SEC Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for West Division
On Monday, our "way-too-early" power rankings for the SEC East were published. Today, it's time to head West where, contrary to the East power rankings, the outlook looks familiar.
The West division is home to the past five SEC champions and has proven over the past decade that it is one of—if not the—toughest divisions in college football.
Auburn, Alabama and LSU have all won BCS National Championships over that period of time and routinely produce some of the most exciting matchups in college football.
Will Auburn repeat as division champs? Can Alabama cure its end-of-the-season hangover during the offseason? Will the roster turnover on offense prevent LSU from contending?
Ridiculously early picks for the SEC West are in this slideshow.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
It's safe to say Bret Bielema's first season didn't go according to his plan.
After a 3-0 start, the Razorbacks went winless over the final two-plus months of the season, ending the year 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC.
There was a silver lining, though, because rising sophomore running back Alex Collins proved during his freshman season that he is capable of handling the load in the running game, which is a trademark of any Bielema-coached team. Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns in 2013, when nearly everyone in the building knew the Hogs were going to run the football.
Why did everybody know Arkansas was going to run? Because they didn't have a quarterback. Brandon Allen was average at best in his first year as a starter, tossing 13 touchdowns and 10 picks. Can he pick it up, or will early enrollee Rafe Peavey win the job?
These are questions Arkansas needs to answer. Until it does, it'll bring up the rear in the division.
6. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is still building his program into a competitor, and that process is taking a bit longer than anticipated. Instead of taking a giant leap forward in 2013, Ole Miss sputtered down the stretch, losing its last two regular-season games, including the Egg Bowl to Mississippi State in overtime.
But the core for Freeze is still relatively solid.
After being sick late in the season, quarterback Bo Wallace bounced back for a solid Music City Bowl, totaling 342 yards and three touchdowns in a 25-17 win over a Georgia Tech defense that finished fourth in the SEC in total defense (360.2 YPG).
On top of that, the Rebels defense held the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack to just 151 rushing yards. The majority of the playmakers were on the defense, including defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, linebacker Serderius Bryant and safety Tony Conner.
If Ole Miss can take the next step, it could get into the conversation for the division title at the start of November. It has the talent to do it, but it needs to stay healthy and catch a few breaks in the process.
Road trips to Texas A&M and LSU will be tough, but Ole Miss gets Tennessee at home as its rotating cross-division game in addition to Vanderbilt, its permanent opponent. That sets up nicely. If the Rebels can spring an upset, they could be the surprise team in the SEC West next season.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State closed strong, winning back-to-back overtime games over Arkansas and Ole Miss to get bowl eligibility.
How did it celebrate? By stomping Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was a big reason why. The rising junior was phenomenal versus the Owls, totaling 361 yards and five touchdowns in his first true action as a starter after having a prolonged amount of time to practice during bowl preparation.
Head coach Dan Mullen gets to run his offense with Prescott's dual-threat capabilities, and now he has an entire offseason to build off of that performance.
On top of that, Mullen will get the majority of his players back next season, including the core of the defense.
The Bulldogs get Vandy as their rotating East opponent, get a bye week before Texas A&M and have a very forgiving nonconference schedule. A step forward should not only be possible, it should also be expected.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
Life without Johnny Manziel will be an adventure for Texas A&M, but luckily for Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen or whoever wins the job, the Aggies still have a solid running game to build off of.
Tra Carson proved to be a short-yardage and goal-line machine, Trey Williams is a dynamic playmaker who can take it to the house from anywhere, and Brandon Williams has all of the tools to be an every-down back in the SEC.
Not a bad foundation, and the new quarterback will also get the benefit of the return of wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones from injury and veterans Malcome Kennedy and Sabian Holmes.
The issue with Texas A&M is whether the defense can pick up the slack for an offense that will take a step back without Manziel. There's no easy way to answer that. The Aggies were awful last season, giving up an SEC-worst 475.8 yards per game.
While the majority of the two-deep returns and will be supplemented by another strong defensive recruiting class, it's going to have to take a gigantic leap forward to get the program into a competitive spot in the SEC West.
Trips to Alabama, South Carolina and Auburn will be tough, but the Aggies will have more than a week to prepare for the Gamecocks and a home date with LSU to close out the season.
3. LSU Tigers
LSU suffered through a "down season" last year and still managed to win 10 games and play in a New Year's Day bowl game.
But times, they are a-changin'.
Several key pieces of the LSU offense are gone, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Instead of giving quarterback Anthony Jennings the playbook versus Iowa in the Outback Bowl, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron relied on Hill to carry the team to victory.
It's now up to Cameron to tweak his offense based on Jennings' dual-threat capabilities. Can he do it? He has the talent and a dynamic freshman running back in Leonard Fournette. But it's still a challenge for the second-year coordinator.
LSU has nine straight games to open the season, but then bye weeks prior to hosting Alabama and visiting Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night. It gets Kentucky out of the East as its rotating cross-division opponent, which should be a welcomed relief as compared to the game versus Georgia from 2013.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
If these power rankings look a lot like the way the 2013 season standings look, there's a reason. The 2014 season will look a lot like 2013.
Alabama will be as competitive as always thanks to a punishing running game led by T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. But the holes on the roster are far too much to ignore.
If there's one thing head coach Nick Saban hasn't done at Tuscaloosa, it's successfully groom a replacement for quarterback AJ McCarron. Cooper Bateman, Blake Sims, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and a small village of other competitors could win the job. Luckily for Saban, he did snag Lane Kiffin to run his offense. After all, he did make Jonathan Crompton a legitimate weapon for Tennessee in 2009.
Defensively, the Crimson Tide were exposed a bit in the secondary in a 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. There had been confusion in the Tide secondary all season long, and now they'll have to rebuild without cornerback Deion Belue and safeties Vinnie Sunseri (who missed the final six games with an ACL injury) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
On top of that, it's now abundantly clear the Tide struggle with tempo offenses. Saban better address that this offseason, because they're becoming more popular.
Alabama will be in the thick of the SEC West race yet again but will be fighting a battle with their intra-state rivals for state and division supremacy.
1. Auburn Tigers
Auburn came within 13 seconds of claiming its second national championship in four seasons on Jan. 6, when it fell to Florida State 34-31 in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif.
It was just the start for head coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.
Quarterback Nick Marshall only had five weeks in the offense prior to taking his first snap in a game, and now he has a full offseason to work with Malzahn with all of the pieces—other than running back Tre Mason, left tackle Greg Robinson and fullback Jay Prosch—returning.
Sure, the loss of those three players is big, but Cameron Artis-Payne looked solid in limited action, running back Peyton Barber redshirted last season, and the Tigers have a commitment from 247Sports 5-star running back Racean "Roc" Thomas.
They'll have to get better in the secondary and replace some depth along the defensive line, but another year in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 system should work wonders for this team in 2014.
Auburn's schedule is tough late, with games versus South Carolina, Texas A&M and at Georgia and Alabama all in the final six weeks of the season. If it can get off to a hot start and get some confidence, the Tigers could make a return trip to Atlanta as SEC West champs.