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SEC West Preview – 2014

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SEC West Division – 2014

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The rich get richer. The best division in college football keeps getting a little better every recruiting cycle. This year, the average rank of the recruiting class for the West’s seven teams was No. 14. The Big Ten West and the PAC 12 North did not pull a single class inside the top 14.

Over the last seven years, 87 percent of division titles in the Power 5 conferences have been won by a team ranked in top 3 in recruiting. In the SEC West, that percentage is 100 percent. Simply put, the best recruiters win.

The top three recruiters in the SEC West are LSU, Alabama and Auburn. In January, I was amazed to see the early numbers for LSU and the amount of stats production they were getting back for 2014. They looked great for a playoff pick and a winner in the SEC West and in a flash the early entry period for the NFL stripped it away for the second straight season.

I have done enough research on returning starters to show one clear pattern — There is no pattern for elite returners. Yes, they reload, not rebuild. I am sure LSU coach Les Miles would like to have all those guys back, but I do not feel they will fall far because of the losses. This is especially true of teams with solid coaches. In the SEC West, there are solid coaches everywhere. When you have a division whose lowest ranked head coach is Bret Bielema, on top of the best talent stratification in the country, it is wicked tough.

If any of the big three—LSU, Alabama and Auburn—beat the other two, they will win the division. Although not it’s most experienced team, this version of the Crimson Tide might be the most talented one they have had under Saban. In the CFB Matrix, talent is king and in the SEC over the last four seasons, 82 percent of all the games have been won by the team with a higher talent ranking in the CFB Matrix.

Projected Finish
1. Alabama (11-1/7-1): The Tide has one of the toughest schedules in the country. But coach Nick Saban is 52-4 when picked to win by the CFB Matrix. It’s hard to go against that trend. While the talent level has remained consistent, Alabama does get a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin. I am cautious with this hire. Kiffin had one of the worst Coach Effect and Coach Result levels in his three and a half years as the head coach at USC. I know he is not the head coach now, but comparing what he did at USC in a much weaker PAC-10 to what you expect in the SEC is apples to oranges. If he does have the magic that Saban sees in the new hire, then the Crimson Tide will be just fine.

2. Auburn (10-2/6-2): The Tigers get back a strong percentage of production on both sides of the football. Their schedule is very favorable with LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Arkansas all at home. On the flip side, three of their last four conference games are on the road. I have them over LSU due to home field as the tie breaker for 2nd place in the West. Coach Gus Malzahn has been at or above the total wins prediction I have made for teams he has coached in the last four years.

3. LSU (9-3/5-3): In the last five years, Miles as been so consistent. My pre-season win total has not been off more than plus/minus one game during that period. That gives me solid confidence to expect nothing less than nine wins for LSU and a top 25 season yet again. Defensively, they will be there as always. The wildcard for my SEC West dark horse may come down to a single player stepping up at QB or RB and making the difference in a critical game or two.

4. Mississippi State (8-4/4-4): This team has less talent than both A&M and Ole Miss, so picking the Bulldogs to finish fourth goes a bit against the talent ranks of the CFB Matrix. However, this is where a schedule can make a HUGE difference. Mississippi State gets Kentucky and Vanderbilt out of the East Division, a significant advantage when you are dealing with 12 games and just eight in conference. The Bulldogs also get Texas A&M and Arkansas at home. These subtle anomalies in this schedule could be the difference in five and nine wins. With coach Dan Mullen an annual plus-1 game coach and the total talent returning, I am leaning to an above average finish for the Dogs.

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5(t). Texas A&M (7-5/3-5): The Aggies have more talent and better coaching the last two years than Ole Miss. However, their schedule is much tougher in conference than the Rebels. I just cannot let go of the loss of QB Johnny Manziel and his potential impact on those results. I knocked down A&M a game due to this uncertainty. With top 15-ranked talent, though, the Aggies are not to be overlooked.

5(t). Ole Miss (7-5/3-5) The Rebels have less talent than Texas A&M, and coach Huge Freeze is just below Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen in SEC Coach Result rankings. While he does a better job of pulling off upsets, he is more frequently upset as well. It has been a real uneven ride for the Rebels under Freeze. They won two games more than expected in 2012, but lost two games they were expected to win last season. Trends like that drive me crazy. It feels like it has been a roller coaster in Oxford for too long. I am going in the middle of expectations for the Rebs at 7-5 and 5th in the West.

7. Arkansas (5-7/2-6): I would much rather take 5.5 wins for the Hogs. The talent and schedule numbers get me to five wins. While at Wisconsin, coach Bret Bielema had a plus-1.5 game Coach Effect, which lands me at 6.5 wins. But where is win No. 6 going to come from, let alone No. 7? I feel the Hogs’ game at Texas Tech will be the deciding factor in terms of bowl eligibility. Win it, and they go bowling. Lose it, and it’s likely another year of watching bowls from the couch. Bielema’s five-year Coach Effect is down to plus-.6 games per year, which is still No. 22 in the country. His one-year Coach Result effort lands him at No. 54 overall. I expect both to make a move in 2014.

Dark Horse: LSU. With the early entry loses to the NFL the last two years, folks seem to be pretty down on the Tigers. I’ll take one of the best head coaches of the last decade and a team that still has top 10 talent to be a dark horse anytime. It is hard to see them beating both Alabama and Auburn to win the West. But Miles is a calculated risk taker, and it just takes a couple of great calls and a lucky bounce on the road and they can make it very interesting.

Wild Card: Texas A&M. What’s wilder that a team that I could see finishing 3th to 7th (with really bad breaks) in the division? The Aggies are the ultimate tweener in 2014. Their talent is a step under the top three but a step above the bottom three. They are going through a QB transition from Manziel to potentially a true freshman facing SEC defenses.

 

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