Why 2015 SEC West Will Be Toughest College Football Division Ever

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistJuly 31, 2015

Why 2015 SEC West Will Be Toughest College Football Division Ever

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    No one would be surprised if the SEC West remains up for grabs until the very last game of the regular season is played.
    No one would be surprised if the SEC West remains up for grabs until the very last game of the regular season is played.Associated Press

    For a literary equivalent, one could quote Thomas Hobbes’ statement about the life of man being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

    For a scientific reference, we could turn to Charles Darwin’s "survival of the fittest."

    In terms of pop culture, we’re talking straight demolition derby, with cars ramming into one another until only one vehicle is still moving.

    That’s what the Southeastern Conference’s West Division is shaping up to be this season. It may not have many experienced quarterbacks or a player capable of winning the Heisman Trophy, but from a competitive standpoint, this might be the toughest division college football has ever seen.

    "Everyone can be beat everyone" is something fans hear every year, but when Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland recently stated so at SEC media days, it has never been more true.

    Here are 10 reasons why.

1. The Schedule

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    Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn't pleased with his team's conference schedule this season.
    Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn't pleased with his team's conference schedule this season.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    With the preseason Amway Coaches Poll released Thursday morning, Alabama knows that it's slated to play seven ranked opponents and the two top vote-getters among those outside of the Top 25 during the regular season.

    It has two road games at Top 10 teams (No. 7 Auburn and No. 9 Georgia), a neutral-site opener against No. 18 Wisconsin on Sept. 5 (8 p.m. ET, ABC) and, if it wins the West Division, another tough opponent in the SEC Championship Game.

    In contrast, No. 1 Ohio State has one Top 25 opponent on its schedule, No. 6 Michigan State, which will visit Ohio Stadium on Nov. 21. Should it reach the Big Ten title game, only one team from the other division was ranked, Wisconsin.

    A better indicator may be ESPN’s Football Power Index, which aims to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward and lists projected results based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season.

    Led by Alabama at No. 2, its preseason rankings have five teams from the SEC West in the overall Top 10. However, due to the brutal nature of the schedule, which the FPI rates as the toughest in college football, it projects the Crimson Tide’s regular-season record will be 8.7 wins and 3.5 losses.

    No. 20 Arkansas has a different problem this season. After facing Texas A&M at the neutral-site location of Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 26, its subsequent two Saturdays are on the road at Tennessee and Alabama. It does another road back-to-back Nov. 7 and 14, at Ole Miss and LSU.

    “(The West’s) probably become tougher since our arrival, I think because of us and because of some other schools, the rise that they've had,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “But the schedule is kind of what it is. I always tell our players don't take issue or complain about something you can't control. Our schedule is what it is. It's made by some computer somewhere. I'd like to know where it's at because I'd like to see if it really exists.”

2. The Stadiums

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    How many people can cram into Texas A&M's Kyle Field? A lot.
    How many people can cram into Texas A&M's Kyle Field? A lot.Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Going back to Alabama’s north and south end-zone expansions of Bryant-Denny Stadium, completed in 2006 and 2010, respectively, and the arms race known as SEC West football stadium and facility improvements might soon reach the $1 billion mark.

    Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium recently went through a $75 million renovation, and LSU spent $80 million on Tiger Stadium's south end-zone upper deck to bump capacity up to 102,321.

    Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is being expanded to 64,038 by the 2016 season. Auburn is installing the largest video board in college football and is more than talking about a massive renovation project.

    Additionally, the new crown jewel of the division is about to open, the $485 million redeveloped Kyle Field. While construction was still going on last season, Texas A&M crammed 110,631 people in for the game against Ole Miss, which was the largest-attended game both in Texas and SEC history.

    “Those are some crazy places to play,” Mississippi State defensive end Ryan Brown said. “The fans, the music, the atmosphere, just crazy. That’s what we’re addicted to.”

    Obviously, those kinds of crowds can have a huge impact on games. For example, Auburn hasn't won in Baton Rouge since 1999, and Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State haven’t won at Alabama since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.

    Led by Alabama and Mississippi State, which were both 7-0, SEC West teams went 39-9 at home last season, compared to 16-15 on the road.

    “The last five SEC West champions are 18-2 on the road,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “They have three of those teams went undefeated and two teams lost one game apiece. So we have two of our three, but all three being on the road. So if we lose more than one game on the road, history tells you you're not going to win in the SEC West.”

3. Talent Level

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    Top recruits from 2014, like LSU's Leonard Fournette, are now expected to lead their teams.
    Top recruits from 2014, like LSU's Leonard Fournette, are now expected to lead their teams.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    If you’ve ever wondered how preseason publications come up with their lists of most improved teams or accurately predict breakout season, they often start by looking at recruiting two years previous.

    For this season that would be the signing class of 2014, when 247Sports had a top 10 of Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Florida State, Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Southern California.

    Consequently, Auburn was the pick to win the Southeastern Conference at media days. Tennessee is a popular choice to win the East Division, and some believe USC could make the playoffs.

    Similarly, recruiting rankings are one of the components used by ESPN in creating its preseason Football Power Index.

    The prowess of SEC West talent can be demonstrated numerous ways as well, from individual recruiting rankings to NFL draft selections, but specific to this fall, nine of the 11 offensive players recently named All-SEC at media days were from the West—with eight of the defensive players and two of the four special teams players.

    “Just I think the recruiting, the talent level of players is exceptionally high,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

4. The Physical Play

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    Injuries, like the one to Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, derailed the Rebels' season in 2014.
    Injuries, like the one to Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, derailed the Rebels' season in 2014.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    For years, SEC proponents have claimed the biggest difference between the conference and others is the number of quality defensive linemen who can move well. But even the division’s spread teams such as Auburn play a physical style of football.

    It’s essentially man up or get run over.

    “I don’t think it, I feel it,” Mississippi State defensive end Ryan Brown said about the physical nature of the division, and he’s one who’s usually delivering hits instead of taking them.

    LSU’s Leonard Fournette can be excused if he shakes his head when asked about the blow he took from Alabama's Reuben Foster last season.

    There were only three seconds left in regulation when Alabama kicked off after tying the game, and on the kick return the Crimson Tide linebacker delivered a wallop that wasn’t just heard, but felt, along the sideline.

    “It was the biggest hit I’ve ever taken,” Fournette said. “It really didn’t hurt, it was unexpected.

    “I didn’t see it coming at all.”

    After Fournette told Foster “nice shot,” Alabama used the momentum to dominate in overtime for a 20-13 victory.

    Meanwhile, Ole Miss had the opposite happen as injuries such as the one to wide receiver Laquon Treadwell took a toll on the Rebels during the second half of the 2014 season. 

    “If we can stay healthy and get a break here or there, we will be a factor in who decides the SEC West,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.

5. The Depth of Good Teams

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    No one may know better how tough the SEC West is than Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
    No one may know better how tough the SEC West is than Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Last year, all seven teams in the SEC West played in a bowl game.

    The preseason Amway Coaches Poll was released Thursday, with five teams from the division in the Top 25 (3. Alabama; 7. Auburn; 13. LSU; 15. Ole Miss; 20. Arkansas) and the two teams receiving the most votes among those not ranked.

    “The best team in the Pac-12, the Big 12, the ACC, the Big Ten, their top team could compete with any team in the SEC, there's no question about it,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “But when you're looking at seven teams in the West that feel they have a legitimate chance to win that side of the league, the competition week in and week out, you have got to be on your A-game every single week, because if you don't show up and play your absolute best against every team on our side of the league, you're not going to win.

    “You can't play an OK game and find a way to squeak it out at the end. That's not going to happen in the SEC West.”

    Overall, the SEC had eight ranked teams. Only the Pac-12 as a conference had more Top 25 teams, six, than the SEC West. The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 all had three apiece.

6. The Styles of Offense

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    Just when you get used to the spread, along comes a running back like Jonathan Williams of Arkansas.
    Just when you get used to the spread, along comes a running back like Jonathan Williams of Arkansas.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    For years, Alabama coach Nick Saban has been telling his players to “go out there and dominate the guy you're playing against and make his ass quit.”

    A lot of coaches say something similar and have the same goal, only how they wear down opponents may be very different: with no-huddle, uptempo offenses.

    “So you have to basically play the same players in every situation because if you do play situation-defense and you're allowed to sub in that particular situation, you can't get the players out of the game,” Saban said. “So it affects how you recruit. You can't recruit as many specialty players. And you have to be able to match up in all circumstances and situations with teams that actually play that way, which is more difficult.

    “I don't think there's any question about the fact that it's more difficult to play defense, and I think that's why you see more points being scored, and I don't think that trend's going to change any time soon.”

    Even his own offense, which executed faster last year with Blake Sims at quarterback and Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, contributed to the Crimson Tide’s defense wearing down.

    “We ran out of gas a little bit,” Saban said. “We played more plays, I think by 170 on defense, which is like a couple, three more games, and our players showed it.”

    Where it may really show this season is when teams have back-to-back conference games and go from playing an uptempo offense like Auburn to a physical grind-it-out opponent like Arkansas. Ole Miss has that task Oct. 24 and 31.

7. The Coaches

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    Les Miles and Nick Saban are looking to add to their already impressive collections of championship rings.
    Les Miles and Nick Saban are looking to add to their already impressive collections of championship rings.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The SEC West didn’t have any head coaching changes this past season, and all seven men made at least $3 million in 2014.

    Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of movement among the coordinators.

    “Even though we're going to play LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M again, the defensive coordinators have changed,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “Even though you're playing the same team, there's a whole new thing that you've got to do all over again.”

    One of the reasons why so many college football experts are high on Auburn this year is the hiring of former Florida coach Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator.

    Gus Malzahn called him “the best defensive mind in all of football, not just college football. Our defensive players have taken on his personality, which I really like.”

    With a contract that reads like that of a head coach—base salary of $250,000, $675,000 for personal endorsement rights, $675,000 for radio, Internet and TV rights and appearances—Muschamp will make more than $1.6 million this year on top of his $6.3 million buyout from the final two years of his Florida contract.

    LSU hired former Alabama and Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele at $1 million annually. However, that’s $300,000 less than his predecessor, John Chavis, who went to Texas A&M for $1.67 million per year and is expected to be the highest-paid assistant coach in college football this season.

    Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is due to make $1.5 million this season, the same amount as LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. From a continuity standpoint, he’s become a rarity in that Smart has been with Nick Saban all but one season since 2004, when both were at LSU.

    “When you look at how tough that league is, I think you're going to be hard-pressed for anybody to compete every single year for a championship,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “I think Nick and Alabama's done a great job. He's built that program up through the years, great recruiting years and great players. They have a solid coaching staff where they seem to be in the discussion every year.”

8. The Grind

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    How quarterback Jeremy Johnson holds up to the weekly pressure could go a long way in determining Auburn's success this season.
    How quarterback Jeremy Johnson holds up to the weekly pressure could go a long way in determining Auburn's success this season.Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

    The only SEC West team that was on an upswing at the end of the 2014 season was Arkansas, which won three of its last four games and manhandled Texas in the Texas Bowl, 31-7.

    Every other team ended its season on a down note, including SEC champion Alabama, which lost in the inaugural playoffs to Ohio State, 42-35.

    “Everybody asks about the SEC and all that, and the thing that really stands out to me is the grind. If you're not in it, you don't understand it,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “So the grind every week, week in and week out, and then you win the West, and then you've got to play the champion of the East, and then you get into the four-team playoff.

    “So it's just a matter of surviving the grind, and the team that does that being able to have enough fuel and enough energy and everything that goes with it to finish the deal.”

    What really stood about the 2014 season was that with the exception of Alabama, which was knocked from No. 1 by the loss at No. 1, every other division team had a tough time bouncing back from a setback.

    Auburn lost four of its last five games. LSU and Mississippi State both lost three of its last four. Ole Miss lost four of its last six.

    Both teams struggled after Texas A&M’s 35-28 dramatic overtime victory against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas. The Aggies lost five of their next seven, while the Razorbacks lost three of their next four (but played No. 1 Alabama very tough in a 14-13 home loss). 

    “It’s awesome, but at the same time you don’t have any weeks off,” Texas A&M senior center Mike Matthews said. “Every time you’re preparing for a really good opponent. There are some schedules that there are some games here and there (to be off), but for us, we have to be at our best every single week. It’s definitely a grind.”

9. The Spotlight

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    No one in the SEC West may be more in the spotlight than Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.
    No one in the SEC West may be more in the spotlight than Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    With ESPN on board with the SEC Network and so many high-profile games to be played, the stage is only bigger and brighter this season.

    Week 1 is a perfect example. The CBS game will be Louisville vs. Auburn in Atlanta (3:30 p.m. ET). ESPN has Arizona State vs. Texas A&M in Houston (7 p.m.), and ABC will show Alabama vs. Wisconsin from Arlington, Texas (8 p.m.).

    “It means everything, especially being about 10 minutes from my house,” Texas A&M junior offensive tackle Germain Ifedi said about playing in his hometown's NFL stadium. “It’s a true blessing to be able to play the first game of my fourth year in college at that stadium. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, and what makes it better is that it’s going to be an hour-and-a-half from Aggieland, so the fans get to travel and see us play.”

    On Week 2, ESPN’s late game will LSU at Mississippi State, which will probably get the highest ratings ever in the series. Week 3 will feature Ole Miss at Alabama, with the Crimson Tide looking for revenge for last year’s loss that led to fans storming the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

    Shrewdly, the SEC has made sure there’s at least one West Division matchup every week except for the opening Saturday. Granted, it did the same for the East, but last season ESPN had College GameDay visit SEC West sites five times (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU and Alabama twice) for division games compared to just once for the East (South Carolina at Missouri).

    “You’re on national TV every week,” Texas A&M senior center Mike Matthews said.

10. Every Team Has a Chip on Its Shoulder

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    Texas A&M only needs to look back to last year's 59-0 loss at Alabama for extra motivation.
    Texas A&M only needs to look back to last year's 59-0 loss at Alabama for extra motivation.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Alabama is mad that it lost to Ohio State.

    Arkansas is sick of being last in the division.

    Auburn lost to both of its big rivals.

    LSU was closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

    Ole Miss is upset about finally beating Alabama only to lose three of its last four games.

    Mississippi State feels like it squandered the best opportunity it’s ever had.

    Texas A&M only has to look to last year’s 59-0 loss to Alabama for inspiration.

    “It’s a lot of motivation,” Aggies defensive lineman Julien Obioha said.

    Somehow, someway, one team will win the division this year, and whatever is left of it will at least advance to the SEC Championship Game. After that, who knows?

    The flip side of that, of course, is that there has to be a last-place team as well. The guess at SEC media days was that it will be Mississippi State, even though the Bulldogs were No. 1 for a good part of 2014.

    “I think I like it that way, because I feel as if I’d rather be underrated than overrated,” MSU senior defensive end Ryan Brown said. “I like being a Bulldog, and better than that, an underdog to prove ourselves and have that motivation.”

    Regardless, 2015 will definitely be a season to remember.

    “I think the SEC West will be as competitive as ever and still really the best division in all of college football and the most competitive division of all of college football,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “But that's what we love, and those are the challenges we love. As a competitor, that's the league you want to be in every single day, every single week. On Saturdays, you roll out on that field knowing you're playing one of the best teams in the country every single Saturday is a great thing to be a part of.”

    Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

    Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer.

    Follow Christopher on Twitter, @WritingWalsh.