By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
West Division Preview
Head coach: Nick Saban, 11th season (114-19 at Alab-ama, 205-61-1 overall)
2016 record: first in West (14-1, 8-0)
Key losses: linebacker Reuben Foster, defensive end Jonathan Allen, tight end O.J. Howard
Key returning players: defensive back Minkah Fitz-patrick, offensive lineman Jonah Williams, receiver Calvin Ridley
Alabama was seconds away from winning back-to-back national championships in 2016, and they are among the favorites to contend for a title this season. Saban must replace several key contributors among last season’s dominant front seven, but he has recruited better than anyone in the country, and the defense should remain among the best in the nation. Led by Fitzpatrick and safety Ronnie Harrison, the secon-dary will be the strength of the defense. Jalen Hurts is back under center after being named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, and Alabama returns every contributor from last year’s backfield, including Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Ridley leads the receiving corps, and Williams should be one of the best offensive linemen in the country. The schedule is bookended with tough games away from home against Florida State and Auburn, but the Crim-son Tide will be in the mix for another national title in January.
Head coach: Bret Bielema, fifth season (25-26 at Arkansas, 93-50 overall)
2016 record: fifth in West (7-6, 3-5)
Key losses: defensive end Deatrich Wise, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter
Key returning players: quarterback Austin Allen, center Frank Ragnow, cor-nerback Ryan Pulley
Arkansas didn’t necessa-rily have a bad season in 2016, but the losses were far more memorable than the victories. The Razorbacks ended the season with a 35-24 loss to Virginia Tech de-spite leading 24-0 in the first half. They suffered a baffling loss to Missouri at the end of the regular season, while Auburn walloped them, 56-3, in the middle of the year. Quarterback Austin Allen returns, but overall the Hogs are a mystery entering the 2017 season. The non-conference schedule fea-tures a showdown with TCU for the second game of the season, and the Hogs must play 10 straight games without a bye week. Biele-ma isn’t feeling any pressure now, but he might after this season.
Head coach: Gus Malzahn, fifth season (35-18 at Au-burn, 44-21 overall)
2016 record: second in West (8-5, 5-3)
Key losses: defensive tackle Montravius Adams, defensive end Carl Lawson, defensive back Rudy Ford
Key returning players: offensive lineman Braden Smith, kicker Daniel Carl-son, running back Kamryn Pettway
The 2016 season was a pleasant surprise for Gus Malzahn’s team as the Tigers made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Expectations are much higher for this season, however. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham has the potential to be the best Auburn quarterback since Cam Newton, and the Tigers feature a talented stable of running backs and an off-ensive line with plenty of depth. The defense lost two stars in Lawson and Adams and they will need someone to emerge as a pass rusher. The secondary should be among the best in the league, and kicker Carlson is perhaps the best kicker in the nation. The schedule does Auburn no favors, as the Tigers must visit both Death Valleys in Clemson and LSU, but rivals Georgia and Alabama will visit The Plains. Based on talent, there’s a decent chance the Iron Bowl will decide the winner of the SEC West.
Head coach: Ed Orgeron, first season (6-2 at LSU, 22-29 overall)
2016 record: third in West (8-4, 5-3)
Key losses: running back Leonard Fournette, safety Jamal Adams, cornerback Tre’Davious White
Key returning players: running back Derrius Guice, offensive lineman Will Clapp, defensive end Arden Key
LSU parted ways with Les Miles following the Tigers’ loss to Auburn last September, and Ed Orgeron had his interim tag removed after leading the team to a 6-2 record as Miles’ replacement. Now, the Tigers are an enigma entering this fall. Sure, the talent is there as always, but Orgeron struggled in his last full-time coaching gig at Ole Miss and the quar-terback position is still a major concern. Guice will be a star, and Key will be a first round pick in the NFL Draft. But for the first time in six years, the Tigers are more likely to finish near the bottom of the SEC West than they are to win the di-vision.
Head coach: Dan Mullen, ninth season (61-42)
2016 record: sixth in West (6-7, 3-5)
Key losses: offensive lineman Justin Senior, re-ceiver Fred Ross, defensive end A.J. Jefferson
Key returning players: quarterback Nick Fitz-gerald, safety Brandon Bry-ant, receiver Donald Gray
Due to Hugh Freeze’s re-signation and the ongoing NCAA investigation in Oxford, almost the entire spotlight in the state of Mississippi is on the Ole Miss Rebels, but Dan Mullen’s team could be a dangerous spoiler this fall. Fitzgerald might be the best quarterback in the conference as he finished second in the league in rushing yards and eighth in passing yards a year ago. The Bulldogs don’t have the depth to win the division, but Mullen has had success with dual threat quarterbacks in the past. This team has the potential to finish in the top three in the West Division.
Head coach: Matt Luke, first season
2016 record: seventh in West (5-7, 2-6)
Key losses: tight end Evan Engram, quarterback Chad Kelly, defensive tackle D.J. Jones
Key returning players: quarterback Shea Patterson, defensive end Marquis Haynes, offensive lineman Greg Little
It’s been a tumultuous off-season for the Rebels due to the aforementioned NCAA investigation and coaching change, and interim head coach Matt Luke has plenty of work to do in order to hold the pieces together. Luke has an extremely talented quarterback in Pat-terson, and the offensive line and receivers should also be among the best in the SEC. But the defense struggled often last season, and it might be in even worse in 2017 due to the improved quarterback play throughout the league. Ole Miss is also banned from a bowl game this season, and it will likely be a long year for the Rebels.
Head coach: Kevin Sum-lin, sixth season (44-21 at Texas A&M, 79-38 overall)
2016 record: fourth in West (8-5, 4-4)
Key losses: defensive end Myles Garrett, defensive back Justin Evans, receiver Josh Reynolds
Key returning players: re-ceiver Christian Kirk, safety Armani Watts, running back Trayveon Williams
After three consecutive 8-5 seasons, Sumlin has plenty to prove in 2017. The Aggies have been no-torious for playing well during the first half of the season while imploding du-ring the last half, and the program seems to be stuck in place. Quarterback is a question mark, but whoever wins the starting job has Kirk to throw to on the outside. The defense has the tough task of replacing Gar-rett, the top overall pick in the NFL Draft, and the schedule is difficult right from the start with a trip to UCLA. Another 8-5 season might not be enough to guarantee a seventh season for Sumlin.