What separates the SEC from other college football conferences is the lack of pushovers. This is especially true in the West, where all seven teams reached bowls last season.
While Texas A&M lost to Louisville, five other West schools won bowl games, and Alabama crushed Michigan State and clipped Clemson on its way to winning the national championship.
Nick Saban’s team is a good place to start when predicting how the West will stack up in 2016, but there’s enough talent and depth in the West for any one of the teams to make a run and reach the SEC title game.
Here are the three things that must go right for each team in order for it to win the SEC West this season:
- Stay hungry — There’s a natural tendency for teams to let down a little after winning a championship. This hasn’t been a big problem for Saban during his time in Tuscaloosa, but every group of players is different.
- Find the next Henry — The Tide rode Derrick Henry down the stretch last season, and they’ll need to get that sort of production out of running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris this fall. Newcomer B.J. Emmons may get a look if the two guys ahead of him falter. This group is short on experience, but long on talent.
- Be road warriors — Alabama’s path to the SEC West title will take it away from Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide play road games at Ole Miss (Sept. 17), Arkansas (Oct. 8), Tennessee (Oct. 15) and LSU (Nov. 5), with games against the Rebels and Tigers looming largest for SEC West tie-breaking purposes.
- Can Austin be like Brandon? — Austin Allen will step into the starting quarterback job vacated by his big brother Brandon, and the shoes he’s filling are big. The elder Allen led the league in passer rating while piling up 3,440 yards and 30 touchdown passes. It’s a big ask, but if the Razorbacks want to make a run at the West crown, Austin will at least need to match those numbers.
- To thine own self be true — Passing stats are great, but Bret Bielema’s teams want to line up and pound opponents with a punishing running game. In fact, each of his 10 seasons as a head coach featured a 1,000-yard rusher. But with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams heading to the NFL, the search is on for a new featured back. Rawleigh Williams III and Kody Walker are coming off injuries, so it could fall to freshmen T.J. Hammonds and Devwah Whaley to pick up the slack.
- Where’s the beef? — It won’t matter who winds up starting at running back if the Razorbacks can’t replace three starters from the offensive line. Hjalte Froholdt, a former defensive lineman, is the likely starter at left guard. Jake Raulerson, a graduate transfer from Texas, will probably slot in at center. Frank Ragnow and Dan Skipper have been moving around a bit since summer workouts began, and finding a reliable starting five before the season begins is a high priority.
- Who says ‘hut?’ — Last year, Jeremy Johnson and Sean White split snaps at quarterback for Auburn, and now JUCO transfer John Franklin III has been added to the mix. Each of the three brings a different skill set — White’s the pure passer, Franklin is the speedster and Johnson brings a bit of both. The Tigers badly need one to emerge and seize the job, particularly with the…
- Trouble at running back — Peyton Barber left early for the NFL, Roc Thomas transferred to Jacksonville State, Jovan Robinson was dismissed from the program last week and Stephen Davis Jr. will miss his freshman season while recovering from a knee injury. That leaves Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway as the two first options, with freshmen Malik Miller and Kam Martin waiting in the wings. This group needs to stay healthy and find a way to match last year’s production.
- Start strong — Four September home games would normally be a scheduling luxury, but visits from Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU don’t offer any early-season breathing room. Getting at least three wins out of the opening month is vital for a team — and a fan base — that’s hungry for success.
- Brandon Harris takes a step forward — Last season, the Tigers were 7-0 when they visited Alabama. Quarterback Harris was a dismal 6 for 19 for 128 yards in a 30-16 loss, and it was the start of a three-game losing streak that shipwrecked LSU’s season and nearly cost coach Les Miles his job. Harris doesn’t have to be perfect with one of the nation’s best running backs in Leonard Fournette behind him. But the junior does need to provide more of a threat in the play-action game and play better in big moments.
- Adapt to a new scheme — Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will bring his 3-4 to Baton Rouge, and with the talent on hand, the transition figures to be an easy one. Still, there’s a learning curve, and a season opener against Aranda’s former team, Wisconsin, will provide an early test.
- Cash in on the schedule — LSU, Ole Miss and Alabama are the preseason picks to contend for the West title. The Tigers will welcome both the other two top contenders to Death Valley, and victories would go a long way toward earning a trip to Atlanta for the title game.
- Replacing a legend — Dak Prescott rewrote the Mississippi State record book in his career, but the Bulldogs will have to find his successor this season. Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano are locked in a four-man race for the starting spot at quarterback. It would be helpful if one of them seized the job sooner rather than later.
- A good Sirmon — New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon has the tall task of implementing his new scheme while replacing five starters from last season. With the transition on the other side of the ball, the defense will likely need to carry the load for the Bulldogs early in the season.
- Overcome the schedule — Road trips to SEC West powers LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss offer no favors for Mississippi State. Toss in a tough nonconference road trip to BYU, and the Bulldogs are facing a daunting slate away from Starkville.
- Get some help for Chad Kelly — The Rebels will need to replace four starters from the offensive line, their reading rusher and the two top receivers from last season. Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins should step in at running back, while Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo lead a deep group of returnees at receiver. Five linemen who played in last year’s 10-man rotation return, which should help minimize the losses up front.
- Start strong — With games against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in the season’s first month, it will be important for the Rebels to avoid digging an early hole in the SEC standings — or burying any potential playoff hopes.
- Avoid the upset — Last year, a 53-52 loss to Arkansas in overtime kept Ole Miss out of the SEC title game. If the Rebels do the hard work of beating Alabama and LSU, they have to find a way to avoid the pitfall that spoils their season.
- Trevor Knight shines — The revolving door at quarterback in College Station has stopped spinning long enough for the graduate transfer from Oklahoma to grab the job. He’s experienced, more athletic than he looks and blessed with an outstanding receiving corps. He should have a good season, and it’s imperative that he does.
- Balance out the defense — The Aggies were tied for third in sacks in the SEC with 34 last season, which helped them finish second in the league in passing yards allowed. Another factor in the lofty pass defense numbers was an inability to stop the run. Texas A&M allowed opponents to rush for 213 yards per game at an average of 5 yards per carry. Getting stingier against the run is a must.
- Win the opener — This sounds simplistic, but this is a program in need of some good news. With the transfers and upheaval in the athletic department at the end of last season, a win against a strong UCLA team in the opener would help the Aggies build some confidence before conference play gets going.