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How Will the SEC West Be Won?

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Taking a look at returning experiencing and roster talent. Who will take the SEC West this season?

Zebulon 'Zeb' Rawlings: Do you remember the story Pa used to tell us about fightin' that grizzly bear?

Jeremiah Rawlings: Yeah.

Zebulon 'Zeb' Rawlings: And I asked him, I said, 'Now, why'd you get in such a fix? Do you like fightin' grizzlies?' He said, 'Well, not 'specially. I just wanted to go somewhere and the bear was there first.' I guess I just wanna go somewhere, too.

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Predictions are meaningless.

Especially so in this 60-minute a game, 16-week war of attrition on the gridiron. No matter how "educated" or "reasoned" predictions are made, we've all had occasion to watch them slowly unravel before our very eyes. Things don't go as they should. Players get hurt. Coaches make mistakes. People beat expectations. It's all the things that make sport great, and college football exhibits these traits perhaps more than any other.

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Yet, we can still try. We comb through Phil Steele's annual guide, pore over depth charts and schedules, cite history, coaching ability, recruiting rankings and all the more in effort to produce some sort of accurate methodology. In the end we're just repeatedly tossing a 2,000 pound anchor off the side of a paddle boat. The rode is going to break and the boat is going to flip, but we just can't stop trying to make it work.

Thus, here is my 2,000 pound anchor.

Methodology

If you hate recruiting rankings, you may as well hang up now. It won't be the only thing I utilize to determine who I think stands the best chance, but it is a factor. So if you dismiss that all as poppycock, just go ahead and hit the back button on your browser and re-read Billy's write-up on LSU/UF 2007.

The best way for us to tabulate who can best replace the loss in troops is to look both at recruiting AND playing time. Let's face it, if we left this all up to a recruiting thing, Alabama, currently, is gonna win, every time. I know we battle the validity of recruiting rankings and the biases that some believe unfairly foist Alabama to the top of the food chain year after year, but they are producing a high volume of NFL talent. The best argument against recruiting rankings may be that they undervalue other teams, not overvalue Alabama.

The second major factor is playing time. To me, this is one area that's really allowed LSU to somewhat seamlessly transition into new starters and new roles on a year-to-year basis, without much fallout. Sure, they backpedaled in 2011 to 2012, but how wouldn't they? It's a recipe for success Miles identified fairly quickly in Baton Rouge: let your young guys play. Hell, most of them will only be here three years anyhow, so put 'em out there. It's something we've done better than almost anyone.

So when we're talking  who can best weather the storm of replacing starters and continuing through the season with talented depth, I think these two variables are the most indicative.

The issue with playing time is that unlike basketball, football goes to no lengths to accurately track this data. All we get are very rough totals of "Games Started" and "Games Played." That gives us a piece of the pie, but weights all playing time as equal. Filled in for a single KO return because a LB got the wind knocked out of him the series before? Congrats, by the records you played as much as a starter on the field for all four quarters. One GP.

Unfortunately, there's really no way to course correct this data or ground it better. Statistical performance would be a poor indicator, since players often play without recording a high volume of statistics. A defensive tackle's PT shouldn't be invalidated because he only recorded two tackles. That's likely more inherent to the position he plays than his actual production, or lack there of.

So games played (GP) is an inexact science. Though I don't think that renders it entirely meaningless. Playing is important. There's a quantum leap in terms of playing style even from the highest levels in the most competitive high school leagues in the country to even the lowest levels of college football. Everyone is bigger, stronger and faster. The game is more complex. There's a lot more at stake, including millions of dollars. The crowds are bigger. So on and so forth. Thus, exposure to any playing experience certainly offers something of value. Like taking your first flight, the experience grounds you. You won't be able to fly the plane next time, but you have a much better idea of what to expect when the wheels come off the ground.

Talent

I'll use 247Sports Composite rankings to calculate. The Composite pulls from every major recruiting service, so it gives a rounder perspective on rankings rather than the take of 8-10 "executives" from one prominent service. What I will do is pull both their composite star ranking as well as the numeric rating, which should give a highly specified leader. I'll denote these in depth chart form, broken out by position.

Quarterback

The most relevant thing to discuss here is that both A&M and LSU only feature two scholarship players at the position. A&M features a five and four star, while LSU features two four stars. The lack of other scholarship athletes gives them a bit of a boost in the rankings, so it's worth noting their lack of depth may be of concern as well.

Not a ton of surprise here. You would likely suspect Auburn, Bama, A&M and LSU to feature the most talent at the position. Mississippi State's talent level is by far the lowest, based on recruit rankings. Interestingly, many expect Dak Prescott to be the best QB in the conference this fall. He's the only QB recruit on their roster with a composite rating over .8400. Every other school features at least two above .8400, if not all of them.

Running Back

Alabama and their two five-star backs, ranks way up top here. On average, their backs are at least three percentage points higher than the next closest grouping.

What I'm really interested in is the amount of talent at RB in College Station. Obviously they weren't wrong to feature Johnny Manziel, but why deny all the RB talent, when he could have clearly used the support, at times? A&M ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards per game despite ranking top five in rushing yards per attempt.

To note, I threw out a couple of FBs (Connor Neighbors for LSU and Patrick Arinze for Arkansas) because they are entirely unrated and I didn't feel it fairly represented the RB core.

Wide Receiver

Arkansas' receiver corps looks really, really bad, though an unrated player really drags them down.

Overall, a pretty mediocre grouping of players for all the schools, at least by SEC standards. Not a single school features a core that rates, on average, at four stars. This, perhaps, can be related to volume though, as every single school features at least six players at the position, if not many more.

Tight End

Tight Ends, historically, aren't typically highly ranked players in recruiting. Special receiving targets, such as O.J. Howard get proper treatment, but blocking specialists rarely get anything above three stars. Since so many schools in the West employ this type of personnel, it's not that surprising every school would trend toward three stars. Auburn is dragged down by having an unrated player as their third-string tight end. Otherwise, they'd be ranked above A&M.

Offensive Line

Auburn takes a hit due to the injury of Alex Kozan. It's not altogether surprising that Bama/LSU would top this list. You may expect A&M to rank higher, but their recent NFL draft departures put a dent in the numbers. Overall, again, pretty much what you'd expect, from a recruiting stand point.

Defensive Line

Not at all surprising these are your top three. LSU ranking behind Auburn may surprise some, but they have really recruited the defensive line well under Rodney Garner.

Linebacker

Boy, Arkansas' linebackers are really bad. Three unrated players in their top nine isn't promising. It's a wonder they weren't the worst defense in the SEC last season.

Bama and their glut of stud linebackers top the charts, but again Auburn is surprising in the way they've recruited as it relates to their performance.

Cornerback

Considering all the success of LSU defensive backs and the pride taken in "DBU" it's surprising to see them second in the CB rankings. You could easily make a case for under-appreciated talents there. Alabama is head and shoulders above everyone else, so do with that what you will.

Arkansas really lacks talent, huh?

Safety

Shakes out about like corner, except that Auburn has out recruited LSU by a bit.

Totals

So here's what we're really gunning for. The total calculation of talent.

Thus, by talent alone, Alabama, unsurprisingly is the leader of the pack. More surprising may be that they also feature the most talented position group at every spot except QB and tight end. Alabama's talent ranks narrowly over LSU in terms of overall rating, .917528 to .915524.

Arkansas is the least talented team in the division according to recruiting rankings. State is ahead of them. I think, if polled, most would probably agree these are the two teams with the least amount of overall talent in the division.

Bama, LSU, Auburn and A&M outclass Ole Miss, State and Arkansas in recruiting, and we've seen this generally play out on the field as well. However, it's important to keep in mind that this is projecting the roster as is, not reflecting back on former talent. This is the talent level of each school in the division right now.

That A&M ranks ahead of Auburn illustrates just how well they've done on the trail since hiring Sumlin. It's also an indication that many may be underrating the amount of talent their team has heading into 2014, despite the losses of superstars Manziel, Evans and Matthews.

Playing Time

To reiterate, I'm strictly utilizing games played here. Why games played and not games started? Well, starting is becoming increasingly less important. Most top-tier teams rotate at nearly every position. But here is where we lose the nuance. Games played doesn't really capture how much a player contributed. It's imperfect, but as noted above, I think players who have seen the field in any action at the college level illustrate advantage over those with none. Further, players with any experience at college (i.e. a Redshirt or back-up that never played) likely have an advantage over incoming freshmen. How much? It's really difficult to parse out.

Offense

State returns the most games played on offense by a hefty margin, over 100 total games. That bodes well for them fielding an experienced, congealed unit in 2014.

LSU lacks entirely at QB and receiver, where they've had a combined 27 games played. Cam Cameron will be relying on a ton of youth to restart the passing offense this season, which is not an ideal scenario.

Auburn/Bama are right there at 2/3 with their primary differences being at running back, receiver and offensive line.

Hey, Arkansas may not be talented, but at least they have a very experienced roster, right? Gulp.

Defense

Only the Mississippi schools truly stand out here as far above the rest. Floating around 500 games played on each unit, that should put them in decent position for trying to field a respectable unit.

LSU is the next least experienced team in the division on defense, though the numbers aren't nearly as spaced as the offensive side of the ball. This can primarily be pointed to the defensive line where the Tigers usher in a new pair of tackles and don't feature hardly any experience past their top two ends.

So, Who Wins the West?

Alabama ranks first in overall talent of roster and 3rd and 4th respectively in experience returning on offense and defense. Here's the final tallies with each team ranked from 1st - 7th in each category (Composite Star, Composite Rating, Offensive Experience and Defensive Experience):

Team Score
Bama 9
Auburn 13
State 14
A&M 16
LSU 16
Ole Miss 16
Arkansas 28

So, there you have it. Alabama will claim the West, Auburn will finish 2nd and State 3rd, while A&M, LSU, and Ole Miss battle for 4th.

What are the holes?

They are numerous. I already noted the holes in documenting by only games played. This "system" also underestimates the contributions young talent can make to a team, especially at positions where young talent can easily have impact, like running back.

Should starts count? I don't know. For example, Tahj Jones started three games for LSU last season. I'd wager he probably played fewer than 200 plays, which isn't really all that many. If you wanted to expand upon this "methodology" (I use that terminology very loosely), then the best possible method would be to review every snap of every team and weight the reps based on numbers of plays as well as importance (i.e. playing the entire 1st quarter vs. a top SEC foe is worth more than playing the entire 4th quarter against Towson).

That'd be fun to research, if someone paid me money to do it.

Summary

This really gets us no closer to correct than any other prediction from an "expert." It's quite easy to eye ball a schedule and forecast a number of wins for each team. But things happen. Auburn went from 8-5 and 5th in the SEC West to 14-0 and National Champions. Just last year Auburn went from dead last in the SEC West and winless in the conference to winning the damn thing and playing for a National Title.

No one forecasted their categorical leaps to the top of the conference, which is exactly why I will start with what I lead with:

Predictions are meaningless.