Sports, Thrill of Victory

The storylines to watch in the SEC West

Alabama's Cooper Bateman is a surprise candidate in the Crimson Tide's quarterback derby. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

The start of the Southeastern Conference football season is just days away. To get you prepared, Chris Lee updates you on a storyline to watch for each SEC Western Division team.

Alabama: Who’s the quarterback?

Coming into last season’s fall camp, Alabama had a quarterback battle between Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and Blake Sims, with most expecting Coker to win the job. He didn’t.

Bateman

Alabama’s Cooper Bateman is a surprise candidate in the Crimson Tide’s quarterback derby. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

A year later, Coker entered August expecting to battle David Cornwell for the job. With a week to go before the season’s start, Coker appears to still be in a battle for the job, but—surprise!—instead of Cornwell being in the mix, it’s Alex Morris and Cooper Bateman, instead, with Cornwell nowhere near that pack.

Bateman’s inclusion is a surprise. In his third year on campus, his collegiate game experience has been limited to holding for field goals, and the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder took reps at wide receiver in the spring. However, Bateman was the 11th-ranked pro-style quarterback by Rivals among the high school class of 2013.

Morris, who also hasn’t thrown a collegiate pass, certainly isn’t the most talented quarterback on the roster. But coach Nick Saban values players who won’t make mistakes, and Morris, in his fourth year on campus, is the guy who best fits that bill.

Coker, perhaps the most talented quarterback on the roster, has all the tools and has made good throws. If he can run the offense the way Saban wants and avoid mistakes, he’d seem to be the starter.

Saban was content to let the situation continue into the first few games and let the candidates settle it on the field. He may approach it the same way in 2015.

Auburn: Can the Tigers field a national title-caliber defense?

Former Florida head coach Wil Muschamp is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn. PHOTO COURTESY AUBURN

Former Florida head coach Wil Muschamp is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn. PHOTO COURTESY AUBURN

When Auburn surprised everyone in Gus Malzahn’s first season by going to the national title game during the 2013 season, it was because of his offensive genius; the Tiger defense, which gave up 24.7 points and 421 yards a game that fall, was rather pedestrian. The same could be said of the defense Auburn fielded a year ago, though the fact that Auburn had 22 interceptions counts for something.

Bringing Will Muschamp in to coordinate the defense was huge. He’ll have a pair of potential All-SEC ends in Carl Lawson, who missed all last season with an injury, and Byron Cowart, who was the country’s top recruit, according to some, to help create chaos.

Early returns on the defense from fall camp were positive. That’s one reason you see Auburn becoming a trendy pick as one of the four teams to make this year’s College Football Playoff.

Arkansas: Will the Razorbacks be America’s best rushing team?

Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is one of the league's best. PHOTO COURTESY ARKANSAS ATHLETICS

Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is one of the league’s best. PHOTO COURTESY ARKANSAS ATHLETICS

By that, I don’t mean that Arkansas will lead the country in rushing offense. That will probably be Georgia Tech, or Georgia Southern, or Navy, or some other extremely rush-oriented offense that plays an easier schedule than what Arkansas will face in the SEC. Besides, Arkansas ranked just 24th there a year ago.

What I mean is, which team would you most not want to face when it’s running the ball?

If you put it that way, the Hawgs have a pretty good case. Arkansas returns two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins; Phil Steele ranks the UA running backs group as the fifth-best in America, and Athlon’s ranks it fourth. The Razorbacks have a massive offensive line—they average nearly 6-foot-6 and 328 pounds—and it’s good, too, ranking fifth by both publications.

The Razorbacks won’t start the season with that honor—both Georgia and Ohio State rank in the top five in both units—but it’s not out of the question that they end it there.

LSU: How good is Brandon Harris?

The LSU Tiger's success this year could be tied to the arm of Brandon Harris. PHOTO COURTESY NCAA

The LSU Tiger’s success this year could be tied to the arm of Brandon Harris. PHOTO COURTESY NCAA

Harris seemed to have the edge in the quarterback battle with Anthony Jennings, and this week, Les Miles indicated that Harris has the lead. That’s good news since Harris has generally been considered the best of the pair. Of course, that’s no great accomplishment after Jennings completed 48.9 percent of his 227 passes last season.

So again, the question is, how good is Harris? He came to LSU a year ago as the fifth-best dual-threat freshman quarterback in America, and teammates have spoken glowingly about his progress. If LSU wants to contend in the West, he’ll need to start showing he’s as good as he’d been advertised.

Ole Miss: Can the Rebels run the football?

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

For all of coach Hugh Freeze’s offensive genius, Ole Miss hasn’t run the football all that well in his three previous seasons, averaging 4.1, 4.7 and 4.2 yards per carry in succession. Not once did the Rebels average 200 yards rushing in any of those seasons.

I’m optimistic about Ole Miss, but not so much about the running game. Freeze has generally collected a bunch of undersized backs who fit bit roles and its leading returning rusher from a year ago, Jaylen Walton, certainly fits that description.

The Rebels just need to be adequate here to have a good season, and how much they vary from that in one direction or another determines whether they’ll challenge in the West, or be just another good SEC football team.

Mississippi State: How much depth do the Bulldogs have?

All eyes will be on Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott to see if he can take the Bulldogs back to the top of the SEC West. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

All eyes in Starkville be on Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

Folks around Starkville are quite optimistic about MSU coming off last year’s 10-3 season, and why not? Dak Prescott is one of America’s best quarterbacks, and even though a lot of starters departed, the Bulldogs believe that a slew of juniors who served in backup roles a year ago are poised to step up, and perhaps have MSU playing at a level close to last season.

But even the biggest optimists are concerned about depth. Last year, MSU was able to rotate a lot of guys at a lot of positions and stay close in the fourth quarter. This year, its second-teamer are more of an unknown quantity than they were last season, and they’ll likely have a lot to do with the season’s outcome.

Texas A&M: How much can John Chavis make a difference?

New defensive coordinator John Chavis. PHOTO COURTESY TEXAS A&M LETICS

New defensive coordinator John Chavis. PHOTO COURTESY TEXAS A&M LETICS

I’ve decried A&M’s defensive woes enough already in other pieces, but just one more thing to underscore how bad it has been on that side of the ball: the Aggies were last in the SEC in total (451 yards per game) and rushing (216) defense a year ago. Of course, A&M went out and got one of the best available guys in the world to fix the issue.

The question is not whether Chavis will make a positive difference, it’s how much, and that’s determined by his talent. A&M has recruited well according to the experts, but analysts don’t always get it right, and it certainly hasn’t translated yet. There’s a potential All-American at defensive end in Myles Garrett, but otherwise, not a lot of household names.

Is the talent better than what we’ve seen? The results Chavis gets will let us know one way or the other.