The SEC West is the toughest division in college football. The tiers in the West seem to be clear, as Alabama and Auburn are the top-two teams, with LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State battling for the No. 3 spot. Arkansas is expected to be picked at the bottom by most in 2014. Of course, LSU has been the most reliable team out of that mix in recent years, and Les Miles has another elite recruiting haul on the way for 2014.
Even though the tiers seem to be clear, Alabama, Auburn and LSU each have some personnel losses to overcome in 2014. The Tigers are replacing a handful of players on both sides of the ball and finished spring with uncertainty at quarterback.
Considering the losses at the top of the division, the door is open for Ole Miss to challenge in the West. The Rebels return 13 starters in 2014, including standout sophomores in receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner.
Injuries played a key role in the Rebels’ 8-5 record last season, as quarterback Bo Wallace was never 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery. Additionally, defensive end C.J. Johnson missed nearly all of last year, and receiver Vince Sanders struggled to get on track after a collarbone injury in the preseason.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Athlon Sports' Top 25 countdown for 2014 is underway. LSU ranks as the No. 19 team, while Ole Miss checks in at No. 18.
Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s easy to pencil LSU among the top three in the West Division each preseason, but 2014 could be a different story. Yes, the Tigers have talent and are consistently in the mix for 10 wins. However, this LSU team seems to have more question marks than any in recent memory. The Tigers have uncertainty and inexperience at quarterback and receiver, while the defensive line and linebacking corps needs work. The Rebels aren’t without their own flaws, as Hugh Freeze’s team is thin on the offensive line, while quarterback Bo Wallace needs to take the next step. Despite Ole Miss’ question marks, I like the Rebels to finish ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings. In last year’s final tally, the Tigers were two games better in the division. Making predictions from year-to-year isn’t as simple as personnel losses, but LSU has to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, two 1,000-yard receivers, both starting defensive tackles and standout linebacker Lamin Barrow. The Tigers didn’t have a vintage defense last year, as they allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC games, just a shade better than the Rebels (5.8). Ole Miss returns 13 starters, and the depth in this program has improved significantly over the last two years. Assuming quarterback Bo Wallace has recovered from his shoulder injury and can stay healthy, the Rebels should make the jump from 3-5 in conference play to 5-3, which will be enough to inch ahead of LSU in the West.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
This is the season Ole Miss hopes to take a big step in the SEC West. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all have to replace their star quarterbacks from a year ago while Ole Miss returns third-year starter Bo Wallace. The Rebels also have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball and a good amount of experience returning on defense.
LSU has to replace several key offensive players, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Then there’s the defensive tackle duo of Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, both of whom left early for the NFL.
All of this points to Ole Miss finishing ahead of LSU in the SEC West for the first time since 2008. But I don’t think it will be that easy. Ole Miss will have to play at LSU on Oct. 25 along with road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M. Those won’t be easy. Nor will home games against Alabama and Auburn. In the end, I think both LSU and Ole Miss will finish with a 5-3 record in the SEC with LSU beating Ole Miss. Tiebreaker goes to LSU.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Neither of these two teams would be my pick to win the SEC West, but the race between the Rebels and Tigers might be the most interesting battle to watch in the division this fall. One program is surging with energy and excitement with a returning senior quarterback and loads of future NFL stars in key positions. And the other is LSU - a team with quarterback questions and holes to plug up the heart of the defense. That said, Les Miles and his Bayou Bengals are the established program with four straight seasons of at least 10 wins, two high-level coordinators and a decade of championship competition. That level of operation counts for something when the fourth quarter rolls around against top-flight competition. Hugh Freeze is the hotter name running a hungrier program, but Ole Miss will have to win in Baton Rouge to leap LSU in the standings and I don't see that happening... Yet.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Recent history says it’s not wise to bet against LSU, especially in favor of Ole Miss. Still, the two programs are at a crossroads of sorts. Ole Miss is on the way up while LSU looks like it might take rare off year, as in a year when it wins eight or nine games instead of 10. Ole Miss has the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, even if that quarterback, Bo Wallace, can be a little wild. The Rebels proved that their top-10 signing class in 2013 was more than just an “on paper” victory; The class is going to play a major role in turning Ole Miss. LSU, though, has too many questions, both at quarterback and in the middle of the defense (tackle, linebacker and safety). Ole Miss is knocking on the door of relevance in the West, signaled in part by a 27-24 win over LSU in Oxford. With frontline talent like Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell, the Rebels are ready to leapfrog LSU at least for this year.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
I'm a big believer in "past performance predicts future performance", especially when things remain constant. The constant for LSU has been Les Miles and over his nine years at LSU he has had seven double-digit win seasons, one nine win season and one eight win season. In other words, you can bank on LSU winning 10 games year in and year out and they have a basement of five conference wins.
Hugh Freeze and his Ole Miss Rebels are on the rise but in his first two seasons, the Rebels have been unable to rise above three conference wins.
It's certainly possible that LSU has a down year this year with all of it's changeover and Ole Miss breaks through but until that happens I'm putting my money on Les and LSU to finish higher in the SEC West than Ole Miss and Mr Freeze.
Since the turn of the millennium, Ole Miss has finished ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings just once (2008). The two teams tied at 7-1 in 2003, but the TIgers beat the Rebels to earn the right to play in the SEC Championship Game that year. So it's not an understatement to say LSU has had Ole Miss' number these past 14 seasons, including a 10-4 mark head-to-head, but I am predicting this to change this fall. Perhaps I am putting too much stock into the buzz that's coming from Oxford, but it's clear that Hugh Freeze has the Rebels headed in the right direction, especially when it comes to recruiting. I believe this will be the first season when the fruits of the coaching staff's labor on the trail starts to pay off, especially since LSU looks ripe for the picking. Les Miles has seen 17 players leave early for the NFL over the past two seasons, and even though he continues to churn out top-10 recruiting classes, at some point this will catch up to his roster, especially in the SEC. The Tigers will be introducing five new starters on each side of the ball, none bigger than whomever ends up taking over for quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Meanwhile, the Rebels welcome back all-conference candidate Bo Wallace under center along with several explosive playmakers and a defense that returns nine starters. Ole Miss does have a tough schedule to navigate, including a trip to Baton Rouge and a home date with Auburn back-to-back, but LSU has to go to Gainesville to face a Florida team that can't wait for a chance to redeem itself following last season's disastrous showing. Both host Alabama and open the season with tough non-conference matchups (LSU vs. Wisconsin at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas; Ole Miss vs. Boise State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), but what truly matters is what happens once October and November roll around. Even though LSU will have home-field advantage on Oct. 25, I like Wallace to lead a Rebel uprising over the Tigers in the SEC West this season.