There seems to be a lot of debate every season but the simple fact of the matter is that half of the teams, and 6 titles, that have won the National Championship in the last decade were from the SEC West. Certainly the ACC Atlantic finished last season at the top, but 2017 is a new season, and the SEC West now has a more experienced quarterback corps. Conventional wisdom is that the division hierarchy is Alabama and everyone else but in that regard 2017 offers a legitimate threat to Alabama for the first time in several seasons in Auburn. LSU and Ole Miss are breaking in new coaching staffs while Kevin Sumlin is probably coaching for his job at Texas A&M. Dan Mullen has one of the best quarterbacks in the country and Bret Bielema gets a step closer every year to establishing Arkansas as a physically dominating team.
Top Draft Prospects
1: Arden Key, LSU
2: Derrius Guice, LSU
3: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
4: Braden Smith, Auburn
5: Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State
6: Kevin Toliver LSU
7: Calvin Ridley, Alabama
8: Trey Matthews, Auburn
9: Da’ron Payne Alabama
10: Kamryn Pettaway, Auburn
Order Of Finish
1: Auburn This is the biggest risk I am taking this year in terms of projections, but I’m going to defend it. First Auburn is the most experienced team in the SEC West this year. Second If you watched any tape of Jarrett Stidham at Baylor you realize how good he truly is. If he does not improve at all from his previous form Auburn is a 10 win team. I’m betting that he has improved and it will be obvious. Kamryn Pettaway and Kerryon Johnson give the Tigers two excellent tailbacks that can both play simultaneously. The offensive line returns 3 starters, 1 graduate transfer, and Braden Smith - one of the top players in the country. The defensive line depth is better than it has been in Auburn since the 1980’s and the linebackers and secondary both are filled with highly recruited veterans with NFL potential. Simply put, if Auburn manages to stay healthy, they’ll be able to play with anyone in college football and the schedule looks favorable, despite being one of the hardest in college football. I expect Auburn to have a floor of 11 wins and be one of the handful of teams considered for a playoff spot at the end of the season.
2: Alabama Honestly picking apart Alabama’s faults is an exercise in futility. The highly recruited players that will rotate into starting positions this year have been in the program long enough to have bought into the system. The names and faces change but, for the most part, the output is the same. This year I am projecting a bit of a step backwards, however, because of a couple of reasons. First I expect the offensive playcalling to suffer somewhat. While the offensive line is great and the skill positions players are excellent, Brian Daboll is no Lane Kiffin as a play caller. I expect the offensive output to decrease by a few points a game, and the offensive efficiency to decrease as well. Second the highly regarded Alabama players this year look to be overrated in part. There is plenty of talent and experience on their defense but in watching tape from last season I am not sure enough of the players are true difference makers as opposed to players that succeed when other players demand the attention. Still there is a lot of talent here. Probably half a dozen guys that will be drafted in the top 3 rounds in April. Finally, I simply think Auburn has the pieces to stop Alabama this year and be a slightly better team than the Crimson Tide. I still see them winning 10 or 11 games. If they win 11 regular season games they’ll still have a strong shot at the playoffs.
3: LSU Ed Orgeron gets yet another shot at his latest dream job. Coach O brought in two excellent coordinators and seems set on being a CEO type of coach this time around. As well as Orgeron recruits he could quickly turn LSU back into the class of the SEC if he allows his coaches to do their jobs without interference, but still manages to hold them accountable. Derrius Guice and Arden Key will probably both be top 10 draft choices in the 2018 draft, while Kevin Toliver is another likely first rounder. I don’t worry about the lack of experience in Baton Rouge as the Tigers always have plenty of depth, but I am not sure they’ll have the kind of quarterback play that will be needed to challenge for the Conference title. I see them as a distant third in 2017.
4: Texas A&M UCLA is a super critical game for the Aggies. A victory there will generate some momentum and give the team a much clearer path towards a 9 win season. A loss all but assures they will finish in the middle of the pack again. Trayveon Williams and Christian Kirk will return to the offense which should be fun to watch yet again. The defense will be experienced and is strongest along the line. Armani Watts is a steady player at safety, though, and he should be the emotional leader of the defense. I think Sumlin’s team will be able to get past a strong UCLA team but I am not sure I see how they can keep pace with the best offenses or score on the best defenses in the Conference consistently. I feel really good about them getting 7 wins but I think they will win a big game at home, possibly Auburn or Alabama, but South Carolina seems like the safest choice, and finish with 8 wins.
5: Mississippi State I’m high on the Bulldogs on the strength of Nick Fitzgerald and Martinas Rankin. With Fitzgerald upright he’ll be able to do some damage in Dan Mullen's offensive system. Being the second most experienced team in the West will also help them eek out a few close games. The secondary is made up of returning starters with a senior as the only first year starter so the mistakes should be kept to a minimum. Ultimately the Bulldogs should be able to reach 7 or 8 wins if they can beat Arkansas and Ole Miss to close out the season. They probably aren’t good enough to stay close with the best teams in the west but an upset of South Carolina or Texas A&M would not shock me.
6: Arkansas The Razorbacks seem to be stuck on a plateau of wanting to be a physical team that dominates but not quite having the resources to be that. Austin Allen returns at quarterback and he should be one of the best in the Conference. He also returns 4 of his offensive linemen and a reliable receiver in Jared Cornelius. Devwah Whaley is going to be the most important player on offense for this team though as he will need to replace Rawleigh Williams’s production from last year, at least in part. Defensively Arkansas still has a lot of work that needs to be done. The team simply does not have the elite talent throughout their defense that is needed to win in the SEC. McTelvin Agim, a promising defensive end, could be the centerpiece for the Razorbacks, and Dre Greenlaw is a nice linebacker, but Bielema will need some solid play from his first year starters and underclassmen if Arkansas is to improve much from last season. I see them getting right at 6 wins.
7: Ole Miss The biggest issues facing the Rebels all have nothing to do with the players. Hugh Freeze is gone while the NCAA still lurks in the waters. Ole Miss is going to get hard eventually. Matt Luke might be the best guy to guide their program but they aren’t going to get a top coach at that program with sanctions looming. The offense returns 4 linemen and Van Jefferson at receiver and will most likely be hurt by the absence of Freeze’s leadership and play calling. Defensively Marquise Haynes is the best player on a defense that returns 6 starters. The Rebels have some talent on the defensive side of the ball but they are not going to be a shutdown defense. I think Ole Miss will win 5-6 games and finish last.