Last year was the first time, ever, since the division of the conference in the early 90’s that all of the SEC teams of a single division went to a bowl game. Can it happen again this year? You bet your bottom dollar it can. This year’s SEC West division looks to be reloaded with star-studded talent and have far less question marks at key positions, overall, compared to the SEC East.
Let’s take a team-by-team look at the powerhouse SEC West division.
Last year may not have been what the Crimson Tide had in mind for a finish to the 2014 season, but let’s keep in mind that Alabama has won the national title three times out of the last six years and has been picked to win the SEC title five out of six times—winning two of those.
Crimson Tide Offense
In order to get back to prominence and win a national title, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will need to work another miracle for the Crimson Tide in year two of his tenure on offense. He’ll have to do so with only three returning starters from the 2014 season. That includes rebooting at quarterback, finding stability with an offensive line that has only 40 career starts, as well as finding a group of wide receivers to replace a record-setting Amari Cooper.
The run game will be solid with the return of power back Derrick Henry and speedster Kenyan Drake. Look for Drake to be used much more in the passing attack to compensate for the lack of experience at the wide receiver position.
The wide receiver unit will have to take a “by committee” approach to be successful this season, and it’ll be up to Kiffin to find a way to get tight end O.J. Howard in the mix.
Crimson Tide Defense
This year’s Crimson Tide defense, on the other hand, will be a force with which to be reckoned. A’Shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and Jonathan Allen will hold down the defensive front, while defensive stat leader Reggie Ragland will be the guy to watch this season as he builds on his 95-tackle, 2014 season. With guys like Tony Brown, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Geno Smith leading the way, the secondary for the Crimson Tide will actually be an area of strength as opposed to previous years. World-class speedster Tony Brown will be the guy to watch in 2015. If he gets an opportunity to snatch a ball out of the air from a reluctant wide receiver,v watch out because he can make a play very electric.
Despite going 8-4 (4-4 SEC) last season, the Auburn Tigers look to make their move and get into the college football playoff this season. Auburn will face Alabama and Georgia at home this year, making their road to the SEC Championship game a tad bit easier. The Tigers will look to get revenge on the Georgia Bulldogs after the 34-7 drumming they took between the hedges limiting Malzahn to under 300 yards offense for the first time in his tenure as head coach at Auburn.
The finish in last season’s Iron Bowl as well as the finish versus Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl will have this team hungry to prove to everyone they’re not a fly-by-night success story.
Offensively, the Tigers will be stable with Jeremy Johnson taking the snaps behind an offensive line that includes 7 of the 10 players from the 2014 season. The only negative for the offensive line might be that they have just a total of 60 career starts, but War Eagle fans should fret not as Austin Golson and Alex Kozan will be looked at to anchor this line down.
The running attack will be exciting to see as the Tigers bring in JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson and return Roc Thomas. This should make for a formidable duo, and SEC fans should keep in mind that Auburn has had a 1000-yard rusher for the last six years straight.
The wide receiver unit’s success will ride on the shoulders of Duke Williams, a solid 1st round draft pick in 2016, along with Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis. Williams, however, was suspended by Coach Malzahn at the beginning of fall camp—and that would be a loss for the Tigers if Williams isn’t back practicing soon. Looking for some excitement this season? Keep an eye on RB Jovon Robinson as he looks like he might be the next Tre Mason.
Defensively, the Tigers get a reboot with the addition of former Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp and a move to a traditional 4-3 base. Muschamp will have eight returning starters at his disposal and will be tasked with the job of getting this year’s unit to bend but not break under the pressure of the SEC West.
The defensive line looks to be much improved despite only returning 28 career starts going into this season. Though it lacks experienced starters and has some losses at the two deep, this defensive line unit includes a stable of legitimate pass rushing monsters like DaVonte Lambert and Montravius Adams, not to mention they get Carl Lawson back.
At the linebacker position Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost will be looked at to lead what could be the strongest linebacking unit Malzahn has had at Auburn. The secondary will feature several upperclassmen such as Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones, but will need to find a way to replace Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead. That said, Georgia transfer Tray Matthews should be able to more than make up for the losses. He’ll be the guy to keep an eye on after sitting out a year.
Bret Bielema returns in year three with a lot of well-earned hype and upside to his Razorback team, considering the dismal 3-9 start just two seasons ago that was followed up by a 7-6 finish last season.
For the 2015 season, the Hogs had planned on boasting the FBS’s only returning dual 1000-yard rushing attack with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. However, Williams suffered a foot injury in practice and underwent season-ending surgery on August 17. The Razorbacks will now look to Collins to carry the load; however, they’ll add Kody Walker to the running attack. Walker is a 6-foot-2 inch, 250-pounder who runs a 4.4 40.
In order to make that happen, the offensive line will need to make its off-season adjustments gel rather quickly with Dan Skipper moving to right tackle and Denver Kirkland moving to left tackle. Despite the moves, this offensive line that tilts the scales at well over 1600 pounds will be a force to be reckoned with as they’re just as explosive as they are big.
The wide receiver position is and has been a position of concern since Bielema took the reigns at Arkansas. Keon Hatcher looks to be the leader out wide while tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle will look to help out fifth-year quarterback Brandon Allen by creating mismatches against the linebackers and secondary of opposing defenses. Incoming JUCO wide receiver transfer Dominique Reed will be looked at to contribute right away, adding height and speed to a wide receiver unit in dire need of talent.
Defensively the Razorbacks will have to step up and replace SEC leading tackler Martrell Spaight (128 tackles), as well as defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon—three phenomenal players who helped the Hogs end the year with a top 10 defense. Add to that a thin linebacker unit, and one might begin to see why there are so many questions around this defense.
To help get things moving on the defensive line, defensive coordinator Robb Smith added JUCO transfer defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter out of Hutchinson Community College (Kan.), as well as 4-star defensive tackle Hjalte Froholdt to what will be considered one of the deeper defensive lines in the conference.
At linebacker the Hogs return their No. 2 and No. 8 tacklers and will be led by weak-side linebacker Brooks Ellis. Ellis will have some much needed help with the addition of sophomore Khalia Hackett as well as incoming recruits Kendrick Jackson and Derrick Graham.
The Arkansas secondary will be much improved as coach Bielema and his staff have heavily recruited some size at this position—such as guys like Henre’ Tolliver and redshirt freshman Santos Ramirez. The expectations will be high for this unit in 2015 considering the depth and talent on hand.
The Bayou Bengals have been mugged by the NFL over the course of the last few years resulting in a group of young inexperienced players taking the field for LSU.
That said, the Tigers have won 8-plus games in the last 15-straight seasons and have managed to get to double-digit wins 7 of the 10 years that Les Miles has been the head coach. Prior to Les’ arrival, the Tigers only reached double-digit wins a total of seven times in the history of the program.
The pressure to win is greater than ever for this 2015 group with what is perceived by many to be a much easier path, schedule wise, than in recent years.
Offensively, questions have surrounded the quarterback position over the course of the last few seasons but with the temporary six-week suspension of Anthony Jennings due to off-field issues, sophomore Brandon Harris made the most of his time as the quarterback and has been named the starter by head coach Les Miles. Though the pressure should be somewhat eased on Harris, allowing him to feel more confident about leading the team, Jennings has vowed to keep fighting for the spot.
At the running back position, the Tigers will be led by Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, but unlike in year’s past the Tigers won’t have the upperclassmen at the running back position on which to lean. That said, fellow sophomore Darrel Williams has shown glimpses of his talent and a stock of incoming freshmen—Derrius Guice, Nick Brossette and David Ducre—will help add quality depth.
The wide receiver position looks to be loaded again with skill and depth. Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse will be looked upon to lead the unit that will have more experience than last year’s. Look for sophomore Trey Quinn to have a possible break-out year.
Defensively, the Tigers will look to sophomore defensive tackle Davon Godhchaux and junior defensive tackle Christian LaCouture to lead the way. The sack totals for the defense have slowly declined from 2011 (38) to 2014 (19), and last year the defensive front gave up over 4 yards-per-carry which was a first since the 1993 team.
The defensive numbers should improve, however, with a more experienced front and with the help of a linebacker unit led by Kendell Beckwith. Beckwith started the last seven games in 2014 and managed to rack up 77 tackles, putting him in the top 25 in tackles in the SEC when it was all said and done.
The secondary at LSU has been dubbed “DBU” and for good reason as it continues to field some of the best talent in college football every year—as evidenced by recent Jim Thorpe Award winners Patrick Peterson (2010) and Morris Claiborne (2011). With returning tacklers like Tre’Davious White, Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills on the roster, this unit should be able to improve with a more experienced defensive front.
Last year’s Ole Miss team endured a heartbreaking tragedy as starting wide receiver Laquon Treadwell went down in gruesome fashion in a heated battle with the Auburn Tigers. It is an injury that is still fresh on the minds of the coaching staff, players and fans, alike, and with good reason. Had the injury not occurred, we could very well be talking about how Ole Miss made its first trip to the SEC Championship game as the western division champions and waved the banner for the SEC in the first-ever college football playoff.
2015 could be the first time Ole Miss reaches double-digits wins in 12 years as well as make its first appearance in the SEC Championship game. With 16 returning starters—including a healthy Treadwell—Ole Miss should be sitting pretty at the end of the season.
Offensively Ole Miss has question marks around the quarterback position; however, the competitors, Ryan Buchanan, Chad Kelly, and DeVante Kincade could very well be starters anywhere else in the conference. That’s a luxury many SEC teams would love to have, and fans shouldn’t see much of a drop in production at this position despite losing three-year starter Bo Wallace. Early this week, Coach Hugh Freeze named Kelly his starter for the opener; however, he made sure to say that is not “set in stone.”
The running back position needs a dominant alpha-dog to step up. Earlier this spring, that guy looked to possibly be incoming freshman Eric Swinney; however, the Rebels recently announced he will be out due to a stress fracture that will require surgery. Ole Miss will need to find a solution after finishing 75th in the country in rushing yards per game. That said, the combination of senior Jaylen Walton, sophomore Jordan Wilkins and JUCO transfer Akeem Judd, coupled with a possible option quarterback like Kelly or Kincade, means the Rebels will have plenty of opportunity to double their production from last season.
As many have indicated, the wide receiver unit could very well be the most explosive ever fielded by Ole Miss under Freeze with Treadwell, Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo, Derrick Jones and Markell Pack returning—combined with the addition of transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow and newcomers Dayall Harris, DaMarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson. Jefferson and Lodge each have the capabilities to have a breakout freshman season in the SEC this year. At the tight end position, the Rebels have All-SEC player Evan Engram returning. Engram has already been named to this year’s Mackey Award watch list and is one of the premier tight ends in the nation.
The Ole Miss Landshark defense has built a reputation for dominance after finishing the 2014 season as the No. 1 scoring defense in the SEC and the nation, only giving up an average of 16 points per game.
The defensive line will continue to be one of the conference’s best even after losing three players from the ’14 season and moving C.J. Johnson to linebacker. Issac Gross and Robert Nkemdiche will be the vocal leaders of this unit, and when one adds in sophomore defensive end Marquis Haynes to the mix, one can see why the domination will continue up front.
The Rebels lost three linebackers, but have moved the talented Johnson to linebacker (a position he played in high school) to help make up for the losses. Johnson will be joined by senior Denzel Nkemdiche who has recovered from a broken ankle suffered last year.
The Rebels have two of the team’s top tacklers returning in C.J. Johnson and Chucky Mullins Award winner Mike Hilton. Yes, the secondary unit lost two of the SEC’s best players in Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson, but many people believe JUCO transfers Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges will be up to the task of keeping the defensive dominance going this season. Look for this unit to pick where it left off.
After spending four straight weeks at the No. 1 spot in the country, the Bulldogs look to make a comeback in 2015. They have an uphill battle with only seven returning starters from the 2014 season.
A bright light at the end of the tunnel, however, is they draw two of the top teams in the conference at home—Alabama and LSU. The flip side would be that this team’s winnable games are on the road versus some tough SEC opponents that include Auburn, A&M and Arkansas.
Dak Prescott decided to return after having a stellar year in 2014 and should be a Heisman contender in 2015. The loss of running back Josh Robinson will put a lot more pressure on Dak to make consistent passes while helping to carry the load of the rushing attack at times. The Bulldogs lost Nick Griffin as well but will have Aston Shumpert who was able to gain some momentum coming out of the 2014 season. Shumpert will have to fight for time as two redshirt freshmen, Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams, will be battling to get carries as well.
Probably the biggest question mark will be the offensive line, as the Bulldogs will need to find replacements at the tackle (Blaine Clausell) and guard (Ben Beckwith) positions. They lost all three possible center options to graduation. If you’re keeping track, that’s a total of 114 career starts gone with only 32 coming back. That said, Mullen will be looking to put the right players in place to protect his highly coveted quarterback.
The wide receivers will be a solid group despite losing three of their starters from the 2014 season—including Jameon Lewis, Malcolm Johnson and Robert Johnson. De’Runnya Wilson will lead the 2015 wide receiver unit as the most experienced pass-catcher with 680 yards receiving, followed by Fred Ross and Joe Morrow. Mullen was also able to sign four-star JUCO transfer Donald Gray to help fill in at the wide receiver position. Look for Gray to be an early impact player for the Bulldogs.
The defensive unit for Mississippi State did not finish the 2014 season as well as was expected—finishing 12th in the SEC in total defense. This year’s defensive line unit only has one returning starter but has plenty of guys in the rotation. The Bulldogs will need to replace Preston Smith, Kaleb Eulls and Curtis Virges. To make up for the losses, Ryan Brown and Chris Jones will be looked at to lead the defensive front with Beniquez Brown leading the linebacking unit.
Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown were two of the top tacklers from the 2014 season. They return for 2015 and should make All-SEC honors at the end of the season. The secondary finished last in the SEC in passing defense but returns four of its top 11 in tackles. This unit should be better than last year’s but will need to prove it with the loss of three starters.
The Texas A&M Aggies have stormed into the SEC since their induction a few years back when they won double-digit games, but they have been on the decline in the win column each year since.
With the addition of defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis, who left LSU to head to Aggieland, A&M could very well be the surprise team in the SEC West. The sad truth is the defensive unit is where the success or failure of the 2015 season hinges after finishing last in the conference in total defense for the last two years.
We all know the offensive power is there, but whether this team can make the key stops it needs to be a true threat in the West has yet to be seen.
Offensively, the Aggies are one of the more explosive teams in the conference finishing 5th in total offense at the end of the 2014 season. They will have one of the most powerful wide receiver units in the country in 2015. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen will be the man to lead the Aggie offense under Sumlin after finishing the 2014 season with just five starts in nine games and throwing for 1,322 yards. Allen will have some competition going into fall camp as incoming freshman and three-time high school state champion Kyler Murray asserts himself and looks to get some playing time, himself.
Oregon transfer Tra Carson will be the lead dog in the back field with Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams as the No. 2 back. A possible third option will be redshirt freshman James White who emerged during post-spring workouts.
The A&M wide receiver unit has all but Malcome Kennedy returning for the 2015 season, making this one of the best units in all of college football. Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil finished last season in the top 15 of the SEC in yards per game receiving. This year look for Ricky Seals-Jones to be the breakout player of the group with his combination of size and speed.
All of the Aggie success on offense can be attributed to the prowess of its offensive line over the course of the last few years. This season the o-line loses 96 career starts but returns center Mike Matthews as well as a total of 58 career starts among the remainder of the unit. Even though his unit appears not to have the experience of the previous units, Sumlin will still field an above average line that will result in big numbers offensively.
Making its transition from the Big 12 to the SEC complete under new defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Aggie defense will transition from read-and-react to an in-your-face style of defense. Talent-wise, the Aggies have high caliber players on their roster; however, the change in defensive philosophy could become a concern later in the season as the physicality of play could take a toll on its health overall.
The defensive line returns seven of its eight top players from last season and looks to have some quality talent at the three-deep. The unit will be led by defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and defensive end Myles Garrett—but keep an eye out on the other bookend, Daeshon Hall, as he could be a riser in this defensive scheme.
At the linebacker position, the Aggies return three of their top 15 tacklers from the 2014 season but will need to stay healthy in order to be competitive going into late October and early November. Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, along with TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard, will be looked upon as players who will need to step up their game in 2015.
The secondary loses Deshazor Everett going into the 2015 season but returns 2014 standout Armani Watts. Watts beat out Floyd Raven for the starting role.
Three of the 2014 season’s top 10 tacklers return to this unit, including Da’Vante Harris, Watts and Victor Evans. Look for all three players to have much improved years under their first year with Chavis. Fans should see a more pressing secondary under Chavis, the former LSU defensive coordinator, as well as a much more aggressive front that will cause quarterbacks to make mistakes under pressure.
SEC West Gauntlet
So there we have it—the preview of the seven teams that make up the SEC West, what many consider to be the toughest division in the toughest league in all of college football. All seven teams in the West are ranked in most of the nation’s top preseason polls, so stay tuned to see who wins the Wild, Wild West!
For more great articles from SEC expert Chad Neipling and our RW team, check out the magazine!
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