Thrill of Victory

The key questions for each SEC West team this fall

On Monday, I explored a key question for each Southeastern Conference football team in the Eastern Division as the season approaches in a couple of months. Today, we do the same for the West.

Alabama: Can the Crimson Tide re-load along the offensive line?
What coach Nick Saban is doing at Alabama is flat-out ridiculous: the Crimson Tide have won three of the last four national titles, and ‘Bama is many people’s favorite to do it again this season. But the down-side to building a college football dynasty is that replacement cost of players is sky-high. Take, for example, Alabama’s offensive line, where it lost a pair of first-round draft picks in Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker, and perhaps college football’s best lineman in Barrett Jones.

Of course, Saban always replaces elite talent with more of it. According to Rivals.com, Fluker was a 5-star recruit, Jones, a 4, and Warmack, a 3, and the Crimson Tide will plug in at those spots with Cyrus and Arie Koundijo (5 and 4, respectively) and Ryan Kelly (3). The rest of the players on the line’s two-deep chart are all 3-star recruits, except for Cyrus Koundijo’s backup, Brandon Greene, who’s a 4.

So yes, Alabama has talent, and obviously it has been well-coached. But lines take time to develop continuity, and Saban also had football’s version of a Swiss Army Knife in Jones, who started at center, guard and tackle, and played each at an elite level.

It’s hard to expect there won’t be some drop-off along the line this year; the question is whether it’ll be enough to keep the ‘Tide from bringing home another crystal trophy.

Arkansas: How will the Razorbacks adjust to a complete change in offensive philosophy?
Last year’s interim coach John L. Smith was obviously no Bobby Petrino, and when injuries hit early and often, the bottom fell out. Arkansas was awful on defense and respectable on offense, but the bad news is that only two offensive starters return from last year.

Now, there’s another adjustment coming. Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema takes over for Smith, and if you watched his Badger teams, you know how much he loved to run the football. Wisconsin would often run three tight-end sets, and even though everyone knew the run was coming, Bielema’s teams executed so well that you couldn’t stop it.

The bad news for Bielema is that: a) there’s no Montee Ball to run the football, and; b) the Razorbacks were used to spreading the field and throwing the ball, so the UA system was geared towards pass-blocking.

In other words, it’s going to be a really long year in Fayetteville unless Bielema can get a bunch of untested players to learn a new system and perform at a higher level than most think is realistic.

Auburn: Do the Tigers have the offensive personnel to win?
Auburn’s offense went from great in 2010, when Cam Newton led it to a national title, to dreadful (18.7 points, 305 yards per game) last year. One key difference was the absence of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who departed to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Smartly, the Tigers brought back Malzahn to be their head coach after firing Gene Chizik after last year.

The problem is, there’s no Cam Newton this time around. Malzahn hand-picked Kiehl Frazier out of Arkansas, where he was a highly-decorated high school recruit, in 2011. But Frazier was terrible last year, and the Tigers’ best hope at season’s end wound up being Jonathan Wallace, who was okay, but not spectacular. Meanwhile, the Tigers have lost their starting receiving corps.

Auburn has always recruited well, and there are some pieces there — mainly, running back Tre’ Mason (1,002 rushing yards last season). But are these guys really that good, or were they over-hyped in recruiting? After a year with Malzahn coaching them, the answer will be clear one way or another.

LSU: How good a coach is Les Miles?
Les Miles’ unorthodox ways — which range from bizarre comments at press conferences to “I-can’t-believe-he-just-called-that-play” moments — have always left him open to question. I think those things are overrated — heck, the guy’s 85-21 at LSU with a national title to his credit — but in today’s media, Miles often gets passed off as some sort of buffoon rather than get the credit he deserves for what’s a perennial top-10 program.

Miles has two things working against him. The first is that he coaches in the SEC West, which is the most what-have-you-done-for-me-lately division in college football. Miles followed a disappointing loss in the 2012 BCS National Title Game with a disappointing (to LSU fans) 10-3 season last year, and that wasn’t pleasing to the Tiger faithful. The second is that he’s coaching in a conference that is generally too risk-averse, so Miles “maverick” behavior is magnified every time it backfires.

Miles probably needs to win at least nine this fall to keep fans happy. The problem is, he lost a slew of juniors and seniors to the NFL, and has just 10 starters back. Miles takes a lot of heat for gutsy play-calls that have back-fired, but people too often forget the unconventional ones that have worked. This may be the year he needs them more than ever.

Mississippi State: Can the Bulldogs replace a talented secondary?
A big reason that MSU went 8-5 last year was that it had a plus-16 turnover margin. The biggest reason for that was its secondary, which featured Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay (five interceptions in 2012) at cornerback. Both were second-round NFL picks in April. Throw in the loss of a starting safety, and MSU replaces three-fourths of its defensive backfield.

The Bulldogs do have some experience, with senior Nickoe Whitley and juniors Jamerson Love, Justin Cox and Jay Hughes each getting starting assignments. But that turnover margin is tough to maintain, the schedule is tougher this year, and coach Dan Mullen needs big results here for MSU to match last year’s win total.

Ole Miss: Can the defense sustain its late-season improvement?
Ole Miss gave up 27.6 points per game last year, ranking ninth in the conference. But the Rebels took a big hit early in the season due to a 66-31 pasting by Texas, and coach Hugh Freeze saw a young unit beset by injuries much of the year. All things considered, the defense performed pretty well, and gave up a combined 41 points in its last two games (Mississippi State, Pitt).

The defense’s building block will be last year’s freshman sensation Denzel Nkemdiche at linebacker, and his brother Robert — the nation’s top freshman recruit — should boost the defensive line. There are other good, young players like safety Trae Elston and rising junior C.J. Johnson (defensive end), and a potential boost if linebacker D.T. Shackelford can stay healthy after missing the last two seasons.

No, it’s not an elite bunch, but the Rebels could be plenty good on that side of the ball with the normal year-to-year improvement on that side, coupled with (hopefully) better luck in health.

Texas A&M: Will the Aggies have the depth on defense?
Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel stole all the headlines in College Station last year, but the Aggies (21.8 ppg) were pretty effective on defense, too. A&M’s first-team unit was good, but a number of the starters had to play almost the entire game a year ago, and some of key players like defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Sean Porter are gone.

However, A&M also gave up 390 yards per game, which is a bit more than you’d expect given the points it allowed. Some of that is because the Aggie offense scored so quickly and allowed A&M to play with a lead most of the time, and so there was considerable margin for error.

The Aggies were banged-up on defense for part of the spring, and replacing some of those front-liners — six starters have departed — is already a challenge. The Aggies need to hope to stay healthy, and hope that some young freshmen can provide breathers that some of their starters didn’t enjoy last season.