Seven burning questions for the SEC West during fall practice
It’s hard to argue that there’s been a better division in college football over the last decade than the SEC West. Since 2006, we’ve had 10 teams win national titles and six of those have come from the SEC West (Alabama four times, LSU and Auburn once each).
In other words, the SEC West has more national titles in the last 10 years than any of the other divisions in college football combined.
So, yeah, it’s pretty good.
What will 2016 bring? Odds are a lot more of the same, but as we head into the season, these are the biggest questions facing the SEC West.
1. Is there anybody that can truly threaten Alabama?: Something we need to consider is that, as good as the SEC West has been, Alabama props up that reputation quite a bit. For instance, since the 2011 season the SEC West has a record of 91-41 against teams outside of its own division (including the SEC East). That’s a winning percentage of 69 percent, which is pretty nice.
If we look a little closer, however, we see that Alabama’s success skews that number a bit.The Tide is 22-2 (twenty two and two) outside the division. If you remove Alabama from the equation, that 91-41 mark drops to 69-39. That’s a winning percentage of 63.9 percent, which is still really good but not quite at the insane level when you include Bama’s record.
While Alabama is 22-2 outside the division since 2011, it’s not much worse inside it. In 29 divisional games in that span, Alabama is 24-5.
Which is why we have to ask the question heading into the season: Is there anybody in the SEC West that is a real threat to Alabama’s reign? Sure, somebody might jump up and beat it, as that typically happens each season, but it’s much more difficult to beat Alabama in the overall standings.
2. Is Dave Aranda the answer for LSU’s defense?: Following a 9-3 season in 2015, Les Miles’ job was in jeopardy. The Tigers got off to an excellent 7-0 start to the season, climbing as high as No. 4 in the AP Top 25 before a 30-16 loss to Alabama. That loss was then followed with two more against Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Still, the biggest thorn in the paw of those who wanted Miles out was yet another loss to Alabama. The last time LSU beat Alabama was a 9-6 win in Tuscaloosa in 2011. Of course, LSU would then lose to Alabama 21-0 in a title game rematch that same season, which basically wiped away any joy from beating Alabama on the road.
So how does LSU turn the table in 2016? Well, LSU’s biggest problem last season was its defense. After John Chavis left for Texas A&M, the Tigers turned to Kevin Steele, and Steele’s defense allowed 24.3 points per game last season. The last time an LSU defense came close to giving up that many points per game was when it allowed 24.2 in 2008.
As a result, Steele is out, and Dave Aranda is in. Aranda comes to LSU from Wisconsin where he spent the last three seasons in charge of a very good defense. The Badgers never finished outside the top 10 in total defense under Aranda, allowing an average of 17 points per game. And Aranda did not have the same talent to work with at Wisconsin that he’ll have at his disposal in Baton Rouge.
So it’s easy to believe Aranda will right the Tiger ship on defense this year, and if he does, then maybe LSU can be the team that truly challenges Alabama for the top spot in the division.
3. Can Ole Miss just reload?: Hugh Freeze has put together some strong recruiting classes at Ole Miss, which has helped offset losses along the way and kept the Rebels on an upward trend. We just haven’t seen Ole Miss have to replace as many key players as it will have to this season.
The good news for Ole Miss is that quarterback Chad Kelly is back. The bad news is that the team’s leading rusher, Kelly’s top two receiving targets and three-fifths of his offensive line — including the best left tackle in the country, Laremy Tunsil — are gone. On defense, Ole Miss has to replace four of its six leading tacklers, most of its front seven and both of its safeties.
Yeah, there’s talent behind the guys who are gone, but for the most part it’s unproven talent. How Ole Miss handles such losses will tell us whether or not Hugh Freeze has built this program for the long haul or not.
4. Can either Auburn or Texas A&M solve their quarterback problem?: When Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn, he led the Tigers to a BCS Championship Game thanks in large part to the play of quarterback Nick Marshall. Kevin Sumlin’s first season at Texas A&M brought us all Johnny Football’s Heisman campaign.
Since then, things haven’t worked out nearly as well for either.
Both coaches enter the 2016 season with questions at quarterback, and while both could use improved defenses as well, I can’t help but believe the quality of quarterback play will determine how 2016 works out for both teams.
If either team finds success and stability at quarterback this season, it can compete for the SEC West. If they can’t, well, things could get ugly for both.
5. Which team is the division sleeper? It’s hard to have a true sleeper in the SEC West since every team is capable of beating the other, but I’m going to go with Texas A&M. Arkansas just lost too much on offense (though it has somewhat of a favorable schedule), and I don’t know what to expect from Mississippi State post-Dak. A&M, meanwhile, took a significant step forward on defense last season in its first season under John Chavis, and it certainly has the talent on that side of the ball to be even better this year.
There’s also a Swagcopter full of talent on the offense, and if Trevor Knight can just bring some stability to the quarterback spot, this is a team that could sneak up on people.
6. Which coach owns the hottest seat?: As things stand now, I believe there are three coaches in this division who find themselves in serious danger of losing their jobs if things don’t work out in 2016. Those three would be Les Miles, Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn. Of those three, I’d have to say that the hottest seat belong to Miles considering how close he came to losing his job last year.
7. Which school has the best odds of reaching the College Football Playoff?: Well this is the most obvious answer of all, isn’t it? It’s Alabama, and it will likely continue to be Alabama for the foreseeable future.