The SEC West is like a star player who earns a nickname — Johnny Football, for example — that sticks, even after the moniker no longer applies. Not much football in Johnny Manziel’s life these days.
Likewise, the West has been called the Best Division in College Football for so long, it now gets repeated as fact even when the facts suggest otherwise. Last year? The shoe absolutely fit. All seven teams participated in the postseason, with Alabama winning it all and Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss winning their bowl games.
That was better than entire conferences. But this fall? Early returns suggest we pump the brakes on “best” in the West, unless we’re talking just about the Crimson Tide.
Nick Saban’s top-ranked team can still puff out its chest after beginning pursuit of a fifth national title in eight years with an absolute undressing of Southern California. Texas A&M can feel good about itself, too, after knocking off L.A.’s other ranked team thanks to the Aggies’ first viable quarterback since Johnny Blew It All.
The rest of the division, though, looks like one big question mark after Week 1.
LSU took that whole it’ll-be-different-this-time offseason narrative and spiked it in the garbage against Wisconsin. The Badgers finally revealed something Leonard Fournette isn’t strong enough to do: carry Brandon Harris for another season. The Tigers’ quarterback simply is not championship-caliber.
Ole Miss teased us Monday night, racing out to that big lead against Florida State, but the ensuing implosion highlighted a disconcerting truth: While Chad Kelly is a star and he has another talented group of receivers, that’s about it for the Rebels. Only one Power 5 team gave up more yards than Ole Miss (580) last week — and Hugh Freeze lost his best cornerback for the season to a gruesome leg injury in that opener.
Auburn suddenly has a defense to go with Gus Malzahn’s offense. Too bad that offense has vanished. The Tigers surrendered just 19 points against No. 2 Clemson and Heisman contender Deshaun Watson, but they also used as many quarterbacks (three) as they had scoring drives. If Gus is already resorting to the see-what-sticks approach, he might want to go ahead and hire a realtor.
Arkansas’ offensive identity under Bret Bielema has been clear from Day 1: The Razorbacks run the football. Until they didn’t Saturday against Louisiana Tech. The Hogs were fortunate to steal a one-point win after averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and totaling 106 yards on the ground — about half their per-game average in Bielema’s first three years. And that was no SEC defense.
Mississippi State, whose recent rise solidified the idea that no division in the country was more brutal top to bottom, appears ready to revert. The Bulldogs won 19 games the past two years, reached No. 1 in the polls, made an Orange Bowl, had a Heisman contender. Saturday, they lost at home to South Alabama.
The West could once brag that it had nary a bad team in the bunch. Not so now.
Look, before this take overheats, let’s be clear: One weekend, especially the first one, doesn’t define a season or a division. Arkansas did lose to Toledo last year and finish 8-5 with a bowl victory over Kansas State. But Week 1 did reveal some real concerns, expose a few warts the preseason magazines glossed over.
Heck, the ACC’s Atlantic Division, which went 6-1 on opening weekend and now has three of the AP poll’s top 13 teams, has bragging rights at this point. Florida State beat Ole Miss, Clemson won at Auburn, Louisville launched a Heisman campaign and N.C. State and Syracuse delivered blowout victories.
So let’s shelve the Best Division in College Football hype this year until the SEC West actually earns it.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.