkansas, Missouri and the Egg Bowl on the road following that. This team could improve and not improve in the win-loss column. They may need to do so to stay level.
What will Gus Malzahn’s Auburn look like in year one? Gus Malzahn returns to Auburn after a year’s sabbatical at Arkansas State. It’s not clear how stalwart the Tigers will be. But, after finishing 0-8 in the SEC in 2012, it can’t get worse. The offense could get rolling quickly. The transition is not so burdensome, since Malzahn recruited many of the players. In a run-first attack, they have four offensive linemen coming back and depth at tailback led by Tre Mason. Quarterback is unsettled, but having Malzahn will help.
How competitive Auburn can bemay depend on the defense. The Tigers finished 94th vs. FBS in yards per play against last year. They lost their best player, Corey Lemonier. They are undergoing a scheme shift from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 under Ellis Johnson. Much may depend on Justin Garrett’s ability to bed in at the “star” hybrid linebacker role. Whatever happens, we can’t wait for Auburn vs. Washington in Week 1.
What will Bret Bielema’s Arkansas look like in year one? Bret Bielema left Barry Alvarez’s nest to play big boy football. Despite a strong staff and a clear vision, 2013 could get ugly. There’s a reason many felt 2012 would be Petrino’s shot. The offense could be a mess. One of the SEC’s worst statistical rushing attacks loses Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis and three offensive line starters. Signing Alex Collins may prove critical. Their passing game was productive, but loses quarterback Tyler Wilson and receiver Cobi Hamilton, 91 catches for 1,335 yards. Brandon Allen had a strong spring game, but it’s the spring game.
Seven starters return from a defense that finished near the bottom of the SEC. The Razorbacks were decent against the run, only because teams had such a facile time torching them through the air. Arkansas was dead last in the SEC against the pass by pretty much every metric. Trey Flowers and Chris Smith both return on the defensive line, after combining for 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last season. That’s about the only reason for optimism.
It can’t possibly be worse than last year, you would think. Then you look at the schedule. Arkansas drew Florida and South Carolina from the East. Those two games are sandwiched between Texas A&M and Alabama. Not quite Indiana, Illinois and Purdue.
Can Dan Mullen crack the ceiling? Dan Mullen went 9-4 in 2010. He cold-cocked Rich Rodriguez in the Gator Bowl. He finished in the AP Top 15. He looked like a man destined for bigger things. Three years and two mediocre seasons later, Mullen faces a real chance the situation turns sour. Mississippi State is the worst program in the division. Averaging eight wins may be a ceiling. Don’t tell that to fans and boosters who see only a plateau and rival Ole Miss becoming one of the county’s most exciting programs.
Mullen’s teams are well equipped, for any division not the SEC West. Outside, they slay non-conference opposition. They play competitively with the East. Inside, they have just two non Egg Bowl west wins in four years. Both came last year against the implosions that were Arkansas and Auburn.
The schedule gets much tougher this season. Jackson State becomes Oklahoma State. Tennessee at home turns into South Carolina away. Following that South Carolina game, they close the season at Texas A&M, Alabama, at Arkansas, Ole Miss. Even a solid 5-2 start by Mullen might see him heading into the Egg Bowl with his job at stake.
[Photos via USA Today Sports, Getty]