The SEC West is the toughest division in college football. Alabama has won two out of the last three championships, Auburn played for the title last year, and the Crimson Tide met LSU for the title after the 2011 season.
In addition to Alabama, Auburn and LSU, Texas A&M joined the SEC West, adding another obstacle improvement by Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
But heading into 2014, there’s plenty of optimism at both programs. The Rebels are recruiting at a high level, and the depth has significantly improved over the last two years under Hugh Freeze. The Bulldogs have played in four straight bowl games under Dan Mullen and have closed the gap on the rest of the West.
Auburn, Alabama and LSU appear to be the top three teams in the West Division once again. However, don’t forget about Ole Miss and Mississippi State, as both teams are capable of playing spoiler and could move a little higher in the pecking order this year.
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.
Ole Miss or Mississippi State: Who Finishes Higher in the SEC West?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With LSU losing a handful of players to the NFL Draft, and quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans leaving Texas A&M, the door is open for Ole Miss and Mississippi State to climb the ladder in the West Division. Alabama and Auburn are likely to be picked by many as the top-two teams in the division, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think Ole Miss or Mississippi State could finish third next year. While I think both teams will show improvement in the win column, I think a slight edge should go to the Rebels. Ole Miss should benefit having a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback and Vince Sanders at receiver, and the defense is poised to improve with nine starters back including talented sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner. The Rebels also have a slight schedule advantage. Mississippi State visits Oxford, and Ole Miss hosts Auburn and Tennessee. With better injury luck, an improving defense and more depth in Hugh Freeze’s third year, the Rebels should be poised for a bump in the win column.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
There are a lot of reasons why The Magnolia State is bubbling over with pigskin excitement as we enter the Playoff Era. Both programs should be improved from a year ago with a deep host of talented players returning to campus. Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs are going to be excellent on defense and should get more consistent quarterback play with Dak Prescott prepared for his first full season under center. Hugh Freeze and the Rebels bring back one of the best freshman and sophomore classes in school history as well as third-year starter Bo Wallace at QB. Both schedules are daunting but offer optimism as well so who finishes higher in the standings likely depends on who wins the season-ending Egg Bowl in 2014. Just like the last few seasons, this game has defined the season for both squads, and with the game returning to Oxford (Ole Miss also boasts more roster upside), the Rebels have to be considered the favorite to finish ahead of the Bulldogs this fall.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Despite finishing just 7-6 last season, the Bulldogs have a lot of momentum heading into the 2014 season, and I'm seeing a lot written about them being a sort of darkhorse in the SEC West. On the other hand, most of the press clips about Ole Miss this spring have been due to some high profile off-the-field mishaps.
Last year both of these two teams finished just 3-5 in the SEC West with Mississippi State winning the head to head battle. The problem with Mississippi State under Dan Mullen is that they haven't been able to win the big one. During Mullen's tenure at Mississippi State, his squad has gone 1-16 against the combination of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M (and that one win came against the 2012 Auburn team that couldn't fight it's way out of a paper bag). The Bulldogs have defined what they are under Mullen and that's a mediocre team that doesn't win the big game.
Looking at the schedules, the swing game for these two teams will be the November 29th Egg Bowl at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. With Mississippi State's win in 2013, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss will make this game even bigger than it usually is and I'll take my chances with the home team. Ole Miss will finish 4-4 in the conference and Mississippi State will finish 3-5.
If there was ever a chance for the state of Mississippi to make some noise in the SEC, this could be the year. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State finished last season by winning their respective bowls and both enter the 2014 campaign with a good deal of talent and experience, as well as renewed optimism that even better things could be in store. Alabama and defending conference champion Auburn aren't expected to just roll over, but with LSU and Texas A&M each going through some pretty significant roster turnover, the opportunity is there for the Rebels and Bulldogs to both be a factor in the division race. For one, both teams have the luxury of returning a quarterback who saw plenty of reps last season, something the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Aggies can't claim. Each defense made strides by the end of last season as well and return a fair amount of key personnel. That said, whichever team wins the annual Magnolia State battle in late November figures to have a better chance of finishing higher in the division standings. While I expect a strong showing from Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, I think this is the season that Hugh Freeze has been building towards since he took over at Ole Miss in December 2011. His hard work on the recruiting trail will finally bear considerable fruit, as I believe Ole Miss is slightly more talented as a team than Mississippi State and I think quarterback Bo Wallace will end up challenging for All-SEC honors with a strong senior season. And who knows, with Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, and Mississippi State all slated to visit Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this fall, this truly could end up being a special season down in Oxford.