2014 West Division Preview
Head coach: Nick Saban (eighth season; 74-15)
Key returning starters: receiver Amari Cooper, safety Landon Collins, linebacker Trey DePriest.
Alabama has lofty expectations entering the 2014 season. Nick Saban’s team is favored to win the SEC championship this year despite losing numerous prominent starters to the NFL. A starter has yet to be named at quarterback, but whoever it is will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. The strongest units on the team are the wide receivers and running backs. The receiving corps, led by Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, should be one of the best in the SEC. T.J. Yeldon, Ken-yan Drake and Derrick Henry lead a dynamic running back group. Alabama has some big holes to fill defensively, but Collins and DePriest are capable of making the Crimson Tide a dominant defensive team. If Alabama can find a solid solution at quarterback, the Tide will have a great chance at winning the SEC title.
Head coach: Bret Biel-ema (second season; 3-9)
Key returning starters: running back Alex Collins, defensive end Trey Flowers, safety Alan Tur-ner.
2013 was a difficult first season for Bielema, and the Razorbacks have the misfortune of playing in the toughest division in college football. Arkansas will possess a strong running game this year behind the sophomore Collins, but the passing game remains a question mark. Defensively, the Hogs should be improved, although it still won’t be an elite group. Six wins is the ceiling for this team, but it’s more likely around 4-5 games.
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (second season; 12-2)
Key returning starters: center Reese Dismukes, defensive lineman Gabe Wright, wide receiver Sammie Coates.
The defending SEC champions return several important starters, but a di-fficult schedule could keep them out of the SEC title game this year. Offensively, the Tigers return quarterback Nick Marshall, as well as several linemen and receivers. Despite the loss of running back Tre Mason, Malzahn’s fast-paced offense should be even better this season. On defense, Wright and Rob-inson Therezie return, as well as linebacker Kris Frost and defensive back Jonathon Mincy. Auburn must be better defensively to win another SEC championship. It will be difficult to navigate a road schedule consisting of Kansas State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama, but the Tigers are talented enough to make another trip back to Atlanta.
Head coach: Les Miles (10th season; 95-24)
Key returning starters: cornerback Tre’Davious White, guard Vadal Alexander, defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Somehow, LSU has become the forgotten team in the SEC West. Auburn and Alabama have received most of the preseason buzz, while the Tigers have flown under the radar. LSU lost a few important pieces to the NFL but are still loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Incoming freshman Leo-nard Fournette was the No. 1 running back in the country out of high school, and receiver Malachi Dupre should be an instant playmaker. LSU has a tough opening game against Wisconsin, and trips to Auburn and Florida in October could be problematic. The Tigers play Alabama and Ole Miss in Baton Rouge, however, and they have a solid chance of winning the West if they can win both of those games.
Head coach: Dan Mullen (sixth season; 36-28)
Key returning starters: quarterback Dak Prescott, defensive end Chris Jones, defensive back Jamerson Love.
If the Bulldogs can take advantage of their favorable schedule, they could reach 10 wins this season. Mississippi State will have one of the best defenses in the SEC, led by Jones and Love. The Bulldogs were great at stopping the run last season, and their defense will need to carry them most of the year. Pres-cott returns to lead the offense, and he’s proven that he can be efficient in Dan Mullen’s system. Road games at Alabama and Ole Miss will be tricky, and the Bulldogs play both LSU and Auburn in Starkville. If Mississippi State can pull off a win in one of those games, they should be 9-3 entering bowl season.
Head coach: Hugh Freeze (third season; 15-11)
Key returning starters: quarterback Bo Wallace, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Cody Prewitt.
The Rebels are almost in the same situation as their in-state rivals. The schedule isn’t quite as easy, but the Rebels have home games against Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State. Wallace is healthy for perhaps the first time in his career, and he has one of the league’s best receivers to throw to in Treadwell. Ole Miss must be able to run the football consistently to survive in the SEC, however, and the offensive line has to protect Wallace. The defense has the potential to be very strong, especially in the secondary. Prewitt, Trae Elston, and Tony Con-nor will lead the strongest group of safeties in the SEC. If the Rebels can en-ter October undefeated, they might have enough confidence and momentum to knock off Alabama.
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (third season; 20-6)
Key returning starters: guard Jarvis Harrison, cornerback Deshazor Everett, center Mike Matthews.
Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews, and Mike Evans were all first round picks in the NFL draft, and now Kevin Sumlin is tasked with replacing that trio in 2014. The Aggies were 9-4 a season ago, and this year’s team could struggle to finish with a winning record. The defense was atrocious in 2013, and it likely won’t be much better this year. Sumlin has almost always had an explosive offense, but replacing Manziel’s productivity will be difficult. A season opening win at South Carolina is unlikely, and the Aggies will need to defeat Ole Miss or Missouri at home to become bowl eligible.