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Mississippi State Football: Fight for the SEC West

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Who will take command in a different type of season?

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at UL Lafayette Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Southeastern Conference football, REAL football, is only two weeks away now? Be still my fluttering heart. Will the SEC lead the way for all of college football? COVID cases seem to be abundant on college campuses, often 300-500 cases a week.

Well, at that rate, many students will have been exposed and recovered by the time October comes and goes. I hope that no outbreak on any campus or team is bad enough to sideline the SEC again.

The virus has turned the sports world into a different world and made navigating all the protocols and possible repercussions a minefield for most coaches. Hopefully, we will play a full season and see what emerges on the other side of a season, seeking to help restore order in a world gone mad. Changes? Yes, there will be changes from all of this, and there will be changes in the pecking order of the SEC West as a result of team chemistry. It is almost time now.

Wait. Can you hear that whistle signaling “KICKOFF 2020”?

7. Arkansas (1-9)

Even when things change, many things often seem to remain the same, however. The Razorbacks will be evidence of that this year. Sam Pittman comes back to Arkansas after serving as Georgia’s OL coach for five years. Before that stretch, he was OL coach at the Hog parlor (2013–2015). The Razorbacks were horrible last year and utterly inept in many phases.

Changing a Fayetteville mindset is Pittman’s first task, then getting more talent and depth over time. Eight starters on offense return, including four OL. Rakeem Boyd (RB) decided to return, and the Frankfurter moved from Florida to lead the Hogs offense. All receivers return to give Franks experienced targets to apply mustard too.

Defensively, the Razorbacks were 110th in Total defense last year (the offense was 111th). Barry Odom (Missouri’s ex-coach) will coordinate the defense, but there’s little left from what was horrible last year. That may be good, though.

The Razorback defense will put a lot of really young talent on the field this year and let them attempt to grow as the season goes. The best defense for Arkansas this year may be the offense. If the “Hot-Dog Boy” can keep his offense on the field enough, the defense will have a much better chance. Don’t bet on it, Hog fans.

6. Ole Miss ( 4 – 6 )

Benito Jones and others that helped this defense improve some last year to a middle of the pack defense are gone now, and a couple of others had hit the transfer portal before practice even began. Lakia Henry and “MoMo” Sanogo return at linebacker to lead the defense, which also returns a young secondary that did play a full season in 2019. The problem will be up front, where there is no depth and not much experience. If the Sardines have to stay on the field a lot, they could quickly be canned and sealed.

Kiffin will have Corral and Plumlee to work with as he and OC Jeff Lebby, who came from UCF to join Kiffin, try to recreate some magic. Lebby’s offense flourished at UCF, ranking 2nd in total offense and 5th in scoring. If the OL can continue to improve from last year, there is a good chance that Jerrion Ealy and company can find good running lanes to mix with an increase in the passing game.

Wherever he goes, Kiffin doesn’t hesitate to take risks on offense, something the former coach didn’t do. If Kiffin can keep enough players healthy this year, his Sardines could swim further upstream than sixth.

5. Auburn (4-6)

Kevin Steele’s defense lost the top two defensive linemen from a defense that was only seventh overall in the SEC but was fourth against the run. Those two guys (Davidson and Brown) accounted for 12 sacks last year. With all linebackers returning, the Plainsmen should be OK again against the ground game, but all the defensive backfield starters have departed. If the boys up front can not get plenty of pressure on opposing QBs, the secondary may feel like they are under constant aerial attack.

Gus baby brought in Chad Morris (fired Arkansas HC) to elevate the offense. Auburn did score 33 points per game last year, but they often struggled to sustain a drive against the SEC’s upper echelon. Now, four of the starting OL have departed the Plains of Auburn and molding a new OL without spring practice and enduring complications that this virus has presented, getting in-step has been a significant struggle. Bo Nix can be explosive, but completing only 58% of his passes often stifled the offense.

Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz will be running to catch what Bo throws when he has time to deliver. The top running back hit the portal for Western Carolina. Next up is D.J. Williams and “Tank” Bigsby to carry the rock, but again, how far they can run will depend on an entirely new OL. When Arkansas couldn’t settle on a QB last year or even have a semblance of offense for two years under Mason, do you think Malzahn was brilliant to bring him in to oversee the Auburn Offense? You have to wonder.

4. LSU (5-5)

It was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime season for Orgeron in 2019, and therein is a natural problem. Only three starters were returning on defense, and two of those opted out but may opt back in. No matter the case, the questions are longer than your arm on defense. No starting experience at linebacker, minimal expertise up front, and half the secondary took Odell’s money and ran. Bo Pelini (Nebraska 2019) will attempt to put new faces in new places and seek fortune tellers’ help to overcome the effects of significant time lost in practice to the virus.

Redshirt junior Myles Brennan will take his shot at running the LSU offense. Three starters were returning, but the best receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, decided to opt-out to prepare for the next level. There is little doubt that there is abundant talent in the bayou, but it will take time to put the pieces together, and to have the ‘perfect storm’ blow in two years in a row isn’t likely. OC Steve Ensminger will do his best to construct something that remotely resembles last year’s production, but I don’t see it happening. Big Baby O will do a lot of mumbling this year as he tries to explain “what happened.”

3. Texas A&M (6–4)

Aggie-land seeks to take a step forward this year, which may be necessary if Jimbo doesn’t want his seat to start heating up. If A&M is going to take that step, the defense must raise the bar. The Aggies top CB is opting out, but seven returning starters on defense had their best total defense and least points allowed in five years. Yes, that would seem to be good if taken at the surface view, BUT each still ranked in the lower half of the SEC (eighth in Total D and ninth in points allowed).

The rush defense should be adequate, but the secondary could be exposed yet again against good passing teams. Putting 12 men on defense helped A&M yield less than 3,000 yards passing for the first time since 2012, but this is becoming more and more of a passing league, so look for the aerial yardage to rise again.

Kellen Mond enters his senior season, hoping to achieve higher goals than ever. The offensive line is seasoned and should aid Isaiah Spiller and Mond in an increased running attack, which Jimbo prefers. Besides Jhamon Ausbon, the top pass catchers have moved on, and it will take time to develop new talent. What happens with A&M will largely depend on how well the offensive line performs in the rushing attack. Without it, the defense will have a lot more pressure on it.

2. Mississippi State (7–3)

Zach Arnett brings his 3-3-5 defense to Mississippi State to fit with the Air Raid offense of Mike Leach. Arnett is one of the best young defensive minds, and he will try to bring some of the same success he has had in the past to the Bulldogs. The secondary is young, but Martin Emerson, Fred Peters and Marcus Murphy made huge strides last year. They are now joined by Emmanuel Forbes (true freshman), Esias Furdge, Collin Duncan and others to disrupt the opposition’s passing game.

The DL returns substantial experience across the front and has some depth as well. Erroll Thompson returns for his senior season at the middle linebacker to anchor and lead the defense. While this will not be the defense of 2018, it is much improved from 2019.

Graduate transfer K.J. Costello (Stanford) will pilot the air attack of Mike Leach;s offense, while true freshman Will Rogers stands ready to accept the controls. Kylin Hill will lead the ground attack along with true freshman Jo’quavious Marks. Chances are they will catch as many passes as they have rush attempts.

Hill and Marks will figure heavily into the Air Raid to supplement the best receiver core at State in years. The highly upgraded receivers coached by Steve Spurrier Jr., average 6-foot- 5, and will thrill the Dawg Nation as they play catch and run with Costello. Look for Costello and company to make significant waves in the West this year.

1. Alabama (9–1)

Bama fans had gotten spoiled to expect a defense that shuts opponents down. Many others, which are not necessarily Bama fans, came to expect much of the same when Saban was the opponent. The Bama defense has progressively given up more yards and points each year lately, but it is not necessarily a defensive regression. It is more because the SEC has become a pass-first league, love it, or hate it, but it’s true.

In 2019, DC Pete Golding had no choice but to play several talented newcomers up front, which resulted in the Tide finishing seventh in the SEC in rushing defense. All-American Dylan Moses was hurt very early and missed the season after having surgery. Moses and the others are back this year and will be supported by all those youngsters that gained a season of experience in their place. While the passing game increases, even more this year in the SEC, you can bet the Tide will rise back to the SEC’s top in defense this year.

Mac Jones will now assume leadership of the Bama offense, but true freshman Bryce Young is filling Jones’ rear-view mirror as he pushes for the lead role. Young led Mater Dei HS (California) to two high school national championships, so pressure and playing high are nothing new to him. Young may well be the best quarterback to ever sign with Bama (No. 4 overall in 2020 class. Tua was No. 180). Najee Harris will lead the ground game behind what is, without a doubt, the best OL group in the SEC and nation.

To bolster the OL starters, there is a lot of talented depth up front. Whoever the quarterback is, it shouldn’t be too hard to be successful behind the OL. Saban should be able to return his Crimson Tide to the National Championship game again in 2020.

So, there you have my projections, folks. I hope to be in the stands if allowed to see college football live very soon now. These projections are educated guesses, nothing more. I am sure others will have other opinions that differ from mine, but that is the preseason’s beauty and excitement.

No one is wrong, yet. In the SEC West, No. 2 through No. 6 could easily switch around. There are explosive offenses and improved defenses all around. The virus, injuries, and unexpected team performances from week to week will come into play. In my opinion, the lack of a TRUE home-field advantage will have a definite effect on games this year.

It is true that this is not the way any of us expected the 2020 college football season to develop, but make no mistake, we should be thrilled that we have this chance to focus on something we all love so much. No matter who you root for the most, be thankful we have leaders that have guided us to the point we can have something to excite us after months of struggling to have some normalcy. No matter what happens, no matter who wins, I am tickled Maroon and White, football is back.

Thank you, Lord.

HAIL STATE!!!!

What is your predicted order of finish for the SEC West?