Alabama has been placed inside the top five of the Coaches’ Poll for the fifth time in the last seven years to start the season. With three national championships in that stretch, the Crimson Tide is truly a modern day dynasty. And with only 10 starters back, most teams would be entering a rebuilding year. Okay, we can acknowledge the fact that this program doesn’t rebuild, it reloads, but to be picked to win the SEC West with only 10 starters back is truly ridiculous. But then again, reeling in the top-ranked recruiting class each of the past five years is also ridiculous. And considering that Alabama has been known for its defense in the Saban era—including the historic 2011 unit that allowed only 8.2 points per game—and returns seven players from last year’s team, which still ranked as the sixth best defense in the country, this team should be ranked in the top five.
After a worst-to-first turnaround from 2012 to 2013, Auburn seemed to finally find stability in its program. Despite a national championship in 2010, the roster was overly reliant on Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, and we didn’t know if Gene Chizik or Gus Malzahn was responsible for turning the program around in each coach’s first season at Auburn. But by the end of the season in 2013, the Tigers were a more well-balanced attack that nobody could stop and Gus Malzahn, the real mastermind behind the 2010 title, was at the helm. Now with the addition of defensive guru Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, this program could not be in a better place. With eight starters back on defense, this unit will look to improve on its 400 yards allowed per game. And on offense, everyone will be looking to see how promising junior Jeremy Johnson takes over for one of the best quarterbacks in school history, Nick Marshall. The Tigers were ranked in the top 10 for most of last season, but fell apart at the end with losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama, and Wisconsin, all formidable opponents. Make no mistake, the 2014 Auburn team was very good and very talented, and with 10 starters to replace, it will be no easy task.
The Tigers are lurking back from within the shadows they’ve been resting for the past couple years. Not too long ago, these Tigers had perhaps the best defense we’ve seen in this modern era. Unfortunately, also in 2011, Alabama had the only other defense that could hold a candle as the Crimson Tide won the season rematch in the National Title. The defense featured NFL players at every position, including the entire two-deep in the secondary. As that roster grew up and slowly moved on, LSU has slowly declined. After being ranked #1 in the country for 9 weeks of the 2011 season, LSU has held an average season rank of 5th in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 18th in 2014. Last year, only 12 starters returned and eight starters were freshmen or sophomores. This season, 15 starters return and not a single true freshman will be counted on to start in week one. With the amount of talent this program attracts, this roster will never be chock full of 4th and 5th year players, so this roster has a lot of experience. While the defense will once again be very stout, it is the offense that has an abundance of future NFL talent, particularly at the skill positions. If Brandon Harris can turn into one of those players himself, this offense could be to this team what the defense was to 2011’s squad.
After not making a bowl in 2010 or 2011, Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a Compass Bowl victory over Pittsburgh in his first season in Oxford. But Freeze’s national coming-out party was never on the football field. Rather it was on ESPN in early February, 2013 when Ole Miss, of all places, signed three out-of-state 5-star recruits after posting a 7-6 season. Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, and Laquon Treadwell now give the Rebels a trio of future first-round NFL draft picks and probable All-Americans in 2015. Of course, every other fanbase cried that Freeze was paying players because there was no way any recruit would want to go to Mississippi. Payments or not, Oxford is becoming a destination for blue chip recruits thanks to Freeze—and who could blame them? The Grove is a beautiful college football wonderland and there is a great feeling inside of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. And now thanks to that 2013 recruiting class, Mississippi has steadily improved from 7-6 to 8-5 to 9-4 in each of the past three seasons. However, while very good, last year’s 9-4 record understates just how good the Rebels were as they played six weeks inside of the top 10, including three weeks ranked #3. After Laquon Treadwell went down in the most heartbreaking game of 2014, as well as the Rebels’ Playoff hopes, this team was simply deflated. With a new season to look forward to and revived Playoff hopes, the Rebels look to regain last year’s early season form.
Kevin Sumlin finds himself back at square one after becoming one of the hottest names in coaching after replacing Mike Sherman in College Station. In Sherman’s final season, the Aggies went 7-6 with losses to Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas. With a top-10 preseason ranking, a 7-6 record was a huge disappointment, but this team was not a truly average team. Arkansas and Oklahoma State both defeated Texas A&M early in the season when the Hogs and Cowboys were ranked 7th and 18th by a combined 5 points. Arkansas and Oklahoma State both finished the season in the top 5 and were arguably the best teams not named Alabama and LSU. The Aggies then crushed a top-15 Baylor team led by RGIII 55-28 before losing to a solid Missouri team in overtime, top-10 Oklahoma, and top-15 Kansas State in 4OT. And with 18 returning starters upon Sumlin’s arrival, and a hidden Heisman winner at QB, the cupboard certainly wasn’t bare in 2012. To his credit, Sumlin took all that talent to an 11-2 season, but now he must prove that he isn’t Larry Coker circa 2001. After last season’s stomping over then-top-10 South Carolina, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that the SEC Aggies had overtaken Texas as the premier team in the state. But given TCU and Baylor’s ascendance to the top of not only the Texas landscape, but the national landscape, as well as Charlie Strong’s track record before taking over Texas, Sumlin needs a big season in the worse way.
Bret Bielema has “it.” Whether you love or you hate the sunglasses and the little hair flip, or the in-your-face bravado, you have to admit that he is a great coach and you’d love to have him coaching your team. You know his philosophy of a power running game and a strong defense can win championships, and you love the fact that he has proven he can develop players and isn’t dependent on blue chip recruits. Last year, the offense improved from 101st in the country to 45th in scoring offense. And the defense improved from 89th in the country to 9th. Usually you gauge a coach’s progress in his third year. Imagine if Bielema had taken Arkansas’ defense from 89th to 48th to 9th. That would have been incredibly impressive! But no, he did that in just two years! Bielema is one of the great coaches in America and he seems to be going under the radar. Sure, the SEC West is tough every year, but what other coach can match his progress?
Mississippi State had the best season in recent memory for the program last year—a 10-3 record and a trip to the Orange Bowl. While things fell apart a bit at the end with a devastating loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and a beat-down by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, there was a lot to be proud of in the 2014 campaign. Quarterback Dak Prescott emerged as one of the nation’s top players and was a Heisman candidate for most of the year. Further, the Bulldogs had some marquis wins that highlighted the season, most notably wins over LSU and Auburn that helped establish Mississippi State as one of the top teams in the country. While the Bulldogs do return Prescott and several other contributors to the 2014 team, this year looks to be a different story. The SEC West, with little surprise, should be the toughest division in college football. Despite all seven schools fielding impressive teams, someone always has to be last, and with the Bulldog’s lack of returning starters and a gauntlet of a schedule, it appears to be the team from Starkville that will be returning to the bottom of the West.