As the reigning SEC and national champions, Alabama is the king of the SEC West until dethroned.
LSU and Ole Miss are the most likely contenders for the throne, but history teaches us not to rule out anyone in college football’s most rugged conference.
Can the Tigers or Rebels stage a coup in this year’s SEC West race? Or will Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M or Mississippi State rise and upset the established order?
While we ponder those questions, here are a few overrated and underrated aspects of the West as we draw closer to the 2016 season:
The notion that anyone is closing the gap on the SEC — If you’re on this website, you’re probably aware that the SEC, paced in recent years by the West schools, is college football’s toughest conference.
But there are some touting the Big Ten or Big 12 as deeper conferences. A 9-2 mark in bowl/playoff games for the SEC last season should be enough to beat back such claims.
But if Florida State and North Carolina snatch wins against Ole Miss and Georgia, respectively, in the opening week, the chirping will begin anew.
When it does, remember the SEC has a winning record against every existing conference in the sport. Unless the Big East reforms, that isn’t changing anytime soon.
Kevin Sumlin as an elite coach — Sumlin’s tenure in College Station started with a bang. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman in 2012, and the Aggies finished 11-2 after pounding Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
The record dipped to 9-4 in Manziel’s second and final year in 2013, and back-to-back 8-5 marks in the past two seasons signal a disturbing trend.
The transfers of quarterbacks Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray in recent years also raise red flags, as does the overall instability in the athletic department. Things have gotten a little sour, and Sumlin needs a bounce back season to prove that his success at Texas A&M isn’t owed entirely to finding Manziel.
Arkansas’ running back issues — It hasn’t been an ideal offseason for the Razorbacks when it comes to running backs. The departures of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams for the NFL drained the unit of much of its experience.
But the sky isn’t falling.
Rawleigh Williams III, Kody Walker and Devwah Whaley are fighting for first-team reps. It’s likely that one or two will emerge to give Arkansas the sort of running threat it’s used to having.
The development of the offensive line, and the insertion of Austin Allen as the new quarterback, are more pressing issues for this offense.
Lane Kiffin — No SEC assistant is quite as polarizing as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. If you can look past his messy exits from, well pretty much everywhere, he’s clearly a top-notch offensive mind.
In his two seasons with the Tide, Kiffin’s quarterbacks (Blake Sims and Jake Coker) have finished in the top five in passer rating while combining for 49 touchdown passes and more than 6,500 yards.
The running attack, thanks to backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry — and a talent-laden offensive line — has been rock solid as well.
Love him or hate him, he’s been a home run hire for Nick Saban.
Auburn’s early schedule — This could be a make-or-break year for Gus Malzahn at Auburn, and the September schedule does him no favors.
The good news is that the four games are at home. The bad news is that each will be a test for his team.
Clemson, the No. 2 ranked team in the country, is a challenging opener at Jordan-Hare. Arkansas State, which finished 9-4 last season and is a favorite in the Sun Belt, follows.
A pair of SEC West games finish off the month as Texas A&M and LSU come calling. Momentum is important. If the Tigers want to improve on last year’s inconsistent campaign, getting off to a fast start is a must.
Brandon Harris — I watched the Alabama game last year (6 for 19, 128 yards), so I get the criticism of Harris. But, with the attrition of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, he’s suddenly one of the better returners at the position.
There’s no question that Harris needs to be better in big games, but with a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19 to 8, he’s got the potential to become a bigger part of the Tiger offense.
Of course, even if he takes a step forward, his main job will be handing the football to Leonard Fournette.
Mississippi State’s schedule — In the year 1 A.D. (that’s after Dak Prescott), the Bulldogs could have used a schedule conducive to breaking in a new quarterback.
Opening with South Alabama and South Carolina is a nice start for the yet-to-be-determined new quarterback, but things head downhill in a hurry after that.
Week 3 brings a road date against LSU, which is followed by a trip to UMass, or more accurately, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. The Minutemen are no powerhouse, but they’ll be up for a visit from a SEC school.
Week 4 is open, but a home game with Auburn follows. Mississippi State will then have a short week ahead of a Friday night game in Provo, Utah against BYU.
Toss in road trips to SEC powers Ole Miss and Alabama later in the schedule, and it is a tough road to hoe for a team in transition.