By Cole Frederick
SEC West Division Preview
Head coach: Nick Saban, 10th season (100-18 at Alabama, 191-60-1 overall)
2015 record: first in West (14-1, 7-1)
Key losses: linebacker Reggie Ragland, running back Derrick Henry, center Ryan Kelly
Key returning players: defensive back Eddie Jackson, tight end O.J. Howard, offensive lineman Cam Robinson
Thanks to another stacked defense and a plethora of playmakers on offense, the defending national champions are the favorites to win it all again. Several NFL-caliber players return for another season in Tuscaloosa, including Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, Eddie Jackson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Alabama’s road schedule is daunting – specifically trips to Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU – but the Tide will be right back in the mix for another playoff berth this fall.
Head coach: Bret Bielema, fourth season (18-20 at Arkansas, 86-44 overall)
2015 record: third in West (8-5, 5-3)
Key losses: tight end Hunter Henry, running back Alex Collins, quarterback Brandon Allen
Key returning players: defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, offensive line-man Dan Skipper, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle
Every Bret Bielema team looks the same -they run the ball effectively behind a massive offensive line, make a conscious effort to control the clock and tempo and are almost always more physical than their opponent. The names and faces of the 2016 Razorbacks might not be familiar, but the product will be. Quarterback Brandon Allen graduated but his brother Austin will take over as signal-caller. Running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams departed for the NFL, but the Hogs will still run the ball often behind another enormous offensive line. Arkansas could finish anywhere from 3-7 in the West but certainly will be a tough opponent every Saturday.
Head coach: Gus Malzahn, fourth season (27-13 at Auburn, 36-16 overall)
2015 record: seventh in West (7-6, 2-6)
Key losses: offensive lineman Shon Coleman, receiver Ricardo Louis, defensive back Jonathan Jones
Key returning players: defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, offensive lineman Braden Smith
The same problems that plagued Auburn offensively in 2015 are still con-cerns entering this season. Gus Malzahn is still unsure who his starting quarterback will be, and it’s very likely Auburn will have multiple starting signal-callers throughout the season. Three of the Tigers’ primary running backs from a season ago – Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas – are no longer with the program. The defense should be a strength, particularly on the line, and Malzahn will need it to be dominant every week if Auburn is going to compete with the upper echelon teams in the division. Opening-month games against Clemson and LSU aren’t favorable for Auburn, but not much more is expected from them than six or seven wins this year.
Head coach: Les Miles, 12th season (112-32 at LSU, 139-53 overall)
2015 record: Fourth in West (9-3, 5-3)
Key losses: offensive linemen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, linebacker Deion Jones
Key returning players: running back Leonard Fournette, defensive back Jamal Adams, linebacker Kendell Beckwith
Les Miles was nearly fired after a 9-3 season, so imagine the pressure he’s feeling entering 2016. LSU is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball – including star running back Leonard Fournette – and at the least, Miles is expected to win an SEC title this year. LSU’s offense has been mundane for several years under Miles, and if the Tigers are going to win a national title, quarterback Brandon Harris will need to make plays through the air more consistently. As prepos-terous as it sounds, Miles might not survive another 9-3 season.
Head coach: Dan Mullen, eighth season (55-35)
2015 record: sixth in West (9-4, 4-4)
Key losses: quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver De’Runnya Wilson, defensive lineman Chris Jones
Key returning players: defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson, linebacker Richie Brown, receiver Fred Ross
Dan Mullen is tasked with replacing possibly the best player in school history in Dak Prescott. Talent still remains on the offensive side of the ball, including receiver Fred Ross and three returning starters on the offensive line. Defensively, Mullen will have to replace star lineman Chris Jones, but Richie Brown and A.J. Jefferson anchor a solid front seven. Mullen has taken Mississippi State to a bowl game in every season since 2010 and should be able to get the Bulldogs there once again.
Head coach: Hugh Freeze, fifth season (34-18 at Ole Miss, 44-20 overall)
2015 record: second in West (10-3, 6-2)
Key losses: receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil
Key returning players: quarterback Chad Kelly, defensive back Tony Conner, tight end Evan Engram
Ole Miss has improved each year under Hugh Freeze, but can he finally win the division this season? Aside from newcomer Texas A&M, Ole Miss is the only program in the West without at least one trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. Chad Kelly is arguably the best quarterback returning in the conference, and he is loaded with weapons on the outside. The defense should be a strength again, but the early-season schedule is brutal with games against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in the first month. Is this finally the year the Rebels get to Atlanta, or will this be the first year of regression?
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin, fifth season (36-16 at Texas A&M, 71-33 overall)
2015 record: fifth in West (8-5, 4-4)
Key losses: offensive lineman Germain Ifedi, defensive back Brandon Williams, quarterback Ky-le Murray
Key returning players: defensive lineman Myles Garrett, receiver Christian Kirk, offensive lineman Avery Gennesy
Would a third consecutive 8-5 season be enough to justify firing Kevin Sumlin? Through four seasons, Sumlin has yet to win the SEC West, and has had only one season with dou-ble-digit victories. Talent hasn’t been the issue, as Sumlin consistently has hauled in top-10 recruiting classes in College Station. The issue for Texas A&M has primarily been defense and stability at quarterback. The Aggies have the talent yet again to compete with Alabama and LSU, but it’s unclear if Sumlin can get this group to play with those teams on a consistent basis.