We’re almost home. This fool’s errand of ours, predicting the 2016 SEC standings, is approaching the finish line. After today, all that’s left is to rank Eastern Division X-factors and then tally up the previous rankings — of East and West offenses, defenses and coaching — to project the order of finish in each division.
Before we get to that, spend some time with our West X-factors, which include returning starters, turnover margin, fumble-recovery rate, special teams, strength of schedule, timing of the bye week and players likely to swing the momentum of a game with a single explosive play.
1. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Positives: Turnover margin, fumble-recovery rate
Negatives: Field-goal kicking, strength of schedule
Although the Hogs play a lot of good teams — seven of which won at least nine games in 2015 — most of the toughest tests will come at home. The trip to TCU in Week 2 is a doozy, but Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Florida all have to come to Fayetteville. Arkansas’ three true SEC road games (not counting Texas A&M in Arlington), are against teams that went a combined 7-17 in league play last year.
The bye week isn’t until Week 9 but gives the Razorbacks time to rest up for the Gators and Tigers in consecutive weeks.
Thirteen returning starters (second-most in the West), including nine on defense, set a solid foundation for a team that has been trending up for two years and was painfully close to an even bigger breakthrough last fall. They went 3-3 in one-possession games.
Arkansas ranked 16th nationally in average field position margin, per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, had the West’s second-best turnover margin (plus-7) and led the SEC in fumble recovery rate, pouncing on 65.5 percent (of theirs and opponents’).
One thing that must improve: Cole Hedlund hitting a league-worst 60 percent of his field goals. But he was a freshman, so we’ll cut the kid some slack. He did make all 58 extra-point attempts.
2. LSU TIGERS
Positives: Experience, explosive plays, turnover margin
Negatives: Kicking concerns, field position, few forced turnovers
The Tigers’ 17 returning starters make them the second-most experienced team in the league, and they’ll need it against a schedule ESPN ranks the 10th-toughest in America. Nine opponents made a bowl game last season, including opening foe Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field) and the entire SEC road slate: Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn.
On the bright side, Ole Miss and Alabama both are coming to Death Valley, and LSU gets a bye week between those games.
Having to replace three-year starting punter Jamie Keehn and kicker Trent Domingue (13 of 17 FG in 2015 before transferring to Texas) is a bit daunting, but Colby Delahoussaye made 24 of 29 field goals in two seasons before Domingue took his job last fall.
Of greater concern: The Tigers allowed more kick returns of 30-plus yards (10) than any team in the SEC. They were the only West squad to surrender both a kickoff- and punt-return touchdown.
LSU did recover 52.8 percent of last season’s fumbles (theirs or the opponent’s) and post a plus-7 turnover margin, both numbers ranking second-best in the West. But the Tigers’ 17 total takeaways were second-fewest in the division.
Multiple home-run hitters can change a game for the Tigers in a blink, though. LSU ranked 15th nationally with 13 offensive plays of 50-plus yards, and Leonard Fournette led the league with a dozen plays of 30-plus. His health is the ultimate X-factor.
3. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Positives: Special teams, explosive plays, turnover margin
Negatives: Inexperience, fumble-recovery rate, road schedule
With just 11 starters back, the Tide are 116th in Phil Steele’s Experience Ratings. But they were 124th last season and won the national championship. The schedule, ranked the fourth-toughest in the country by ESPN, is a bigger concern. Alabama opens with a doozy — Southern California in Arlington, Texas — and plays its four hardest league games (LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Arkansas) on the road.
The bye week is well-timed, before that critical game in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers also are off the week before.
In the special teams/field-flipping department, the Tide will miss Cyrus Jones (four punt-return TDs in 2015) and must improve on a 35.1 percent fumble-recovery rate (theirs and opponents’ fumbles). But they ranked 11th nationally in average field-position margin, per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, and return a veteran placekicker (Adam Griffith) and elite punter (JK Scott).
The offense produced 16 plays of 50-plus yards last season — fifth-most in the country — including six by game-breaker Calvin Ridley. The defense produced an SEC-best 27 turnovers as Bama also led the league in turnover margin.
We’d list a new starting QB and the crushing weight of championship expectations as significant factors if those weren’t annual issues Nick Saban and Co. always find a way to successfully navigate.
4. AUBURN TIGERS
Positives: All-SEC kicker, strong return game, good bye week
Negatives: Coach on hot seat, strength of schedule, no home-run threat
ESPN rates the Tigers’ schedule the sixth-toughest in America, and we’re not sure that’s high enough. They play both 2015 national championship game participants, including the opener at home against Clemson. There are nine bowl teams, seven of which won 9-plus games, and road trips to Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss.
At least the bye week comes at exactly the halfway point to allow for some regrouping.
That’s the theme of this season, with only 11 returning starters and Gus Malzahn coaching to save his job after consecutive dips in the record. But maybe Auburn isn’t as far off as it seems. The Tigers had seven games decided by a single possession last year, losing four of them.
Just a handful of plays might’ve changed the whole vibe for Auburn, meaning it needs to build on a solid 48.7 percent fumble-recovery rate and (barely) positive turnover margin — and find other slight edges to turn games.
While an explosive offensive threat has yet to reveal itself, special teams are a plus: All-SEC kicker Daniel Carson (23 of 27 FG last year) and a pair of dangerous return men. Kerryon Johnson led the West as a freshman with six kickoff returns of 30 yards or longer, while Jonathan Ford was ninth nationally at 28.7 yards per return.
5. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Positives: Home-run threat, soft road schedule
Negatives: Turnover margin, unproven kicking game
Kevin Sumlin’s team, thanks to timely transfers and upgrading coordinators, seems to be getting its offense and defense back on track. Just in time for some major concern on special teams.
The Aggies lost All-SEC selections at kicker and punter after last season. Drew Kaser, a huge weapon with his league-best 47.5 yards per punt in 2015, already is penciled in as the San Diego Chargers’ new starter. Replacements Daniel LaCamera and Shane Tripucka both were top-five recruits, but their college experience is limited to three extra points and two punts, respectively.
The schedule, ranked No. 12 nationally by ESPN, is not completely unforgiving. UCLA at home to open the season will be a real test, as will a trip to Alabama, but A&M’s other SEC road games are imminently winnable: at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn. Tennessee (a rough crossover draw from the East), Ole Miss and LSU must travel to College Station.
Receivers Josh Reynolds and Christian Kirk can change a game quickly, combining for nine offensive plays of 40-plus yards last year. Kirk also ran back two punts for scores and averaged a ridiculous 24.4 yards per return.
A fumble-recovery rate of 40 percent isn’t great, but a turnover margin of minus-six is worse — the worst in the West, in fact.
6. OLE MISS REBELS
Positives: Turnovers forced, fumble-recovery rate, veteran kickers
Negatives: Talent drain, strength of schedule, NCAA uncertainty
There’s a lot working against Hugh Freeze’s team here, not the least of which is the dark cloud hanging over a program that could be hit with NCAA sanctions for multiple rules violations any day now. And how about that schedule?
ESPN ranks the Rebels’ road the second-toughest in the country, starting with Florida State in Orlando on Labor Day. They also get Georgia out of the East and road games against Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M. There are nine 2015 bowl teams and six opponents who won at least nine games.
Now consider that a year after being one of the SEC’s most-experienced teams, Ole Miss’ 10 returning starters are the fewest in the West. Three first-round NFL draft picks are gone, including the biggest breakaway threat, Laquon Treadwell.
Glass half full: No quarterback in the SEC last season completed more momentum-swinging passes (30-plus yards) than Chad Kelly’s 25, and he’s back. So is Quincy Adeboyejo, who had four catches of at least 50 years and should become an even bigger threat with Treadwell gone.
The Rebels have forced 55 turnovers the past two seasons, most in the league, but they’ve turned it over themselves almost as often. Only Vanderbilt has more giveaways than their 48 since 2014.
Returning kicker Gary Wunderlich (19 of 25 FG) averaged 46.9 yards on nine punts last year, much better than returning starter Will Gleeson, making him a potential weapon in the kicking game.
7. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Positives: Special teams, strength of schedule
Negatives: Turnover margin, fumble-recovery rate, bye week timing
As SEC West slates go, Dan Mullen caught a break in Year 1 A.D. (After Dak). ESPN ranks MSU’s schedule merely the 32nd-best nationally. There’s a tough non-conference game at BYU, but not as tough as most of the division is attempting. There are Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU road games, but those probably were losses regardless of venue.
The Bulldogs avoided East contenders Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, drawing Kentucky and South Carolina as crossover opponents instead, and get their most winnable West games at home: Auburn, Arkansas, A&M. The bye week is funky, in Week 5 after a random road game at Massachusetts, meaning eight consecutive games to end the season. But overall, a good draw.
That’s important with just 11 starters back and QB Dak Prescott gone.
Mullen’s squad ranked last in the league in fumble-recovery rate last fall, just 30.5 percent. State somehow collected just one of its opponents’ 13 fumbles. The Bulldogs also were one of just two West teams with a negative turnover margin (minus-4) and forced a division-low 14 turnovers.
Special teams should be solid, though, with Westin Graves (15 of 18 FG) and Logan Cooke (42.2 yards per punt) back, along with star receiver Fred Ross, who returned a punt for a touchdown last season and produced six catches of 40-plus yards.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.