By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we start with the SEC West, the home of the defending national champions: the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Pre-season Media Poll
3) Ole Miss
4) Texas A&M
7) Mississippi State
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Tide wrapped up last season winning their fourth national championship in seven years. Similar to the last two years, they head into camp with a big ole question mark at the QB spot. Not that that has mattered as the Tide have won their last three titles with first-year starters. So, if you’re looking for the Tide to falter due to a need to break in a new QB, you’ll be disappointed. This year, Cooper Bateman will battle with sophomore David Cornwell, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, and freshman Jalen Hurts for the signal caller duties. Whoever wins the job will have plenty of receiving threats as they return their top three receiving options in sophomore Calvin Ridley, junior Ar’darius Stewart, senior tight end O.J. Howard, and add Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter.
Now, their offensive line loses center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson, but overall the line returns a ton of experience now that left tackle Cam Robinson will avoid suspension. There will be a new starter at running back and he’ll have some big shoes to fill following Derrick Henry’s Heisman campaign. But, the Tide churn out running backs the way Penn State turns out linebackers. (Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon, Henry, etc). It’s next man up there.
Defensively, the Tide lost some key contributors but it’s the players who decided to stay that make this unit terrifying. Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen, and Eddie Jackson all decided to forgo the draft and return to pair with Da’Shawn Hand, Tim Williams, and sophomore corners Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. That defense allowed just 76 rushing yards (2.4 per carry) per game last season. That number may creep up just a bit, but there’s so much talent on this defense that the Tide will still be tough. They do have to adjust to a new defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt after Kirby Smart left to become the head man at Georgia. Additionally, the schedule features their three toughest games (Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU) all on the road. Nonetheless, Saban and company have recorded eight straight Top 10 finishes and they’ll likely continue that streak this year.
Toughest Games: vs USC (Arlington, TX), @ Ole Miss (9/17), @ Tennessee (10/15), @ LSU (11/5)
LSU raced out of the gate last year before getting manhandled by Alabama and faltering down the stretch to finish 9-4. The biggest hope the Tigers have of knocking off the Tide this year is the continued development of QB Brandon Harris. With two years of starts now under his belt, the junior quarterback will be expected to make the next step with a heavily experience laden offense. Any improvement in the passing game would help workhorse back Leonard Fournette continue to carve up defenses on his way to another attempt at the Heisman this year. Change of pace back Derrius Guice showed big-time home run ability averaging 8.5 yards per carry last year. Also helping Harris is the fact that he returns his top two receivers in junior Malachi Dupre and senior Travin Dural. Pair that with an experienced offensive line that returns eight of the ten players from the two-deep last year and this offense under Cam Cameron should be pretty prolific.
On the defensive side, new coordinator Dave Aranda (previously at Wisconsin) brings with him a 3-4 scheme that will shift around some of the current personnel. Defensive ends Arden Key and Lewis Neal combined to produce 13 sacks last year, and with the move to a 3-4 one or both will likely move to the edge rusher spot. Meanwhile, they bring back second leading tackler linebacker Kendall Beckwith (84 tackles, 6.5 sacks) who should be a star in Aranda’s system. The secondary returns likely future draft pick Tre’Davious White at corner along with solid depth behind him.
Overall, with 17 returning starters this year the Tigers are one of the most experienced teams in the country let alone the SEC. They get ‘Bama at home (11/5) but also do have to travel to Florida (10/8) and Auburn (9/24) never easy places to play. Les Miles’ crew should contend for the West title once again.
Toughest Games: @ Auburn (9/24), @ Florida (10/8), vs Alabama (11/5)
Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze’s program has come under scrutiny following the Laremy Tunsil draft night revelations and the NCAA is still looking into the possible violations. On the field however, Freeze’s group has a chance to make some noise once again in the West. A big reason for that is the return of QB Chad Kelly, who was 2nd team All SEC last year after throwing for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. While he does lose his top two receivers Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core to the NFL, the next four leading receivers are all back in senior Quincy Adeboyejo, juniors Damore’ea Stringfellow and Markell Pack along with senior tight end Evan Engram. Those four combined for 143 receptions, 1,951 yards and 17 touchdowns. Plenty of talent for Kelly to work with. The offensive line loses Tunsil and right tackle Fahn Cooper, but they get center Robert Conyers back from injury and return plenty of experience after the line was hit with injuries and suspensions (Tunsil) last season.
On defense, some big names are gone, but plenty of productive players return. The Nkemdiche brothers (DT Robert, LB Denzel) are gone along with defensive end Channing Ward, tackle Woodrow Hamilton, linebacker CJ Johnson and safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. However, the leading tackler DeMarquis Gates returns at linebacker and will start more than the four games he did last season. Add that to getting nose tackle Isaac Gross back along with productive defensive ends Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and Fadol Brown (3.5 TFL, 1 sack) and there will be plenty of talent in the “landshark” unit once again.
Hugh Freeze’s starts off the season with a brutal stretch of games. Florida State (9/5), Alabama (9/17) and Georgia (9/24) all come calling in the first month. If they can survive that stretch, a date with the Tigers in Death Valley looms in October.
Toughest Games: vs Florida State (9/5), vs Alabama (9/17), vs Georgia (9/24)
Texas A&M Aggies
After all of the turmoil at the QB spot over the past few years it would seem that coach Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies would be behind the 8-ball this season. However, they benefit from getting Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight to come in and take the reins. Knight was inconsistent for the Sooners which is why Baker Mayfield took over the job, but Knight will have plenty of weapons to work with that should make his life easier. The Aggies return their top five receivers including lightning quick sophomore Christian Kirk who can score from literally anywhere on the field. The biggest questions come at running back where the team loses leading rusher Tra Carson and offensive line which loses much of last year’s group and has it’s third different coach in five years (Jim Turner).
On defense, the Aggies have been pretty bad for most of Sumlin’s reign but they benefit from having possibly the deadliest pass rush combo in the country. Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall offer defensive coordinator John Chavis the ability to get pressure on the opposing QB with just the four down linemen. That should help the linebackers in particular where there are some question marks outside of Shaan Washington. The big question for this unit is if they can stop the run. Last year they gave up 214 yards per game on the ground on a five yard per carry average.
With 13 returning starters, seven on defense, the team has a chance to be a contender if Trevor Knight can stabilize the QB spot for the first time since Johnny Manziel left.
Toughest Games: vs UCLA (9/3), @ Auburn (9/17), vs Tennessee (10/8), @ Alabama (10/22)
The Tigers had everyone fooled last season as we all bought into the hype about QB Jeremy Johnson. That was a big mistake as the QB spot was an unmitigated disaster for Gus Malzahn’s group. This year, Tigers faithful are hoping for either improvement from Johnson or for transfer John Franklin III to take control of the job. Franklin would seem to fit Malzahn’s offense better as he is a dual-threat QB. The problem for whoever is at QB is that both top running backs are gone (Peyton Barber to NFL, Roc Thomas transferred). That leaves Jovon Robinson (633 yards 5.5 avg) and Kerryon Johnson (208 yards 4.0 avg) as the top two candidates. Additionally, the top two receivers Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray are gone and the offensive line lost both starting tackles.
On defense, defensive ends DaVonte Lambert and Gimel President move on but the Tigers are hoping for a fully healthy season from Carl Lawson for the first time in two years. Behind him, three of the top four linebackers need to be replaced and the secondary loses defensive MVP Blake Countess and corner Jonathan Jones. Building the defense falls on a new coordinator in Kevin Steele who comes over from LSU as Will Muschamp left to be the head coach at South Carolina.
The good news for Auburn is they avoid Tennessee and Florida from the East and have just four true road games. That said, they could lose three of those four road games (Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama). Gus Malzahn’s seat is getting warmer and a rough season this year would make it piping hot.
Toughest Games: @ Ole Miss, @ Georgia, @ Alabama
Bret Bielema’s squad has been a tough out in each of the last two seasons. The problem is, last year seemed to be their best chance at making a run at the West title and this year is a bit of a rebuilding year as they lose both their multiple year starting QB and running back. Austin Allen takes over for his brother Brandon, but Austin has thrown just 19 career passes and attempted three all of last season. At the running back spot, workhorse Alex Collins is gone. The two returning leaders in rushing are Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams who combined for 648 yards on 146 carries last season (4.4 average). Allen will have a plethora of weapons at the wide receiver spot as the top 3 receiving threats from last year are back and the team will get Keon Hatcher back after he was injured in Week 3 last season. However, Allen may not have as much time to find those wide outs as the offensive line loses the entire left side of the line and their center. With having to replace three starters, that unit could take a step back.
On defense there’s plenty of returning talent with 9 starters back from a unit that allowed just 116 yards per game rushing (3.8 average) last season. The defense should be just as stingy this year which would help an offense that is likely to take a step back from last year from a production standpoint. The best news for Razorbacks fans trying to make a case for their team making a run at winning the West is that they get most of their toughest conference games at home.
Toughest Games: vs Alabama (10/8), vs Ole Miss (10/15), vs Florida (11/5), vs LSU (11/12)
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen’s team is one that seems to be perennially underrated by all of us here in the media. That could be the case once again this season as many expect them to finish last in the West. Granted, the reasons for that thinking are obvious. QB Dak Prescott is gone and he was basically the entire offense last season. That means a four-way battle for the QB spot between sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, junior Damian Williams and redshirt-freshman Nick Tiano. Fitzgerald would seem to have the inside track as he was 11/14 for 235 yards and 3 TD’s in limited action last year. The good news for whoever takes the QB spot is that the offensive line returns three starters, both top running backs are back (Brandon Holloway & Ashton Shumpert), and the top receiver in Fred Ross returns too. Mullen will likely try to rely on the running game more in the early going to ease his quarterback into the offense.
On defense, there’s a new coordinator as Manny Diaz left to take the same job at Miami. That means in comes Peter Sirmon and he will have to deal with the loss of top defensive end Chris Jones. The good news is linebackers Richie Brown, JT Gray and Gerri Green all return and the secondary which was ravaged by injuries last year has plenty of guys that got some experience due to those injuries.
One thing to keep in mind with the Bulldogs. In the eight years prior to Mullen’s arrival, Mississippi State had seven losing seasons. They’ve now been to six straight bowl games under Mullen. Consistently overachieving seems to be the M.O. of this team.
Toughest Games: @ LSU (9/17), @ Alabama (11/12), @ Ole Miss (11/26)
Division Winner- Alabama
The West will be a war once again this season. As you can tell there’s plenty of reason for each fan base to be excited and also concerned about the upcoming season. This could be the year that LSU knocks off the Tide especially considering that they get Saban’s group at home in Death Valley. But, that assumption relies on Brandon Harris improving to the point where he’s able to pick apart the Tide defense and I’m just not sure I see that happening. You saw what happened last year to running back Leonard Fournette against Bama. While I don’t expect him to be shut down like that this year, it will still be tough sledding against a Tide defense that returns a ton of talent. Overall, I think Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin find a QB productive enough to get it done once again and repeat as West division champs.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.