The question that overrides all preseason college football coverage starts in the SEC West, and it’s simply whether or not anyone can stop Alabama. Not beat them—we’ve seen the Tide lose games on their national title runs, to LSU in 2011 and to Texas A&M last season. But it’s ultimately been enough—whether by generous voters in ’11 or legitimately winning the SEC West in ’12—to get ‘Bama into the BCS National Championship Game.
When I look at the SEC West, I don’t see a lot of reason to think the Crimson Tide is going to be seriously challenged, at least when it comes to earning a berth in the SEC Championship Game on December 7. And the track record of this conference is such, that as long as the Tide is playing in Atlanta in December, they’ll have a chance to move on to Pasadena on January 6 for a third straight national championship.
Alabama has some rebuilding to do with its offensive line, a dominant unit a year ago, but the skill players are in place. A.J. McCarron is back for his senior year at quarterback, and T.J. Yeldon can adequately replace Eddie Lacy in the backfield.
The explosive Amari Cooper is back at receiver. Highly regarded freshman tight end O.J. Howard is a possible breakout candidate. Even if the Tide’s line isn’t as awesome as it was a year ago, you have to think it will at least be good enough to allow these playmakers to produce points.
Defensively, Alabama returns all four of its linebackers and this should be a strong unit, able to keep the pressure off the offense while the line comes together. The start of the season won’t be easy—a neutral-site game with Virginia Tech in Atlanta, and then a visit to Texas A&M two weeks later. But it’s clear that Nick Saban’s program doesn’t show any signs of slippage.
Who then can stop the rising Tide? The logical candidates to start would be LSU and Texas A&M, the ones who’ve beaten them on the field over the past two seasons, in Birmingham no less. But I think there are problems with both contenders.
THE RECENT CHALLENGERS
Texas A&M has only four starters back on defense, and I think this is going to be a big problem area for them all year. The Aggies’ success is going to hinge on Johnny Manziel being as good as he was last year, and I frankly don’t think that’s realistic.
Manziel was electric in becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, but to ask him to play at the level for an entire year against some of the nation’s best defenses is an awful lot.
Furthermore, I personally believe Manziel’s various summer sagas are going to leave him less than prepared, and his opponents motivated. He should still be able to play well, presuming the NCAA posse and his personal demons don’t do him in, and with Ben Malena running behind a solid left side of the offensive line, this will be a good offense. And Texas A&M will be a good team…but it doesn’t add up to being as good as Alabama.
LSU is doing some major rebuilding on defense, with virtually its entire front seven gone, and an abnormally high number of underclassmen moving into starting roles. And unlike A&M, the Tigers can’t even dream of their offense being able to compensate. LSU will run the ball well, with Alfred Blue and a pretty good offensive front. But Zach Mettenberg was a weakness at quarterback last year, and now he’s stuck with Cam Cameron as his offensive coordinator.
You may recall that Cameron was the coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens through much of last year, and several years prior. After he was fired in mid-December, the team immediately turned around and won the Super Bowl. I’m in the camp that believes there was a direct cause and effect.
I suppose we should include Mississippi State in the grouping with LSU and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Tide, but they have become a respectable, steady bowl team under Dan Mullen. They’ll have Tyler Russell back at quarterback, Lardarius Perkins in the backfield and four returning offensive lineman. The defense, with Denico Autry wreaking havoc at defensive end, will be good.
The problems are that their young in the secondary and if we shift the measuring stick from “good bowl team, could win nine games” (doable), to “can beat Alabama”, then Mississippi State’s shortcomings become more glaring, as well as the fact they looked badly outclassed in last year’s head-to-head matchup with the division kingpin.
Ole Miss is the most interesting team in this division. Hugh Freeze came over from Arkansas State after winning the Sun Belt title, put the Rebels into a bowl game last year, and then went out and racked up a top recruiting class. And he’s got an experienced team coming back, allowing for a mix of vets and newcomers that could make this team very intriguing.
Bo Wallace is a versatile quarterback, and the offensive line has four starters back, and is heavy on upperclassmen, two items that are not always one in the same at mid-level programs. The defense uses a 4-2 scheme with the line and linebackers, and have four returnees. And incoming freshman defensive end Robert Nkiemdiche was the top-rated recruit in the country. Three of the five defensive backs return, including both safeties, the spot where experience counts the most.
CLEANING UP A MESS
That’s the job of Bret Bielama at Arkansas and Gus Malzahn in Auburn, two programs who fell extremely hard in 2012. Both coaches have championship pedigrees—Bielama won three straight Big Ten titles in Wisconsin, Malzahn won the Sun Belt at Arkansas State, following in Freeze’s footsteps. But in both cases, the rebuilding is too significant and the competition too stiff to expect anything more than six wins and a bowl game. And even that would take a lot going right.
No one is going to stop Alabama in the SEC West. The better race is Ole Miss’ push to vault over A&M, LSU and Mississippi State to become the second-best team in this division. The winner of that race will be in the conversation for a BCS at-large berth, and also a Cotton Bowl bid, which goes to a team from this division.
I like the Rebels to at least finish second, Texas A&M to slip to fifth and Alabama to roll on into another SEC Championship Game that will be a de facto national semifinal.