One thing for sure....the SEC Western Division is far and away the toughest, most balanced and best division in college football. There could be at least five or even six teams that will be ranked in the top 25 in the early part of the season. Here's how I see things shaping up in 2022.
7. Auburn - Tigers' head coach Bryan Harsin made at least as many enemies as friends last year on the Plains. Auburn finished with a 6-7 record and a loss to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl. and that 6-7 mark includes five straight losses at the end of the year. Now the Tigers must replace quarterback Bo Nix with a new offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau. There are several candidates for the job including former Texas A&M starter Zach Calzada and Auburn welcomes back a pair of good running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter.
The Plainsmen should be good again on defense but Harsin remains a big question mark. If he can put his personal problems behind him, Auburn could be a lot better than a last place team.
6. Mississippi State - The "Pirate" Mike Leach begins his third season in Starkville The Bulldogs have been very inconsistent in his first two years....for instance MSU upset a good Kentucky team last year 31-17 but were demolished by Alabama 49-6. Quarterback Will Rogers leads the way in Leach's passing attack and there are several talented players around Rogers. State should also be pretty good on defense as they get ready to face what some pundits have called the toughest schedule in the country and to prove an earlier point, all their tough games are against SEC teams. They need to break even in the league and get an Egg Bowl win over rival Ole Miss to make folks happy.
5. LSU - Ed Orgeron is gone just three seasons after winning a national championship at LSU and he's been replaced by a proven winner in former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. There are very few holdovers from the 2019 championship squad but Kelly has worked wonders with the transfer portal and has put together a really good roster. Key games for the Bengal Tigers are at home against Alabama on November 5th and at Texas A&M in the season finale after Thanksgiving. Actually in the SEC West every game is a key contest. Kelly would like to think his team can contend for an SEC West title, but that's not going to happen in 2022.
4. Ole Miss - Coach Lane Kiffin has ticked off just about everybody in the SEC in his first two years in Oxford and the worst part about that is the fact he's winning. Ole Miss won ten games in the regular season a year ago for the first time in school history and advanced to the Sugar Bowl for just the second time since the 1960s. The Rebels did lose to Baylor in their bowl game but that really doesn't take away what they accomplished. Like LSU Ole Miss did very well in the transfer portal, but the biggest question mark is who will replace three year starter Matt Corral and that will not be easy. Kiffin has a pair of talented signal callers in Luke Altmyer and Jaxson Dart who transferred from Southern Cal. The toughest part of the Ole Miss schedule is in the back end so it's important to win as many as possible in the first half of the season.
3. Arkansas - Sam Pittman has been nothing short of a miracle worker in his first two seasons with the Hogs. His teams are 12-11 and that includes an impressive 24-10 win over Penn State in the Outback bowl. There are a couple of concerns including a lack of depth on defense and someone stepping up at receiver. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson was the shining star on offense a year ago as he passed for 2,676 yards and led the team in rushing with 664 yards. The Razorbacks have one of the best and deepest backfields in the country and when you add all that together, they should have a powerful offense. That lack of depth on defense could be a big weakness, especially if the injuries begin to stack up. After doing so well in 2021, the surprise factor is no longer there. However Arkansas is just a step or two away from being a contender in the West.
2. Texas A&M - Jimbo Fisher has his Aggies believing they can win the West and they could very well do it. They beat Alabama last year but lost four other SEC games and didn't really contend. Fisher became the first former Nick Saban assistant coach to ever beat him and in the off season, the two coaches had words over the Aggies' NIL deals that have brought in an outstanding recruiting class. Finding a starting quarterback is a big key for success but A&M is solid at just about every other position. Fisher thinks his team is good enough to make the College Football Playoffs and they could very well be. Going through the SEC West gauntlet will be tough for every contender and that game at Alabama on October 8th is a contest everyone has circled on their calendars.
1. Alabama - Who else would you put on top? The Crimson Tide has so much talent returning to the Capstone it's unbelievable. Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young will be back and must avoid the sophomore slump. The Tide also has the best defensive player in the country as well in linebacker Will Anderson Jr. who has already been installed as a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy in 2022. Personally, I think this team could develop as Nick Saban's best ever. All the pieces are in place for another national championship run which would make eight for Saban....with seven of them at Alabama. As good as Alabama is, it won't be a cakewalk. That's just life in the SEC West. Alabama has dominated not only the West but the country as well and the Crimson Tide shows no sign of letting up.
On Wednesday, I'll preview the SEC East.
* * *
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com