We begin our preview of the SEC with a look at the Western half of the loop, courtesy Chief Analyst  Gary Olshan, who presents the teams in order of predicted finish, with 2014 striahgt-up and spread records included.  The SEC East preview will follow...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst


ALABAMA (2014 SUR 12-2; PSR 5-8)—Though Alabama has signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for the fifth straight season and remains as our team to beat in the loaded West Division, it shapes up as a much tighter race in 2015. The Tide, which is considered to be playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, has some serious reloading on the offensive side. And to make matters worse, four of Bama’s opponents will enjoy the benefit of a bye week prior to their clash with the defending SEC champs, including three within the SEC. Ninth-year mentor Nick Saban says about his team’s mental preparation for the upcoming campaign, “We need to get our mojo back, we need to get our identity back. We used to be a team nobody wanted to play. We’ve had a few distractions with the last couple years that I think have affected how we’ve finished the season.” Alabama hasn’t lost a season-opener since 2001, but it will be difficult test to extend that streak with the Wisconsin battle in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 5.

Second-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will earn his pay re-organizing an offense (36.9 ppg LY; only two starters back), which has lost the single-season passing record holder (Blake Sims), the top three WRs (Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White & Christian Jones) and the school’s No. 4 all-time leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon). Sure, sr. QB Jake Coker (38 of 59 for 404 yds. & 4 TDs LY) heads into fall camp as the leading candidate at the most important position, but he failed to demonstrate any real separation from four other competing scholarship QBs in the spring. The rebuilding WR corps gained a needed veteran presence, with the June transfer of Oregon State graduate 6-3 Richard Mullaney, who combined for 83 catches over the past three seasons in Corvallis. Plus, prep A-As WRs Chris Black & Robert Foster appear primed to emerge as top options in the passing game, and highly-touted incoming freshman Calvin Ridley is a burner who could provide a big-play element early on. The Tide own one of the nation’s top RB tandems in long-striding, powerful 6-3, 242-pound jr. Derrick Henry (990 YR, 11 TDs) & versatile sr. Kenyan Drake (112 YR, 4 TDs), who returns from his horrifying broken leg suffered at Ole Miss on Oct. 4.

As usual, the suffocating Bama defense (18.4 ppg LY; 102.4 ypg rushing--1st nationally) will terrorize opposing ball-carriers--with 5 starters returning on the front 7, spearheaded by immovable 6-4, 312-pound jr. NT A’Shawn Robinson (49 stops LY) & sr. LB Reggie Ragland (95 tackles & 10.5 TFL LY), who turned down the NFL to play his final season in Tuscaloosa. The inconsistent secondary (226 ypg LY; ranked 11th in the SEC) is in flux with the graduation of starting safeties, Landon Collins & Nick Perry. Competition at the position will continue in the fall with a quartet of athletic reinforcements. And while there is experience at CB, pass coverage needs improvement, especially on the deep ball. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart expressed a sigh of relief when sr. CB Cyrus Jones (3 ints. LY) had his domestic violence allegations dropped in the spring.

On special teams, soph punter JK Scott is truly special, averaging 48.0 yds. per punt as an All-SEC Freshman. Coaches hoping that kicker Adam Griffith can bounce back after his consistency suffered when back problems surfaced in October. After making his first 7 kicks last fall, Griffith nailed only 5 of 12 to close the season.

AUBURN (2014 SUR 8-5; PSR 5-9)—Auburn has some holes to fill on both sides of the ball (only 11 starters return), but no surprise if the Iron Bowl on Nov. 28th becomes the ultimate decider for the SEC West Division crown. Offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn is blessed with another group of prime-time playmakers to execute his zone-read attack. On the other side, new, demanding defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, the former Florida HC, is excited for the opportunity to repair a defense that hasn’t been dominant since he held the same job on The Plains in 2006 & 2007. The Tigers also look forward to big payback games vs. Mississippi State, Georgia and hated Alabama at their sold-out Jordan-Hare Stadium TY. If Auburn can knock off revenge-minded LSU in Baton Rouge on Sept. 19, that would alert the nation it’s a legit contender for the College Football Playoff.

Yes, graduation and the NFL hit the Tigers hard on offense. But anticipate no discernible decline on a well-designed attack (35.5 ppg LY; 5 starters back) smoothly orchestrated by experienced, accurate jr. QB Jeremy Johnson (75.6%; 436 YP, 3 TDs & no ints. LY), who is surrounded by a combustible supporting cast. Marvelous senior D’haquille Williams (45 catches, 5 TDs) leads a dangerous WR corps, and reliable contributors Ricardo Louis & Marcus Davis look ready to step into roles left by Sammie Coates and Quan Bray. At RB, ultra-talented soph Roc Thomas will compete against Jovon Robinson--the nation’s No. 1 juco transfer--for the lead role in an offense that has produced 11 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Malzahn’s nine years at the collegiate level. And while the OL has lost three starters, that unit should jell quickly since it returns six players who’ve made a start in the SEC, led by junior Ts Shon Coleman & Avery Young.

We expect aforementioned Will Muschamp, who is switching from a 4-2-5 scheme to a base 4-3 with some 3-4 formations, to fix a pass rush that produced a meager 10 sacks in 8 SEC games a year ago. To help achieve his goal, LY’s middling defense (26.7 ppg; 398.8 ypg; 6 starters back) gets an immediate boost from difference-making “Buck” Carl Lawson, who missed all of last year due to a torn ACL. In addition, the top three tacklers return from 2014—SS Johnathan Ford, LB Cassanova McKinzy & LB Kris Frost--along with sr. CB Jonathan Jones, who picked off 6 passes and earned second-team All-SEC honors. Plus, the secondary is strengthened by the addition of soph FS Tray Matthews, the former Georgia DB, who was a budding star in Athens before he was dismissed following off-the-field issues in 2013.

Dependable soph kicker Daniel Carlson, who nailed 18 of 24 FGs LY, will be relieved of his punting duties after Auburn finished 12th in the SEC in that department LY. True frosh punter Ian Shannon will be asked to take the load off Carlson’s leg.

After recording a profitable 12-2 spread mark in 2013, the Tigers plunged to 4-9 vs. the number in 2014, allowing 41 ppg during an 0-4 SU & spread run vs. FBS foes down the stretch.

ARKANSAS (2014 SUR 7-6; PSR 10-3)—Expectations have risen in Fayetteville. Arkansas finished 7-6 LY, which included newsworthy back-to-back shutout home victories over Ole Miss and LSU in November. The Hogs, who also came close in narrow, hard-fought losses to Alabama and Mississippi State, could emerge as a genuine contender in the rough-and-tumble SEC West. But Arkansas must find a way to win on the road in league play (something it hasn’t done since October 2012!) and learn how to win close games, as it hasn’t won an SEC game decided by a TD or fewer since October 2011. The Hogs can build some early momentum, with a favorable early schedule, before a grueling 3-game stretch in October, with consecutive road battles vs. improved Tennessee and Alabama before hosting Auburn following a bye week.

Nine starters return to an offense (31.9 ppg; ) that will continue to wear down opponents with its punishing ground assault, featuring the dynamic RB duo of Jonathan Williams (1,190 YR LY) & Alex Collins (1,100 YR LY), who each rushed for 12 TDs. That duo--which is the FBS’ only tandem 1,000-yard rushers from last season--will take some pressure off three-year starting QB Brandon Allen (2,285 YP, 20 TDs, 5 ints. LY) , who’s working with his fourth offensive coordinator in five years, with the arrival of Dan Enos, who previously served as the Central Michigan head man from 2010-2014. Allen, who’ll operate behind a mammoth & seasoned OL, owns two glue-fingered pass-catchers in sr. WR Keon Hatcher (43 catches, 6 TDs) & & All-SEC TE Hunter Henry (37 grabs LY). The modest passing attack (188 ypg LY; 100th nationally) could use a game-breaker at WR, and coaches hope that 6-4 juco Dominique Reed or RS frosh JoJo Robinson can fit that bill.

Five starters are back on a defense (19.2 ppg; 323.4 ypg--2nd in SEC in total “D”) that made a quantum leap forward in 2014 after allowing 31 ppg over the previous four campaigns. Second-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who deservedly received a hefty raise in salary, is confident the Razorbacks can plug rising stars into the system and remain productive despite the loss of key players such as NFL draftees, Trey Flowers, Darius Philon & Martrell Spaight. Up front, breakout star Taiwan Johnson has moved from NT to DT to create room for run-stuffing 6-2, 324-pound soph Bijohn Jackson & DeMarcus Hodge. Pass defense should be sticky again with the return of jr. CBs. Jared Collins (13 PBU LY!) & D.J. Dean, while 6-1,209-pound soph Josh Liddell could be th kind of heavy-hitting FS the Hogs have lacked for years. Depth is a concern at LB. After two years of having one of the nation’s worst turnover margins (118th & 111th ranking in TO margin in 2012 & 2013), the Hogs significantly improved in that key category by sharply rising to 27th nationally with a +7 TO margin LY.

Following the non-covering 45-21 setback at Auburn in the opener, the hustling Hogs proceeded to post a 10-2 spread mark the rest of the way in 2014.

LSU (2014 SUR 8-5; PSR 6-6)—LSU was 8-5 last season, the Tigers’ fewest wins since 2008. And while LSU hasn’t lost its swagger, we pick the Tigers in the middle of the pack in the West due to an anemic passing game, ranked 114th nationally LY. Sure, LSU has Top 10 talent at virtually every position except, perhaps, at the most important one: QB. The Tigers must show rapid growth at that position right away, confronting Mississippi State (on the road) and Auburn (at home) in back-to-back games in September. Even with a much-improved pass attack, returning to a double-digit win total will be a challenge, with a tough trio of road games at South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss, following that early tussle at Mississippi State. But never underestimate sly Les “The Hat” Miles.

Seven starters return to the offense (27.6 ppg; ranked 73rd nationally LY) searching for stability at QB. Coach Les Miles indicated that Anthony Jennings (only 49%; 11 TDs, 7 ints.) enters the fall camp with a slight edge over soph Brandon Harris (25 of 45, 6 TDs, 2 ints.), who admitted he had maturity issues and failed to fully learn the playbook last season. But Jennings has been suspended following his June arrest for an “unauthorized entry of a dwelling,” so is status is ? at presstime. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron vowed to simplify his NFL-based offensive system. That shift to a more QB-friendly philosophy helps, along with a classy stable of WRs, featuring jr. Travin Dural (37 grabs, 7 TDs) & soph Malachi Dupree (14 catches, 5 TDs), a top recruit in 2014, who is poised for a breakout season. Miles claims that scintillating soph RB Leonard Fournette (1,034YR, 10 TDs) is bigger and stronger after almost a full year in the Tigers’ strength and conditioning program. Fournette—the former consensus No.1 recruit in the nation out of high school—has a good shot to be in the Heisman discussion this season. Three starters are back on the OL.

Six starters return to a typically-stingy defense (17.5 ppg; SEC-leading 316.8 ypg LY) now overseen by first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (former Bama assistant & Clemson d.c.), who replaces mastermind Jon Chavis after he bolted for Texas A&M following LSU’s 31-28 loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl LY. Steele, who plans to install a more aggressive, multiple scheme than Chavis, should be stout up the middle, with returning DTs Christian LaCouttre & Davon Godchaux, MLB Kendell Beckwith (team-high 77 tackles LY) and safeties Jalen Mills & Jamal Adams, the latter drawing comparisons to former LSU A-A Eric Reid. New, no-nonsense DL coach Ed Orgeron seeks to stiffen the run defense that yielded 4.5 ypc LY, which was the highest allowance in Baton Rouge in over two decades. But the vaunted pass defense (164.2 ypg LY--third nationally) should be nasty once again, spearheaded by ultra-athletic jr. CB Tre’Davious White, who also provides vocal leadership.

On special teams, punter Jamie Keehn (44.9 yd. average) finished second in the SEC LY, while kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15 FGs LY), who missed 3 of his final 4 kicks, will compete with Trent Domingue for the starting job.

OLE MISS (2014 SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5)—It’s a bit tricky picking the projected order of finish of the enigmatic Rebels, who were a tale of two seasons a year ago. Are they like the team that started out 7-0 and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the AP poll? Or will they more closely resemble the faltering team, which dropped 4 of its last 6 games (one of those wins vs. Presbyterian), including blowout losses to Arkansas (30-0) and TCU (42-3) in the Peach Bowl? In Ole Miss’s defense, several key injuries played a part in the decline, which began with a pair of bitter, narrow losses vs. LSU and Auburn. In the 35-31 setback vs. the War Eagles, Rebel WR Laquon Treadwell, who broke his leg on the play, lost the ball at the end of a catch-and-run to the end zone with 1:30 left! It was ruled a TD, the replay official determined he lost the ball before crossing the goal line. For sure, Ole Miss possesses high-quality SEC talent on both sides of the ball, but clever, fourth-year HC Hugh Freeze must find an effective field general to orchestrate his hurry-up attack after losing three-year starter Bo Wallace (and his 24 career wins). If he does, the Rebels will be a factor in the division race.

Nine starters are back on a no-huddle offense (28.3 ppg, 419.1 ypg LY), which will most likely be directed by talented but troubled Chad Kelly (nephew of Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly), the nation’s No. 1 juco QB, who was dismissed at Clemson last spring and was arrested in December in a Buffalo bar fight. But no starter was named in the spring, as Kelly competed with third-year sophs Ryan Buchanan (12 of 22 LY) & DeVante Kincade. There’s a strong foundation up front, with all five starters returning to the OL, anchored by LT Laremy Tunsil, who is considered a high-round NFL prospect. Steady but unspectacular RB Jaylen Walton (586 YR, 5 TDs LY) should be the featured ball-carrier, while the aerial game gets a huge boost from the healthy return of dazzling jr. WR Laquon Treadwell (48 catches, 5 TDs LY), who suffered a broken fibula vs. Auburn on Nov. 1. Sure-handed 6-3 jr. TE Evan Engram (38 catches LY) is an integral weapon, while instant-impact 6-2 freshmen WR duo of Damarkus Lodge & Van Jefferson get a chance to work into the rotation.

Seven starters return to a smothering, physical defense (nation-leading 16.0 ppg LY), which lost two All-Americans from a ball-hawking secondary that picked off 18 passes LY. But astute co-defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was so impressed with new jr. CBs Tony Bridges & Tee Shepard that he moved returning starter Mike Hilton (71 tackles, 3 ints. LY) to safety before the start of spring drills. On the defensive front, All-American DT Robert Nkemdiche (35 tackles, 2 sacks LY) gets assistance from highly-regarded juco DT D.J. Jones, an athletic 300-pounder, who should be a rugged run-plugger. The hidden gem of the stop unit is “Huskie” Tony Conner (69 tackles LY), a do-it-all fifth DB in the 4-2-5 scheme, who can rush the QB (3 hurries and a sack), defend the slot receiver (3 PBU) and snuff out run plays before they start (9.0 TFL).

Hugh Freeze has been a money-making “CEO,” going 37-16 vs. the spread the last four seasons, including his one-year stint at Arkansas State in 2011.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (2014 SUR 10-3; PSR 7-6)—The ascending Bulldogs won 10 games for the first time since 1999 and spent five weeks at No. 1, their first time atop the polls in school history. And though record-breaking QB Dak Prescott has returned for his senior campaign and HC Dan Mullen arguably reaped his best recruiting class yet in 2015, we still feel MSU will finish near the bottom in the talent-rich West Division, since it’s returning an SEC-low seven starters. But with four highly winnable non-conference games (Southern Miss, Northwestern State, Troy & La Tech), the smartly-coached Bulldogs should certainly go bowling for the fifth consecutive term. And if heavy-reloading MSU can defeat revenge-minded LSU in Starkville on Sept. 12, we might suddenly become bullish on the Bulldogs.

Four starters are back on an attack (36.9 ppg; SEC-leading 513.8 ypg LY) piloted by the consummate dual-threat QB Dak Prescott (3,449 YP, 27 TDP; 986 YR, 9 TDs LY), who set 12 single-season records during his breakout junior campaign. But Prescott operates behind an OL supplanting three starters, and with no center who has played on the college level. The offense must try to compensate for the premature departure of compact but powerful 5-9 RB Josh Robinson (1,203 YR LY), who opted for the NFL following his junior campaign. Junior RB Ashton Shumpert (274 YR LY), who came on strong at the end of last year, will try to stave off competition from a trio of skillful freshmen. Prescott does greatly benefit from the return of top target WR De’Runnya Wilson (47 catches, 9 TDs LY), who was arrested on drug charges during the offseason, but was expected to avoid a suspension after some internal discipline.

Only three starters return to a heavy-retooling defense (21.7 ppg LY), tutored by new but familiar coordinator Manny Diaz (held same job at La Tech LY & Miss. State in 2010), who takes over for Geoff Collins, who accepted the same position at Florida. Three starters must be replaced on the DL, though impact player Chris Jones (26 tackles, 3 sacks LY) technically did not start last year and will slide into one of the open spots at DT. Coaches need to find a steady pass rusher up front to replace NFL draftee DE Preston Smith (team-high 9 sacks, 15 TFL LY), while cerebral jr. OLB Beniquez Brown (62 tackles LY) will be asked to replace the production and leadership of graduated MLB Benardrick McKinney (second-round NFL pick). Untested RS frosh MLB Gerri Green must learn on the fly at that crucial position. And while three starting DBs have graduated, that might not be such a bad thing for a revamped secondary that finished dead last in the SEC in passing yards allowed LY (114th nationally).

Unreliable sr. kicker Devon Bell (only 6 of 14 FGs in his career) will be forced to replace steady Evan Sobiesk (12 of 14 LY), who left the team to pursue a career in dentistry.

The Bulldogs have covered six straight as an underdog, including outright upset wins over LSU & Auburn last season.

TEXAS A&M (2014 SUR 8-5; PSR 5-8)—After the Aggies’ win total has dropped in each of the last three seasons, fourth-year mentor Kevin Sumlin apparently felt a sense of urgency, as he has made coaching changes on both sides of the ball. Texas A&M did get off to promising 5-0 start in 2014, then proceeded to drop 5 of its next 6 in the SEC before rallying for a 45-37 upset victory over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. Without Johnny Football in control, the Aggies still led the SEC in passing with 305.5 yards per game, but the rush attack missed his wondrous running skills, finishing 12th in the league in rush offense. But the porous defense--which finished last in the SEC--needs to make the most dramatic improvement if A&M is going to make any noise in the West Division. Following a tough trip to Little Rock in late September, Aggies fortunately play 5 of their next 6 games at Kyle Field, which will have just completed a $450 million expansion in August.

Six starters return to an attack (35.2 ppg LY, which lead the SEC in pass offense in 2014. Soph QB Kyle Allen (1,322 YP, 17 TDP, 7 ints.; 5 starts LY), who is the only experienced triggerman with Kenny Hill transferring, was thrust into the starting lineup in November. Allen will try to stave off a challenge from highly-regarded frosh Kyler Murray, who recently decided to opt out of the Major League baseball draft and concentrate on playing football and baseball in College Station. Murray, who is the son of former A&M standout QB Kevin Murray and is considered one of the nation’s top-rated dual threat QBs, won three state high school titles and went a perfect 43-0 as a prep starter! The WR corps is top-shelf—soph Speedy Noil, a dangerous deep threat, and 6-4 jr. Josh Reynolds (53 grabs LY), who nabbed a school-record 13 TD catches LY, leading the pack. To help a lagging ground assault (only 149.9 ypg; 3.9 ypc) is newly-hired Dave Christensen, the former Wyoming head coach, who’ll coordinate the running game and tutor the offensive line, which allowed 27 sacks last year. Christensen, who has stressed better technique and a more aggressive mentality, works with a capable senior duo of Tra Carson (581 YR & 5 TDs LY) & Brandon Williams (379 YR).

Six starters are back on a pliable, poor-tackling defense (450.8 ypg—102nd nationally LY), which has permitted a lowly 30 ppg over the past two terms. Enter highly-respected coordinator John Chavis, who left LSU to take over in College Station and try to rejuvenate the once-proud “Wrecking Crew.” Athletic pass-rushing DEs are required in Chavis’ scheme, and he has them in soph Myles Garrett, who set an SEC freshmen record with 11.5 sacks LY, and jr. Daeshon Hall, who has bulked up to 260 pounds and seems primed for a breakout season. The rush defense, which needs to make a huge leap forward after yielding an SEC-worst 216 ypg rushing & 5.3 ypc LY, figures to be upgraded with juco transfer Claude George, who had a strong spring showing at MLB. The pass defense, which must also tighten-up after finishing 13th in the SEC LY, will build around soph FS Armani Watts, who had 3 of the defense’s 4 total interceptions LY. Coaches are also pining for a much better TO margin after finishing 105th nationally LY.

Punter Drew Kaser is a Ray Guy finalist, but field goal kicking remains iffy. Sr. Taylor Bertolet converted only 4 of 12 FG attempts between 30 & 49 yards and has muffed 10 extra points

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