2017 SEC West Preview

1. Alabama Crimson Tide– It’s the same thing with them each year. They lose pieces, they fill those holes that are open, Nick Saban leads them to a division title, they’re playing in Atlanta for a SEC title and they’re picked to not only go to the CFB playoff but win the whole thing. They enter the 2017 season as the projected favorites to win their fourth straight SEC title and they’ll be fighting to get back to the title game especially after losing in heartbreaking fashion. When I look at their offense, I want to see how Jalen Hurts develops as a quarterback and he’s had a full year to learn under new offensive coordinator, former USC head coach, Steve Sarkisian. This Tide offense will return the country’s deepest backfield in Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. However, the offense has lost three guys in tackle Cam Robinson, receiver ArDarius Stewart, and tight end O.J. Howard. Last season, the defense was the best in the country and the best I’ve seen since Nick Saban took the job in Tuscaloosa. They lose a ton of talent from last season to the NFL and that list includes Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen, Marlon Humphrey and Dalvin Tomlinson. That’s a lot of depth they’re losing but the new crop of talent coming in will look to have an immediate impact. In the trenches, tackle Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand anchor the line, while Rashaan Evans looks to build off a strong close to the 2016 season. The secondary could be the strength of the defense with the return of safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. It will be another year to watch for Crimson Tide Football.

2. LSU Tigers– The Ed Orgeron era is set to begin in Baton Rouge after the team decided to go in a different direction and fire Les Miles after an average 2-2 start. Here’s the question that everybody wants the answer too: What will we expect from the Tigers offense? Orgeron hired Matt Canada as the team’s new offensive coordinator and the biggest departure is Leonard Fournette who now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars. What they lose in Fournette, they can gain with Derrius Guice who will be one of the best backs in our game this year. In order for LSU to be taken seriously within the conference, their passing attack needs to take a serious step forward. Quarterbacks Danny Etling and Brandon Harris will battle for the starting job once again, but the receiving corps suffered a huge blow after Malachi Dupre declared early for the NFL Draft. The defense will be the strength for the Tigers once again in 2017. Arden Key is back and will be “key” to their success (pun intended). They lost Tre’Davious White, Jamal Adams, Kendell Beckwith and Davon Godchaux.

3. Auburn Tigers– Now, this is a very interesting team to watch. Jared Stidham has transferred to Auburn to be the team’s new starting quarterback. The reason why I say they could be an interesting team is that they could be the one team to challenge Alabama. He will be the best quarterback that Gus Malzahn has had since taking over the program as head coach in 2013. Stidham enters with a nice core surrounding him. Running back Kamryn Pettway battled injuries late in the season but still finished with 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns. Additionally, the Tigers return four out of the team’s top five receivers from 2016 and a solid foundation in the trenches. The defense will have a few voids to fill. Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, cornerback Joshua Holsey and safety Rudy Ford expired their eligibility.

4. Texas A&M Aggies– They’ve finished with a record of 8-5 in three straight seasons. That’s not a bad mark at all. They’ve struggled in conference play and haven’t finished above .500 in SEC play since 2012. Winning eight games this year could be a challenge for Kevin Sumlin’s group. Quarterback Trevor Knight is gone and there is an open competition between Senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, and true freshman Kellen Mond. Until the quarterback gets comfortable, we will see a lot of Trayveon Williams and the running game. As a defense, they have improved under coordinator John Chavis. This year, they’ll be without Myles Garrett who became the first overall pick in the NFL draft in April.
The strength of the defense will be the secondary anchored by safety Armani Watts and cornerbacks Nick Harvey and Priest Willis.

5. Arkansas Razorbacks– The gap between No. 4 and No. 7 in the SEC West next season is very small. For now, let’s give the edge to Bret Bielema’s team. The Razorbacks ended the year on a down note by losing to Missouri and lost in the Belk Bowl after building a commanding 24-0 lead. The offense should be the strength of this team once again in 2017, as quarterback Austin Allen and running backs Devwah Whaley will be the starting running back after Rawleigh Williams decided to step away from football after suffering an injury during Spring Practices. Finding new playmakers at receiver and developing the offensive line will be the top priorities this spring for Bielema. After giving up 31.1 points a game on defense, it was clear change was needed for this unit headed into 2017. Coordinator Robb Smith won’t return, and the Razorbacks could shift to more of a 3-4 approach under new play-caller Paul Rhoads next fall. Adding to the concerns for Rhoads is the departure of a few key cogs, linemen Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Taiwan Johnson, linebacker Brooks Ellis and cornerback Jared Collins.

6. Ole Miss Rebels– They didn’t make a bowl game in 2016 and they posted their first losing record under coach Hugh Freeze. This may be a rebuilding year for the Ole Miss Rebels. Chad Kelly, who was considered to be the best quarterback in the SEC is gone and tight end Evan Engram is also playing professionally. Quarterback Shea Patterson gained valuable experience by starting the final three games of 2016 and heads into 2017 as one of the SEC’s top breakout candidates. Hopefully, Ole Miss gains some balance on the offense and not depend on its passing attack to win games for them. They averaged only 3.9 yards per rush and that won’t cut it. You have to be able to run the ball within this conference. New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff inherits a group that finished last in the conference in points allowed (34.0 ppg) and surrendered 6.2 yards per play. End Marquis Haynes, linebacker DeMarquis Gates, tackle Benito Jones and defensive backs Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield return as the foundation for the defense in 2017.

7. Mississippi State Bulldogs– The Bulldogs earned their seventh consecutive trip to a bowl last year and finished the 2016 season with momentum on their side. After a dominant win over rival Ole Miss (55-20) in the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State edged Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish the year at 6-7. While coach Dan Mullen’s team is penciled in at No. 7 here, this team is a lot closer to No. 4 than it is the cellar of the West Division. As we mentioned above, there is little separation between these teams. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is back after a breakout season to headline an offense that averaged 30.4 points a game in 2016. Receiver Fred Ross, center Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are three big losses on offense. However, running back Aeris Williams (720 yards) and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) provide two weapons in the skill positions for Fitzgerald to utilize. Improving a defense that surrendered 31.8 points per game is a must in 2017. And Mullen already took a big step in addressing those concerns by hiring coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. Linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Brandon Bryant are two building blocks for Grantham in 2017. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs move up this list as we see what transpires in spring ball.

Prediction: Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide will continue their dominance and win the SEC West once again. I see Hurts, Scarbrough, and Harris all having big years and the defense may not be as lights out as they were last year, but they will still be effective. Look for this team to play with a vengeance this year after losing in the national championship for the first under Saban.