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TGS 2014 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE SEC--PART II
We conclude our preview of the SEC with a look at the West Division. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2013 straight-up and pointspread records included. Also, please check out our feature on the new SEC Network, found on our home page...

by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst


ALABAMA (SUR: 11-2; PSR 7-6)...Alabama must replace five All-SEC performers and QB A.J. McCarron, but no team in college football reloads better than the Tide, which is our pick to win the SEC West once again. Remember, Bama had won its first 11 games and was steaming toward a shot at an unprecedented third straight BCS national title before one of the wildest plays in college football history put an end to the Tide?s run. And Nick Saban?s crew followed that crushing 34-28 Iron Bowl defeat with a 45-31 clunker vs. underdog Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Mastermind Saban--who has brought in the No. 1 recruiting class nationally for the fourth consecutive season--vowed to start over and re-establish his team?s identity. ?To have the psychological toughness to sustain the season, to play the kind of football we?ve won playing around here, you have to pound.? Saban says. ?You have to pound your hand in the sand until it?s tough enough to go through it.? Can you tell Saban, who received a contract extension in the offseason, has a bad taste after ending the season with rare back-to-back losses?

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Six starters return to an offense (38.2 ppg LY) under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, a somewhat surprising choice by Saban after he was fired as head coach at USC. Kiffin, who does have some familiarity with the SEC after serving briefly as the Tennessee mentor, must find a replacement for highly-successful field general McCarron, who was an eye-popping 36-4 as a starter. He?ll choose between sr. QB Blake Sims and 6-5 Florid State transfer Jacob Coker (Mobile, Ala. native), who?ll join the team over the summer and has two years of eligibility left. The offense is flat out loaded at the skill positions. The dynamic RB duo of T.J. Yeldon (1,235 YR & 14 TDs) & Derrick Henry (382 YR) gives the Tide a powerful infantry attack, while five of the top six receivers are back, led by marvelous WR Amari Cooper (104 grabs for 1,736 yds.& 15 TD L2Ys). Three starters return on the OL.

Three starters return to the usually-stifling defense (13.9 ppg LY), which allowed a miserly 106.2 ypg rushing. The pass rush has been an issue for the past two years (only 17 sacks LY), but this year?s group might have the proper pieces to rekindle memories of the dominant 2011 front seven. Soph DE A?Shawn Robinson (5.5 sacks LY) will be a terror on the edge, while two transfers from East Mississippi Community College, Jarran Reed & D.J. Pettway, made an immediate impact during the spring and promise to be key members of the rotation. The secondary, which was arguably the Tide?s the biggest weakness last year, must find three new replacements to quickly blend with ultra-athletic, hard-hitting SS Landon Collins. The secondary suffered a blow when starting CB Eddie Jackson tore an ACL in early spring, but watch for prized early enrollee frosh CB Tony Brown, who shined in the spring, to immediately play a key role. There is uncertainty at the kicking positions, but dazzling returner Christon Jones (three return TDs LY!) should continue to provide numerous highlights.

AUBURN (SUR 12-2; PSR 12-2)...Optimism is naturally high on The Plains after Auburn came within 13 seconds of a second national championship in four years. In Gus Malzahn?s first campaign, the Tigers became the first team in SEC history to go from winless to an outright conference championship in one year. Auburn had its share of close calls in last year?s magical campaign, with near miraculous victories over Georgia and hated rival Alabama. But with the offense returning most of its key components and its reloading defense fully integrating the systems in Year Two of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, the Tigers figure to push Bama for the West title. Admittedly, the schedule is challenging with tough road trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and revenge-minded Iron Bowl foe Alabama.

Eight starters return to an offense (39.5 ppg; 328 ypg rushing) that led the nation in rushing last year. For the first time in nine seasons at the collegiate level, Malzahn has a returning starter at QB in scintillating Nick Marshall (1,976 YP, 14 TDP; 1,068 YR & 12 TDs), who is focused on becoming a better passer and opening up the attack. There is a solid blend of speed and power at RB with srs. Cameron Artis-Payne (610 YR) and Corey Grant (647 YR, 9.8 ypc), along with promising RS frosh Peyton Barber & five-star frosh Roc Thomas. If the offense is going to achieve greater balance (Tigers rushed 70.7% of the time LY), the WR corps needs to be steadier, other than sure-handed, speedy Sammie Coates (42 catches, 7 TDs; 21.5 yds. per catch!). Enter 6-4 WR D?haquille Williams, the nation?s No.1 juco transfer and a natural pass-catcher, which should mean less double coverage for Coates. Four starters return to a bulldozing OL.

Six starters are back on a stop unit (24.7 ppg LY), which was reacting in spring practice rather than learning, which should carry over to some improvement on game day. Second-year d.c. Ellis Johnson experimented with a ?Rhino Package? in the spring to take advantage of the team?s athletic ability along the front. Rising soph DT Carl Lawson (4 sacks LY), a Freshman All-SEC pick, who moved into the spot of NFL draftee Dee Ford, has a chance to be the SEC?s breakout defender in 2014. Emerging jr. star LB Cassanova McKinzy (team-leading 75 tackles) returns as the hub of the 4-2-5 scheme, which will require some shuffling in the secondary after losing three key contributors, including the top cover CB Chris Davis. Some understandable concerns on special teams, with inexperienced RS freshmen stepping into the punter and kicking roles. After its non-covering 31-24 victory over Washington State in the opener, the Tigers roared to a 12-1 pointspread mark in 2013.

OLE MISS (SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6)...With fourteen starters back, including the SEC?s most experienced QB in Bo Wallace, there is hope in Oxford resurgent Ole Miss finally breaks through for its its first SEC championship in 51 years. Stranger things have happened. After inheriting a dismal state of affairs in 2011, crafty third-year HC Hugh Freeze---who brought in a top 10 recruiting class last year--has gone 15-11 in the last two years (two bowl wins), including an injury-plagued (on the defensive side) 8-5 campaign in 2013. ?I know beyond a shadow of doubt that we?re a better football team than we were two years ago or last year. Freeze says. ?But I have know idea what that means in the won-loss column.? The revved-up Rebels do benefit by hosting three big revenge games vs. Alabama, Auburn & Mississippi State.

Five starters return to a hurry-up, no-huddle & balanced attack (30 ppg; 190 ypg rushing; 283 ypg passing) efficiently led by read-option operator 6-4 sr. Bo Wallace (3,346 YP, 18 TDs; 64.8%), who should have his healthiest season yet. He injured his shoulder in the fourth game of 2012, and the subsequent surgery in the offseason kept him from the necessary conditioning work. That showed up with fatigue and arm weakness at the end of last season, Freeze says. The inconsistency of LY?s power-running game could be solved by 6-3, 296-pound juco QB/RB Jeremy Liggins, while seasoned Jaylen Walton (team-leading 1,360 all-purpose yds.) & I?Tavius Mathers (563 YR, 5.9 ypc) are a proven RB tandem. Brilliant WR Donte Moncrief left early for the NFL, but look for sensational 6-2 soph Laquon Treadwell (72 catches; SEC Frosh of the Year in 2013) to be more of a downfield threat after averaging only 8.4 yds. per catch year ago. Three new starters must be found on a more athletic OL, which will be anchored by 6-5, 315-pound soph LT Laremy Tunsil, who is already on the radar of NFL scouts.

Nine starters return to a maturing defense (23.7 ppg) spearheaded by soph DT Robert Nkemdiche (nation?s top recruit in 2013 was a Frosh A-A LY) & 2nd-team All-SEC LB Serderius Bryant (team-leading 78 tackles) in the front seven. The veteran secondary could be the SEC?s best, featuring All-American and Jim Thorpe Award Finalist Award finalist, FS Cody Prewitt (6 ints.) & 6-2 soph Derrick Jones, who has NFL potential says co-coordinator Dave Wommack. Plus, soph Tony Conner (Frosh A-A LY) returns as the starter at the ?Husky? spot, the fifth DB in the 4-2-5 scheme who often plays near th line of scrimmage primarily for run support. And four-star true frosh FS C.J. Hampton was heavily recruited by Nick Saban, who couldn?t sway him from his Ole Miss commitment despite making a personal visit by landing his helicopter on the practice field! The defense will boast increased quality depth, since 20 of the 23 players with at least 10 tackles last season are still on the team. Big ? on special teams with RS frosh taking over at kicker and punter. Huge Freeze is a profitable 29-11 vs. the spread the last three seasons, including his one-year stint at Arkansas State in 2011.

LSU (SUR 10-3 ; PSR 6-7)...Sure, LSU owns the talent and depth to post a school-record fifth consecutive season of double-digit wins in 2014. But reaching that goal and cracking the top three in the brutally tough SEC West is no sure thing with so much inexperience at the skill positions. The leading passer (Zach Mettenberger), leading rusher (Jeremy Hill), and three leading receivers (Odell Beckham Jr. , Jarvis Landry and Hill) will be donning NFL uniforms in 2014. But we won?t be shocked if risk-taking ninth-year HC Les Miles (his Tiger teams have finished in the AP Top 25 in 8 of his 9 years in Baton Rouge) works his magic once again, placing extra emphasis on a power running game and a physical defense, which were the key components in reaching the BCS National Championship Game in 2011.

Six starters return to an offense (35.8 ppg) heavily depend on new blood at WR to keep opposing defenses from consistently putting 8-9 defenders in the box. Soph WR Travin Dural (7 catches LY) has big-play ability, while the highly-regarded frosh duo of Malachi Dupre & Trey Quinn will work into the rotation early on. The QB competition between soph Anthony Jennings and early enrollee true frosh Brandon Harris--who is one of the top dual-threat triggermen in the 2014 class--could extend into the regular season. The solid sr. RB duo of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee (combined 936 YR & 15 Tds) helps fill the void lef t by the early departures of Hill and Alfred Blue. And anticipate ?franchise? frosh Leonard Fournette (7,619 YR & 88 TDs at St. Augustine in New Orleans)--who is being touted by some recruiting services as the nation?s No. 1 prospect in 2104--could become the workhorse sooner than later. Four starters return to the veteran OL, anchored by La?El Collins, who passed on the NFL to return for a potential All-American senior campaign.

Six starters are also back on the John Chavis defense, which slipped a bit from 2012 to 2013, going from 307.6 ypg and 17.5 ppg to 340.7 & 22 ppg. But after giving up a combined 82 points in losses at Georgia and Alabama, that unit did exhibit late-season improvement by limiting Johnny Football to only one TD in a dominating 34-10 victory in Baton Rouge. The defensive front must break in new tackles, but hard-charging DEs Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco (combined 14.5 TFL & 7 sacks) are likely to be two of the top edge rushers in the SEC. The LB corps is still the weak link of the defense, with the six returning lettermen combing for a single takeaway LY. The standard of excellence is high for the NFL-producing Tiger secondary. And look for confident soph CBs Tre?Davious White & Rashard Robinson to quickly become one of best young covering tandems in the country. Accurate soph kicker Colby Delahoussaye nailed 13 of 14 in his frosh campaign.

TEXAS A&M (SUR 9-4; PSR 5-8)...The Aggies won 20 games and earned plenty of national respect in their first two seasons in the SEC. And even though A&M has recruited back-to-back top 10 classes, it will be highly difficult for the Aggies to sustain that level of success with the early departure of Johnny Football, who left after two electrifying campaigns. Sure, Kevin Sumlin?s troops should earn a sixth straight bowl invitation, but his squad may be too young and inexperienced to finish in the upper echelon of the SEC West in the first season of the post-Manziel era. Aggies have a rough opener at South Carolina on August 28, but they have a good chance to build some momentum with four winnable September games before a land mine-filled October.

Five starters return to an offense (44.2 ppg) which should still generate plenty of points behind either soph QB Kenny Hill (suspended indefinitely in spring; check status) or frosh Kyle Allen, the consensus No. 1 prep prospect and a January enrollee. A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital says, ?We have some talented guys competing for the QB job and we also talented people around the quarterback that wins the job, which will take some pressure off the starter.? To help alleviate some of the burden of the new triggerman is a potent ground assault comprised of punishing & deceptively fast Tra Carson (329 YR, 7 TDs), elusive & explosive Trey Williams (407 YR, 6 TDs) & eager Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams. Johnny Football?s favorite weapon Mike Evans also left early for the NFL, but the next big go-to target may be 6-5 RS frosh Ricky Seals-Jones, who could have a monster year after suffering an early-season injury in 2013. Second-leading WR Malcome Kennedy (60 grabs LY) is back, while highly-coveted true frosh Speedy Noil could become a major force right out of the chute. ?As explosive as anybody I?ve ever seen,? says WR coach David Beaty. The seasoned OL (4 starters back) should continue to provide a strong foundation, led by potential high-round NFL prospect LT Cedric Ogbuehi, who moves over from RT.

Nine starters are back on defense (32.2 ppg, 475.8 ypg) which needs to be much tougher everywhere. The DL has a chance to make some hay this year. If soph DT Isaiah Golden returns to school in the fall, as expected, the Aggies will welcome back all four starters and all four backups from last season. Not to mention a host of reinforcements from a good recruiting class, including frosh DE Myle Garrett, who is the most highly coveted defensive lineman to sign with the Aggies since former All-American Sam Adams in 1991. But to become much stouter vs. the run (allowed 222.3 ypg rushing--110th) a young LB corps (three frosh played heavy minutes) must mature swiftly, while vets Donnie Baggs & Tommy Sanders must bounce back after disappointing years. Lock-down sr. CB Deshazor Everett is the only sure thing in an uncertain secondary, which permitted 253.5 ypg passing LY (95th nationally). Special teams is an asset with PK Josh Lembo (converted 8 of 10 FGs), league-leading punter Dre Kaser (47.4 yd. avg.) and dangerous return specialist Trey Williams.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (SUR 7-6; PSR 8-5)...With a whopping 16 starters back, there are a plenty of ?good vibes? in Starkville this season. Bulldog mentor Dan Mullen called this spring the best since he arrived six years ago. There is also a feeling of renewal at MSU, with the completion of an $80 million project to enclose the north end zone at Davis Wade Stadium, adding 6,000 seats, suits and a massive scoreboard to a facility that turns 100 years old in 2014. The Bulldogs have the opportunity to finish above .500 in SEC play for the first time since 1999, and finally beat some teams they aren?t supposed to in the typically-treacherous West Division. MSU should gain some early confidence from a probable 3-0 start before a pivotal trio of games vs. LSU, Texas A&M & Auburn, though the last two foes must visit the now horseshoe-shaped venue in Starkville.

Eight starters return to an offense (27.7 ppg) that has all the needed ingredients to be much more explosive this season. Multi-talented jr. QB Dak Prescott (1,940 YP, 829 YR & 23 TDs), who is arguably the SEC?s premier pass-run threat, should benefit from the tutelege of new QB coach Brian Johnson (he?s a former Utah QB recruited by Mullen), who looks to perfect Prescott?s passing. ?Prescott carries himself with a certain demeanor that draws people to him.? Johnson says. ?He has some special abilities and tools.? And Prescott will take full advantage of a strong supporting cast, including darting 5-9 RB Josh Robinson, who says he is faster this season after losing 10 pounds but gaining muscle in the offseason. Look out for frosh gem RB Aeris Williams, who was Mr. Football in Mississippi after rushing for 1,697 yds. & 21 TDs as a prep senior. Mullen says he has his best group of receivers, with sr. Jameon Lewis (64 catches LY), Robert Johnson (34) & super soph De?Runnya Wilson (26), who left the basketball team early to focus on spring football.

Eight starters also return to a defense (23 ppg) loaded with so much depth (19 of the 22 from last year?s two-deep are back!) up front that Mullen plans on rotating 11 players on the front. Massive 6-5, 300-pound soph DT Chris Jones (10 QB hurries, 3 sacks) looks like a star-in-the-making, while the robust LB corps--paced by omnipresent Benardrick McKinney (173 tackles L2Ys)--is expected to be the heart of the defense again, according to the coaching staff. Tight-covering CB Taveze Calhoun (45 tackles, 3 ints.) is the unquestioned leader of an experienced secondary returning three starters. However, ball-hawking FS Nickoe Whitley (5 picks LY) must be replaced. The biggest issue on the squad is the struggling kicking game. Unreliable PK Devon Bell, who made only 6 of 14 FGs LY, has been supplanted by Evan Sobiek (3 of 6 FGs LY).

ARKANSAS (SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8)...After an expected 3-0 start vs. weak opposition at home last season, Arkansas proceeded to drop its next 9 games, including an 0-8 mark in the SEC, its first winless conference record since 1942! And though the Hogs should be improved on both sides of the ball, second-year mentor Bret Bielema will be hard-pressed to end that frustrating losing skein in the SEC, with all eight conference foes bowl participants last year. After two years of having one of the nation?s worst turnover margins (118th & 111th ranking in TO margin L2Ys!), Bielema has harped on better ball security on offense and more ball disruption on defense. The offensive staff remained intact during the offseason. But three new assistants, including defensive coordinator Robb Smith, signaling the defense?s fourth new set of plans and calls in four years.

Seven starters return to a ground-oriented attack (20.7 ppg) needing to display much greater pass-run balance to have any real success against the stout SEC defenses. But the jury is still way out on inconsistent 6-3 jr. QB Brandon Allen (49.6%, 13 TDs, 10 ints.), who must develope some rapport with a group of WRs that lacked big-play ability a year ago. WR Demetrius Wilson (out LY with a torn ACL) is being counted on to bring some pop to an atrocious passing game (148.5 ypg LY--114th nationally). Coaches have set a goal of 200 ypg passing in 2014. Second-team QB Al Derby moved to TE in the spring, leaving backup duties to RS frosh Austin Allen (Brandon?s brother) & true frosh Rafe Peavey. Bielema, who produced a string of productive TB tandems at Wisconsin, has his pair in Fayetteville with Jonathan Williams (900 YR, 6 ypc) & Alex Collins (1,026 YR), both of whom ranked among the top 10 SEC rushing leaders. Add to the mix speedy RB Korliss Marshall, who spent most of his time at safety last season.

Only four starters are back on an shaky defense (30.8 ppg) still short of big-time talent and is adjusting to its fourth defensive coordinator since December 2011. Second-team All-SEC DE Trey Flowers (5 sacks & 13.5 TFL LY) is by far the most accomplished player on a stop unit that was charitable vs. the run (178.4 ypg) and the pass (235 ypg) a year ago. The Hogs have struggled at the LB position for several terms, but the expectations by the staff is that srs. Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight and soph Brooks Elis will play faster and be better run-stoppers this year. Bielma said the secondary was the most improved unit in the spring. But an upgraded performance in both coverage and run support desperately needs to carry over in the fall after the CBs permitted too many big-play TDs during the 9-game losing skein. Incoming frosh Cole Hedlund (prep All-American holds national records for FGs in a season & in a career!) is expected to take over placekicking duties of steady four-year starter Zach Hocker, while Aussie punter Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 avg.) led the SEC in punts downed inside the 20. Note, U of A is a bankroll-depleting 6-17 vs. the spread in the L2Ys
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NEXT: BIG 12!


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