The SEC West has seen the National Champion come out of this division each of the last four years. The division looks stacked again. Here are my predictions on what the final standings will look like in early December.
Key Additions: WR Chris Black, OL Leon Brown, RB Derrick Henry, LB Reuben Foster, TE OJ Howard, LB Tim Williams, WR Robert Foster, DL A’Shawn Robinson
Key Losses: RB Eddie Lacy, LB Nico Johnson, CB Dee Millner, OT DJ Fluker, OG Chace Warmack, C Barrett Jones, DT Jesse Williams, DT Quinton Dial
Key Games: 8/31- Virginia Tech (Atlanta), 9/14- at Texas A&M, 11/9- LSU
Player to Watch: OT Cyrus Kouandjio. Alabama’s most noticeable strength down the stretch last season was their offensive line plowing through holes for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to eat up yards and find daylight. That line is beginning anew, and Kouandjio, an NFL prospect, is the next leader of that crew. The running game will not be as dominant as it has been the last two years, but it will still be a bitch to deal with. The other returning starter on the O-line is Anthony Steen.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? I dare say their offense is going to be better than their national title season in 2012 because of AJ McCarron being a senior leader, the fact that they bring back all of their wide receivers, and losing only one running back (although Lacy was a good one). They might clock in at 40 points per game for the first time in a long time at Tuscaloosa. The defense lost only a few people, but I fear that losing Millner is a tough blow to their secondary and they will get picked on in certain moments. The linebacker corps is loaded, though. Overall, this team is worse than the title team, but only by a little.
Final Thoughts: First of all, the schedule works out very nicely for Bama, as if they really needed it. If they simmer through Virginia Tech and win that heavily hyped road game at Texas A&M early on, they get a stretch where they only play one road game from then until November 16, when they go to Mississippi State. They get LSU at home, Arkansas at home, Ole Miss at home, and don’t have to play Florida, South Carolina, or Georgia in the regular season. If they beat A&M and LSU, they will probably be a one-loss team at worst going into a potential SEC title game berth in a race against most likely A&M. This is probably a better offense than when they had Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, and Trent Richardson together in 2010. That’s scary. The defense has a couple of holes, but the recruiting depth is unreal and the linebackers are going to terrorize quarterbacks. A three-peat in college football has never been done before, so it will be fascinating to see if Nick Saban can continue this dynasty as the BCS comes to a close. I say he does it.
Prediction: 12-1 (wins BCS National Title)
Key Additions: WR Quantavius Leslie, OL Ethan Pocic, LB Kendell Beckwith, TE Logan Stokes, TE DeShaun Smith
Key Losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, LB Kevin Minter, S Eric Reid, CB Tharold Simon, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, RB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing
Key Games: 8/31- TCU (Arlington), 9/28- at Georgia, 10/12- Florida, 11/9- at Alabama
Player to Watch: RB Jeremy Hill. Hill caused a lot of controversy this offseason when he got into legal trouble once again and head coach Les Miles did not cut him loose. Hill’s numbers tell the story as a feature back: He ran for 12 touchdowns, averaged over 5 yards per carry, and clinched two big wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina with late runs to the end zone. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has always emphasized running the football and going off of play action. Hill will be his workhorse this season.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? Even as an LSU lifer, I would have to say they will be worse. Those losses on defense are going to be crippling even for a ridiculously young and talented team like LSU, and I expect this defense to give up more yards and points than in the past three seasons. The offense has been poorly executed for years now, so Cameron’s hiring is a welcomed change, although Cameron got booted out of Baltimore for not being terribly creative. Mettenberger is a senior this year with experienced wideouts to throw to, so he has to show improvement under Cameron to make this season special. Otherwise, this team will take a step down.
Final Thoughts: I personally feel that LSU had a three-year window between 2010 and 2012 to bring the title back to Baton Rouge, and Les Miles basically blew it. The defense last season lacked leadership and accountability, and with so many lost guys, I doubt they will learn from their bone-headed aggressiveness. The offensive line is in better shape this year than in it has in a while, but someone at WR has to make it happen like Rueben Randle did in 2011 or the offense will become one-dimensional in a hurry. The schedule is extremely tough for them (probably the toughest in the whole conference), and I did not even mention going to Ole Miss and playing Texas A&M right before Thanksgiving.
Prediction: 9-3 (Capital One Bowl)
Key Additions: WR Ricky Seals-Jones, RB Brandon Williams, OG Germain Ifedi, TE Cameron Clear, LB Tommy Sanders
Key Losses: OT Luke Joekel, RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, LB Jonathan Stewart
Key Games: 9/14- Alabama, 10/12- at Ole Miss, 11/23- at LSU
Player to Watch: QB Johnny Manziel. Um, duh. Even when he tries to avert attention, it is all about Johnny Football these days either with strange tweets, party hopping behavior, potentially rule-breaking autograph signings, and a Heisman trophy in his dorm room before his sophomore year. The numbers speak for themselves: 3700 yards passing on 68 % completion percentage and over 1400 yards on the ground. I mean, come on! If he is ruled ineligible for the Alabama game in Week 3, look for backups Matt Davis, Luke Joekel’s brother Matt, and freshmen Kohl Stewart and Kenny Hill to have to step in.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? If Manziel’s eligibility questions turn out to be a blip on the radar screen, the offense is capable of anything with Kevin Sumlin calling the plays. Losing Swope and Michael hurts but Sumlin knows how to make receivers like Mike Evans and running backs like Ben Malena fit his system and they have a lot of athletes on that side of the ball. The defense is retained somewhat to go with a stable of recruits but they lost their two leaders in Moore and Porter. That is going to smart a bit, so I expect the defense to take a dip. Stephen Jenkins and Deshazor Everett are future stars on defense, though. All in all, this team is about the same.
Final Thoughts: It’s all about September 14 in what might turn out to be the biggest regular season game in the history of the school. If they win and they fight through two road trips this season (back-to-back early on against Arkansas and Ole Miss, then back-to-back at season’s end against LSU and Missouri), then they could outrace Bama to #1 in the West and to Atlanta. I don’t see it, though. I see a repeat of last year. But hey, you still have Johnny Football for one more season!
Prediction: 10-2 (Sugar Bowl)
Key Additions: RB Alex Collins, LB Martrell Spaight, TE Hunter Henry, LB Myke Tavarres
Key Losses: QB Tyler Wilson, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, RB Knile Davis, RB Dennis Johnson, LB Alonzo Highsmith, S Ross Rasner
Key Games: 9/21- at Rutgers, 9/28- Arkansas, 10/19- at Alabama, 11/30- at LSU
Player to Watch: DE Chris Smith. Despite the defense giving up an ungodly 30 points per game, Smith was had one of the best statistical seasons among SEC defensive lineman with almost 10 sacks and 12 hurries. New head coach Bret Bielema helped J.J. Watt blossom as a high energy lineman at Wisconsin, and I think he will turn to Smith to be a playmaker, as well. The other stud D-lineman to help him out will be DT Byran Jones.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? I definitely think they will do better than the catastrophic 4-8 season they suffered after Bobby Petrino was exiled in the midst of a messy scandal. The offense lost most of their key players, including Wilson at QB, but Brandon Allen is expected to be the next guy and Bielema loves to run the ball and throw to the tight end to convert third downs, so maybe some more conservative play calling will do. I liked the hiring of Jim Chaney, who ran Tennessee’s offense the past few seasons, to be the new offensive coordinator. The offensive line is brand new outside of NFL prospect Travis Swanson at center. The defense is definitely going to improve under Chris Ash with 8 returning starters.
Final Thoughts: Bielema was seen by many as a splashy hire because of the fact that they stole him from Wisconsin before their Rose Bowl game, but it’s more of a nuts and bolts hire than people think. Bielema never finished worse than 7-6 at Wisconsin, and had four seasons of 10 wins or more in his tenure. Defense has also been his calling card, and he has some experience this year. But this obviously ain’t the Big Ten, and the schedule is brutal. The Hogs don’t get their first bye week until late October after playing at Rutgers, Texas A&M, at Florida, South Carolina, and at Alabama all in a row. That could be 0-5 right there, but I expect the team to finish with a winning record in Bielema’s first year.
Prediction: 7-5 (Outback Bowl)
Key Additions: OT Laremy Tunsil, DT Lavon Hooks, DE Robert Nkemdiche, TE Christian Morgan, LB Tony Conner, WR Laquon Treadwell
Key Losses: RB/WR Randall Mackey, DE Jason Jones, DT Uriah Grant
Key Games: 8/29- at Vanderbilt (Thurs.), 9/14- at Texas, 9/28- at Alabama, 10/19- LSU, 11/28- at Mississippi State (Thurs.)
Player to Watch: WR Donte Moncrief. I saw this guy absolutely torch LSU on the road in a game that went from a slam dunk in Tigers fans’ eyes to a nail biter, and it was mainly because of him. He also really shined in the Egg Bowl against the Bulldogs a week later as Bo Wallace’s top target. He can also return kicks if need be. He set a single season team record with 10 touchdown catches, so he will get a lot more attention from corners this season. And he is still a junior.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? If you look at the roster from last year to this year, outside of some stud freshman recruits, it’s basically the same team with only 3 starters leaving. Mackey was useful in the wildcat role at times, but they still have Barry Brunetti to play that part. Hugh Freeze is very crafty when it comes to making up an offense as he goes along, and now he has players who know how to play their part. The defense will probably be a little bit better with #1 recruit Nkemdiche playing alongside his brother Denzel at the LB spot. Charles Sawyer is a good cornerback, too. I’ll say they will be slightly better.
Final Thoughts: It seems like Ole Miss and Mississippi State take turns from year to year with being the alpha school in the state. Houston Nutt ran the town in ’08 and ’09, then Dan Mullen was hot to trot in ’10 and ’11, then Freeze’s guys destroyed Mullen’s guys last year before winning the Compass Bowl against Pitt. The top recruiting class brings a lot of extra eyeballs Ole Miss’ way, too, but that will take another year to truly develop. The offense averaged 31.5 points per game last year and everyone is back, including star quarterback Bo Wallace and running back Jeff Scott. A real dangerous game is going to be at Texas after the Longhorns beat them 66-31 in Oxford last season. Then they get a bye and go to Alabama, so 2-2 to start out is almost assured. The bright side? After playing at Auburn on 10/12, the Rebels don’t have to leave the state line for the rest of the season. I expect this team to be about the same as last season’s, but not as much a surprise.
Prediction: 7-5 (Gator Bowl)
Key Additions: CB Justin Cox, DE Chris Jones, RB Ashton Shumpert
Key Losses: WR Chad Bumphis, CD Johnathan Banks, CB Darius Slay, LB Cameron Lawrence, DT Josh Boyd, WR Chris Smith
Key Games: 8/31- Oklahoma State (Houston), 10/5- LSU, 11/9- at Texas A&M, 11/16- Alabama, 11/28- Ole Miss (Thurs.)
Player to Watch: FS Nickoe Whitley. Banks won the Thorpe Award last year and got drafted along with Darius Slay. Whitley is now the de facto leader of the defense on the back end with those two gone along with Corey Broomfield. He recorded 88 tackles (third on the team) and got 3 INT’s to go with that. A lot of pressure is on him and fellow senior DE Denico Autry, though.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? It might be depressing for Bulldogs fans to hear that a team that lost badly to Northwestern in a bowl game is going to get a lot worse, but that’s how I feel at this point. Tyler Russell had inflated numbers in Mullen’s QB-friendly offense, but he was awful in big games, especially the Gator Bowl. Now all of their best wide receivers have graduated and it is up to RB LaDarius Perkins to carry the load if Russell can’t step up. They do have Gabe Jackson at left guard, though, and they bring back 7 offensive starters. The defense will be worse, and they gave up 23 points per game last season. Not the best sign. But their special teams has been one of the best in the country for years now.
Final Thoughts: This season, to me, is judgment day for Dan Mullen. He has done an outstanding job of recruiting really good players to go to Starksville and get them to the NFL at a decent rate, but since going 9-4 in 2010, he has gotten a lot of hype and not a lot to show for himself. This will be his weakest defense since he first got there. If they get clocked by Okie State in the opener and falter in the month of November when they play South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama for three straight weeks, things might go south in a hurry. If they lose the Egg Bowl again to Ole Miss and have a losing season, Mullen might be a goner. I won’t go that far, but the palms are starting to sweat over there for results.
Prediction: 7-5 (Liberty Bowl)
Key Additions: QB Jeremy Johnson, QB Nick Marshall, DT Montravious Adams, DE Carl Lawson, DT Ben Bradley, OG Alex Kozan
Key Losses: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, DE Corey Lemoiner
Key Games: 9/14- Mississippi State, 9/21- at LSU, 10/19- at Texas A&M, 11/9- at Tennessee, 11/30- Alabama
Player to Watch: RB Tre Mason. The junior got most of the carries at the end of a lost season, and new head coach and offensive mind Gus Malzahn loves to get his yards on the ground. I envision Mason as a key part to this offense in a similar way to how Donte Moncrief was for Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze (Ironically, Malzahn coached at Arkansas State after Freeze left to take the Ole Miss job). Getting 1,000 yards in the SEC when your offense averaged 18.7 PPG is not easy.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? Well, they went 2-10 in Gene Chizik’s last year there, so I hope they are better than that, which I think they will. The quarterback position still seems to be up in the air with two newbies (Nick Marshall and Jermemy Jackson) competing with sophomore Jonathan Wallace and they have no wideouts, but they have seven returning starters and Malzahn’s scheme can baffle teams at times. The defense has 8 returning starters and three terrific freshman at defensive line coming in to play immediately. Remember, the defense was actually better statistically than they were in 2011 when they won 8 games. And Steven Clark is a real punter.
Final Thoughts: I thought yanking Malzahn back into War Eagle territory after only cutting his teeth as a head coach for one year at Arkansas State seemed a little far fetched at first, but then again, it worked out fine for Ole Miss so far, so we will see what happens when the two former Red Wolves coaches battle at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 5. I see the team turning a corner early on with some scrappy wins, but when they get to the LSU’s and Alabama’s of the conference, they will hit a snag. I also think one of those incoming QB’s will break out late in the year.