SEC West Preview
NATIONAL CHAMPION ALABAMA AIMING FOR AN ASTONISHING THREE-PEAT
We begin our look at major conferences in college football with the home of the two-time defending National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide. Those hoping for a changing of the guard this year may be in for a disappointment. This year's Alabama team might be even better!
Alabama is the class of the SEC West, even though Texas A&M and LSU will put up good fights (those are the only two teams to beat 'Bama in the last two calendar years). The eventual champs of the East (to be previewed Tuesday here in the NOTEBOOK) will have a chance to make a statement in the SEC title tilt. But, they'd probably have to do that as underdogs of at least a touchdown, and possibly double digits. Is there anyone else nationally, from inferior conferences, who would take out Alabama when head coach Nick Saban has a month to prepare? That's a pretty soft maybe at best.
Let's run through the West, because the most dangerous threats to 'Bama come from their own conference division...
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense
Quarterback: A.J. McCarron
Head Coach: Nick Saban
They already had a fantastic defense...and now they return more starters than anyone else in the conference, and most teams nationally! How are you going to beat Alabama if you can't score on them?! McCarron was a steady hand on offense last year, and started showing more big play potential as he matured. Last year's team was terrific. This year's team looks like it's going to be a bit better. That's going to take a lot of drama out of the 2013 season unless the Tide gets knocked off in College Station by Texas A&M in the second game of their season...by LSU in Tuscaloosa in the first game of November...or somewhere along the line in a flat preparation spot (Ole Miss is seen as the most likely candidate).
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Quarterback: Johnny Manziel
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin
This became a truly amazing story last year. Everything clicked perfectly for a coach on the rise...an offensive coordinator on the rise...and a kid quarterback with a chip on his shoulder. One could argue persuasively that Texas A&M was really "the best team in the country" at the end of the season. They beat 'Bama on the road, then crushed respected Oklahoma 41-13 in their bowl. Shouldn't the Aggies be getting hyped as a national contender this year? Yes and no. The dangers with assuming that the good times continue come from the fact that they won't catch anybody by surprise this year, they lost their offensive coordinator to Texas Tech (where Kliff Kingsbury is the new head coach), and "Johnny Football" is showing an alarming inclination to self-destruct from arrogance and bad behavior since the chip is off his shoulder now. Huge volatility here. Train wreck potential to be sure...but exciting possibilities if Manziel grows up by September.
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 3 on defense
Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger
Head Coach: Les Miles
It's easy to forget about LSU because the media fell in love with Texas A&M in the second half of last season and stopped talking about the Tigers. Remember that LSU almost beat Alabama, and DID beat the Aggies. They will need to rebuild their defense on the fly. Early season skepticism in the polls involves that lack of returning experience combined with a killer schedule that includes both Georgia and Florida from the East (nobody has it worse!) as well as dangerous TCU in the season opener. Trials by fire can create champions from off the radar. We'll definitely be keeping a close eye on this team, partly because they'll be on TV so much!
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Quarterback: Bo Wallace
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze
So many pundits are picking Ole Miss as a darkhorse that you have to wonder if the team is becoming overrated. They were capable of hanging tough with anyone last year. But, they also got routed by Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, while also getting shocked by Vanderbilt. It's probably better to think of this experienced team and impressive head coach as a darkhorse to score a big upset or two rather than a darkhorse to compete for the division title. We'll learn a lot about the Rebels quickly because road games with Texas and Alabama are in September.
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Quarterback: Tyler Russell
Head Coach: Dan Mullen
Things were looking very promising after a 7-0 start to the 2012 campaign. But, the schedule toughened in the second half of the season, and the Bulldogs were repeatedly blown out by all the teams that matter. Then they lost their bowl game to Northwestern. They return fewer starters than state rival Ole Miss and divisional favorite Alabama. We can see them springing a shocker somewhere along the line. And, you have to be impressed with what Coach Mullen is accomplishing in a low-population state. The team is just flat over-matched in terms of being able to achieve true greatness.
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bret Bielema (new)
The big news here, of course, is the new head coach. Bielema comes over from Wisconsin wanting to prove that he can succeed in the best conference in the country. The pressure won't be on to win immediately because he's trying to right a ship that somebody else sank. A lack of experience is going to be a big problem. If the team shows development against a soft early schedule, JIM HURLEY will look for spots to back them as a value underdog in the second half of the season.
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (new)
Look for scoring to skyrocket under their offensive guru head coach. The fact that the coach will upgrade the offense while experience will solidify the defense creates some interesting potential. Unfortunately, this is a superpower division that won't show them any sympathy while they try to rebuild. Schedule challenges are spaced out nicely, which will at least give Auburn a chance to upset somebody along the way.
Wow...what a division! And, that's only half the SEC! We'll talk about Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina in tomorrow's report on the SEC East. Thinking about the greatest conference in football should have you thinking about the greatest handicapper in all of sports! JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK has very affordable early-bird rates for the coming season. You can sign up online. Or, call us in the office during normal business hours for more details at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about combination packages for football and baseball. The Major League season resumes Friday after the All-Star Break.
Here's the NOTEBOOK schedule this week through the ASB and beyond...
Tuesday: SEC East
Wednesday: Big 10 Leaders (featuring national contender Ohio State)
Thursday: Big 10 Legends
Friday: Baseball series spotlight preview
Saturday: ACC Atlantic
Sunday: ACC Coastal
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