A Sunday trip to Birmingham for my birthday included a lunch with friends, a nice carrot cake my mom baked for me and a trip to the Riverchase Galleria to take a picture of the SEC Media Days signage at the Winfrey Hotel.
Rain from Barry apparently delayed the work on the signage Sunday afternoon, as the slogan read “It just means m” when I took the photo. I’m assuming the “ore” was added afterward. As I took the picture, it dawned on me that it was already mid July.
That meant fall camp was right around the corner, with opening weekend not too far behind. So in honor of SEC Media Days this week, I’ll give brief outlooks on each SEC West team as we head into the 2019 season.
•Mississippi State — The question I have about the Bulldogs is whether it’s going to be a rebuilding year or a retooling year. If you don’t know the difference, a rebuilding year is when a team loses key pieces from the previous year and is more focused on developing young talent than winning games. A retooling year is when those key pieces are replaced by players you feel like can at least do a comparable job and you’re still expected to win.
MSU lost two first-round picks on the defensive line, a first-round pick at safety and a second-round pick at center. The Bulldogs lose seven starters overall on a defense that was its bread and butter last year. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has graduated, and in talking to my partner Robbie Robertson — who follows the Bulldogs more closely than me — everyone expects Penn State graduate transfer Tommy Stevens to be the guy under center this fall.
How good is Stevens? And how well can the Bulldogs reload from losing key contributors on defense? Those two questions will likely determine whether or not it’s a rebuilding or retooling season.
•Ole Miss — One of the biggest stories surrounding the Rebels this year is the hiring of two new coordinators, Rich Rodriguez on offense and Mike MacIntyre on defense.
Rebel fans remember a year ago how the team could put up points (33.9 per game, good for 30th out of 130) but couldn’t stop anybody (36.2 points per game, good for 114th out of 130). The hiring of MacIntyre was made in hopes he could fix the defense, but how much of it was coordination versus talent/depth? I’ve watched enough college football to know the deal: coordinators are often the fall guys when team struggle, unless the school fires a head coach. But Ole Miss has been under NCAA sanctions, and sanctions are supposed to hurt the talent level.
Matt Corral showed promise at quarterback last year for Ole Miss, so if he continues to develop, the Rebels’ offense could be potent even with the loss of an elite receiving corps. Once again the biggest question seems to be the defense, and in the SEC West, there’s little room for error on that side of the ball.
•Alabama — Can Tua Tagovailoa stay healthy for a full season? Forget everything else for a second, because this is the biggest thing that will determine how far Alabama goes this season.
Yes, the Crimson Tide has to replace most of its defensive backfield and much of its defensive line, with Meridian alumnus Raekwon Davis being one of the lone returning members of the latter unit. But Alabama is never short on talent and has yet to have a “rebuilding year” under Saban. I don’t expect this year to be one either.
But if Tagovailoa still shows the tendency to get dinged up, or God forbid misses a game, there isn’t a Jalen Hurts on the sideline to ease the loss anymore. Alabama is my favorite to win the West, but an injury to Tagovailoa could trip the Tide up, as could…
•Auburn — In my opinion, Alabama’s biggest threat to winning the West and setting up yet another showdown with Georgia lies in the Tigers. Why? Because everyone is just assuming Alabama is going to win the West and isn’t paying Auburn much attention, which is typically when Auburn does its best.
I know the only reason Gus Malzahn is still the coach at Auburn is because his buyout was too big to get rid of him. I also realize there is no experienced quarterback now that Jarrett Stidham is in the NFL. But Auburn should once again field a good defense, highlighted by a tough defensive line, and if either Joey Gatgewood or true freshman Bo Nix prove to be capable under center, watch out. I’m not saying Auburn wins the Iron Bowl — and thus, the West — but it is at Auburn this year, and I’ve seen this team thrive as the underdog enough times to think it’s a possibility.
Texas A&M — If not Auburn, then perhaps Texas A&M is the team to knock Alabama out of the SEC Championship Game? Jimbo Fisher is in year two at College Station, and I expect an improved product from the coach that led Florida State to a national title in 2013.
The Aggies get Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home, which helps, but they also have to travel to Clemson, Georgia and LSU. If you’re beginning to detect a pattern to these outlooks, it’s that quarterback plays a big role in how far I think these teams will go, and I’m not sure there was a more frustrating player that I watched last year than Kellen Mond.
Mond oozes athleticism and shown the ability to be a very good quarterback at times. His highest quarterback rating, a 96.4, came against eventual national champion Clemson last fall, in which Mond was 23 of 40 for 430 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But he wasn’t the difference-maker he needed to be against Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn.
If Mond develops into a more consistent player, then I think the Aggies are a top-10 team. I realize Fisher may not have left Florida State in the best condition, but he’s proven the ability to build a program, and I expect that to show itself in College Station eventually.
LSU — As usual, LSU will be one of the most talented teams in the country. As usual, there are questions as to whether its starting quarterback is good enough to make the Tigers a playoff contender. And as usual, I’m not sold on Orgeron being the guy to put the Tigers over the top.
I’ll give Orgeron credit, he’s exceeded my expectations so far by going 25-9 (15-7 in SEC play) as head coach at LSU (I’m including the 2016 season in which he was interim coach). He’s certainly recruited well enough to play with anyone in the country. But is the offense going to finally turn into a strength instead of something that merely gets LSU by? Joe Burrow has proven to be solid behind center. He has yet to prove he’s a difference-maker.
I expect LSU to be good, but until I see signs of greatness for the first time since 2011, I’m going to err on the side of a New Year’s Day bowl being its upside.
•Arkansas — Long story short, the Razorbacks are in the same position in football that Alabama is in baseball: surrounded by elite teams in an incredibly tough division, making it difficult to climb out of the basement even if there are incremental improvements.
Chad Morris went 2-10 his first season at Arkansas, and I’m not expecting this year to be much better. It’s going to take a lot of time and some other schools to fall off in order for the Razorbacks to make any inroads in the Western Division.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.