In & around SEC football – West Division Preview

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By Cole Frederick/Staff correspondent

Alabama
Coach: Nick Saban
15th season at Alabama
256-65-1 overall
96-15 at Alabama
2020 record: 13-0
Alabama’s two-year national title “drought” came to an end last season. Mac Jones had one of the most efficient seasons of any quarterback in college football history, and the Crimson Tide offense was practically unstoppable en route to the program’s sixth national title since 2009 under Saban. Only three starters return from the 2020 team on offense, but former five-star quarterback Bryce Young is set to take over for Jones and the offense is still loaded with talent. Seven starters are back on defense, including prolific pass rusher Will Anderson. This Alabama defense should be Saban’s best in years. Early season tests against Miami and Florida are away from home, but Alabama will once again be a championship contender.
Arkansas
Coach: Sam Pittman
Second season
at Arkansas
2020 record: 3-7
Despite only winning three games a season ago, Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks were a tough out almost every week in the all-SEC sch-edule. Pittman’s group was physical on both sides of the ball, and nearly pulled off upsets over Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU. A total of 18 starters return, nine on each side of the ball. This is a more experienced group but there are question marks at quarterback and defensive line. The schedule is daunting as the Hogs take on Texas in an early season nonconference tilt and have road games at Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama.
Auburn
Coach: Bryan Harsin
First season at Auburn
76-24 overall
2020 record: 6-5
Bryan Harsin takes over for Gus Malzahn, and the former Boise State head coach is greeted with one of the toughest schedules in college football. The Tigers travel to State College to take on Penn State in mid-September and have road games at LSU where they have not won since 1999 – and Texas A&M. Oh, and Auburn must play Georgia and Alabama at home. The good news for Harsin is that he inherits a talented and experienced roster. Sixteen starters return, including nine on offense. All five starters are back on the offensive line and Tank Bigsby will be one of the best running backs in the country. Junior Bo Nix returns at quarterback, and while he’s a two-year starter, both seasons have been plagued by inconsistency. He will be throwing to an inexperienced group of wide receivers. Former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason has talent to work with on defense, but depth will be a concern.
LSU
Coach: Ed Orgeron
Sixth season at LSU
61-41 overall
45-14 at LSU
2020 record: 5-5
LSU came back down to earth last year after 2019’s historic 15-0 season. The 2020 Tigers stumbled to a 5-5 record, and head coach Ed Orgeron is looking for a bounce back year. The quarterback competition between Myles Brennan and Max Johnson was decided after an arm injury to Brennan, but Johnson played well at the end of the 2020 season. The Tigers have 16 starters returning, including nine on defense. Star cor-nerback Derek Stingley, Jr., headlines that unit, but the defense has a significant amount of improvement to do after a disappointing 2020 campaign. LSU tra-vels to UCLA in Week 1 in what could be a tricky spot, and the Tigers have road games at Ole Miss and Alabama. Regardless, Orgeron’s squad should return to contention this season.
Mississippi State
Coach: Mike Leach
Second season
at Mississippi State
143-97 overall
2020 record: 4-7
Leach’s air raid system was not exactly prolific in Year 1, but some of the miscues and poor performances can be contributed to lack of preparation during the COVID-shortened season. The air raid is not a system teams can master on short notice, and the Bulldogs should gradually improve offensively each season under Leach. Quarterback Will Rogers headlines an offense returning eight starters, and he looked more comfortable running the offense later in the season. The MSU defense also returns eight starters, and both sides of the ball will need to be sharp early in the season as the Bulldogs face a difficult schedule. Nonconference matchups against North Carolina State and Memphis will be challenging, and MSU plays LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama before the midway point of the year.
Ole Miss
Coach: Lane Kiffin
Second season
at Ole Miss
66-39 overall
2020 record: 5-5
At the very least, Lane Kiffin’s teams will always be entertaining. The Rebels finished 5-5 in Kiffin’s first season and they had one of the best offenses in the country with Matt Corral at the helm. Kiffin’s offense should be explosive again as eight starters return, though replacing Elijah Moore will not be an easy task. Ole Miss allowed nearly 40 points per game last season, and nine starters are back on that side of the ball. The Rebels need drastic improvement from that unit if they plan on being a factor in the SEC West. Ole Miss takes on Louisville in the season opener and has road games at Alabama and Auburn. The schedule is manageable otherwise, so Kiffin’s squad has a chance to finish in the top half of the SEC this season.
Texas A&M
Coach: Jimbo Fisher
Fourth season
at Texas A&M
109-33 overall
26-10 at Texas A&M
2020 record: 9-1
It only took three seasons for Jimbo Fisher to turn the Aggies into a national title contender, and expectations are high for Texas A&M in 2021. The 2020 Aggies were close to making the College Football Playoff, and their lone loss of the season was to eventual national champion Alabama. Quarterback Kellen Mond is now in the NFL and the Aggies must replace five starters on offense, but Fisher has recruited at a high level and the offense should be productive yet again. Texas A&M’s defense returns nine starters, and it should be one of the best defensive units in the conference. The schedule is manageable, as the Aggies host Alabama and Auburn and the toughest road games are spaced out later in the year. The matchup with Alabama will go a long way in determining whether the Aggies can win the division, but either way, they will be a playoff contender.

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