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Athlon previews the spring storylines in the SEC West.
With Alabama and Auburn expected to be ranked near the top of most preseason polls in 2014, the SEC West is the best division in college football. The Crimson Tide and Tigers could play twice next year, as the next playoff format could create rematches from the regular season. Considering the success of both Alabama and Auburn last year, it’s not out of the question that both teams are vying for playoff spots in 2014.
But the SEC West’s strength isn’t just limited to Alabama and Auburn. LSU is on solid ground and has the talent to replace a handful of early departures to the NFL. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons and will be a factor in the division title picture once again.
Texas A&M loses quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and left tackle Jake Matthews, but coach Kevin Sumlin is building something in College Station. The Aggies are reeling in elite talent, and incoming freshman quarterback Kyle Allen is a future star in the SEC.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State aren’t far behind Texas A&M in the West. The Rebels and Bulldogs are chipping away at the gap between the top tier of the division, and both teams could pull a surprise or two in 2014.
Arkansas should be better after a 3-9 mark last season. However, the Razorbacks still have a ways to go in Bret Bielema’s second year.
|Early NFL Draft Departures||Returning Starters: Offense||Returning Starters: Defense|
SEC West Spring Outlook
AJ McCarron’s place among SEC quarterbacks, as well as his candidacy as it related to All-American recognition and the Heisman Trophy was heavily debated throughout his senior campaign. Regardless of where anyone thinks McCarron belongs in those discussions, no one can dispute that he threw for nearly 10,000 yards in his career (9,019) and finished with 74 passing touchdowns and 15 interceptions. So while McCarron may not have had the talent of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, he was a key piece of Alabama’s success over the last three seasons. Now, a wide-open quarterback battle is set to begin this spring and will carry into the fall with the arrival of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Blake Sims was listed as McCarron’s backup last season and has attempted 39 passes over the last two years. But Sims is considered a longshot to win the starting job, as Coker is considered the favorite to claim the top spot when he arrives this summer. Coker and Sims won’t be the only quarterbacks battling for time in the spring, as Parker McLeod, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and incoming freshman David Cornwell are set to stake their claim for the job. Cornwell was the No. 79 prospect in the 247Sports Composite but is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the fall. While Coker is considered the favorite, can Sims or one of the other quarterbacks make a strong push for the No. 1 spot before fall practice? Or will Alabama head into the fall with a wide-open quarterback derby once again?
Improvement from quarterback Brandon Allen:
Coming off a 3-9 record in 2013, Arkansas has plenty of concerns as spring practice opens on March 16. Both sides of the ball have glaring issues, and coach Bret Bielema also needs to blend a few new faces on the coaching staff with the players. Although the Razorbacks are unlikely to significantly improve on last year’s win total, there is reason for optimism, starting with the return of running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and end Trey Flowers. But Arkansas will struggle to be more competitive in the SEC if it doesn’t get more from quarterback Brandon Allen in 2014. As expected, Allen had his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter. The Arkansas native finished 2013 with 1,552 yards and 13 touchdowns and tossed 10 interceptions. Additionally, Allen completed only 49.6 percent of his throws last season and averaged only 145.5 yards per game in SEC action. Considering the Razorbacks were short on proven options at receiver and had two true freshmen on the offensive line, it’s unfair to blame Allen for all of the problems on offense. However, with a full season of snaps under his belt and another spring to work with coordinator Jim Chaney, Arkansas needs Allen to take a step forward in 2014.
Finding the right answers on defense:
When you first glance at the stat sheet from 2013, the numbers aren’t pretty for Auburn. The Tigers allowed 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game through nine SEC contests. However, a deeper look at the numbers suggests this defense made stops when it had to. Auburn led the SEC in fewest third-down conversions allowed and ranked second in the conference in red zone defense. Timely stops are a good sign, but the Tigers still need to be better on this side of the ball in 2014. Thanks to outstanding 2014 recruiting class, Auburn has improved its depth and talent on this side of the ball. But there are holes to fill with end Dee Ford, tackle Nosa Eguae, linebacker Jake Holland, cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan White and Ryan Smith expiring their eligibility. Ford and Eguae will be missed on the line, but there appears to be a wave of new standout linemen waiting in the wings with Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel set to play major snaps in 2014. At linebacker, Kris Frost is poised for a big season after finishing 2013 with seven tackles in the national championship game against Florida State. The secondary can lean on Jonathon Mincy at cornerback and Jermaine Whitehead at safety. But more depth is needed in the defensive backfield, which could open the door for junior college recruit Derrick Moncrief to play right away at safety. Ellis Johnson is one of the SEC’s top defensive coordinators, and the veteran assistant will be busy this spring as he looks to keep Auburn’s defense on a positive trajectory.
Starting over on offense:
The Tigers have been a model of consistency under Les Miles, winning at least 10 games in seven out of the last nine years. Even though LSU has played in only one BCS bowl in the last six seasons, this program is still one of the best in the SEC. After rebuilding a defense that featured only three returning starters last year, the focus for Miles turns to the offense. Six starters are back from a unit that made significant progress in 2013. First-year coordinator Cam Cameron helped the Tigers average over six yards per play for the first time since 2006. But Cameron will have his hands full this spring as LSU has to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill, guard Trai Turner and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Anthony Jennings started the Outback Bowl with Mettenberger out due to a knee injury and completed 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards against the Hawkeyes. Jennings is the frontrunner to replace Mettenberger, but true freshman Brandon Harris and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig will have a chance to win the job. Top recruit Leonard Fournette should be the answer at running back, and the New Orleans native will have no trouble finding running room behind one of the SEC’s best offensive lines. Outside of finding a new starting quarterback, replacing Landry and Beckham is the top spring priority for Miles. Last season, Landry and Beckham combined for 136 of LSU’s 205 receptions. There’s not much in the way of proven talent at receiver, which opens the door for incoming recruit Malachi Dupre and redshirt freshman Avery Peterson to play significant snaps in 2014. This spring is LSU’s first opportunity to start the rebuilding effort on offense and reload for another run at the SEC title.
Dak Prescott’s growth at quarterback:
At times last year, the quarterback position was a revolving door for Mississippi State. Injuries prevented Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell’s from playing a full complement of snaps in 2013, and true freshman Damian Williams was forced to start against Ole Miss in the regular season finale. Fast forward to 2014, and there’s some clarity at the position. Russell expired his eligibility, and Prescott finished 2013 by throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and adding 78 yards and two scores on the ground against Rice in the Liberty Bowl. With Prescott in full control of the starting job and a solid supporting cast at his disposal, this could be the best offense of Dan Mullen’s tenure in Starkville. The biggest loss on offense is guard Gabe Jackson, but three starters return on the line. This spring is all about Prescott and continuing the momentum from the offense’s performance against Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
Revamping the offensive line:
Hugh Freeze and the Rebels made slight progress last year after going 7-6 in 2012, finishing 8-5 with a 27-24 win over LSU the highlight of the season. Considering the personnel losses at Texas A&M and LSU this offseason, Ole Miss has an opportunity to climb in the West Division standings in 2014. Provided the offensive line is able to mesh this spring, the offense should be explosive. The Rebels return quarterback Bo Wallace and receivers Vince Sanders and Laquon Treadwell. But the line is a source of concern for coach Hugh Freeze, as guard Jared Duke, center Evan Swindall and tackle Pierce Burton expired their eligibility. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil had a strong freshman debut last season, earning second-team All-SEC honors. Tunsil is one part of the solution, and the return of guard Aaron Morris from a knee injury should solidify the left side of the line. But what about the other three spots? Ben Still was listed as Swindall’s backup at center last season and is expected to get the first shot at earning the job. Junior college recruit Fahn Cooper won’t arrive until after the spring session, but he could factor into the mix. The Rebels will also take an extended look at true freshman Rod Taylor in the fall, as he could help at guard this season. The good news is Freeze has recruited well, and there is talent to work with. However, this line will be young and inexperienced in 2014.
Finding answers on defense:
There’s really no way to sugarcoat the numbers in a positive way on defense for Texas A&M last season. The Aggies struggled mightily on this side of the ball and were bailed out by an explosive offense. But with quarterback Johnny Manziel off to the NFL, it’s unlikely Texas A&M will average 44.2 points per game again. Considering the offense is expected to slightly regress, the defense has to do its part to keep Texas A&M in contention for nine wins once again. There’s certainly no shortage of talent in College Station, but Sumlin and coordinator Mark Snyder will have a lineup that features a lot of youth (much like this unit had in 2013) in 2014. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett is a potential difference maker in the trenches, but can he play major snaps as a true freshman? The good news for Snyder is eight starters are back, including linebacker Darian Claiborne, tackle Isaiah Golden, cornerback Deshazor Everett and end Julien Obioha. Claiborne and Golden were suspended after an off-the-field incident in February. It’s uncertain how the arrest will affect either player heading into the upcoming season. The Aggies don’t have to be a shutdown defense in 2014, but there has to be progress to help cover for the losses on offense.