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If the SEC predictions at media days last month are any indication, the biggest threat to Alabama winning the SEC West will be the NCAA Transfer Portal.
Alabama lost some key depth to the portal late last year as unhappy players entered it—either physically or mentally—before the season was even over. Other backups forced to play because of injuries at receiver and the secondary also did not play as well as they could have in the national championship game loss to Georgia because they had lost focus on the bench.
At Alabama, often players have to wait to play, but they better be ready in case they do play. Look for Coach Nick Saban to keep a closer eye on the happiness of his depth this season.
CAN ANYONE TAKE GEORGIA IN THE SEC EAST?
Here is the college football version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the SEC West with Alabama in the starring role and one less co-star:
SEC West Predictions:
Saban has repeated as a national champion only once in his career (2012 season). His career of course includes seven national titles — six at Alabama from 2009-20 and one at LSU in the 2003 season.
Therefore, six of the seven titles came after he did not win the title the previous season. He also is 1-for-1 in winning national titles after losing the national title game the previous season. That happened in the 2017 season after losing to Clemson in the 2016 national title game.
Alabama is coming off a 33-18 loss to Georgia in the national championship game last season after leading, 18-13, in the fourth quarter.
So, look out!
WAS LAST YEAR A “REBUILDING” YEAR?
Alabama returns much of last year’s team that finished 13-2, including two of the best players in America — Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and Bronko Nagurski Award-winning edge rusher Will Anderson Jr.
Of all Saban’s teams that have reached the national championship game—10 since 2003—the 2021-22 team may have looked the worst at isolated times. There was the 41-38 loss at Texas A&M, which finished an average 8-4, and narrow escapes over LSU, 20-14, and Auburn, 24-22, in overtime. LSU and Auburn were both poor last season, each finishing 6-7.
Still, look out! One of the reasons Saban has been so successful for so long is that he fears failure regardless of how much he does not fail. He is more comfortable coming off of a non-national title season because he does not have to worry as much about his team’s complacency.
Alabama, by the way, received 177 of a possible 181 first-place votes to win the West at SEC Media Days in July.
2. Texas A&M
This is a critical season for Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher, who will be entering his fifth season in College Station. Through four seasons, Fisher is 34-14 (.708 winning percentage) overall and 21-12 (.636) in the SEC with second-place finishes in 2018 and 2020, a fourth in 2019 and a fifth place last year via the tiebreaker. The Aggies finished 4-4 in the SEC in 2021 for the second time under Fisher, but he lost to both of the other 4-4 teams — Arkansas and Mississippi State.
That is not good for the highest paid college football coach in the nation when he was hired from Florida State after the 2017 season at $75 million over 10 years. After going 9-1 and nearly making the College Football Playoff in the 2020 Covid season, Fisher was bumped to $9 million a year for 2021 with his contract extended through 2031.
But so far, Fisher is only slightly better than previous coach Kevin Sumlin through his first four seasons. Sumlin was 36-16 (.692) overall and 17-15 (.531) in the SEC from 2012-15. He was 8-5 and 4-4 and 7-6 and 4-4 over his last two seasons and was fired.
So, if Fisher is too close to the 8-win season this year, he could be in trouble headed into the 2023 season. Yes, he had the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in 2022, but his passing offense — his specialty at Florida State and as LSU’s offensive coordinator before that — has continued to underachieve and look outdated. He does have starting quarterback Haynes King back this year after he missed all but two games last year with a broken leg. The Aggies will be better this season than last, but how much could be critical to Fisher’s future.
3. Mississippi State
Third-year coach Mike Leach returns one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Will Rogers, but that is not all. The Bulldogs return eight starters on offense and as many proven players on both sides of the ball as anyone in the league. Among those are wide receiver/kick returner Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin, wide receiver Jaded Walley, running backs Dillon Johnson and Jo’Quarious Marks and center LaQuinston Sharp.
Defensively, the Bulldogs bring back impressive players in linebackers Tyrus Wheat and Nathaniel Watson, defensive tackle Cameron Young and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes.
The Razorbacks return one of the country’s best dual-action quarterbacks in KJ Jefferson, who threw for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for another 664 and six touchdowns last season. He lost wide receiver Treylon Burks, but Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood could help keep the offense going.
Also back are center Ricky Stromberg and guard Brady Latham along with running backs Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson.
Bumper Pool will lead the defense as one of the best all-around linebackers in the SEC, and he will be joined by Alabama transfer Drew Sanders. The defensive line needs to produce a better pass rush, and the secondary suffered some key losses. But there are transfers from Georgia and LSU in safety Latavious Brinie and cornerback Dwight McGlothern, respectively.
5. Ole Miss
Since coach Johnny Vaught’s day in the 1950s and ’60s, Ole Miss has had its moments here and there, but has been unable to be a consistent big-time winner year after year. The Rebels won their most regular season games in history last year at 10-3 with a progressive, modern offense behind Coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Matt Corral.
Kiffin is also beginning to prove himself as an excellent overall coach as his defenses have been strong as well, particularly last year. He lost defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to Texas A&M, though.
So, can he match the 2021 season in his third season in 2022 after key losses in talent on the field and in the booth? If he does, he will be one of the hottest coaches in the country.
At the moment, he has not named a starting quarterback. The choice is either transfer Jaxson Dart or Corral backup Luke Altmyer.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward made perhaps one of the best hires in college football last year by attracting Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. But Kelly inherits a roster full of holes after 5-5 and 6-7 seasons under former coach Ed Orgeron in 2020 and ’21 following the 2019 national title.
Other than the defensive line and wide receiver, there are question marks everywhere. But LSU will look better, be more organized, play better and win more games than in the previous two seasons. But it will not be more than eight or nine regardless of who is at quarterback — Jayden Daniels or Garrett Nussmeier.
If neither of those shine, Kelly needs to consider playing true freshman Walker Howard more than the four games necessary to keep his red shirt. He has often looked the best of the three in preseason practices.
The offense needs to improve dramatically for coach Bryan Harsin to survive his second season after a 6-7 and 3-5 season in 2021. The season ended with five straight losses, including three in which Auburn failed to score more than 17 points. Whether new starting quarterback TJ Finley is the answer remains to be seen. He will need help from teammates and coaches.
The defense will again be top notch and played well enough last season to beat Alabama, South Carolina and Houston in the Birmingham Bowl.
Here is how Trey Wallace picked the SEC West:
- Texas A&M
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi State