SEC - Western Division
By Mike Nowoswiat
August 1st, 2013
LSU, once again, nearly kept Alabama out of the record books by unexpectedly outplaying the Crimson Tide in their regular season matchup last season. But freshman sensation TJ Yeldon scampered 28 yards on a screen pass with 51 seconds left (pictured) to seal the deal. The rest, as they say, is history as the Tide could afford the one loss to Texas A&M and put themselves in position for the first three-peat of the modern era. Alabama draws an easy cross-division schedule with my bottom two SEC East opponents Tennessee and Kentucky paving the way for another SEC--de facto national semifinal--title game.
Yeldon, the tall, shifty, NFL-ready back gives the Tide a different look than Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Eddie Lacy gave, but Yeldon will be a true Heisman candidate as he enters his first season as the starter. The major question mark comes along the line as DJ Fluker, Chance Warmack, and Barrett Jones all exit to the NFL. LT Cyrus Kouandjio will be a first round pick next May and his brother, Arie, will step in right next to him at LG. The offense rushed for 5.85 yards per carry against ranked opponents so there is really nowhere to go but down. However, the passing game could take a step forward with another season of AJ McCarron under center and a more experienced receiving corp.
Defensively, the Crimson Tide may be even better in 2013. Yes, that is a scary thought. The loss of Dee Milliner and Robert Lester could lead to a worse secondary, but the front seven should be even better. I thought NT Jesse Williams would have a bigger season last year, but he didn't live up to my lofty expectations. Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory could have big seasons as the move into the starting lineup along the defensive line. Pagan could provide a better pass rush than Damion Square and and Quinton Dial did. Behind them is an excellent linebacker unit--perhaps the best one in the country. Nico Johnson was a very good linebacker who will be missed, but Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson, CJ Mosely, and Adrian Hubbard return. Add in depth players like Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, and true freshman Reuben Foster, among others, and you have an unbelievable wealth of talent.
Alabama has only been the preseason #1 once during its four year reign, and that was 2010: the year Auburn won the National Title. Now before Auburn fans get excited, I am not saying the Tigers will be hoisting the crystal ball in January. But perhaps Alabama will fail to capture the three-peat. Until they do, I'm picking the Tide to win it all again in 2013.
2. Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze has the Rebel program humming along at a fast pace towards success going into just his second season. Last season was mediocre at first glance, but like most up-and-coming teams there were flashes of greatness that I am expecting to see a lot more of this season. For example, Ole Miss gave LSU everything it could handle in its visit to Baton Rouge late last season. This year, the cross division schedule is reasonable, replacing Georgia for Missouri; and Texas A&M and LSU both come to Oxford.
Bo Wallace was one of the better quarterbacks in the conference last year and returns for his junior season. Barry Brunetti is a capable dual-threat backup that will probably be used in different spots if Wallace remains healthy. Either QB will have a deep corp of receivers with Vince Sanders, Ja-Mes Logan, and Donte Moncrief returning. Moncrief is a big, physical threat and led the Rebels in touchdowns in 2012 with 10. In addition this group, five-star recruit Laquon Treadwell should provide an immediate impact on the outside. If Treadwell lives up to expectations, this could be one of the best groups in the conference. Similarly, the offensive line returns four starters and could be bolstered by five-star recruit Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil may not be needed to provide a huge impact, but his presence can only help. And leading rusher Jeff Scott also returns at running back to round out what should be a good offensive unit.
With Tunsil and Treadwell already mentioned, it’s unbelievable that I haven’t yet come to the Rebel’s best recruit—or rather the nation’s best recruit: Robert Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche, who reigns from Georgia, should step right into the Rebels’ defense and provide an immediate impact. While he may not quite have Jadeveon Clowney’s ceiling, he may be more ready for the college game coming out of high school. His brother, Denzel, was the leading tackler on the team last year as a freshman and should only improve with an improved defensive line in front of him. And in the secondary, every starter returns including true sophomore Trae Elston who could have a breakout season at safety. In all, the defense must be more consistent this season. Another out-of-conference matchup with Texas will be a telling sign of the unit’s improvement. Last season, the Rebels gave up 676 yards to the Longhorns and this season will be an even greater challenge with a road trip to Austin.
I am clearly very high on the Rebels heading into this season. I believe they return a very strong nucleus and with a strong freshman class mixed in, the results could be unbelievable. I am a fan of Bo Wallace and believe he has what it takes to lead this team to 10+ wins. With all the positive momentum Hugh Freeze currently possesses, another near .500 season would hurt.
LSU loses a lot of talent. Actually I would consider a lot of talent to be more than four NFL draft picks. The Tigers had nine--eight on defense. Still, they reload year in and year out and should still have a talented defense. The strength, however, may be on offense as they return eight offensive players including Zach Mettenberger under center. A tough schedule awaits them, as they draw Georgia and Florida from the SEC East. I believe this team is capable of a 10 win season.
The top four receivers from 2012 return in Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone, Odell Beckham, and James Wright. Landry, Boone, and Beckham were all highly recruited and form one of the better receiving corps in the nation. The key to their success is Zach Mettenberger whose talent sometimes leads to gaudy expectations. Still, it is fair to say that he has underwhelmed in his time in Baton Rouge, throwing for only 2,609 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter. If he can improve upon last season's performance, the offense can be one of the best in the conference. The offensive line is stout and returns bookends La'el Collins and Vadal Alexander. The running backs have been ridiculous in recent years and this year should be no different with the return of Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard.
Defensively, I am expecting the Tigers to reload because of their recent recruiting success. For example, I feel that the defensive line could be a strength of this team, but Anthony Johnson is the only player with extensive experience. Ego Ferguson and Jermauria Rasco were top recruits. The linebacking unit loses its leader in Kevin Minter, but returns everyone else. Also, Kendell Beckwith was one of the best linebacker recruits in the nation and should compete for playing time immediately. And finally, the secondary will be strong once again with Craig Loston returning to lead the group.
After allowing only 17.5 points per game a season ago, a defensive drop off is expected. The unit should still be solid and the improved offense should more than make up for this deficiency. LSU managed to win 10 games last season while drawing South Carolina and Florida from the East, so two games against Georgia and a weaker Florida team should not be an excuse for a less successful season.
4. Texas A&M
I may come back to eat my words, but I simply cannot ignore the fact that three players like LT Luke Joeckel, WR Ryan Swope, and DE Damontre Moore exit while Johnny Manziel continues to have this ridiculous offseason. Still, fourth place in the SEC West is no insult. Well, maybe for a team that returns the Heisman-winning QB and was playing arguably better than any team in the nation to end the season it is. The bowl game against Oklahoma was one of the most complete games a team played all season. The Aggies averaged 612.4 yards per game in their last five games (NOT including Sam Houston State) and were very solid defensively, too. They could win the West, but I forecast a bit of a down year.
The Manziel-led offense is very good once again on paper. After Joeckel's departure, Manziel will still have an All-American protecting his blind side in Jake Matthews. However, the protection figures to drop off a bit with the losses of Joeckel and C Patrick Lewis. However, I am not concerned about the production of the line. The wide receivers start a lot of talent, including Mike Evans, whose 1,105 receiving yards garnered him freshman All-America honors, but lose Swope, which will hurt. Ricky Seals-Jones has the potential to have a monster true freshman season, but is just a freshman; his production is difficult to project. Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham had limited production after arriving as the number one recruit in the nation. Still, if Manziel plays as well as he did last season, the Aggies should have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.
As I mentioned, I certainly cannot ignore Damontre Moore's exit. Moore was the most consistent pass rusher that the Aggies had and NG Spencer Nealy was the cog in the middle of the defense. Finding a good NG is difficult at the college ranks and Kirby Ennis will try to slide over to the spot and pick up where Nealy left off. Behind the line, the linebackers also lose their top two players from a year ago in Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Stewart was the leading tackler and Porter is now in the NFL. Moore, Porter, and Stewart were the only players on the roster in 2012 to record more than two sacks. The strength of the defense will probably be in the secondary, which is not a good sign.
Another big loss is OC Kliff Kingsbury's departure to become Texas Tech's head coach. Kingsbury has been Kevin Sumlin's OC for the past three years and his loss may be felt more than fans want to admit. In all, I still anticipate a big year from the offense, but the defense's potential lack of ability to get to the passer or stop the run has me incredibly worried. I expect big things from the Sumlin era, but I also expect a down year after last season's dream season.
Bret Bielema, one of the more interesting coaches in the country, is taking his talents to the SEC. He won’t have the good fortune of catching Tyler Wilson’s last season, but he does inherit a talented roster. With 8 returning starters on defense, including a very good defensive line, this roster looks more like a “Bielema” roster than any other years in recent memory. And even though there is a question mark at QB for the first time since Mitch Mustain’s first year under center, Bielema likes to pound the ball with his running backs. Ultimately, the inexperience along the offensive line may be the biggest problem this team faces.
Only Center Travis Swanson and LT David Hurd return along the line, although Swanson is a good one as he was 2nd team All-SEC last year. Jonathan Williams and five-star recruit Alex Collins figure to man the running back position. Williams only toted the ball 45 times last year, so this unit is very inexperienced. And the one man show at receiver Cobi Hamilton is gone, along with seventh round draft pick TE Chris Gragg. Clearly, the skill positions are question marks, but the potential is there to break out.
As previously mentioned, the defensive line is the best unit on this roster. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are very good pass rushers and will need to be monsters this season because the back seven is weaker. Rohan Gaines is the team’s returning leader in tackles in 2012 with 75 from the safety position. He was a freshman last year and could have a huge season. The linebacking corp is young, but talented. Otha Peters garnered freshman All-SEC honors last season as a backup and will move into the starting lineup permanently. AJ Turner is also just a sophomore with a lot of talent. Without Bielema’s arrival, I would have predicted a long year for this defense; however, I think that Bielema will maximize this young group’s ability.
The future is bright at Arkansas under the new leadership of Bret Bielema. I don’t expect the change to result in many wins this season, but there is no reason that the Razorbacks can’t go bowling. Florida and South Carolina provide difficult cross-division matchups that will probably result in losses. The record may not be there this year, but there will be flashes of what to expect in years to come.
The “brains” of the Tigers’ 2010 championship run, Gus Malzahn, returns as the head coach. It would be nice if Cam Newton and Nick Fairley returned as well, but fans will settle for Malzahn. Upon his return, Malzahn potentially secured the future stars of the program by ending the recruiting season with a bang. After going only 3-9 last season, it’s amazing that five-star recruits Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams—both from Georgia—committed to AU. With all of the positive momentum, it’s no surprise how excited fans are for the Malzahn era.
The quarterback position should see a major upgrade this season as Kiehl Frazier is taylor-made for Malzahn’s system. Plus, former UGA player and junior college transfer Nick Marshall will arrive and compete for the job. Marshall is a former defensive back at Georgia and was highly sought after by Paul Johnson to run the triple option at Georgia Tech. He is explosive and could be lethal in this offense. Whoever is named the starter should improve upon last year’s production from the position. Tre Mason returns at RB and is an explosive weapon, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in 2012. The offensive line returns three starters including a very talented true sophomore in LT Greg Robinson. WR will be the biggest question mark on offense after poor production last season. Trovon Reed has a lot of talent, but lacks production. With improved QB play, I expect a big upgrade from the receivers and offense as a whole.
Defensively, 2012 was a rough year. Aside from a surprising 12-10 loss against LSU, the defense was a liability against conference opponents. Fortunately, nine of the top eleven tacklers return this season and there should be some freshmen with impact ability. Carl Lawson figures to start at defensive end in his first year because of his elite ability to get after the QB. He will play next to Gabe Wright, Ben Bradley, Jeffrey Whitaker, and Montravius Adams in what should make up a solid two deep at DT. And on the other side Dee Ford looks to have a breakout year at DE after recording six sacks in 2012. The linebacking group will be the weakest unit on defense, but should be no worse than last season. And finally the entire secondary returns including Jonathan Jones, who was the only member of the secondary to claim an interception.
The Tigers do not catch a break with their annual game against SEC East rival UGA. However, Tennessee is a winnable cross-division game. Plus, they get both Mississippi teams at home, which will be crucial to their success because the rest of their SEC games will be tough to win. While Malzahn may need a few more years before he can turn this momentum into tangible wins, he has the program on track.
7. Mississippi State
It’s tough being in the most difficult division in football. Dan Mullen has done a terrific job with this program, but I don’t forecast a successful 2013 season. The Bulldogs climbed all the way to 13th nationally last season before being crushed in four of their last five games. They benefitted from an easy early season schedule and probably weren’t as good as their first seven games indicated or as poor as their final five games indicated. This season, they play another difficult schedule including South Carolina from the SEC East and Oklahoma State to open the season.
Offensively, Tyler Russell returns at QB after completing a decent 2012 season in which he threw for nearly 3,000 yards with a 58.6% completion percentage. Although he is experienced, there are many capable QBs in this division and Russell will need to improve dramatically if the Bulldogs were to overachieve. Behind him, LaDarius Perkins returns at RB after garnering 2nd team All-SEC honors in 2012. Perkins will provide some sort of consistency as he is one of the best runners in the nation. Unfortunately for Russell, the receiving corp does not pack much of a punch. Joe Morrow is a true sophomore that could become the leader of the unit. And finally the offensive line had a solid season last year, but struggled mightily in losses. Fortunately, all starters return, making this a solid group for 2013.
Only five starters return on defense from a unit that struggled last season. The secondary only returns one starter, albeit that starter is Nickoe Whitley who is a very solid safety. But last season, the Bulldogs had one of the most talented secondaries in the nation with second round picks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay manning the two cornerback positions. All three linebackers return including Benardrick McKinney who recorded 102 tackles last season and was named to the 1st team Freshman All-American team. This unit should be the strength of the defense unless the defensive line steps up. Denico Autry and Preston Smith will form the starting bookends, but only combined for 8.5 sacks a season ago. Both are 6’6” and the potential is there for a bigger season.
Look for the Bulldogs to struggle due to a tougher schedule. They catch a break with the other cross-divisional game, drawing Kentucky. However, this is the only SEC game I have the Bulldogs winning. Other than the Wildcats, their best chances for Ws will come against Auburn and Arkansas, but both games are on the road.