Nearly every team in the SEC West lost critical parts of their team from last year’s (by the division’s standards) rather pedestrian showing. Having finally had a chance to review all the spring games, WNaBP takes stock in the first power ranking of 2017.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: Think the Tide has been head and shoulders above the league the last several years? This season, the contrast may be even starker. There is concern, naturally, after losing most of the front seven to the NFL, as well as quality players in the receiving corps. But, as we all know, defensive rotations in the Alabama defense assure that the “new starters” have been battle-tested. The strength of the unit is in a secondary that could be the best in America. The retooled linebacking corps is the most athletic we’ve seen in Tuscaloosa, and the defensive line will again be pass rushing terrors, though quality depth and more gap discipline in the run defense will need to emerge.
The offense looks to have breakout talent all over the field, particularly on the outside with an aggressive vertical passing game that new offensive coordinate Brian Daboll has brought to town. If Foster can stay healthy, Robert Foster, Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy will be as dynamic as anyone in the country -- and that’s before other highly-regarded freshmen report. The quarterbacks look great, particularly Jalen Hurts who seems to have grown tremendously in just the past four months. Najee Harris looks like the real deal, and Joshua Jacobs has become an even more physical force -- this says nothing of the actual starters, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough who sat out the game or B.J. Emmons who is still recovering from a late season injury: The running game is terrifying. The right side of the line still looks like an area of weakness, but the left side may actually be even better with the addition of Jonah Williams. The kicking game best hope Joseph Bulovas is the real deal, or place kicking again may let the Tide down. All in all, however, this is probably the most complete team in the SEC and the country...again.
T-2. LSU Tigers. Are the Tigers, rebuilding on both sides of the ball, actually the second best team in the SEC West? By virtue of how bad everyone else is, the talent and the coordinators, we hesitantly give them the nod. Dave Aranda and Matt Canada are high-level coordinators — Aranda particularly, as he is the best DC in the conference not named Jeremy Pruitt. The Tigers will again be hell to move the ball on. The front seven is stout, and, if the secondary can replace some key starters, this is again a team that can win 8-9 games just by playing defense and special teams. The offense looks a little dodgier. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: there doesn’t appear to be an SEC caliber quarterbackin Baton Rouge, though some younger players (especially Lowell Narcisse) have higher upside than Danny Etling. Derrius Guice is a very nice back, but I don’t think he can carry the team or be its offensive identity, and elite depth is lacking for the moment. The biggest threat on the outside, maybe the only one, is DJ Chark, who is a great player. The kicking game is again outstanding, but, at the end of the day, I just don’t like Canada’s offense as was implemented in the Spring Game -- LSU is not a motion, misdirection team — and I just don’t trust Ed Orgeron to outcoach Nick Saban.
T-2. Texas A&M Aggies. Has anyone does so little with so much? Recruiting has been at a tremendous level for almost a decade, and the NFL is stocked with Aggies on both sides of the ball, particularly along the lines. In theory, A&M has done everything right: Improved strength and conditioning, revamped facilities, built from the inside-out, developed a very nice running game, but somehow it hasn’t put it all together between the ears or on the field. Has the narrow window for Kevin Sumlin closed? The team has hemorrhaged most of its WR talent, has no standout at quarterback, and has lost its best defenders. The running game should be excellent with Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford, but does Sumlin have the patience to adopt a run-first mentality with that pair and QB Kellen Mond? Also risky is the plan to rebuild the defensive line using JUCO guys. The Aggies have missed on the front seven lately and look to be paying the price up front now. The linebackers are very active and improving and the secondary is especially underrated. Still the Spring game showed a team without its heart on defense and very much in transition on offense: whether it’s a transition to a permanent demotion in the standings or whether it’s a new, more-physical A&M remains to be seen. But, if the Aggies can gel, and if a signal caller can emerge, this team’s ceiling may be as high as Western runner-up. This will probably be Sumlin’s most critical year in College Station; it will require his best coaching to-date.
4. Auburn Tigers: Good news! Auburn only allowed 17 ppg last season. Bad news! The only four Auburn players selected in the NFL Draft were from that side of the ball. The linebackers should be the strength of the Tigers defense, but there are serious questions about the secondary and about a defensive line that couldn’t generate a push if they were on a toilet. The offensive line is still a work in progress but very deep, though the running game should still be excellent if a steady group can be found to open Kamryn Pettway some holes. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham has locked this thing down at quarterback: He’s plainly the best of a blah offering featuring purely-a-running-threat Malik Willis, popgun-armed Sean White and benched Woody Barrett. The WRs are serviceable, though not spectacular. Can a team compete for an SEC Championship winning shootouts every week? The Tigers aren’t quite in the same woeful defensive class as Ole Miss and Arkansas; they are coached better for one, but this is a nondescript unit at best, and has a secondary you wouldn’t trust against a triple option team. So, we’re about to find out.
5. Ole Miss Rebels. Call this one a tentative ranking; one full of ifs. In an offseason where most of the Division has questions on defense, the Rebels have perhaps the most. After two seasons of losing their best talent to the pros, and especially this year after a horrid showing on that side of the ball, Ole Miss may even be worse than in 2016. But, IF the offensive line solidifies, and IF the running game improves as we suspect it will, and IF Shea Patterson can keep up his scorching passing, and IF a rebuilt no-name defense can hold teams to 30 points or so, and IF the Rebels can stay healthy, and IF the coaching staff hasn’t been given a show cause by the NCAA, and IF the new coordinators on both sides of the ball can install their systems smoothly, the Rebels have the best chance to surprise some people. But, Ole Miss better put up 38 points or so a game. This defense isn’t going to stop a runny nose, despite having some decent players on the line. Underrated loss? TE Evan Engram: a quarterback’s best friend in exploiting the middle of the field and a red zone terror -- I’m glad he’s gone. All that said, the Rebels could finish 3rd or 7th or anywhere in between, and neither result would be a surprise.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks. How do you take an embarrassing defense and make it worse? By transitioning to the 3-4, of course. As we know from recent experience (State, UGA, Alabama) that is a vicious transition even if there’s talent up and down the roster. For the Hogs, though, that talent seems to begin and end with a deep defensive line that had some growing pains last season. This is bad news, because it’s the secondary that usually suffers the most in a move to the 3-4, and the Razorbacks could not have been worse if you slapped an Ole Miss jersey on them. It’s going to be a brutal year in Fayetteville. The O-line returns Ragnow, but that’s about it. And that’s bad news for Austin Allen, who was abused last season by any pass rush with a pulse. Also bad news is the loss of veteran receivers and tight ends that made the passing game fairly dangerous. Still, the Hogs return an excellent duo of backs, Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams, if the line can get them some holes. Still, it’s probably not enough to overcome what we think will be a brutal season in Fayetteville. If Bielema wins 8 games, make him the coach of the year -- 6 wins looks more likely.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs. There is literally not a thing I like about this team. Okay, I lied. I do like Nick Fitzgerald’s feet and the chutzpah he has to chunk the ball fearlessly all over the field, especially since he’s not good at it. Fitzy tossed four interceptions in his spring game against a Todd Grantham secondary. I didn’t know that was even possible to do. Add the error-prone sophomore to a sluggish offense that lost its best WR and RB, and the putrid defense breaking in a new DC, the aforementioned Todd Grantham, and you’ve got the recipe for 3- or 4-win season. Dan Mullen will steal his $4 million salary this season. And mark down both the Arkansas-State game and the Egg Bowl: Those should be defensive comedies of errors like the SEC West has rarely seen. I threw a wadded up paper towel at my screen watching this terrible Spring game, I can’t imagine paying US legal tender to watch it. How bad is it? SEC East bad.
Which team do I have ranked too low?
This poll is closed
Alabama (BEST EVAH! HIGHER THAN 1)
The cheaters...no, the other ones in Oxford
Does Johnny Manziel have any eligibility left?
I can’t believe people actually pay to watch football in Starkville