The SEC West is still the Best
The following is an in-depth look at the pre-season positions of the fourteen teams that make up the Eastern and Western Divisions of the SEC, and where we think they will stack up at the end of the regular season:
ALABAMA - It is hard not to put Nick Saban’s team at the top of the West again. Even though the quarterback situation is still unsettled, fear not! In Saban’s system, a great quarterback is not required. He is only looking for the guy that can lead the team, make the fewest bad decisions and have the least number of turnovers. Bama returns six starters on offense and five on defense. They return 48 lettermen, having lost 24 from last year. In only two categories can I see Alabama being better than in 2015, receivers and the offensive line. Replacing the all-everything center, Ryan Kelly is probably more important than who the QB will be. Sophomore Ross Pierschbacher has been moved over from guard as Kelly’s replacement. He played well at guard last year. At 6-4, 305, he has the size. Can he make the correct line calls and block as well as Kelly? Wide receiver is a position that will be better in part because of the maturity of freshman sensation Calvin Ridley. Clutch receiver ArDarius Stewart returns for his junior season and junior Robert Foster returns from an injury. After three seasons of anonymity, tight end O. J. Howard was noticed by Coach Lane Kiffin as Alabama was in the process of losing the national championship game last year to Clemson. Howard was named MVP in that game! What end of the field was Howard practicing on for the last three springs? Obviously not the one that Kiffin was on.
Damien Harris at 5-11, 215 is the most versatile running back but, 6-2, 240 lb. Bo Scarborough could take up the slack for the departed Heisman Trophy winner. The most impressive talent at quarterback to me is a true freshman who went through spring practice, Jalen Hurts, 6-2, 215. However, he will have a tough time beating out junior Cooper Bateman, 6-3, 225, the only QB with any experience. Alabama can win with any one of the four. Fear not again!
The kicking game could not be better. J. K. Scott returns as the punter and placekicker, Adam Griffith enters his senior season with a good resume.
Alabama has two giant hurdles; at Tennessee and at LSU. If the Tide beats the Vols in Knoxville in October, the winner of the LSU game in Baton Rouge in November will go to the SEC Championship game. Worst 10-2/Best 12-0.
LSU - Coach Les Miles has never had a team with as much talent and experience as the 2016 version of the Bayou Bengals. He has 17 returning starters - 8 on offense and 9 on defense. The Tigers will be better in every category except offensive line where they will be just as good. Junior QB Brandon Harris has cleared up some of his problems reading defenses. If the 6-3, 210 lb. runner becomes a passer, look out Alabama. Running back Leonard Fournette, the leading rusher in the SEC in 2015, is the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Les Miles was within one phone call of being let go last year (after a mid-season collapse), but he rallied the troops to a 9-3 season. This year 9-3 will win him a good retirement check! LSU has a “tricky” game at Auburn, where they have not played well, and the home game with Alabama standing in their way from possibly going 12-0. Worst 10-2/Best 12-0.
AUBURN - Coach Gus Malzahn has four more months to prove that he can adapt to coaching in Division I college football in the SEC. His first season was a series of miracles that will probably not be duplicated in my lifetime. Nothing done by Auburn since that game has shown me that Malzahn can adjust to situations during games. Nothing has shown me that he can dictate to his defensive coordinator what he wants to change. Nothing has shown me he can demand that his offensive coordinator come up with a plan to utilize the talent that is available.
Any junior high school coach in Montgomery could have seen that Jeremy Johnson would never be effective running Auburn’s zone read. Any high school coach in Montgomery would have discovered in two years that Jeremy
Johnson was a javelin thrower and not an efficient passer. Therefore, had Malzahn noticed this after three spring practices and two football seasons, he could have recommended to Johnson that he quit football and join the track team. Jeremy Johnson could possibly be throwing the javelin this year for the United States in the Brazilian version of the Summer Olympics.
With all this said, it is my belief that Auburn has the talent offensively and defensively to contend for third place in the West. With no stars, no Heisman candidates, this team is mobile, agile and hostile. They should be able to
compete with any team on the schedule. Look for John Franklin, III to start against Clemson. Worst 7-5/Best 9-3.
OLE MISS - Ole Miss has QB Chad Kelly and Head Coach Hugh Freeze. Kelly could bail Freeze out by leading this confused bunch of good athletes through the SEC wars and the NCAA battle. Four years ago, I said that Hugh Freeze was an 8-4 coach. He has fooled me twice! Worst 7-5/Best 8-4.
TEXAS A & M - Coach Kevin Sumlin has run off better quarterback talent than Auburn and Alabama have had in the last five years. This year he decided to try someone that he did not train. Trevor Knight, the QB that dazzled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl three years ago has transferred to A&M from Oklahoma and has been handed the job by Sumlin. Coaching at Houston is a bit different from coaching at Texas A&M. Worst 7-5/Best 8-4.
ARKANSAS - Coach Brett Bielema has a record of 18-20 at Arkansas and the fans love him. Is he a salesman or what? Arkansas lost their quarterback, their best two running backs, key offensive linemen, but, there is a silver lining behind this cloud. They will be better at wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back. Their kicking game was atrocious last year with four blocked kicks. It will definitely be better. If you are going to beat Bielema’s “hogs” on the offensive line (310+), you have to do it before the middle of October. Their weight becomes a plus when the weather turns cold. They usually wilt in the fourth quarter during September. They catch Alabama at home on October 8, Auburn in Auburn on October 22 and LSU at home on November 12. Worst 7-6/Best 8-4.
MISSISSIPPI STATE - Coach Dan Mullen has quitely built a “Starkville Dynasty”. That is a team that will be in every game and will win most. Until his arrival from being Tim Tebow’s offensive coordinator at Florida seven years ago, Mississippi State “auditioned” coaches every four years and then fired them. Now they can beat Ole Miss, but they still have trouble with the Tide. Mullen loses the best quarterback in the conference last year in Dak Prescott. He also lost some good wide receivers, offensive linemen and defensive backs. His kicking game is adequate and may keep him in some games early while his youngsters gain experience. Worst 7-5/Best 8-4.
AS YOU CAN SEE - THE WEST IS STILL THE BEST
TENNESSEE - You have to give the Vols the nod early in the season. Coach Butch Jones has recruited well in his first three seasons. This is now showing up on the depth chart. Jones has 17 returning starters - 9 on offense and 8 on defense plus his kicking game from last year. On paper this Volunteer team looks unbeatable. Joshua Dobbs, senior QB, 6-3, 210 lb., three year starter - Jalen Hurd, junior running back, 6-4, 240 lb. - Alvin Kamara, 5-10, 215 lb. junior running back who transferred from Alabama. Is the most dangerous of the two. Coach Jones also has depth at defensive line, linebacker and offensive line.
The schedule is favorable as usual. If Tennessee can win early at Georgia in Athens and win in October over Alabama in Knoxville, they will go undefeated. The last four games are S. Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
I was convinced that Butch Jones was building this team the right way and instilling his program on a sound foundation until events of last year. But, Jones decided to become a gimmick coach. He has dressed the Vols in various uniforms in the last year, mostly grey and also camo. Teams that use gimmicks seem to be distracted from the game by the gimmick, ie. Auburn in orange fruit boots at the beginning of last year. LSU really liked Auburn’s new gimmick. Worst 10-2/Best 12-0.
GEORGIA - Historically a new coach brings excitement and enthusiasm to a football program. Look for Coach Kirby Smart to come out of the gates strong against N. Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee. With any luck at quarterback, and with two healthy running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the “Dawgs” will bite somebody in the behind and push Tennessee for the title. Worst 9-3/Best 10-2.
FLORIDA - Quarterback Luke Del Rio has tried to start for Alabama, Oregon State and now Florida. He is a great talent and would probably have been the starter at Alabama this year. Florida plays Tennessee early in Knoxville.The Vols may use 12 players to break their losing streak to Florida. LSU comes to Gainesville a few weeks later. Florida will have two losses before they play Georgia, go to Arkansas in November, and to FSU at the end. It is my belief that Coach Jim McElwain will join Hugh Freeze as one of the best 8-4 coaches in the SEC. Worst 7-5/Best 8-4.
VANDERBILT - Worst 6-6/Best 7-5 - Coach Derek Mason finds a winning season, maybe.
MISSOURI - Worst 6-6/Best 7-5 - New Coach Barry Odom inherits a “protest team” from Gary Pinkel.
KENTUCKY - Worst 6-6/Best 7-5 - Mark Stoops will go to Oklahoma and work for his brother Bob.
S. CAROLINA - Worst 5-7/Best 6-6 - Will Muschamp will set the SEC record for sideline penalties.