Complete Predictions for Every SEC West Team in 2014
Game plans are being put together, depth charts are being finalized and it's time for the rubber to meet the road.
That goes for football programs as well as preseason predictions.
Nobody thought Auburn would emerge from the SEC West last season to claim the SEC crown, but the Tigers did it on the heels of the a punishing multi-dimensional running game, a defense that played big when it needed to and two of the most unbelievable finishes in college football history to close out the regular season.
Will the Tigers repeat, or will Alabama re-claim its throne atop the SEC West? Will LSU reload enough to contend? Can the Mississippi schools take the next step.
Final SEC West predictions are in this slide show.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
Most Important Storyline: Find Offensive Diversity
Arkansas was woefully one-dimensional last year in head coach Bret Bielema's first season in Fayetteville, due in part to necessity. Quarterback Brandon Allen hurt his throwing shoulder diving into the end zone in the third game of the year and never really got healthy.
The running game worked—freshman Alex Collins broke the 1,000-yard mark and Jonathan Williams added 900 of his own, but one-dimensional gets you beat in the SEC.
Allen is back and healthy, and he has some solid pieces to work with outside with Demetrius Wilson and Keon Hatcher, as well as tight end Hunter Henry. If they can find a way to just pose a threat downfield, it will help out Collins, Williams and home run threat Korliss Marshall at running back and take some pressure off of Arkansas' defense.
Biggest Question Mark: Defensive Consistency
Arkansas' defense was inconsistent at best last year and mediocre at worst. Gone is defensive coordinator Chris Ash, with Robb Smith replacing him. Luckily for Smith, he has a solid foundation up front to work with, thanks to senior defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon. If the Hogs can get pressure with four, it will benefit the experienced, yet underachieving secondary.
Bielema wants to win by running the ball and playing defense, and the second part of that equation was a big reason they finished 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC for the first time in program history.
Toughest Game: Georgia (in Little Rock) on Oct. 18
No, it isn't Alabama or LSU—both of those games are after bye weeks. Auburn's tough too, but the Hogs have time to prepare for the Tigers in the season-opener.
Georgia falls at a terrible time of the schedule for Arkansas, the week after playing Alabama. Over the last three seasons, SEC teams are 7-11 the week following playing Alabama, with only three of those wins being over SEC competition. It's a swing game for Arkansas. Win it and maybe there's some hope for the rest of the season. Lose it and the wheels could come flying off in a hurry.
MVP: Running Back Jonathan Williams
While many eyes are focused on Collins, Williams will be the guy who finishes the season as Arkansas' leading rusher. He's versatile, has the size to be a force between the tackles and has home run speed in open space. Don't be surprised to see him emerge as the "1A" running back in Fayetteville early and never let the role go.
Prediction: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
The Hogs will be a better team this year in every aspect except the record. The schedule is simply brutal, and they'll finish with out-of-conference wins over Nicholls State, Northern Illinois and UAB. They'll be competitive at times, but teams such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State—which typically are lower-tier SEC West teams—are still separating from the Hogs and will be tough to beat.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Most Important Storyline: Getting Over the Hump
The chic pick to make some noise in the SEC West, Mississippi State returns a small village from the team that won two straight to make a bowl game last year and then ran Rice out of the Liberty Bowl to finish 7-6.
The defense returns 19 of 22 players on its two-deep including monster defensive tackle Chris Jones, quarterback Dak Prescott returns in his first full season as the starting quarterback and Jameon Lewis is the leading returning receiver in the SEC.
That continuity is great, but will it translate to more signature wins for head coach Dan Mullen? Mullen told me this spring that he recognizes how big of a leap that "next step" truly is.
"In the SEC West is that, in the last five seasons, six SEC West teams have competed for the national championship," he said. "A lot of times, the next step is 'hey, we've built a program as a consistent winner; now let's go win a conference championship.' In the SEC West, you skip that step."
Biggest Question Mark: Stretching the Field
There aren't many question marks for these Bulldogs, but if there is one, it's the ability for Prescott to be able to stretch the field.
He was awesome in place of Tyler Russell last year, but he was more known for his running ability and efficiency in the intermediate passing game. His 7.3 yards per attempt placed him 10th in the SEC in yards per attempt among quarterbacks who attempted 15 or more passes per game.
If he can stretch the field vertically and develop a connection deep, it will open more room for Lewis to shine in the slot and for running back Josh Robinson to shine on the ground. That will open up Mullen's offense even more than it already is, which will allow Mississippi State to stay versatile if it gets down in big games.
Toughest Game: at Alabama on Nov. 15
Road trips to Alabama are no fun, and Mississippi State will travel to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 15. It's late in the season, when depth will be challenged, and the fourth of a six-game stretch to close the season for the Bulldogs.
MVP: Quarterback Dak Prescott
Prescott is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs, and if they're going to succeed this year, it'll be on the back of their dark-horse Heisman candidate. He isn't Tim Tebow, but he can do a lot of the things that Tebow did while Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida. He's had a full offseason as the unquestioned starter in the system, which will pay huge dividends for the offense.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC), Birmingham Bowl
Mississippi State will be competitive in many of its big SEC games, but it won't take the next step and either compete for the division or have an impact on the division's outcome. Losses to LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss won't sit well, but Mullen will still have the program going in the right direction. It just won't take a gigantic leap this year.
5. Texas A&M Aggies
Most Important Storyline: Replacing a Legend
Sophomore dual-threat signal-caller Kenny Hill was tabbed as the man to replace 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, beating out true freshman Kyle Allen in a battle that lasted until mid-August.
Can he do it?
He has similar dual-threat traits, so the offense won't have to change all that much. That transition will be even easier considering he has a talented offensive line led by tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, a deep running back corps led by Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams and plenty of talent outside at receiver and tight end.
Hill can't be Manziel; he just needs to be Kenny Hill. Head coach Kevin Sumlin's offenses have finished in the top 11 nationally in each of the last six seasons. He's in the right place for instant success, as long as he doesn't try to live up to unrealistic expectations.
Biggest Question Mark: That Defense
If Texas A&M's defense is just average, it can contend for the division title. It wasn't anywhere close to average last year.
The Aggies finished 111th in the nation and last in the SEC in total defense (475.8 YPG) and lost linebacker Darian Claiborne, defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and defensive end Gavin Stansbury unexpectedly this offseason—three players who were expected to be key contributors.
Sure, a lot of Claiborne's 89 tackles were 15 yards downfield, but that's better than 25 yards downfield or not making them at all.
Can freshman defensive end Myles Garrett step in and become a star right away? Will Deshazor Everett help stabilize a secondary that struggled at times last year? These are questions A&M will have to answer and will be doing so with a lot of fresh faces, according to defensive coordinator Mark Snyder (via Gabe Bock of TexAgs.com):
Snyder: A bunch of freshmen will play on defense, no doubt. Looking at about seven true freshmen that will probably see the field. #12thMan— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) August 20, 2014
Toughest Game: at Alabama on Oct. 18
The Alabama game has been interesting over the last few seasons, and this year it comes at the tail end of eight straight weeks of football to open the season. Yes, this game has been tight each of the last two years, but that defense will be tired, and the depth will be challenged by that point of the season.
MVP: Running Back Tra Carson
Carson was used more as a short-yardage and goal-line specialist in 2013, but he is quick on his feet and has the versatility to be a tremendous asset out of the backfield in a variety of ways. The 6'0", 235-pounder will be used more as an every-down back, and if he's successful, he will take a ton of pressure off of Hill and keep A&M's defense off the field.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC), Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Texas A&M's problems last year will exist again in 2014, and the defense will cost them games at South Carolina, vs. Ole Miss, at Alabama, at Auburn and vs. LSU.
4. Ole Miss Rebels
Most Important Storyline: Bo Wallace's Health
Quarterback Bo Wallace has been pretty solid over the last few seasons, tossing 40 touchdown passes while nursing shoulder injuries. If Ole Miss can keep Wallace healthy—and part of that equation is taking some between-the-tackles running responsibilities off of his shoulders—he can be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
That'd be huge for Ole Miss, because its defense is absolutely loaded with stars—particularly in the secondary with safeties Cody Prewitt, Tony Conner and C.J. Hampton. Couple them with a consistent pass rush led by now full-time defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and healthy defensive end C.J. Johnson and Ole Miss' defense will be one of the SEC's best.
For Ole Miss to take the next step, the offense just needs to be consistent. It has weapons, including wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. Consistency starts with Wallace's health.
Biggest Question Mark: Inside Running
I'Tavius Mathers (564 yards) and Jaylen Walton (522 yards) are great, but they're more known for being edge-rushers than they are between-the-tackles bruisers. For Ole Miss' offense to truly thrive, it needs to find someone or a group of players not named "Bo Wallace" to run between the tackles.
If that happens, this offense is going to be tough to stop.
Toughest Game: at LSU on Oct. 25
Death Valley is always a tough place to play, and Ole Miss is playing LSU in Baton Rouge in the middle of a seven-games-in-seven-weeks stretch and fresh off SEC games against Alabama, at Texas A&M and vs. Tennessee.
The combination of it being a tough road game in a hostile environment and where it is on the schedule makes the LSU game—which will be a revenge game for the Tigers—a brutal one for the Rebels.
MVP: Defensive Tackle Robert Nkemdiche
Nkemdiche was solid last season as a freshman, notching 32 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks while playing defensive end and tackle for the Rebs. He even played a little bit of running back too. If he can generate pressure up the middle and force quarterbacks into quick decisions, that secondary will have a field day, taking advantage and putting the offense in good spots.
Prediction: 9-3 (5-3 SEC), AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Ole Miss will be on the brink of being competitive in virtually every game and be in position to spring an upset or two if it catches some breaks. Alabama, LSU and Auburn will all be losses, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if they're incredibly close losses that could go either way.
3. LSU Tigers
Most Important Storyline: The Offense
Will it be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at quarterback? Will running back Leonard Fournette be a star right away with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield? Is there a wide receiver on that roster set up to be a star?
The offense has dominated headlines during fall camp due to its uncertainty, but there is a silver lining. The LSU Tigers have a deep and experienced offensive line led by tackle La'el Collins, so the Tigers can go ground and pound if they need to and ease all of the fresh faces into life as college football players.
Biggest Question Mark: Wide Receiver
Of all the holes to fill, finding a go-to wide receiver is job No. 1 for head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are gone, and Travin Dural returns as the Tigers' leading receiver from last year—he had seven catches.
Whether it's Dural stepping up, Malachi Dupre or Trey Quinn bursting on the scene or somebody else emerging, the LSU offense has to find a reliable receiver to take some pressure off of the new quarterback and the running backs.
Toughest Game: at Auburn on Oct. 4
This will be a revenge game for Auburn, which suffered its only regular-season loss last year at LSU in a quagmire in Death Valley. It'll be the sixth straight game for LSU to open the season, and Auburn is a tough place to play for any team.
John Chavis' defense has had success against dual-threat quarterbacks over the years, but Auburn may have something up its sleeve for the Bengal Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
MVP: Cornerback Tre'Davious White
If you're looking for another potential All-American cornerback in the SEC other than Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III, look no further than White. He had two picks, 55 tackles and seven pass breakups as a freshman last year, and now he's being counted on to be the latest star at "DBU."
That front seven is loaded with talent, albeit some players who are inexperienced. They'll be able to get pressure on quarterbacks, and White will take advantage and put his offense in advantageous situations.
Prediction: 9-3 (5-3 SEC), TaxSlayer Bowl
I like LSU this year, but I don't love it. Alabama's a big one, and the Tigers won't get over that hump despite the fact that the game is in Baton Rouge. Road trips to Auburn and Florida in back-to-back weekends will be very tough for a team with so many young pieces and will be where this LSU team first stumbles.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Most Important Storyline: Quarterback Battle
Alabama's quarterback battle isn't going to make or break the Crimson Tide season. After all, with the skill players either Jacob Coker or Blake Sims will have around him, all they have to do to be successful is hand off, take advantage on play-action passes and make smart decisions.
Can they do that, though?
Sims is a senior who has limited action, and Coker is the biggest mystery in the SEC? One should be able to step in and manage the game the way new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin wants, but so far this offseason, we haven't seen it yet.
That's not a major problem yet. After all, Alabama has three tune-ups to open the season. But somebody has to emerge at some point.
Biggest Question Mark: Cornerback
Alabama finished last season with the second-best pass defense in the SEC (180.3 YPG), but games aren't played on paper.
Deion Belue's struggled with inconsistencies and injuries, and there was a revolving door on the other side of the field. Belue is gone, Eddie Jackson—who was one of the players in the revolving door last year—is recovering from a torn ACL and Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve are battling newcomers Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey for playing time at corner.
If Alabama can find some consistency at corner, it will be the final piece of the puzzle for the Crimson Tide defense and could be what gets the team back to Atlanta.
Toughest Game: vs. Auburn on Nov. 29
Is there any doubt what the biggest game on Alabama's schedule is?
After Chris Davis ran 109 yards and Auburn ruined Alabama's dreams of a three-peat, the 2014 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa will be a can't-miss game.
Will Alabama get its revenge? Is Gus Malzahn Nick Saban's kryptonite? Will it decide the SEC West for the second straight season. It will decide the division, and some of those questions might be answered in the process.
MVP: Defensive End A'Shawn Robinson
Robinson is big enough to play the nose but athletic enough to play end in the 3-4 scheme, which is a huge asset for Saban against teams that like to press the edge. He doesn't just take up space; he gets off blocks and makes plays. Even when he doesn't, he disrupts plays and allows his teammates to clean up the mess that he was instrumental in creating.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC), Orange Bowl
The Iron Bowl will be the de facto SEC West title game for the second straight season, and for the second straight season it will end with an Auburn win. The Tigers have the offensive weapons and scheme to put a tremendous amount of stress on Alabama's defense. They will squeak by in what will likely be viewed as an upset in Tuscaloosa.
Will that prevent Alabama from making the College Football Playoff? It won't eliminate the Crimson Tide, but in this inaugural season of the four-team playoff, it would likely put the Tide behind power-five conference champs in the playoff pecking order.
1. Auburn Tigers
Most Important Storyline: Destiny or Dynasty?
"The Miracle on the Plains" and the "Kick Six" turned Auburn into a team of destiny last year, but is it more built to be a dynasty? That question will be answered this season, as head coach Gus Malzahn enters the 2014 campaign with a target on his back.
Whether you feel Auburn's success in 2013 was luck or skill, there's no denying that Malzahn can run the football. He's produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight season as a college head coach or assistant coach, and he has a stable of talented rushers to choose from, including Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, "Roc" Thomas and quarterback Nick Marshall.
Marshall is key, because he was viewed as more of a running quarterback last year but spent the offseason focusing on becoming a better passer. If he can add an intermediate passing game to his ability on the ground and stretch the field deep, it's going to be really tough to stop that Auburn offense.
Biggest Question Mark: Defense
Auburn's secondary was more punchline than power last year, but there is talent and newfound depth to help the 2014 Tigers.
Jonathon Mincy is back at corner, and Jermaine Whitehead returns at safety, with several key pieces backing them up. Rudy Ford and Derrick Moncrief are vying for the boundary safety spot, Josh Holsey can play corner or safety and Jonathan Jones and Trovon Reed are battling for time at corner.
Those corners will benefit from a consistent pass rush, which Auburn should be able to provide with a versatile group of defensive linemen.
Carl Lawson will miss some or all of the season recovering from ACL surgery, but Gabe Wright can move outside to play end in specific situations, end Elijah Daniel can drop down to tackle in pass-rushing situations and Montravius Adams is a monster in the middle that can be a difference-maker.
If they can get pressure with four, it will allow athletic linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy to clean up and help the Tigers defense take the next step.
Toughest Game: at Alabama on Nov. 29
As is the case for Alabama, Auburn's toughest game is the Iron Bowl. Revenge will be on the mind of the Crimson Tide in a hostile environment in Bryant-Denny Stadium with the division title on the line. Compounding issues for Auburn, it could be heading to Tuscaloosa without momentum (more on that in a minute).
MVP: Quarterback Nick Marshall
Marshall is the first quarterback Malzahn has ever had as a college head or assistant coach who is returning for a second season in the system. With a specific focus on getting more consistent in the passing game, Marshall has the right coach, the right returning players (six of his top seven receivers) and a new toy in 6'2", 216-pound junior college transfer receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams.
We already know what Marshall can be like on the ground, and he has the perfect setup to be a star through the air as well.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC), SEC West Champs, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Auburn will win the Iron Bowl and advance to the SEC Championship Game for the second straight season, but unlike 2013, the Tigers won't win it. Auburn will fall to a Georgia team that's loaded with weapons in Athens on Nov. 15 and then fall to the Bulldogs again in the Georgia Dome in the SEC Championship Game.
Will that be enough to make the College Football Playoff? Two losses won't sit well, and it won't have a conference title to show off to the selection committee either.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.