In & around SEC football - West Division preview

August 9, 2018 chris
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By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent

Alabama
Coach: Nick Saban
12th season; 132-20 at Alabama, 218-62 overall
2017 Record: 13-1
The 2017 season was bu-siness as usual for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. Despite not winning the SEC championship – or even the SEC West Division – Alabama still won the national title. It was Saban’s fifth national title at Alabama since 2009 and the sixth of his career. Not surprisingly, UA is expected to contend for another national championship this fall.
There is a quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Tagovailoa was the hero of the national title game, but Hurts was the quarterback who led the Tide into the championship in the first place. While Tagovailoa is the favorite, Saban still hasn’t yet announced a starter.
Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of weapons in the backfield and at receiver. Damien Harris and Jerry Jeudy are two electric playmakers and the offensive line is loaded with talent. Jonah Williams is one of the top offensive tackles in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher is among the most experienced linemen in college football.
Only three starters return on defense but there isn’t a shortage of talent on that side of the ball. Raekwon Davis is a projected first-rounder at defensive end, and there are plenty of five-stars that will start in the defensive backfield. The schedule isn’t too difficult as Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M all visit Tuscaloosa. In other words, Alabama will be in the playoff hunt again this fall.
Arkansas
Coach: Chad Morris
First season at Arkansas; 14-22 overall
2017 Record: 4-8
Morris takes over for Bret Bielema, who couldn’t push the Razorbacks into the upper echelon of the SEC West. At SMU, Morris turned the program around in three seasons, but this will be a much more daunting challenge.
The good news is that Morris inherits 17 returning starters, including nine on offense and eight on de-fense. It’s a veteran team that should be improved with so many experienced players returning.
Led by guard Hjalte Froholdt and Brian Wallace, the offensive line should be a strength. Cole Kelley returns at quarterback after starting as a freshman, and Morris should be able to help him improve as a sophomore.
John Chavis is the new defensive coordinator and has coached at several different SEC schools during his career. The Hogs were weak defensively over the last few years but should take a step forward this season.
To make a bowl game, the Razorbacks need to go 4-0 in non-conference action. It’s a very manageable non-conference slate, including home games versus Eastern Illinois, North Texas and Tulsa. The Hogs also travel to Colorado State.
In conference play, Arkansas hosts Alabama, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and LSU. The Razorbacks play Texas A&M in Arlington, and have only three true SEC road games at Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri. A bowl game is certainly within reach, which would be a great start for Morris in Fayetteville.
Auburn
Coach: Gus Malzahn
Sixth season; 45-22 at Auburn, 54-25 overall
2017 Record: 10-4
The defending SEC West champions will be strong again this year. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns after an impressive sophomore campaign, and he’ll be surrounded by veteran receivers in Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis. The offensive line is inexperienced, however, and so is the running back corps.
Defensively, the Tigers are loaded on the front seven. The defensive line might be the deepest in the country outside of Clemson. Dontavius Russell, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson highlight the defensive line, while Deshaun Davis headlines a solid linebacker group.
The main obstacle standing in the way for Auburn to make a playoff push is the schedule, which It might be the toughest schedule in the country. The Tigers will be challenged as soon as the season starts against Washington in Atlanta in the season opener, and the Huskies are expected to be a national playoff contender.
The Tigers also travel to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State. All three will be very challenging games, though the home schedule is more lenient with LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas visiting Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Even though Auburn beat Alabama in 2017, the Tigers will be chasing the Crimson Tide this year. There’s a good chance the SEC West comes down to the Iron Bowl for the second straight season in late November.
LSU
Coach: Ed Orgeron
Second season; 15-6 at LSU, 31-33 overall
2017 Record: 9-4

In a three-week stretch last fall, LSU lost by 30 points to Mississippi State and lost at home to Troy. Ed Orgeron was on the hot seat only five games into his first full season in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers won six of their last seven games and finished the year at 9-4.
Orgeron has 10 starters re-turning this year, and he’ll count on linebacker Devin White to lead what should be a very solid defense. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the business, so the Tigers should be very productive on that side of the ball.
The offense is a different story. LSU has struggled offensively for several years dating back to when Les Miles was head coach. Five starters return on offense, and losing star running back Derrius Guice certainly doesn’t help matters. Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow is expected to be the starter at quarterback, a position where the Tigers have struggled in recent years.
LSU will be challenged immediately as the Tigers take on Miami in the season opener in Arlington, Tex. Other away games include Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M. LSU welcomes Southeast Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Mississippi State, Rice and Alabama to Baton Rouge.
The Tigers’ schedule is very difficult, and LSU cro-sses with perhaps the two best teams from the SEC East. It could be a long year for the Tigers if they don’t beat Miami in the season opener.
Mississippi State
Coach: Joe Moorhead
First season at
Mississippi State
2017 Record: 9-4
Dan Mullen left behind a loaded roster for new coach Joe Moorhead. The Bulldogs return 17 starters, including veteran quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and defensive lineman Montez Sweat.
Mississippi State won nine games last year with Mullen and return one of the most experienced teams in the league and in the country. Moorhead coached for four seasons at Fordham and had a very successful tenure as offensive coordinator at Penn State.
Road games at Kansas State, LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss will be tricky. The Bulldogs also visit Kentucky. Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech and Arkansas all visit Starkville. Mississippi State is a sleeper to contend for the SEC West, but things will have to click quickly for the new coaching staff.
Ole Miss
Coach: Matt Luke
Second season at Ole Miss; 6-6 overall
2017 Record: 4-8
The athletic administration was pleased with how Matt Luke led the team on an interim basis last year and rewarded him by removing the interim tag. Luke led the Rebels to six wins, though they were ineligible for a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions.
Fifteen starters return, and Ole Miss will be a very exciting team offensively. Receiver A.J. Brown and offensive lineman Greg Little are both projected as first round picks for the 2019 NFL Draft. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu performed well over the last half of the 2017 season.
While seven starters are back on defense, that unit was among the worst in the SEC last fall. The Rebels will need massive improvements on that side of the ball to avoid finishing in last place in the SEC West.
Ole Miss opens the season against Texas Tech in Houston in what should be an offensive shootout. The Rebels host Southern Illinois, Alabama, Kent State, Louisiana-Monroe,Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Ole Miss travels to LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, the Rebels are banned from the postseason in 2018, so they are again playing for pride.
Texas A&M
Coach: Jimbo Fisher
First season at Texas A&M; 83-23 overall
2017 Record: 7-6
The Aggies made a Godfather-like offer to Jimbo Fisher and were able to lure him away from Florida State. Fisher won a national championship with the Seminoles in 2013, but Texas A&M was able to offer more money and stability.
Fisher is now tasked with turning the Aggies into a contender. Kevin Sumlin had a relatively successful tenure in College Station but he couldn’t turn the program into a national title threat. Fisher has 16 starters returning this fall, and linebacker Tyrel Dodson is one of the best in the conference.
After an easy season opener against Northwestern State, the Aggies welcome Clemson into College Station. Fisher and Dabo Swinney were major rivals in the ACC and Florida State and Clemson were the best two programs in that league for several years.
Texas A&M travels to Tuscaloosa in September and has road games at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn, plus a neutral site game against Arkansas. The home schedule includes Louisiana-Monroe, Kentucky, Ole Miss, UAB and LSU.
It’s unlikely that Texas A&M will contend for the SEC West this year, but it probably won’t take too long for Fisher to get things rolling with the Aggies.