SEC West Division: Optimistic, Pessimistic and Realistic 2013 Predictions
The 2013 season is right around the corner, and with six or more SEC teams likely landing in the preseason top 25, it's bound to be a banner year in the nation's top football conference.
Just how will it play out?
For every "Auburn 2010" that comes out of nowhere to earn football's ultimate prize, there's a team that doesn't live up to expectations like Ole Miss in 2009.
Will Alabama win its third consecutive BCS National Championship? What's the floor for Texas A&M? Is LSU really rebuilding?
It's going to be a roller coaster, and to get your prepared for what the season could look like, here are some optimistic, pessimistic and realistic predictions for every SEC West team.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The two-time defending BCS National Champs have some pieces to replace, but that's nothing new for head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama coaching staff.
Rolando McClain goes, Dont'a Hightower becomes a star. When he goes, it's C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard picking up the slack. Talented running backs depart, and it's "next man up" for the Crimson Tide offense.
This year's team has some questions, particularly at cornerback and offensive line, but is loaded with returning talent elsewhere. Quarterback AJ McCarron has weapons galore around him, which means that the 2013 edition of the Crimson Tide could show more offensive prowess either by design or necessity.
That makes them quite dangerous.
The schedule is remarkably easy this season, with Tennessee and Kentucky out of the SEC East, bye weeks before Texas A&M and LSU and plenty of time to prepare from the one semi-tough out-of-conference matchup versus Virginia Tech.
Optimistic: 12-0 with a return trip to the SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game. This team has the talent and has earned the benefit of the doubt that it can plug the holes.
Pessimistic: 9-3 with losses to Texas A&M, LSU and a slip-up along the way—say perhaps to Virginia Tech in the opener. Losing to the Hokies is about as likely as it is that I become a first-round draft pick in next season's NFL Draft. But remember USC vs. Stanford?
Realistic: 11-1 with a loss to either Texas A&M or LSU. Those are absolutely enormous games, and while Saban has made a living winning big games, they're still SEC teams with SEC talent. At 11-1, tiebreakers may come into play for the division title. If Alabama loses to either, it better be the "right" loss.
First-year Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema has his work cut out for him.
Not only is he installing his smashmouth-style on offense and trying to rebuild a defense that has been less-than-stellar over the last few seasons, but he's doing it with a new quarterback, new running back and some uncertainty at linebacker.
Brandon Allen essentially won the quarterback job this spring and will have plenty of potential behind him at running back to rely on with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. But potential can be inconsistent at times, and those two are going to have to grow up in a hurry.
The defense was hit by the injury bug last season, but when healthy cornerback Tevin Mitchel could be an all-SEC performer. Plus, he will benefit from a tremendous pass rush led by Chris Smith and Trey Flowers—who finished fourth and 10th in the SEC in sacks in 2012, respectively.
Optimistic: 8-4 with losses to Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and LSU. That would include a win over Texas A&M. A lot to ask, no doubt, and it would depend on Smith and Flowers keeping Manziel in check like LSU did last season.
Pessimistic: 4-8 with its only wins coming over Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford, Southern Miss and Mississippi State. The pendulum could swing drastically in this direction, especially after that brutal five-game stretch versus Rutgers, Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama that's sure to wear the Hogs down.
Realistic: 6-6 with wins over those above, Rutgers and Auburn. That Auburn game will be huge for both programs, because Arkansas has a bye heading in and Auburn has a tune-up with Florida Atlantic. It could determine the postseason fate of both programs.
Of the four teams with new head coaches this season, Auburn and Gus Malzahn are the most likely to enjoy immediate success. Malzahn was familiar with most of these players coming in from his days as Auburn's offensive coordinator, and the issue with them last season wasn't talent but execution.
As long as Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee can find a quarterback in the four-man race who can take care of the football and not turn it over, the Tigers should be fine. They can rely on a veteran offensive line and a deep and talented running back corps led by 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason.
Defensively, the talented yet under-achieving defensive line will be important to watch. If the incumbents get pushed by newcomers Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams, the entire defense will benefit.
The schedule is tough, but certainly navigable enough to get the Tigers to a decent bowl game.
Optimistic: 8-4 with losses to LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. That would include a win over Ole Miss at home and road wins over Arkansas and Tennessee in consecutive weeks. That's a lot to ask.
Pessimistic: 3-9 with wins over Arkansas State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic. It's not likely, but a winless SEC season and another 3-9 record is a remote possibility. If Auburn can't find a quarterback, winning that shootout versus Washington State in the opener will be tough. If that's the case, there aren't many sure wins out there.
Realistic: 6-6 with wins over Washington State, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Tennessee (or Arkansas). The record probably isn't ideal, but Auburn is going to be competitive in nearly every game. This record could improve if Auburn catches a few breaks at the right times.
LSU is either rebuilding or reloading. Which is it?
We'll find out soon enough, as the Tigers visit JerryWorld on Aug. 31 to take on the very dangerous TCU Horned Frogs.
Will Zach Mettenberger take the next step at quarterback? How will the running game be effective if Jeremy Hill sits for a prolonged period of time? Can defensive end Jermauria Rasco, linebackers Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones and the rest of the new-look Tiger defense fill the void left by the mass exodus from Baton Rouge?
The Tigers will be one of the more intriguing teams to keep an eye on this spring thanks to the uncertainty that surrounds the roster.
Optimistic: 12-0 with a trip to the SEC Championship and BCS National Championship Game. That's not a pipe dream. Replacing stars with stars is old hat for the Mad Hatter, and there's nothing to suggest that he can't do it again. The offense should be better with a lot of personnel continuity; plus it upgraded at offensive coordinator with Cam Cameron.
Pessimistic: 7-5 with losses to TCU, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M. If you think LSU is rebuilding and not reloading, this is a real possibility. The only way it would happen, though, is if LSU doesn't rebuild and gets a lot of bad luck.
Realistic: 11-1 with a loss to Alabama or Texas A&M. LSU gets Alabama sandwiched between two bye weeks and the Aggies at home immediately after that. Those two will be challenges, but other than that, LSU should be able to out-talent every other team on its schedule—including Florida.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is in an interesting spot this season. He's raised the floor of the Bulldog program, but at some point he has to take the next step and secure a signature win. In his four years in Starkville, the Bulldogs are 5-21 against FBS programs that finish the season with eight or more wins.
Good enough? For now. But how long will that last?
Tyler Russell returns at quarterback and has a solid option behind him at running back with LaDarius Perkins, but can the passing game stabilize after losing essentially the entire wide receiving corps? Defensively, Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks are gone off of that secondary, as is Cameron Lawrence at linebacker.
It will be an interesting season in Starkville, and if the Bulldogs start out slow, it could result in disappointment.
Optimistic: 8-4 with losses to LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. That would give Mullen plenty of signature wins, including ones over Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. Not bad.
Pessimistic: 4-8 with the only wins coming over Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green and Kentucky. Losses to Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss would make things interesting next season for Mullen.
Realistic: 5-7 with wins over the four mentioned above and over either Auburn or Arkansas. Those two games will be critical for Mississippi State, because they probably will need to win both to go bowling.
Ole Miss Rebels
Is this the year for Ole Miss, or will head coach Hugh Freeze's reclamation project take another year? That's the question in Oxford during fall camp.
One thing is certain: Ole Miss has a boatload of talent returning on both sides of the ball, including wide receiver Donte Moncrief, quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.
Oh, and a talent injection is happening now, as defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Tony Conner and the rest of that remarkable recruiting class of 2013 arrives on campus.
Will that be enough to vault the Rebels from competitor to contender? The schedule is brutal out of the gate, but if Freeze can find a few wins, they'll be off and running.
Optimistic: 10-2 with losses to Alabama and LSU. Don't laugh, it's possible. It'd take road wins against Vanderbilt and Texas, and a home upset of Texas A&M to get to this point. But Ole Miss was within an eyelash of being a nine-win team a year ago, and most of that talent returns.
Pessimistic: 6-6 with wins over Southeast Missouri State, Idaho, Troy, Missouri and two out of the group of Mississippi State, Arkansas and Auburn. That'd be a major disappointment for Rebel Nation, especially if it loses the Egg Bowl to the Bulldogs.
Realistic: 9-3 with losses to Texas, Alabama and LSU. That's right, a win over A&M is realistic. Ole Miss is going to be in virtually every football game. At some point, it's going to get the break it needs to win one of the big ones.
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M enters the 2013 season as "the new girl in school." The team that burst onto the scene seemingly without warning and turned the heads of almost everybody involved in college football.
But can the success generated from last season's 11-2 record be sustained? That's the question facing second-year head coach Kevin Sumlin as he looks to lead his team not only to the SEC Championship Game but beyond.
How will the offense look without former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury? Will the new-look front seven gel in time to upset Alabama and start a championship run? Oh, and can that Johnny Manziel character at quarterback match or exceed his video game numbers from a year ago?
It's a big year in College Station, and anything short of a division title will be a major disappointment.
Optimistic: 12-0 with appearances in the SEC Championship Game and the BCS National Championship Game. The Aggies were on the doorstep a year ago, and with an offense like they have, all the defense needs to be is opportunistic.
Pessimistic: 8-4 with losses to Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU and either Arkansas or Auburn. The schedule is rather easy for the Aggies, and it's hard to find more than three games that they conceivably could lose. But this is college football, and upsets happen.
Realistic: 10-2 with losses to Alabama and either LSU or Ole Miss. Can Texas A&M be consistent? It got shut down by fast and athletic defenses against Florida and LSU last season, and the Tigers and Crimson Tide will boast those in 2013. Plus, that Ole Miss game is tricky. The Aggies could easily have lost that game last season, and Ole Miss is getting virtually everybody back. In shootouts, anything can happen.