2018 SEC West Preview

1. Auburn Tigers– They really came out of left field last season. This was the best season they put together since 2013, the year when they made it to the national championship and fell short to the Florida State Seminoles. Entering last season, Gus Malzahn was on the hot seat, but I think he saved his job when his team was able to defeat two number one ranked teams in the same season and get to the SEC title game. This will once again be the biggest threat to the Alabama Crimson Tide. With running back Kerryon Johnson gone, the offensive workload will be placed more on the shoulders of quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He returns along with the receiving core from 2017. The biggest question mark for Malzahn is his offensive line and how they struggled to play well when Johnson was out. The defense was among the SEC’s best last year and should be near the top once again. Coordinator Kevin Steele must replace edge rusher Jeff Holland, cornerback Carlton Davis and safeties Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews. However, tackle Derrick Brown and end Marlon Davidson will be among the best in the SEC in the trenches for 2018.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide– For the fifth time in nine seasons, they enter a new season as the defending champions and they are the favorites once again to win the SEC West. After Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa, the hero of the national title game will more than likely be the starting quarterback to open the season and I agree with him being the starter because of his ability to stretch the field and he’s a much better passer than Hurts and extending the play will be extremely beneficial for promising receivers Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy. Their defense won’t miss a beat under Saban, even if they lose guys like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Da’Ron Payne. Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings, and Dylan Moses are back to anchor the linebacking corps, and Raekwon Davis is poised to push for All-America honors at end. The biggest concern is the secondary especially with secondary players Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace and Tony Brown all expiring their eligibility.

3. Mississippi State Bulldogs– It’s a new chapter of Bulldogs football that will begin in 2018. Dan Mullen left the university to take the head coaching job at Florida and Joe Moorhead is in and comes into a very favorable situation. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returns after suffering a leg injury in the season finale last season and he should have success in Moorhead’s offense and he’s joined in the backfield by talented running backs in Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill. The offensive line will return four starters from 2017 and the receiving core should receive a boost from the return of Malik Dear. Former Vanderbilt and Tennessee play-caller Bob Shoop was a good addition as the program’s defensive coordinator. He inherits a defense that gave up 20.9 points a game last fall. This unit is anchored by a strong front seven, which includes All-SEC candidates in Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.

4. LSU Tigers– It was the first year under Ed Orgeron and they went 9-4 which isn’t bad. This could be a rebuilding year for the Tigers and there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding their offense entering 2018. There’s a new offensive coordinator in town after the university decided to part ways with Matt Canada after just one season. Along with new coordinator Steve Ensminger is a new quarterback in Myles Brennan and running back Derrius Guice is playing professionally. The defense will still be one of the best and the Tigers retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and that was a huge win for them. He’s one of the best defensive minded guys in the country and I expect the Tigers defense to carry the team.

5. Texas A&M Aggies– After years of speculations, the school finally decided to part ways with Kevin Sumlin and they got their guy they were targeting in Jimbo Fisher. With a promising core of young talent in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Aggies sneak into contention for a spot in the top 25 in 2018. Fisher’s background on offense should help mold quarterback Nick Starkel after a promising redshirt freshman campaign. The ground game is in good shape with the return of running back Trayveon Williams, and the offensive line returns nearly intact. Christian Kirk will be missed at receiver, but four out of the top six statistical wide receivers were freshmen in 2017. Continuing the theme with youth playing key roles in College Station, new coordinator Mike Elko inherits a defense with just two seniors among its top 20 tacklers from last season. Safety Armani Watts is the unit’s biggest loss, but end Landis Durham (10.5 sacks) and linebackers Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson form a promising core for Elko to build around in the front seven. A road trip to Alabama and a home game against Clemson will give Fisher a good idea where his team stacks up in the SEC West in September.

6. Arkansas Razorbacks– Chad Morris has taken the reigns as head coach of the Razorbacks after a successful stint at SMU running their program. Morris is a good hire for this program, but it will take the former Texas high school coach a couple of years to recruit and adapt the players to his system. Morris is known for his high-powered offenses, and the new staff inherits promising playmakers in the form of running backs Devwah Whaley, Chase Hayden and all-purpose threat T.J. Hammonds. Additionally, receiver Jared Cornelius is expected to return after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury. Sophomore Cole Kelley is the frontrunner to start under center after earning four starts in place of an injured Austin Allen in 2017. The biggest concern for Morris is the offensive line, which loses standout center Frank Ragnow and was inconsistent throughout last season. New defensive coordinator John Chavis has a wealth of knowledge from stops at LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M as the play-caller. He inherits a defense that gave up 36.2 points a game in 2017 but returns promising linebackers, De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw, along with lineman McTelvin Agim. In the secondary, cornerback Ryan Pulley is back after missing nearly all of 2017 due to an injury.

7. Ole Miss Rebels– They knocked off the interim term of Matt Luke’s title and made him the permanent head coach. He went 6-6 in his first year Can Luke build off that and get this program to a winning record in 2018? It’s certainly within reach, but Ole Miss is once again banned from the postseason. Jordan Ta’amu stepped up at quarterback once Shea Patterson was lost for the year due to injury and guided the offense to at least 31 points in four out of the last five games. He will be throwing to one of the SEC’s top receivers in A.J. Brown (75 catches), with DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf providing support as secondary targets. Luke has to find a new go-to back to replace Jordan Wilkins (1,011 yards in 2017), but the offensive line returns left tackle Greg Little, center Sean Rawlings and guard Javon Patterson. Considering the defense allowed 34.6 points a game last season and is set to lose some key pieces, Ole Miss will have to win with its offense in high-scoring affairs. End Marquis Haynes, lineman Breeland Speaks, and linebacker DeMarquis Gates are the top losses on this side of the ball for Luke.

Prediction: The Crimson Tide will be on top of the SEC West once again. It will be just another year at the office for Saban and his team. This could be one of the better Alabama offenses with Tua under center and just from watching him in the national title game, I saw so much of Russell Wilson when he was on the field. I expect their defense to adjust as the season goes along despite the secondary being their biggest question mark.