SEC Football: Predicting the Final West Division Standings
Last week, we went on the record with our predictions for the SEC East.
This week, we head out West to the toughest division in college football.
Alabama and LSU squared off in last season's BCS National Championship Game, but they aren't the only teams in the division. Arkansas is loaded and primed for a championship run, Auburn has plenty of experience, Texas A&M is building talent and Mississippi State is always a tough out.
Can LSU repeat as division champions? Will Alabama make another title run? Is Arkansas the real deal? SEC lead writer Barrett Sallee makes his picks in this slideshow.
7. Ole Miss Rebels: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Whoever put together the SEC schedule in 2012 clearly didn't intend to welcome first-year Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze with open arms.
The Rebels go on road trips to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU.
The Rebels lost their best player when defensive back/wide receiver Nickolas Brassell decided to transfer after not making the grade, and Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti are still locked in a quarterback battle.
The pass rush should be good with former linebacker C.J. Johnson being joined by true freshman Channing Ward, but the roster is incredibly thin in Oxford, which will make for a very challenging season for Freeze.
Projected wins: Central Arkansas, UTEP, at Tulane
Projected losses: Texas, at Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, at Arkansas, at Georgia, Vanderbilt, at LSU, Mississippi State
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
It's not a make-or-break year for Bulldog head coach Dan Mullen, but the fourth-year head coach needs to show some improvement, otherwise things could get interesting in 2013.
Quarterback Tyler Russell now has control of the offense, and he will benefit from veteran receivers Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis, who will be joined by Joe Morrow. Big Nick Griffin will join home run hitter LaDarius Perkins in the backfield, which will allow Mullen to be creative with the offense.
Defensively, Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are very underrated at corner, and junior college transfer Denico Autry will join Josh Boyd on the Bulldog defensive line.
Mississippi State struggled to a 6-6 regular season record last season, but the schedule sets up well in 2012. If the Bulldogs can beat Auburn in Week 2, there's a reasonable shot that they will be 5-0 or perhaps even 7-0.
This team is still playing catch up in the SEC West though.
Projected wins: Jackson State, at Troy, South Alabama, at Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, at Ole Miss
Projected losses: Auburn, Tennessee, at Alabama, Texas A&M, at LSU, Arkansas
5. Texas A&M Aggies (6-6, 2-6 SEC)
The Aggies are in for a rough ride in their first season in the SEC. A new conference, new coaches, new systems and new quarterback is a lot for any team to overcome, much less one playing in the roughest neighborhood in college football.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury will bring their version of the spread offense to College Station behind redshirt freshman quarterback Manziel. It will be fun to watch this offense in the SEC—particularly how the staff adjusts to the speed up front that most SEC teams boast. A solid offensive line will keep the Aggies competitive, but there will be some growing pains.
Defensively, keep an eye on linebacker-turned-defensive end Damontre Moore, who had 17.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season, in addition to star linebacker Sean Porter.
Projected wins: at Louisiana Tech, at SMU, South Carolina State, at Ole Miss, at Mississippi State, Sam Houston State
Projected losses: Florida, Arkansas, LSU, at Auburn, at Alabama, Missouri
4. Auburn Tigers: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
Auburn is still a relatively young team, but the pressure is on for the Tigers to show improvement in 2012.
People focus on the loss of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and treat it as a negative, but he was very predictable (even in 2010), and was a big reason why Auburn's offense finished ranked No. 100 in total offense last season.
Scot Loeffler brings a more pro-style attack, but will incorporate some spread—especially if presumed starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier wins the job. The running backs will use a by-committee approach led by Onterio McCalebb, and the Tigers will get a better season from tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen now that some of his responsibilities are being taken up by fullback Jay Prosch.
Defensive end Corey Lemonier leads a deep and talented defensive line, and the addition of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder should get the Tigers looking like they used to under former head coach Tommy Tuberville in short order.
Auburn's record won't be much different than it was last season, but they will be more competitive in games, which is how this team should be judged.
Projected wins: Clemson (in Atlanta, Ga.), at Mississippi State, ULM, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, New Mexico State, Alabama A&M
Projected losses: LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, at Alabama
3. Arkansas Razorbacks: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Arkansas' prospects for the 2012 season didn't change when former head coach Bobby Petrino was fired last spring.
It's still the same team that returns Heisman contenders with quarterback Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis. It's still the same team that returns big-time receiving threats in wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg. It's still the same team that has an improved defense under first-year defensive coordinator Paul Haynes.
It also is capable of handling the loss of Petrino due in large part to the return of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
For Arkansas to go from good to great and contend for the national title, it needs to beat Alabama in Week 3. If it does, it could instill enough confidence to take the Hogs all the way to the crystal football.
That won't happen though. They'll be competitive enough to contend against big boys Bama and LSU, but the dream season won't materialize.
Projected wins: Jacksonville State, ULM, Rutgers, at Texas A&M, at Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tulsa, at South Carolina, at Mississippi State
Projected losses: Alabama, LSU
2. LSU Tigers: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
I had LSU to win the SEC West prior to Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, but the loss of your biggest playmaker is too hard to ignore.
Mathieu's skills as a cover cornerback were up for debate, but his ability to make things happen when his team needed it the most are not. When you lose a first round pick, fourth round pick and a Heisman finalist out of your secondary, it's an issue—even if you've recruited well.
With that said, the loss of Mathieu will be minimized due to the fact that the Tigers already solved their biggest problem from last season—quarterback. First-year starter Zach Mettenberger can sling it down the field, and that threat is all that LSU needs to be successful behind an offensive line that returns five starters and the four-headed monster at running back.
As was the case last season, the SEC West will be decided when the Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide square off.
Projected wins: North Texas, Washington, Idaho, at Auburn, Towson, at Florida, South Carolina, at Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, at Arkansas
Projected losses: Alabama
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: 12-0 (8-0 SEC)
Alabama will return the top of the SEC, running the table in the SEC West and taking down the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2012 SEC Championship Game.
Yes, the wide receiver and running back positions are still a little iffy, but a lot of problems get solved with a veteran offensive line, which is exactly what Alabama has. That line will allow the running backs plenty of running room and quarterback A.J. McCarron plenty of time to find open receivers.
Defensively, there are plenty of holes to fill, but for the most part, the Crimson Tide are filling them with experienced players like new starting cornerback Dee Milliner and new nose tackle Jesse Williams.
The schedule is tough early, with the Tide facing potentially explosive offensives in Michigan and Arkansas in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively. If they can get over those hurdles, the Tide will make a run at repeating as BCS National Champions.
Projected wins: Michigan (in Arlington, Texas), Western Kentucky, at Arkansas, Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss, at Missouri, at Tennessee, Mississippi State, at LSU, Texas A&M, Western Carolina, Auburn
Projected losses: None