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Around the SEC: Thoughts Headed Into the Summer

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How does the West stack up now that spring has passed?

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Now that our run of spring practice Q&As has finished up, it seems like a good time to take some stock of the SEC, particularly the West, and how things stock up for LSU and their 2018 opponents.

LSU’s pickup of Joe Burrow raises the floor for this team, given the present state of the division and the Tigers’ schedule. I don’t think he puts them in a title conversation yet — the rest of this offense is still a bit green. The receiving corps is likely going to feature Terrace Marshall and Ja’Marr Chase heavily, and I don’t see the running game being quite good enough to supplement the mistakes that will come with that much youth. But, if they hit the ground running, it could set things up for a 2019 that, in theory, would have a more grown-up roster, plus the infusion of another recruiting class.

And yes, there are still a couple of dominoes stacked up there for Ed Orgeron to knock down. How he and this staff does that will tell the story of his tenure here.

As for the rest of the division:

  • Right now, it still feels like Alabama is a cut above the rest of the West, with Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU in that second tier, and Ole Miss and the rebuilding Arkansas and Texas A&M below that. That isn’t to say that somebody might not sneak up on Bama and win the division like Auburn did last year, but...they’ll still make the playoffs.
  • Even with this whole Tua Tagovailoa/Jalen Hurts starter/transfer controversy — and I suspect Nick Saban will find a way to balance the two for at least one more year. But here’s the thing; it doesn’t matter. Alabama can lean on its running game with somebody to hand things off for at least 10 games. That doesn’t change with a quarterback leaving, and I’m not event totally sure it changes if Nick Saban were struck by lightning tomorrow. They still have that much of a talent edge.
  • Auburn should still look a lot like they did last year, especially on defense. The question is whether they look like Auburn in November or Auburn in December/January. Jarrett Stidham had a strong year at quarterback, there’s no doubt about that. But I think the results of the SEC Championship Game and the Peach Bowl show that Kerryon Johnson made that offense go — and he’s gone now. Gus Malzahn’s offenses can always run the ball, but there’s been a notable difference with somebody like Johnson or Tre Mason. So if the Other Tigers are going to complete for the conference title or the playoff, Stidham will have to make up that difference. And I think that’s a question mark.
  • Mississippi State is the wildcard here with new head coach Joe Moorhead. He inherits a ton of production, including the best quarterback in the division. But do they lose something in the transition? Moorhead’s been a head coach before, so he’ll adapt well, but what makes me wonder is how he adapts his offense to State’s talent.
  • State’s always had big linemen and big running backs — hence, when Dan Mullen came in, he focused more on power and between-the-tackles running, versus the speed he had at Florida. Moorhead’s Penn State team obviously emphasized the running game with Saquon Barkley, but with more of a down-field oriented passing game. Nick Fitzgerald is a fantastic runner, but his game is about the short/intermediate stuff. Does Moorhead try to shoe-horn him into Trace McSorley’s role, or does he let Fitzgerald be himself?
  • Out in College Station, I think Jimbo Fisher is facing more of a rebuild than people may realize. A&M needs to rebuild along both lines of scrimmage, in part just to reverse the mindset he inherited. The Aggies were soft under Kevin Sumlin. That doesn’t change in one offseason.
  • He does inherit a solid quarterback in Nick Starkel, who can throw a solid deep ball. There’s no Christian Kirk here, but they should at least be able to move the ball consistently with the receivers and backs on hand. How quickly they are able to open things up in transitioning from the Sumlin/Mazzone offense to Fisher, will be very interesting.
  • Chad Morris’ first season at SMU wasn’t anything to shake a stick at overall — they won all of two games. But you could see right away that he had an offensive cohesion. You could see his players knew what they wanted to do, even if they couldn’t always execute it. You could say similar about Arkansas last year under BERT. Just didn’t have the horses. But can a roster recruited for, mostly, size and the running game convert to a spread/tempo offense? That’s the test for Morris in year one. Long-term, he’s going to have to start bringing in talent to compete, something that Bielema never did consistently.
  • Ole Miss is in limbo for a bit, but they still have a good quarterback and receivers. Best-case, they can scare some folks on offense. But that defense isn’t getting any better without Breeland Speaks, and it wasn’t that good to begin with.