All fourteen SEC schools have now opened their fall camps looking to figure out the missing pieces. Who will play at what position and depth charts for week one are being decided as you read, work, eat and sleep. In three weeks it will be “GAME WEEK” for the first time in 2019. Everybody has real optimism about what lies ahead but many dreams will be shattered then smashed in the weeks ahead. There is a lot of balance in the SEC right now meaning I can only put two or three teams in the basement dwellers section, one or two in the UPPER level and the rest will fight it out for mid and upper mid-level teams. What happens during the first six weeks of the season will go a long way in determining challengers and pretenders.
The SEC West is always the toughest overall division of any conference in the NCAA. This year is no different in my opinion. I am excited about the new season coming with many unknowns but isn’t that how life is itself?
Chad Morris begins his second year at Arkansas trying to resurrect the Razorbacks program. The Razorback offense should be better but compared to last year anyone would expect that. Morris signed the 20th ranked recruiting class in 2019 (Rivals) but it was heavy with offense centering on receivers and OL that could one day compete in the SEC. Both quarterbacks that played last year hit the portal button and exited passing two others coming in. Ben Hicks from SMU who was Morris’s recruit there and Nick Starkel from Texas A&M rode into Fayetteville. Both are experienced and can push the ball down the field given time. That is where those OL signees come in. What the offense does this year will depend on how fast the OL grows up and blends.
Defensively, the Razorbacks were 11th overall in the SEC last year. There is fresh talent in the form of defensive line and backs but even slowing down offenses in the SEC is hard to do with swiss cheese. This is the second year for John Chavis to run the Hogs defense. This year the best chance for the defense is the offense. If Morris’s offense can score enough and maintain ball control then Chavis may have a better defense. Chances are real improvement for the Razorbacks are at least a year away still.
2019 Projection: 4-8 (0-8 SEC)
Matt Luke begins his second full season as head coach. On paper you would say he had an outstanding year recruiting last year (#22 Rivals) but then if you look you would see Luke signed THIRTY-ONE players. No wonder TSUN’s class ranking was so high, they took a pie and a quarter home with them. Luke felt the need to improve all the way around so he hired two former head coaches to run his offense and defense.
On offense, Rich Rodriquez (Arizona, Michigan, West Virginia) will try to find some balance to the Shark attack after they averaged 37 pass attempts/ gm in 2018. Red-shirt freshman Matt Coral (16-22-239 yds in 2018) will try to lead the Shark attack which must find eight new starters. Almost the whole receiving core graduated so new faces will have to step up and perform. The rushing game will see senior Scottie Phillips return (928 yards) and the appearance of true freshman “Phenom” Jerrion Ealy who passed on the MLB draft out of high school could add some punch to the run game. Much of what the offense does though will depend on a rebuilding OL that returns two starters and not much else. There are several freshman coming in who will get thrown to the wolves and have to grow up before they are eaten alive.
Mike MacIntyre (Colorado, San Jose St.) will run Luke’s defense. The Shark defense didn’t strike much fear into anyone last year averaging 1.25 sacks/ game, dead last in the SEC. In fact, the “Land Minnow” defense ranked last or next to last in every defensive category in 2018. Benito Jones up front will need a lot of help from incoming freshmen to fill gaps and slow down opponent’s running game. MacIntyre’s specialty is the secondary and he should help them with techniques and understanding responsibilities. With some real, actual positional coaching the defense can’t help but improve but it must have help from the offense to control the ball and reduce the amount of time the defense stays on the field. Luke is counting on new coordinators to set traps that his Land Sharks can catch prey in but if the offense stumbles very long the only blood in the water may be his own and TSUN (Ole Miss) could become the bottom feeder in the West.
2019 Projection: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
Well Gus made another seven million, this time for a very sub-par year. If you look back at Gus’s record at Auburn he generally has a roller coaster pattern for wins and losses. So, if that holds true this year should be a championship, but as Johnny Carson always said in his comedy routines “Not so Fast”.
Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and highly touted true freshman Bo Nix who was an early enrollee will compete for playing time. Both are very talented but will have to produce right out of the gate against Oregon in Dallas. Nix did lead his 6A team to a state title but this is the SEC not high school. Gone are the top two receivers from last year, all the rest are some form of freshmen. There was no 1000 yard rusher at Auburn last year breaking a nine year run. Anthony Schwartz, Kam Martin and Boobie (yeah that is his name) Whitlow all return. The latter two we remember for remarkable fumbles. The OL is all back and all seniors so if they can stay healthy they should be able to advance the run game. As far as pass protection, well Stidham got a lot of grass stains last year resulting in Auburn having the 11th ranked total offense in the SEC. That must change.
Defensively Auburn can be good, very good. The DL is back, large and very talented. The linebackers and secondary both are talented but whatever the reason did not perform well against the passing game in 2018 finishing 7th in the SEC. If that doesn’t improve dramatically then Auburn will not contend in the West. Last, Auburn had the worst percentage of field goals made last season (57%).
Malzahn is back calling the plays again but Auburn has a really, tough schedule not only in opponents but where they play as well. Oregon is in Dallas and there are road games @ A&M, LSU and Florida. Then difficult home tilts with State, Georgia and Bama. If the defense can solve passing game woes, If the kicking game improves, IF Nix can fire bullets like the Texas Gunslinger he was in high school, If Malzahn can call plays without being predictable then this could be a special year down on the Plains of Auburn. That is a lot of “Ifs”.
2019 Projection: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
#4 Mississippi State:
Now folks it really pains me to pick my Dawgs this low but I have to see some real progression by our offensive coaching. Please believe me that if some magical growth happens on offense then I fully expect there are possibilities for #2 through #5 in the West to do a lot of changing in their order of finish compared to projection. Yes I’m being cautious but I have every hope that the Dawgs can finish in the top three in the West.
The first year of Moorhead’s offense saw our Dawgs finish 11th in points scored, 13th in passing, 12th in 1st downs and 10th in total offense, NOT GOOD! The passing game was an albatross around the neck, as only 52% of all passes were completed. Fitzgerald is gone now to Tampa Bay and there are new options for Moorhead’s offense. Junior Keytaon Thompson has been in the system a year now and performed admirably when he was called on last year but he is not a gifted passer himself. Grad transfer Tommy Stevens (Penn. St.) could very well assume the reigns after working in Moorhead’s system at PSU and then arriving in January to begin learning changes in terminology. Stevens also impressed pro scouts at the Manning passing camp this summer, many saying he was the best there. Seven of the top eight receivers including Osirus Mitchell, Austin Williams and Stephen Guidry are back along with grad transfer Isiah Zuber (Kansas St.) and a couple of very talented signees. If they can get separation there should be plenty of solid targets down the field.
Kylin Hill returns for his junior year and should be the stud in backfield as well as catching passes also. The OL lost All-SEC center Elgton Jenkins who will be playing on Sunday’s now but plenty of experience returns although positions will be juggled. Finding solutions to what were consistent breakdowns in pass protection off the edge must be solved if the offense is to have a chance to manufacture what Moorhead wants in a passing game.
On the defensive side, Coach Shoop (DC of the Year per Football Scoop) will look to keep the State defense at a high level. Reproducing a carbon copy of last year is probably not likely but there are still a lot of experienced and talented pieces back. Chauncey Rivers, Fletcher Adams and Kobe Jones will be a force up front along with redshirt freshman Fabian Lovett. The next in a line of linebackers to star in the NFL is back for his junior year, Erroll Thompson (6’1” 250lbs). Thompson is a very intelligent and gifted linebacker who is building a reputation for being one of the nation’s best. The secondary has a chance to be as good as it was last year with Brian Cole, Cameron Dantzler and other veterans returning.
Overall this group of Dawgs has a chance to be really good but probably won’t have the overall numbers from a year ago. If Moorhead can get the offense clicking on all cylinders this year State can be a dangerous team and really jumble up the SEC West. I hope we can shake it up like a 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
2019 Projection 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
#3 Texas A&M:
Jimbo heads into year two at College Station with the most experienced QB in the west. Kellen Mond has stayed and played while others transferred out. He may not be the best QB in the SEC but he will compete and keep getting up no matter how much he gets hit. His OL this year is inexperienced as a total unit but they are big on stars, they just have to figure out where they each fit after the record for musical chairs cuts off. Each of Mond’s throw-to guys are back except for All-Everything Jace Sternberger who moved on up to the big bucks. The SEC’s leading rusher has also moved on so the search for the next man up goes on. This offense will have to define itself as the season goes along and Mond staying healthy is key. After Mond, the Aggies do not have a QB who has thrown more than ONE pass in the SEC.
The Aggie defense surprisingly was 2nd in the SEC and 3rd nationally against the run last year but this isn’t last year Jimbo. Gone are DC Mike Elko’s top six frontline men. The replacements will need time to grow into the SEC as freshman and/ or JC transfers. The secondary was totally torched last year giving up 254 yards/ game in the air which was 12th in the SEC better than only TSUN and Missouri. Surely, it can’t be that bad again after a season like 2018. The linebackers are totally unproven this year but do have real potential. So early games like when Auburn comes calling in September, Alabama in October and road games to Georgia and LSU to end the year will be key to where these Aggies finish in the West. It is a real possibility that the Twelveth Man may be needed on a full time basis. It could be a good year or there could be the strong odor of dog pooh in College Station.
2019 Projection: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
The Purple Tigers were 68th in total offense in 2018. Joe Brady (N.O. Saints) will be the passing game coordinator and he has Joe Burrow back after a full season starting and working with his five experienced receivers all spring including Justin Jefferson. Five-star John Emery Jr. arrives to play in the backfield with Fournette III, together they can help provide a strong running game behind an experienced OL although a lack of depth there could be a problem into the season. If the pieces all fit together the Bengal Tigers should be strong offensively.
Defensively eight starters return and a top five recruiting class comes to Baton Rouge. The Purple People Eaters were weakest against the run last year but a year’s experience should improve the frontline two deep. The secondary is led by All-World Grant Delpit. He makes everyone around him immensely better. Overall the defense should be stronger. If Burrow can get the motor purring on the offense “Big Baby” Orgeron could be dancing in the streets. If it doesn’t come together then he’ll be mumbling and growling all year.
2019 Projection: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Potent. That is a good way to describe Tua and Alabama’s offense last season as they averaged 45 pts/ game but couldn’t get the job done when it really counted. Now, a whole new offensive staff comes in including the return of Steve Sarkasian as OC. Sarkasian spent two years in Atlanta with mediocre results. Tua has a plethora of high-octane receivers back including Jeudy, Ruggs, Waddle and DeVonta Smith. They connected for 3,966 yards through the air last year. Two stud backs (Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs) went to the NFL so now the major portion of the run game carries fall to Najee Harris. The run game was 42nd in the NCAA last year, lowest ever in the Saban era. Three veterans return on the OL but All-Americans graduated at right tackle and center. Both are positions that are key for Tua to be able to get the ball downfield.
The top four on the defensive front that had most of the sacks last year are in the NFL now. Alabama has had a lot of underclassmen drafted over the last three years and it may be catching up to the Pachyderms as evidenced by the Tide defense giving up 130+ yards per game rushing over the last five games in 2018. That is un-Saban like. Five-star Eyabi Anoma flirted with the transfer portal but decided to stay. He will need to develop quickly while a search goes on for the next nose-tackle. Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses return one last time to lead the LB corp. Bama really wanted Nathan Pickering but too bad, too sad he signed with State! The secondary should be better after getting torched at the end of the year but they will need a strong push from their DL to limit time opponent’s QBs have to read coverage. For now, Alabama has as much if not more talent than anyone but a carousel of coaching changes may be weakening the Tide’s grip on the SEC. Saban should make another run at a championship but all things pass with time.
2019 Projection 12-0 (8-0 SEC)
The SEC West is strong but each team has some real problems to solve. Who solves them first and best will determine how much shuffling this predicted order of finish undergoes. I can’t pick against Bama right now but they are as vulnerable this year as they have been in years. Except for the bottom two in the West I really think the others could easily trade places depending on how they adapt during the season and that may affect the security of coaches.
I’m ready for the smell of tailgating, popcorn and boiled peanuts because they mean football is back baby! The anticipation and excitement grows day by day now.
SEC West predicted order:
3. Texas A&M
4. Miss. State
6. TSUN (Ole Miss…. That School Up North)
Comment below your predictions for the SEC West!