by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Following is Part II of our TGS preview of the SEC, this time focusing upon the West half of the loop.  As usual, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" results included. 

1. ALABAMA (SUR 13-1, PSR 6-8, 0-U 6-8)Though Bama finally dropped from No. 1 as the nation’s top recruiting class since 2010, we must stick with the defending champs (five titles over the last 9 years!) as the team to beat once again the loaded SEC West Division. Heck, last year, the Tide had to overcome a rash of injuries and a November loss to Iron Bowl rival Auburn. Sure, Bama will begin the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. And there’s a good chance the Tide will end the season in that spot as well.

The offense (37.2 ppg; 250.6 ypg rushing) is simply loaded once again. Saban has one of his best-ever stable of RBs, led by Damien Harris (1,000 YR, 11 TDs) and welcomes back Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson. Intense QB competition will be waged between lefty Tua Tagovailoa, the hero of LY’s comeback win in the National Championship Game, and strong-running Jalen Hurts (26-2 as a starter; 2,081 YP,17 TDP, 1 int.), who was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman. The OL could be Bama’s best since the Tide won back-to-back national titles in 2011-12. Four of the top five WRs have left, including prolific WR Calvin Ridley (63 grabs) is gone. But ready to step up at that position are the electric soph WR trio of Jerry Jeudy (14 grabs), Henry Ruggs III and DeVonte Smith. Moreover, vet TEs Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges also figure to be a bigger part of the passing game this fall.

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As usual, with a group of studs leaving for the NFL, there are big holes to fill on the typically-smothering, reloading defense (only 2 starters back; nation-leading 11.9 ppg & 260.4 ypg). The secondary presents the biggest challenge, as both CBs and the top two safeties are gone, but remember that Saban’s area of expertise. Watch for coveted juco CB Saivon Smith, a former LSU Tiger, and gifted five-star freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. will play right away. OLBs should be strength of the defense with Terrell Lewis, Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings healthy after an injury-marred 2017. Mammoth 6-7, 308-pound jr. DE Raekwon Davis, who led the team in sacks (8.5 sacks), will be a havoc-wreaker, while sr. DE Isaiah Buggs is primed for a memorable final campaign.

2. AUBURN (SUR 10-4, PSR 6-8, O-U 7-7)—Tigers’ sixth-year mentor Gus Malzhan faces lofty expectations in 2018 after a 10-4 season in which he won the SEC West and defeated both National Championship Game participants (Alabama & Georgia were both ranked No. 1 at the time!). Malzhan, who just signed a seven-year contract extension for $49 million—with $36.75 million guaranteed—now must win the talent-rich West Division by probably defeating the Tide and/or the Dawgs on the road in 2018, Good luck, Gus! Malzahan did praise the “closeness” of LY’s team, and is clearly looking forward to this veteran bunch returning 13 starters.

The high-octane, well-balanced attack (33.9 ppg; 233 ypg passing; 218 ypg rushing) is expertly led by 6-3 jr. QB Jarrett Stidham, who completed 66.5% of his passes for 3,158 yards, 18 TDP with only 6 ints. The strong-armed, mobile jr. from Texas, has some prime targets at his disposal, including first-rate possession-type 5-9 sr. WR Ryan Davis (84 grabs, a single-season school record! 5 TDs, 9.7 yds. per catch) and blazing 6-2 jr. Darius Slayton (29, 5 22.2. avg.), while Malzahn thinks 6-2 jr. Nate Craig-Myers (16, 3) could make a big impact TY. Star RB Kerryon Johnson (1391 YR) is gone, so Malzahn might go to a “committee approach” somewhat until someone emerges from pack, which is likely to be 5-10 jr. Kam Martin (453 YR, 2 TDs, 6.1 ypc). Three starters return on the OL.

AU possess the components to field another suffocating defense (18.5 ppg; 11th), anchored by a DL loaded with NFL prospects, including hard-to-block DT Derrick Brown and NT Dontavius Russell. With the top two returning tacklers (LBs Deshaun Davis & Darrell Williams) the biggest concern at LB is finding enough snaps to keep everybody content. There are some questions at safety, but moving Jermiah Dinson from CB to the FS spot will help matters. “He’s a QB back there,” says Malzahn, There is a lack of experienced depth in the secondary, so no surprise if several freshmen will be forced to action when the Tigers go to nickel and dime packages. For the first time in five years, the Tigers will be without kicker Daniel Carlson, the program’s all-time leading scorer. So they simply turn to his younger brother, Anders, who was one of the nation’s top kicking prospects two years ago and gives AU a similar level of confidence.

3. MISSISSIPPI STATE (SUR 9-4, PSR 8-5 O-U 3-9-1—Though the Bulldogs’ all-time winningest coach Dan Mullen has returned to take over at Florida, some insiders believe this could be a possible 10-win team under former Penn State o.c. & offensive guru Joe Moorhead, who’ll call his own plays. After all, during his 26 games in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions scored at least 30 points 21 times. LY, Penn State averaged 41.1. ppg and 460.3 ypg en route to an 11-2 mark. Bulldog fans are no doubt expecting similar results and for good reason.

The centerpiece of what was a run-oriented offense in 2017 (32 ppg; 251.1 ypg rushing; 166.9 ypg passing) is Heisman hopeful, fleet-footed 6-5 sr. QB Nick Fitzgerald (1792 YP, 15 TDP, 11 ints; 984 YR,14 rush TDs), who’ll look to pass more accurately downfield to a improved WR corps, featuring newcomers—Stephen Guidry, Devonta Jason and Malik Heath all of whom arrive with four-star credentials. A formidable RB duo of sr. Aeris Williams (1,107 YR, 6 TDs) and soph Kylin Hill (410 YR) will find openings behind a veteran OL (4 starters back) as well as contribute as receivers out of the backfield, which is an integral part of Moorhead’s well-conceived attack.

MSU’s sturdy defense (7 starters back; 20.9 ppg; 174.7 ypg passing; 12th) will be guided by Bob Shoop (who’ll install a 4-3 from a 3-4) who is the fifth d.c. in Starkville in as many years, and he’s at his third SEC school. Shoop should have no problem establishing a steady pass rush: DE Montez Sweat (10.5 sacks) is a terror on one end and forceful 6-4, 300-pound DT Jeffery Simmons (first team All-SEC) is powerful enough to break double teams. Super-soph LB Errol Thompson (46 tackles as a frosh LY) will be the QB of the defense, while the fearless sr. safety duo of Mark McLaurin ( 6 ints.) and Johnathan Abram (top two tacklers from a year ago) will robustly patrol the back end. New CBs must be identified, but don’t see any dropoff from a unit ranked in the top five in the SEC LY in sacks, tackles for a loss and turnovers created.

MSU does travel to Alabama and LSU, but gets key games vs. Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas at noisy Davis Wade Stadium.

4. LSU (SUR 9-4 PSR 7-5-1, O-U 5-8)—Though the Tigers always own an abundance of talent, it’s tough forecasting the somewhat youthful squad to crack the top 3 in the prestigious West. ps are underclassmen. To their credit, the Tigers went 9-4 LY and were competitive in every game except the 37-7 roasting at Mississippi State in mid-September. In 2018, LSU has tough home games vs. the two juggernauts that played in the National Title game (Alabama & Georgia), but the Bayou Bengals have been tough to beat in rowdy Tiger Stadium, recording a 54-8 SU mark there since 2009. The key for HC Ed Orgeron is not to slip so far that he’s facing a must-win scenario in 2019 to keep his job. A much more efficient aerial game will help greatly.

The LSU offense (27.2 ppg LY) will incorporate a more pro-style attack under promoted o.c. Steve Ensminger, who replaced dismissed Matt Canada, whose misdirection and shifts didn’t do much to boast a still-substandard passing game ranked 84th nationally. Ohio State grad transfer Jooe Burrow (No. 8 dual-threat QB in the class of 2015) is likely to win the job in the fall over soph Myles Brennan (6 appearances LY; 14 of 24 LY), jr. Justin McMillan and RS frosh Lowell Narcisse, who battled for the job in the spring before Burrow’s arrival. LSU lost its top two RBs, leaving Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (28 combined carries) as the primary ball-carriers. The premier two WRs are also gone, but that tallish unit (6 wide-outs 6-3 or taller) is immediately juiced up by Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles, who caught 69 passes and scored 13 TDs for the Red Raiders in 2016. Sr. TE Foster Moreau (24 grabs) is a solid target while rangy 6-6 jr. WR Stephen Sullivan is a matchup nightmare.

The typically stout defense (5 starters back; 18.9 ppg or fewer in 6 of last 8 years) will be another highly-ranked, swarming unit under highly-revered (and well-paid) third-year d.c. Dave Aranda, who re-signed for a guaranteed $10 million over four years. Aranda is finally expected to install his entire defensive package in 2018. He has some NFL-caliber playmakers in ILB Devin White (133 stops) and soph shutdown CB Greedy Williams (6 ints), while 6-4 soph OLB . K’Lavon Chaisson has unlimited potential. Plus the DL is beefed up with the addition of another Texas Tech transfer DE Breiden Fehoko and highly-recruited RS frosh DT Tyler Shelvin (sat out LY due to academics). But finding a reliable CB to play opposite seldom-tested Williams is a huge issue. Coaches hope that Assumption College transfer Cole Tracy (led Div II in made FGs) fills a glaring need afer LSU nailed only 16 of 27 FG attempts LY.

5. TEXAS A&M (SUR 7-6, PSR 7-5-1, 0-U 7-6)—After the fast-starting Aggies made a habit of fading in the month of November under Kevin Sumlin, disgruntled A&M brass hired former Florida State mentor Jimbo Fisher, who signed a lucrative 10-year deal worth $75 million. Fisher, who won a national championship in 2013 and hauled in an outstanding recruiting class, is instilling a culture that promotes consistent achievement and has already made subtle changes like turning down the music in practice in order to maintain a laser-focus among his players. A key for the Aggies is not getting discouraged early, considering they play Clemson and Alabama (Fisher faced them both LY!) in two of the first four games. Fisher certainly wants to revive the tradition of the 12tth Man at Kyle Field after A&M went just 4-10 SU in SEC home games over the previous 4 campaigns.

The offense (7 starters back; 32.7 ppg)—tutored by new o.c. Darrell Dickey (Memphis o.c. from 2012-17)—will be directed by either capable soph pilot Nick Starkel (4 starts; 60%; 1793 YP, 14 TDP, 6 ints,) or Kellen Mond (8 starts; 51.1%; 1375 YP, 8 TDP, 6 ints.; 340 YR), who is the superior runner. But Starkel probably gets the early nod after throwing for a jaw-dropping 499 yards in his team’s 55-52 loss to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl. Fisher plans on taking full advantage of speedy jr. RB Trayveon Williams (798 YR, 8 TDs, 4.6 yp; 1,057 YR in 2016), who was banged up for part of LY. Soph WR Jhamon Ausbon (50 catches, 3 TDs) is a surefire target downfield, while Fisher is counting on juco TE Jace Sternberger (voted MVP of spring game) to be an integral part of the attack. The OL needs to solidify after permitting 29 sacks LY.

Though the Aggie “D” (30.7 ppg, ) allowed at least 35 points in six games LY, there actually is plenty of optimism that unit will make giant strides under well-respected d.c. Mike Elko, who was hired away from Notre Dame. Elko inherits a seasoned stop unit (7 starters back) that led the SEC in sacks LY with 40. At LB in Elko’s 4-2-5 scheme, Otara Alaka and Tyrle Dodson (combined 183 tackles & 11 sacks) are top-shelf playmakers, while sr. DE Landis Durham (10.5 sacks) is a menace attacking off the edge. Moreover, 8 of the top 9 DBs, and the deep secondary should greatly reduce its big-play allowance with the return of 6-5 soph CB Clifford Chattman (academics) and sr. SS Donovan Wilson (injured), both of whom missed 2017. High-level kicking game with sr. Daniel LaCamera (18 of 21 FGs; 2 misses from 50+ yds.).

6 OLE MISS (SUR 6-6, PSR 5-7, 0-U 9-3)— Matt Luke, a popular former player and Rebel assistant coach, led Ole Miss to a 6-6 mark in tumultuous 2017 that included the cloud of the NCAA investigation. But as far as Luke is concerned, it’s a good thing the NCAA has finally passed judgment, even if it means scholarship limitations and a 2018 bowl ban. “There is no more fear of the unknown out there,” Luke says. “Everybody knows what’s going on. This is a chance to build on the momentum of the Egg bowl win.” Rebels did play their best ball the 2nd H of the campaign in 2017, going 3-2 with their two narrow defeats by just 1 (Arkansas) and 7 points (Texas A&M).

The big-play offense (32.8 ppg; 328.4 ypg passing), which led the SEC in passing, will be orchestrated by sr. QB Jordan Ta’amu (66.5%; 1682 YRP, 11 TDs, 4 ints), who showed moxie and poise when thrust into the starting role late last season following Shea Patterson’s injury. Patterson has since transferred to Michigan, leaving highly-touted true frosh QB Matt Corral as the untested backup. The ultra-loaded WR corps, headlined by outstanding jr. WR A.J. Brown (75 catches, 11 TDs) is considered one of the best in the nation! But to maintain needed balance, the Rebels must adequately replace 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins. Juco RB Scottie Phillips, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the position by most scouting services, could be the answer in a backfield that also includes 5-9 jr. Eric Swinney (195 YR) and 5-11, 238-pound jr. D’Vaughn Pennamon (217 YR). LT Greg Little, a projected first-round NFL pick in 2019, is the anchor of an experienced OL returning four starters.

The proud "LandShark" defense is now a distant memory But second-year d.c. Wesley McGriff thinks that LY’s low-ranked defense (34.6 ppg; 234.3 ypg rushing; 123rd) has a good chance become more physical and stouter vs. the run (pitiful 5.4 ypc allowed L2Ys) with an imported pair of juco DTs Noah Jefferson and Hal Northern to fortify the interior. Plus, jr. DT Josiah Coatney and jr. NT Josiah Coatney played their best ball down the stretch. LB has been a sore spot in recent years, but coaches are hoping sr. Detric Bing-Dukes and jr. Willie Hibbler can elevate their play along with the emergence of RS frosh Josh Clarke. Additionally, the secondary, led by 3rd-year starter sr. SS Zedrick Woods, gets an immediate boost from difference–making r. CB Ken Webster, who suffered a serious season-ending injury in the 2016 opener.

Both specialists must be replaced, including PK Gary Wunderlich, the Rebels’ all-time leading scorer.

7. ARKANSAS (SUR 4-8, PSR 4-7-1, O-U 7-5)—There are big, big changes in Fayetteville in 2018. After five years of Bret Bielema’s ground-based power attack, the Hogs will be making a dramatic switch under first-year HC Chad Morris, who developed a reputation as offensive coordinator at Clemson and head man at SMU for past-paced, high-scoring outfits. “We’re going to be explosive and fast,” Morris says. “We’re going to go from 62 plays a game to about 82 to 86 plays. It’s going to be fun.” The Razorbacks have a chance at a 3-0 start due to a relatively soft early slate. But until there is an injection of more speed and depth across the board, along with stability at QB, we envision a last-place finish in the loaded West, where they were a safety away from an 0-8 mark in 2017.

Morris says it will be August before he chooses a passer between competing 6-7 soph Cole Kelly (4 starts LY; 57.6%, 1038 YP, 8 TDs, 4 ints.) and jr. Ty Storey, whose high school team ran the same offense. The WR corps should be strengthened with the healthy return of sr. Jared Cornelius (recovering from Achilles tendon surgery), who’ll complement sr. Jonathan Nance (team-high 37 grabs, 5 TDs). TE, an important position in Morris’ attack, figures to be an asset with veteran Austin Cantrell and sr. Jeremy Patton (combined 24 grabs). The backfield has a combination of power backs, such as Devwah Whaley (559 YR, 7 TDs) and Maleek Williams and speedsters T.J. Hammond (262 YR, 8.2 ypc) and Chase Hayden (338 YR). The seasoned OL returns four starters, but that unit must be better synchronized after struggling much of the L2Ys.

Savvy d.c. John Chavis—who has spent the last 23 years in the same job at Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M—takes over a shaky D” (36.2 ppg; 5.2 ypc; only 17 takeaways), which amassed an SEC-low 19 sacks & 48 TFL LY. The “Chief” expects to get stronger pressure in a return to a 4-3 front that will build around pass rushing duo of DE Randy Ramsey and NT McTelvin Agim. Highly-touted 6-3, 265-pound juco DE Doran Gerald is also expected to work in the rotation. And the coaches will try to move around their potentially most disruptive player, jr. McTelvin “Sosa” Agim, so opposing attacks can’t predict whether he’ll pressure them inside at tackle or outside at end. Chavis praises incumbent ILBs Dre Greenlaw and DeJon “Scoota” Harris (combined 218 tackles). Moreover, the secondary desires to be a more a more ball-snatching unit (only 15 ints. L2Y) with the healthy return of sr. CB Ryan Pulley (missed all but one game LY with a torn pectoral muscle) along with the blossoming (according to coaches) 6-2 safety duo of sr. Santos Ramirez (63 tackles; ;moved from SS to FS) and soph Kamren Curl (46; CB moved to SS).

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