SEC West predicted order of finish:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Here we are again. It’s yet another season and the Tide are the favorites to win it all once again. It really is incredible what head coach Nick Saban is doing in Tuscaloosa. Many say this year’s squad is the best team he has ever fielded. Let’s start with the signal-caller. Senior A.J. McCarron is one of the best in the game. Last year he tossed 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He is one of the best leaders in the land, and he has a good head on his shoulders. He should have another outstanding season.
McCarron will be handing the rock to a stud running back in T.J. Yeldon. The sophomore scampered for 1,131 yards last year with 12 touchdowns. Yeldon is one of the best backs in the land. McCarron also has the good fortune of throwing the ball to one of the best groups of receivers in the country. Amari Cooper is the headliner for that unit. Cooper had a 1,000-yard season in ’12 and hauled in 12 touchdowns. Kevin Norwood is also a great target. Norwood had 961 yards last year with four touchdowns. The top four receivers are back, and they’re going to be nails. The biggest concern on this team will be the offensive line. Last year’s unit was one of the best in the history of the game with Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. Those guys are all gone. The unit this year is still one of the 20 best in the country. However, it will be interesting to see if defensive lines can disrupt the offense by getting to McCarron at least slightly more frequently.
The defense is going to be nasty as usual. The group of linebackers in Tuscaloosa is the best in the land this year. That group is headlined by maybe the two best in the nation in C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard. The secondary is arguably the best in the country. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the best safety in the land, and Vinnie Sunseri is one of the 10 best safeties in the game.
This team is absolutely loaded once again. The big tests are LSU and Texas A&M – and I think they’ll have no issues on that front. The SEC title game could be tricky, though. Will Alabama be the first school to win four titles in five years? I wouldn’t bet against it.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
I’m not nearly as high on this team as many others are. I still think it’s a 10-2 team – but not a legitimate BCS title contender. Johnny Manziel should have a solid year, but he’s not going to New York. Take that to the bank. Four of the top six receivers are gone, including the best one in school history in Ryan Swope. Sophomore Mike Evans does return, but the unit is still going to be down from last year. The best offensive lineman in the land last year was Luke Joeckel, and he is bye-bye. The Aggies also lost center Patrick Lewis, who started every game in 2012. The good news is that left tackle Jake Matthews, the best tackle in the game, is back. However, this group is still going to be down. The running game is solid with Manziel and Ben Malena. Manziel scampered for 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Malena ran for 808 yards and eight touchdowns.
The strength of a suspect defense is A&M’s secondary. With that being said, the status of cornerback DeShazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven is up in the air because of offseason arrests. They were both arrested for assault and have been suspended indefinitely. Both are projected starters. Head coach Kevin Sumlin needs both of them if he wants any shot at beating Alabama in the game of the year in week three.
The defensive line lost its top two and should be down. To make matters worse, projected starter Kirby Ennis has been suspended indefinitely for a gun charge. The linebacking unit lost some key pieces and will also take a step back. The Aggies could quiet me in a hurry if they beat ‘Bama. I just don’t think that is going to happen. I think ‘Bama wins comfortably and A&M splits with LSU and Ole Miss.
3. Ole Miss Rebels
Head coach Huge Freeze has one of the more intriguing teams in the land. Some may be shocked to see the Rebels ahead of LSU on this list. A big reason for that is based on scheduling. Last season Ole Miss lost to A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU by a combined 10 points. Many think this team is a year away, but I believe the Rebs can make some noise this year.
Ole Miss boasts a defensive line that is one of the 10 best in the country. Eight of the 12 are back, and the Rebels welcome in the best recruit in the land in Robert Nkemdiche. The group of linebackers – led by Nkemdiche’s brother, Denzel – is also one of the 10 best in the nation. The secondary is also very good and should be a top-15 unit.
As for the group of wide receivers in Oxford, it’s going to be tremendous this year. This is probably one of the 10 best units in the land. They are led by Donte Moncrief, an absolute stud who hauled in 10 touchdowns and 979 yards last year. Freeze also brings in the best receiver in the ’13 class in Laquon Treadwell. The offensive line only loses one starter from last year. That is going to be a very solid line. The running back situation is strong with Jeff Scott carrying the rock. The senior had 900 yards and six touchdowns last season.
The only real question mark I have for this team is the signal-caller. Junior Bo Wallace had 22 touchdowns last year, but he also had 17 interceptions. He has weapons galore around him. The question is, can he cut down on the turnovers? I’m very interested to see how he fares in the first month of season. In that opening month, Ole Miss plays at Vandy, Texas and ‘Bama. Ouch. I think the Rebels go 9-3. Keep an eye on that week three matchup at Austin. The Rebels could shock the Longhorns.
4. LSU Tigers
Les Miles is fully aware that this isn’t going to be a typical LSU team this year. He still has a lot of talent, but I think this is an 8-4 squad. It will be very interesting to see how they fare in the huge week one showdown against a dangerous TCU team that is getting a lot of love this year. We’ll have a great gauge on this Tigers bunch after that game.
One thing is for certain: The running backs in Baton Rouge are lethal this season. Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard combined for 1,752 yards and 18 scores last year. The wide receivers are also extremely talented. The top four return and are led by the very talented Odell Beckham. The question: Can quarterback Zach Mettenberger hit them with consistency? The senior had 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season and posted a 58.8 completion percentage. I am not a fan of him at all. The offensive line raises some concerns, as well. They lost four starters, and I think Mettenberger is going to get sacked a lot. The defense lost a bunch to the NFL, but they just keep reloading at LSU. The secondary is going to be very good along with the defensive line. The line is one of the 15 best in the country. That line is led by Anthony Johnson, who is arguably the best defensive tackle in the game. The linebackers should be in very good shape, too. They lost Kevin Minter, but it is still a top-20 unit.
This team is loaded with talent. However, the QB and offensive line situation will be the Tigers’ biggest downfall this year. I think they post losses to TCU, Bama, Georgia and A&M. They may even get upset by Ole Miss. The last 7-5 campaign was in ’08. Could that happen again this year?
5. Auburn Tigers
Let me preface by saying the bottom three teams in the West are not going to be that good at all. Auburn is going to be improved from last year, but that’s not saying all that much. The ceiling for this team is five wins. The running game is in good shape with Tre Mason back. Mason ran for 1,038 yards and eight scores last year. He will be running behind an offensive line that is slightly improved, but will still get pushed around.
There aren’t any other positives that can be found offensively for the Tigers. Nick Marshall is battling Jeremy Johnson for starting quarterback. I wouldn’t be thrilled at either of those options for this year if I’m a Tigers fan. There is a decent chance that the dual-threat Marshall could have a nice campaign next year.
The winner of the QB battle will not have the luxury of throwing to a good group of receivers. Three of the top four receivers are gone off a three-win club. The biggest strength on Auburn is its defensive line. It is one of the 15 best in the land. The defense does return eight starters and should be decent. Head coach Gus Malzahn will have to turn in an incredible coaching campaign this year to get this crew to a bowl. I don’t see it.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks
First-year head coach Bret Bielema is going to get the Razorbacks back into the national spotlight – eventually. This year’s team is coming off a 4-8 campaign and lost a lot of weapons from last year. Fortunately for Hogs fans, the Razorbacks have a relatively cupcake nonconference schedule in 2013. If not, they may be staring at only 2-3 wins as opposed to four or five.
The offense is going to struggle mightily. I do like the future of quarterback Brandon Allen. However, this year there is just nothing to write home about in terms of the offensive line, receivers and running backs. Wide receivers Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg are gone, and that is a big blow. The Hogs also lost running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson. They also are without three starters from last year’s offensive line. Allen and running back Jonathan Williams are both sophomores, and they have a lot of talent. They have bright futures and should go to bowls in their junior and senior seasons – just not this year.
The strength of the Hogs is their defensive line. Defensive end Chris Smith is one of the top 20 ends in the land. The secondary will be improved this season, but I’m not big at all on the linebackers. I can’t stress enough that the defensive line is going to cause many headaches for the opposition this season; the front four will win a few games for the Hogs. That offense, though, is a year or two away. Arkansas is similar to Auburn this year. I see five wins, but it will be a hell of a job by Bielema if he can get the Fayetteville faithful a bowl.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen’s team ran through pretty much all cupcakes last year in the first month and a half, and started 7-0. The Bulldogs’ last five games were a different story, and they finished the season 8-5. It will be difficult for Mullen’s squad to make a bowl game this year.
Let’s start with the good news, though: Quarterback Tyler Russell is back for his final year in Starksville. Russell threw 24 touchdowns last season with 10picks. The Bulldogs also welcome back senior running back LaDarius Perkins. Perkins scampered for 1,061 yards last year. The Bulldogs will also have a very solid offensive line that returns four starters.
The bad news offensively is that Russell has no one to throw to. The top four are gone, including the best receiver in school history in Chad Bumphis. It’s unfortunate for Russell because he is a very good quarterback.
The secondary and linebackers are going to be a weakness on this squad. The strength of the defense is a very good defensive line that returns three of its top four. The lack of receivers, plus secondary and linebacker issues, are going to hurt this team immensely. I like Mullen a lot, and he has done a good job at MSU. However, I think this year will be similar to his first two years in Starksville, in which the Bulldogs didn’t make a bowl.