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SEC West 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings

Jacob Coker

Jacob Coker

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

The SEC West is college football’s toughest division and the going isn’t expected to get any easier in 2015. Alabama and Auburn appear to be the early favorites, but any of the seven teams have a case to be picked at the top this preseason. This spring, quarterback battles will be under the spotlight at Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, while defense is the focus at Auburn and Texas A&M.

What are the key questions and storylines shaping all seven teams in the SEC West and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the 7 teams and the priority list for each coach. 

SEC West Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

1. Alabama

2014 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 2, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:

Tosh Lupoi (LBs coach)
Mel Tucker (DBs coach)

Alabama’s Spring Priorities

1. Jake Coker’s Offense
After transferring in from Florida State last offseason, high expectations surrounded Jake Coker in the quarterback battle. However, Blake Sims edged Coker for the starting job. This spring is Coker’s chance at claiming the job once again, but he will be pushed by David Cornwell, Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman. This is Coker’s job to lose.

2. New Targets at WR
Amari Cooper was the best receiver in college football last season, catching 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 scores. And Alabama isn’t just replacing Cooper, as DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are also out of eligibility. Which players will emerge this spring at receiver?

3. Secondary Issues
Alabama’s defensive backs allowed 19 plays of 30 yards or more last season, which ranked near the bottom of the SEC. This unit has room to improve in 2015, but safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry must be replaced. At cornerback, will Cyrus Jones, Tony Brown, Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey provide the secondary with more consistency to eliminate the big plays?

2. Auburn

2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:

Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator)
Travaris Robinson (DBs coach)
Lance Thompson (LBs coach)

Auburn’s Spring Priorities

1. Will Muschamp Takes Over the Defense
After giving up 32.8 points per game in SEC contests last season, coach Gus Malzahn decided to make big changes to his defensive staff. Three new coaches join Auburn for 2015, including former Florida coach Will Muschamp as the team’s new coordinator. Muschamp should make a big difference with this unit, and there’s a solid core of talent in place with seven starters returning. This spring is Muschamp’s first opportunity to put his system in place.

2. Carl Lawson’s Return at DE
In addition to Muschamp’s arrival, one of the biggest reasons for optimism for Auburn's defense is the return of end Carl Lawson from injury. Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a torn ACL but is expected to participate in spring practice. Even though the sophomore won’t take a full load of snaps in the spring, getting Lawson back in the mix and knocking off the rust will be beneficial for the fall.

3. Reloading on Offense
Auburn returns only five starters on offense, but there’s not much concern about how this unit will perform in 2015. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is a breakout candidate, the backfield is loaded with talent - including junior college recruit Jovon Robinson - and there’s enough of a core in place on the offensive line to withstand the departure of center Reese Dismukes. 

3. LSU

2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Kevin Steele (Defensive Coordinator)
Ed Orgeron (DL coach)
Tony Ball (WRs coach)

LSU’s Spring Priorities

1. Improvement in the Passing Game
Total yardage isn’t necessarily the best way to judge an offense’s effectiveness, but LSU averaged only 140.6 passing yards per game in SEC contests. Both quarterbacks – Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris – struggled to consistently move the offense through the air. Jennings will open spring ball as the starter, but can he show improvement after completing only 48.9 percent of his passes in 2014?

2. Reloading at DE
LSU has been a factory for talent at defensive end in recent years. However, the pass rush has dipped over the last two seasons, and the Tigers finished 2014 with just 19 sacks. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have departed Baton Rouge, leaving new coordinator Kevin Steele and line coach Ed Orgeron with a few holes to fill at end. Who steps up here this spring?

3. Depth at RB/WR
There’s no doubt running back Leonard Fournette will be one of the nation’s leading rushers in 2015. But with the departure of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, coordinator Cam Cameron needs to restock the depth behind Fournette this spring. At receiver, Travin Dural produced plenty of big plays in 2014. Can the Tigers find a consistent No. 2 and No. 3 option? This is a big spring for Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse at receiver.

4. Ole Miss

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:

Corey Batoon (Sp. Teams/Safeties)

Ole Miss’ Spring Priorities

1. Quarterback Battle
With Bo Wallace expiring his eligibility, the Rebels open spring with a three-way battle for the starting quarterback spot. Junior college recruit Chad Kelly will have a shot to unseat DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, but none of the three players have a career start. Will coach Hugh Freeze find an answer at quarterback this spring?

2. Shuffling the OL
The offensive line was a concern for the Rebels heading into 2014, and this unit had its share of struggles, giving up 31 sacks and clearing the way for rushers to average only 3.9 yards per carry. Improving this unit is critical for Ole Miss’ chances at moving up in the West Division pecking order, but injuries are a factor. Tackle Laremy Tunsil and guard Aaron Morris are recovering from significant leg injuries. Major improvement this spring with Morris and Tunsil sidelined is unlikely, but it’s critical for Freeze to get a look at his options.

3. Filling the Voids in the Secondary
The Rebels return seven starters on defense and should once again be among the best in the SEC. But if there’s one concern for coordinator Dave Wommack, it has to be in the secondary after the departures of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt. The cupboard isn’t bare though, as C.J. Hampton and Tony Conner are back at safety, and cornerback could be addressed with the return of Tee Shepard from injury. Junior college recruit Tony Bridges will also provide help at cornerback.

5. Arkansas

2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 9 , Defense – 5

Key Coaching Changes:

Dan Enos (Offensive Coordinator)
Vernon Hargreaves (LBs coach)
Jemal Singleton (RBs coach)

Arkansas’ Spring Priorities

1. Continued Improvement in the Passing Game
New coordinator Dan Enos shouldn’t have to change the formula for success for the Razorbacks. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams form one of the nation’s top duos at running back, and the line is one of the best in the SEC. But for Arkansas to take the next step in the West, the passing game has to take another step forward. Quarterback Brandon Allen returns, and top targets Keon Hatcher (WR) and Hunter Henry (TE) are also back. Can the Razorbacks find a couple more options to help the passing game grow in 2015?

2. Reloading on the DL
Not only is Arkansas losing its best pass rusher (Trey Flowers), but its best defensive tackle (Darius Philon) bolted early to the NFL. Coordinator Robb Smith has to restock the trenches this spring and will be looking for development from players like JaMichael Winston (DE), Taiwan Johnson (DT) and Bijhon Jackson (DT).

3. Replacing Martrell Spaight
Spaight may have been one of the SEC’s most underrated players in 2014. In 13 games, Spaight recorded 128 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and forced two fumbles. Brooks Ellis (72 tackles) is the top returner at linebacker, but this will be an area of focus as Smith and new linebacker coach Vernon Hargreaves look to replace Spaight in 2015.

6. Texas A&M

2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

John Chavis (Defensive Coordinator)
Aaron Moorehead (WRs coach)
Dave Christensen (OL/Run Game Coordinator)

Texas A&M’s Spring Priorities

1. Getting Defensive
It’s no secret the defense has been Texas A&M’s biggest problem since joining the SEC. However, coach Kevin Sumlin took a big step in fixing the defense by hiring John Chavis away from LSU. Chavis is one of the best defensive signal-callers in the nation and inherits a unit with some promising young talent. How far can Chavis get this defense to improve in the spring?

2. Kyle Allen’s Time to Shine
Allen ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and didn’t disappoint in his first season in College Station. He started the final five games of 2014 and finished the year with 1,322 passing yards and 16 scores. Allen is entrenched as the starter this spring, but touted freshman Kyler Murray arrives this summer. Can Allen solidify his place at the top of the depth chart?

3. Revamped OL
New line coach Dave Christensen inherits a unit that returns three starters but must replace standout tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. The Aggies allowed 26 sacks last season and need to shuffle the starting five with Ogbuehi, Garrett Gramling and Jarvis Harrison leaving College Station. Center Mike Matthews is a good building block, but how will Christensen build the starting five? This spring is his first opportunity to work with this group. 

7. Mississippi State

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 3

Key Coaching Changes:

Manny Diaz (Defensive Coordinator)

Mississippi State’s Spring Priorities

1. New Faces on the OL
The Bulldogs return only four starters on offense in 2015, but quarterback Dak Prescott turned down the NFL for one more season in Starkville. Prescott’s return is huge for Mississippi State’s hopes of another 10-win season, and the focus of spring should be revamping the line to protect their senior quarterback. Three key linemen departed from the 2014 team, including standout center Dillon Day and guard Ben Beckwith. Junior college recruit Martinas Rankin should help replace left tackle Blaine Clausell.

2. Replacing Josh Robinson
Josh Robinson left Starkville for the NFL after a successful 2014 season. Robinson rushed for 1,203 yards and 11 scores last year, while Prescott was the team’s second-leading rusher with 986 yards. The battle to replace Robinson begins this spring, as Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams will compete for carries.

3. Manny Diaz Returns to Coordinate the Defense
Geoff Collins left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Florida this offseason, and coach Dan Mullen turned to a familiar face to lead Mississippi State’s defense. Manny Diaz is back after leaving for Texas in 2011. Diaz will be a busy man this offseason, as the Bulldogs return only three starters and suffered significant losses at each level of the defense. This spring will be his first opportunity to find replacements for big names like end Preston Smith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney.