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2022 Preview: SEC West

1. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0)

Alabama is motivated for revenge after a disastrous end to the College Football Championship matchup against Georgia. Injuries at receiver derailed Alabama down the stretch, and departures there and along the offensive line will be the biggest hurdles to another potential championship season. The 2022 schedule shapes up nicely for Alabama to once again meet for the conference championship, this time likely as a matchup of undefeated teams.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex
Running Backs: Ex
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Vg
Linebackers: Ex
Defensive Backs: Ex
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

QB Bryce Young is back and the running back position is as stacked as it’s ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure. Alabama added receivers Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville) to the receiver corps but there’s going to be a lot of “show me” going on here early until someone steps up. The middle of the offensive line is solid, and there’s plenty of to go around just about everywhere. Alabama was more dynamic than it got credit for being last year, and the addition of Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs at running back may finally answer the question of what would have happened had Josh Jacobs been the featured back when he was in Tuscaloosa. Alabama also upgraded its offensive line coaching situation. As a group, this side of the ball figures to be leaner and faster than last year.

Offense: What could go wrong

Offensive tackle is thin behind starters Tyler Steen, a Vanderbilt transfer, and J.C. Latham, who was a reserve guard/tackle swing player last year. The tight end position was already a hodgepodge of converted linemen, walk-ons and pine-green true freshman before Cameron Latu’s fall camp ended early with a moderate injury. While those are the obvious potential snags, Harrell has been slow to acclimate to Alabama’s receiver rotation, and Burton’s spring didn’t produce clear evidence that he could be a featured X receiver. Young struggled last year when Alabama’s reserve receivers proved to not be plug-and-play after injuries to the starters.

Defense: What could go right

No one is going to be able to bring the kind of edge pressure that Alabama will, and Alabama will be able to bring waves of it. Defensive is solid up and down, left to right, and there are several first-round draft candidates on this side of the ball. Bryce Young’s greatest threat to repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner may come from his own defense in the form of LB Will Anderson Jr. While the linebackers have been drawing most of the attention, Alabama’s safety group may also be the best in the nation. The middle of the defense is one young defensive tackle stepping up from being a complete jail for opposing offenses.

Defense: What could go wrong

Injuries have come in bunches recently, and tend to focus on positions: inside linebackers two years ago, cornerbacks at the end of 2021 and into the start of 2022. Alabama needs Khyree Jackson, Eli Ricks and others to stay healthy long enough to compete, because Texas in Week 2 will be able to throw the ball and that’s not where Alabama needs to be finding out what it has. On the subject of defensive tackles, Phidarian Mathis wasn’t the most high-profile graduate of the 2021 team but he was no less important than whoever was. must prove he can play on all downs or a merry-go-round will start turning.

One-sentence summary: The focus is back, and another title challenge is on the horizon.

The vibes out of Tuscaloosa are more positive than a year ago, as Alabama may have shed some internal baggage over the offseason. The talent is there, and it appears to be focused on the task. Injuries at offensive tackle or a receiver corps being unready for prime time are the biggest issues. The schedule isn’t kind – seven straight SEC games in the middle of it, and it doesn’t have a friendly flow. But Alabama has overcome much worse.


2. Rebels (10-2, 6-2 [UA, TAM])

More so than any other SEC team this year, Ole Miss’ predicted results are expected to eclipse the ratings its units have been assigned. A favorable schedule has a lot to do with this, but also the continuing maturity of head coach Lane Kiffin, who is rehabilitating his career in Oxford and may soon be in line for a much bigger job.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av
Running Backs: Fr
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Fr
Defensive Backs: Fr
Special Teams: Fr

Offense: What could go right
Any time Kiffin is calling the shots, the offense could go right. But from a technical end, it’s going to come down to whether Southern Cal transfer QB Jaxson Dart is the real thing. Dart made a splash when he announced he was coming to Ole Miss, but the acclimation process to the SEC may take longer than expected. isn’t even sure Dart will hold off Matt Corral’s former backup, Luke Altmyer. If Altmyer wins the job, it will say more about the reasons Dart left USC than Altmyer’s progress as a quarterback. Ole Miss raided TCU and SMU for Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley IV, and if Evans can live up to the hype that surrounded him coming out of high school, the Rebels could be dynamic. The offensive line is one of the best in the conference.

Offense: What could go wrong

If Dart is a bust or if Evans can’t take the next step forward as a college athlete, the Rebels will lack explosiveness, a requirement in modern college football and certainly the SEC. The wide receiver corps is in the middle of a total rebuild, although getting Malik Heath from Mississippi State was a coup. Typically what hurts the most is a general lack of top-level depth, and that’s no different this year.

Defense: What could go right

The secondary is a veteran unit, and retooled the linebacker corps around another transfer, Central Michigan’s Troy Brown. The defense overall is built for speed and defending high-powered passing offenses, as the Rebels use a six-DB package more often than most teams. Unlike the offense, there’s a lot of experienced veteran depth on this side of the ball, especially in the back end. If the Rebels can focus a bit more on the mundane, and less on boom-bust big plays, it won’t be a unit that teams with average quarterbacks will want to play.

Defense: What could go wrong

When you put six defensive backs on the field as a primary alignment, the rush defense is going to suffer. was 105th against the run last year and a stretch of games late in the 2022 season could wear the Rebels out. Beginning Oct. 15 with Auburn, sees the Tigers, then LSU and Texas A&M on the road over three consecutive weeks. The defensive line traded on the transfer portal like it was the NASDAQ, sending linemen away and bringing new ones in seemingly every week, but the end result is probably more of the same. The loss of LB Chance Campbell, though, is going to be the biggest hurdle to overcome.

One-sentence summary: In true Lane Kiffin fashion, everything is on the table, from being a darkhorse division contender to last place in the SEC West.

The loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby has been glossed over a bit. Kiffin will have to work harder than usual to keep the Rebels competitive. A 10-2 record is probably a best-case scenario with everything breaking the Rebels’ way. The biggest challenge on the field will be resetting the offensive backfield, but that’s Kiffin’s specialty. A couple of injuries at key positions, though, and the Rebels will take a leap backward.


3. Texas A&M Aggies (10-2, 6-2 [UA, UF])

Texas A&M was crowed new kings of the SEC West after upsetting Alabama last year in College Station, but ended up its usual 8-4 by year’s end, including an embarrassing loss to LSU in the final week. The Aggies’ most recent recruiting haul may go down in history as being the event that triggered a review, and perhaps future regulation, of the SEC’s NIL rules. That class is still a year or two away from making a big impact, but this is still a good team that intends to pound the ball and win with defense – always a good idea in the SEC.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Vg
Linebackers: Fr
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Ex

Offense: What could go right

Haynes King was supposed to be the quarterback last year until an early-season injury sidelined him. While Zach Calzada will be forever loved in College Station for beating Alabama, it was basically Calzada’s only good game of the year that mattered. King isn’t much different from Calzada as a passer, but he is significantly more mobile and has a far greater upside. And this year, if King gets hurt again, he’ll have a better backup in former LSU starter Max Johnson. As for the rest of the offense, the operative phrase is “incremental improvement.” There’s a good mix of breakout ability and stability, but it has lacked consistency.

Offense: What could go wrong

To be perfectly honest about it, A&M’s offensive philosophy is a bit behind the times. Jimbo Fisher must adjust, or the Aggies will continue to have issues keeping up with explosive teams, especially when the quarterback isn’t on point. There is also a simmering concern about the wide receiver corps and especially the tight end position, where Jalen Wydermyer is no longer an option. The WR group has talent, but not a lot of experience or proven consistency yet.

Defense: What could go right

There isn’t a lot of returning experience up front, but Fisher’s recruiting prowess has overstocked the Aggies with talent along the defensive line. Still considered to be a year away from emerging, if A&M gets early development from guys like Shemar Turner and Walter Nolen, along with continued development from McKinnley Jackson, this could wind up being the best defensive line in the SEC – and would make the other units better by default. Special teams may end up winning a game or two for this team, as well.

Defense: What could go wrong

There’s a lot of experience in the secondary but Texas A&M has long had a consistency problem back there. The numbers from last year suggest the Aggies have the problem fixed but they’ve thought that same thing before and weren’t able to maintain the consistency the team needed. The much bigger potential issue is at linebacker, where there is a lack of playmaking ability and overall talent. So far, A&M has been able to cover up that weakness because the front four has been just too good.

One-sentence summary: A&M’s ultimate goal may be to out- Georgia.

Whether Fisher can move his offense forward the way Alabama has is something yet to be determined. At this time, Texas A&M seems to be comfortable sitting in the old-school pro-set space, and there is some value in that, provided Fisher can continue to recruit the right players at the right positions. Texas A&M’s big goal should be to increase consistency across the board, because more so than a lot of other SEC contenders, the Aggies have been stymied by fits of inconsistency in the recent past.


4. LSU Tigers (7-5, 4-4 [UA, FSU, OM, UF, TAM])

LSU upgraded significantly on the sideline when it hired away from Notre Dame, but Kelly will have his work cut out for him this year in Baton Rouge. The talent is there for LSU to be a surprise team in the SEC West, but the players need to rediscover their confidence.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av
Running Backs: Fr
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Fr
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Fr
Special Teams: Av

Offense: What could go right

The wide receiver corps has the chance to be special, as Kelly’s best recruiting job so far was convincing Kayshon Boutte to give the Tigers another season. Arizona State transfer QB Jayden Daniels has a lot of fans, but like any transfer into an SEC program, he’ll have to prove it first. The real chance for a breakout will be from the running back position – which Orgeron never completely figured out how to utilize, crazy as that sounds.

Offense: What could go wrong

A lot. Myles Brennan aborted his sixth-year attempt at playing quarterback, so if Daniels can’t get it done, the job falls to Garrett Nussmeier, a freshman, and LSU would probably be in trouble. The tight end position will be a committee affair, but the biggest concern is offensive line. LSU could have two starters who were playing a much lower grade of ball last year, Tre’Mond Shorts ( East Tennessee State) and Miles Frazier (Florida International). The offensive line group is huge – 19 players in all – but it underachieved as a unit last year and only one part-time starter returns from 2021.

Defense: What could go right

You have to squint to see it, but the linebacker group could do some nice things if Mike Jones Jr. continues to develop. He’s shown flashes before but needs to put it all together. Micah Baskerville is solid and if B.J. Ojulari can adjust from the move to linebacker from full-time defensive end, things should work out just fine. The defensive line’s starters are as talented as any but the depth isn’t there. Honestly, the best thing for LSU’s defense is that Orgeron’s over-the-top bully personality isn’t shaping their mindset anymore.

Defense: What could go wrong

The secondary is almost entirely a collection of transfer portal refugees, with only one returning starter and a couple of depth players coming back from the 2021 roster. Especially early in the season, LSU figures to be vulnerable in the back end until everyone learns how to play together. The lack of defensive depth in general is disturbing, and LSU must do what it can to avoid the injury bug. Special teams got a boost when punter Jay Bramblett followed Kelly from Notre Dame, setting up a scenario where both LSU kickers could be guys that originally grew up in Tuscaloosa. In general, special teams may prove to be a sore spot.

One-sentence summary: The talent is capable, but this is a transition year through and through.

The easiest transition Kelly will have to SEC football will be on the sidelines after kickoff. He’s an excellent coach and strategist, but it will take time to rebuild what Orgeron let self-destruct. Even if everything goes right, LSU doesn’t have the talent to line up heads-up against Alabama or even Texas A&M, but the Tigers can play the role of spoiler in 2022 with an eye toward contention in 2023.


5. Razorbacks (6-6, 3-5 [UA, UC, TAM, MSU, LSU, OM])

Sam Pittman continues to put tough teams on the field that never stop fighting, but at the same time, the Razorbacks are fighting a losing battle in regard to total talent level. While won’t likely ever be among the elite of the conference, the Razorbacks have become a major thorn in the side of better teams, and especially teams that won’t play as tough as they will.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Fr
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Fr
Linebackers: Vg
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

It’s all about how K.J. Jefferson continues to develop as a quarterback. The most surprising stat of Jefferson’s 2021 campaign was that he kept his interception total to 4. He also finished the year as the team’s leading rusher. He’s the kind of quarterback that, if he’s having a career day, teams like Alabama become vulnerable to. The brightest lights on offense, though, come from the trenches. There’s a case to be made that the Hogs have the best OL in the conference, and that case will become even stronger if can solidify the left tackle spot. Receiver could be a position of strength if Warren Thompson can continue to develop, and new transfer Jadon Haselwood is as good as hoped.

Offense: What could go wrong

Tight end is going to be an issue until it’s not, basically. It’s currently staffed by walk-ons and players who started out at other positions. The receiver corps, while it has potential, has been slow to consolidate behind a certain rotation. There is no good answer if Jefferson goes down at QB – Malik Hornsby is probably better at receiver than QB, and he’s the best option if Jefferson were to get hurt – but the real question mark may prove to be running back. Dominique Johnson had offseason knee surgery, and while A.J. Green and Raheim Sanders both looked good at times in 2021, it’s been a committee approach up to this point under Pittman.

Defense: What could go right

The linebacker group has the chance to be special, thanks mostly to Alabama transfer Drew Sanders drawing a starting assignment next to all-name-team stalwart Bumper Pool. Sanders was used exclusively on the outside at Alabama but has slid into the weakside spot in Fayetteville. In addition, Chris Paul Jr. could just as easily start and excel. Up front, there is good versatility along the defensive line, allowing to shift fronts at will. Isaiah Nichols could end up being all-conference. The safety group is also in excellent shape.

Defense: What could go wrong

There is a depth issue up front and the secondary is unsettled. An injury to Taurean Carter at the end of really weakened the defensive line, and this was a unit that was all too porous against the run at times last year and figures to take a step back with the graduation of John Ridgeway. The cornerback group has multiple concerns, and those concerns got worse when LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern failed to crack the rotation early in fall camp as was hoped.

One-sentence summary: The classic spoiler team, but lacks the ability to hang with elite opponents.

can score with the best of them, and was the SEC’s top rushing team a year ago. But the Razorbacks had to play softer on defense than it wanted to in order to keep games in front of them. If they want to take the next step, they’ll have to do it in February just as much as in the fall.


6. Auburn Tigers (5-7, 2-6 [UA, Ark, PSU, LSU, UGA, OM, TAM])

Five straight losses to close the 2021 season dampened any enthusiasm Tiger might have had for first-year head coach Bryan Harsin, and Auburn didn’t appear to do enough over the offseason to improve on its 6-7 record from a year ago. This is a team that needs to find an identity – and some explosiveness – ASAP.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Fr
Running Backs: Ex
Wide Receivers: Fr
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

Tank Bigsby is arguably the best running back in the league, so if Auburn can find a way to ride him without using him up, the Tigers may be able to shorten games and steal a couple of close ones. The offensive line is the most senior-laden in the conference, and there is some potential at receiver even if the consistency hasn’t shown yet. John Samuel Shenker has grown into one of the most effective SEC tight ends. New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau is probably a better fit for what Harsin wants out of a playcaller than was Mike Bobo.

Offense: What could go wrong

Plenty. Center Nick Brahms may be facing a premature end to his career due to injuries, and Austin Troxell must be closely managed due to his own injury history. Losing one or both would deal a big blow to a line that, although veteran, has practically no depth to speak of. The much bigger problem is not the center, but rather who goes under center. T.J. Finley wasn’t the answer down the stretch last year after taking over for Bo Nix, and Nix decided to transfer to Oregon. Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada obviously rode his upset win over Alabama to a prominent spot in the transfer portal, but has failed to impress at Auburn.

Defense: What could go right

If Owen Pappoe is healthy, he’ll be a force at linebacker. The defensive line was surprisingly competent last year after being laughed at during spring and fall camps. Even though Auburn lost three starters from the defensive backfield, the Tigers return some talented players there. Special teams, which have become an Auburn trademark, are again expected to be a strong suit.

Defense: What could go wrong

Losing defensive coordinator was a big blow, and an unnecessary one. Mason worked magic, especially in the front seven, and new coordinator Jeff Schmedding will be under a lot of pressure from a fan base that isn’t known for its patience. Depth in the secondary will be provided mainly by younger players. Auburn also has to find one or two players to help Pappoe out at linebacker, who can’t do it all by himself.

One-sentence summary: In a conference that demands explosiveness, Auburn draws blanks.

There’s just not enough firepower here to challenge the contenders atop the division, and there may not be enough offensive competency to keep the defense from getting worn down. Auburn is still too good in spots to be frequent blowout victims, but the offense will have to work around the problem at quarterback and the ongoing lack of game-changing talent along the offensive line. Harsin’s Auburn tenure will be short if he posts a second straight losing season.


7. Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6, 2-6 [UA, AU, LSU, TAM, UGA, OM])

Mississippi State got to nine wins in 2021, but was that the exception, or the new rule in Starkville? The Bulldogs must improve against the pass, but the bigger issue will be replacing a pair of offensive tackles that allowed QB Will Rogers the room he needed to breathe and develop a year ago.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Vg
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Fr
Special Teams: Av

Offense: What could go right

Quarterbacks frequently excel under Mike Leach, and Rogers was no exception, throwing for 4,739 yards and 36 touchdowns and averaging less than 1 interception per game, not an easy feat when 40-50 pass attempts are the norm. There is experience at receiver, although there is no true alpha in the group. The middle of the offensive line should be a strength.

Offense: What could go wrong

The loss of LT Charles Cross to the NFL will hurt, as State doesn’t appear to have anyone of his caliber available to replace him. The running back combo of Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson underachieved in 2021, and Leach more or less abandoned the running game anyway. Whether that strategy will play in the SEC for the long term is cause for great skepticism, to say the least. The loss of Malik Heath to via the transfer portal was a killer for a team needing someone to step up to replace Makai Polk. Also, the QB room gets mighty thin if something were to happen to Rogers.

Defense: What could go right

The front seven should be one of the most solid in the conference. Despite a lot of quick possessions by the MSU offense, the defense seemed unfazed in controlling the run, ranking 12th nationally in the stat. Seven of the eight players that finished spring in the two-deep along the defensive line are upperclassmen, and all three projected starters at linebacker are seniors. Special teams aren’t going to wow anyone, but there’s enough quality in the kicking game to at least not lose games for this team.

Defense: What could go wrong

The secondary was the weak spot of the defense last year, and it didn’t get markedly better over the offseason. Aside from Alabama transfer Marcus Banks, MSU has to hope that returning players spontaneously improve, or it’s going to be a long year. There’s also some concern with depth at linebacker, and even though the Bulldogs are expected to be OK at placekicker, the top candidates are transfers without SEC track records.

One-sentence summary: Well-coached but often outgunned, Bulldogs will need help from unexpected sources.

With a quarterback like Will Rogers on the roster, the Bulldogs can never truly be counted out. This is a close-knit team and well-schooled on what it takes to win games, but there’s no denying that the talent level just doesn’t match up. It will also be interesting to see whether the Bulldogs try to do more with the running game, especially given the lack of a true playmaker at receiver.

 

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