Last season, Alabama became the seventh SEC West team since 2003 to win a national championship. The division has separated itself as the toughest in all of college football.
While traditional powers, like Alabama and LSU, will continue to contend, Texas A&M and the Mississippi schools continue to improve under a group of electric coaches. As the division continues to increase, the competition does as well.
Here are the contenders and pretenders in the SEC West heading into the 2016 season.
You have to respect the brand consistency under head coach Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks have committed to being one of the strongest power-run teams in the nation, going as far as putting their beefy offensive line on the cover of the football media guide last season. But after a solid 8-5 season last year, the Razorbacks are poised to take a step back.
Too many key players are gone to keep the offensive improvement going. Star running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are both headed to the NFL, along with criminally underrated quarterback Brandon Allen. Additionally, 3/5 of that respected offensive line needs replacing this season. The defense is mostly in place, if coordinator Robb Smith can shore up the linebacker position. But there just isn’t enough reason to believe Arkansas can overcome the stiff SEC West competition.
The Crimson Tide lost Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, SEC Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Ragland, All-American defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and several other top starters from last season’s national championship-winning squad. But with Nick Saban at the helm and another elite recruiting class on campus, the Crimson Tide are not going anywhere.
Calvin Ridley is Alabama’s only offensive superstar returning, but there is plenty of confidence in the young guns. Alabama’s new generation starts at quarterback, where Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett are expected to spar for the job. Henry and backup Kenyan Drake are both gone to the NFL, but Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris combined for 10 recruiting stars coming out of high school. Linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Eddie Jackson will help ensure the defense does not slip. As long as Saban coaches at the University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide will be in contention.
If you do not know the name Chad Kelly yet, learn it now. The nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, Chad threw for 4,042 yards, 31 touchdowns and became the first Ole Miss quarterback to ever beat Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season. But even with a senior quarterback on the field, his supporting cast is unproven. Ole Miss fields the fewest returning starters in the conference with just nine.
The Rebels have elite talent all over the field, but they lack experience. Kelly’s two favorite receiving targets, Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, both are playing in the NFL. Additionally, all five starting members of the offensive line have to be replaced.
There is talent bursting out of the seams. The question will continue to be whether the Rebels can get all these players on the same page in time for Florida State in Week 1, Alabama in Week 3 and Georgia in Week 4. There might not be a team in the country that could exit that stretch unscathed, especially one so young.
With all the turmoil surrounding the program, the Aggies are one of the more difficult teams to project heading into next season. The arrival of Oklahoma transfer quarterback Trevor Knight and former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone could reinvigorate a stale Aggie offense. The tools are there, from an elite receiving corps led by Christian Kirk to an improved running game featured fellow OU transfer running back Keith Ford.
Surprisingly enough for a Kevin Sumlin-coached team, the calling card will be defense. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has worked magic in the short time since he arrived in College Station from LSU, making the Aggies pass defense one of the best in the SEC behind super-elite defensive end Myles Garrett. On paper, with elite options on offense and an improving defense, this team could be a contender. But with games against UCLA and Auburn to start the year, the margin for error will be razor thin.
Few teams have the ability to replace a quarterback who accumulated 114 touchdowns in a legendary four-year career, but the Bulldogs have to find a way to replace Dak Prescott. Prescott was the team’s leading passer with 3,793 yards and 29 touchdowns, and the leading rusher with 588 yards and 10 touchdowns. To simplify, Prescott was the Mississippi State offense last season.
Mississippi State has made tremendous strides the last few years, but this could be a year of regression with so many stars gone. The good news is the Bulldogs have a back-loaded schedule, which should give new players a chance to find their stride. The bad news is the Bulldogs have a back-loaded schedule, which forces them to play Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss in the course of 21 days. As if that was not enough, the Alabama game and the Egg Bowl are on the road. Few teams could hope to survive that, even with a season’s worth of development.
Last season produced a tumultuous finish for Les Miles’ squad. Not only did the Tigers lose consecutive games to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss, but there were reports about Miles getting fired. It ended with LSU manhandling the Aggies in Baton Rouge and carrying Miles off the field in a blaze of glory. What a campaign.
This is the year LSU will strike back. Heisman-caliber running back Leonard Fournette leads a strong group of 16 returning starters, one of the deepest groups in the SEC. At wide receiver, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural will cause problems for opposing defenses. Most of the defense is intact too, led by talented safety Jamal Adams. Really, the only question mark at this point is at quarterback. If Brandon Harris improves, or transfer Danny Etling can step in, LSU should quickly become one of the SEC favorites.
What a season 2015 was for Auburn. It started out with a near-loss to an FCS team (Jacksonville State) in the home opener and ended with a last-place finish in the SEC West standings. This was the same Auburn team that was a popular College Football Playoff pick before the season started. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson had Heisman buzz entering the year, but lost his starting job before season’s end.
While there is optimism, there are plenty of questions left to be answered. Gus Malzahn will need to sort through his three-way quarterback battle quickly or risk being left behind. With national runner-up Clemson traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium for Week 1 in prime time, the Tigers have no time to lose.