I’m not doing specific rankings of the teams, but I do think the winner of the LSU/Alabama game will be the most likely SEC West champion. After that, they go in order of teams I think are most likely to win the division.
Since 2003, the top three teams of the SEC West, Alabama, Auburn and LSU, combined for 6 national championships, 3 national runners-up (including Auburn’s undefeated campaign in 2004), and 8 conference championships, including the last five in a row. Only once in that time (Arkansas in 2006) did another team win the division. In that year, LSU beat Arkansas; but the loss to SEC East (and eventual BCS) Champions Florida kept the Tigers from winning the division.
The Tigers have some rebuilding to do on offense, as I mentioned in January, but there is a strong foundation. Despite the loss of two of their three best running backs from last season, Kenny Hilliard will probably resume his #2 role from 2012 if not challenge Terrence Magee for the top spot. The offensive line should be strong again with only one significant loss, guard Trai Turner. There are five returning starters on offense, all in blocking positions, but there are twelve other lettermen returning and a strong recruiting class.
The question marks are at quarterback (where the Tigers lose veteran Zach Mettenberger) and wide receiver (three WR’s were drafted, including the two top receivers; the third receiver was a running back not among those returning).
Admittedly, the opening game against Wisconsin (Aug. 30 in Houston) could be an ugly, boring game; but at least by October, the Tigers will likely have developed a passing game successful in keeping opposing defenses off-balance.
No defense in college football is going to be perfect, but the Tigers only had two defenders taken in the draft and will have seven returning starters, so the defense should be much more experienced than last season. 3/4 of the defensive lettermen return from last season, so there should be some depth as well. This will likely be an LSU team more in the mold of 2010-12, but I wouldn’t expect it to have to win a game with 6 offensive points again.
All three LSU kickers return from last season.
Like LSU, the Tide returns 12 starters and does not return its quarterback. So why are they ranked so much higher?
To put it simply, TJ Yeldon and Amari Cooper. I suppose it also helps that offense always gets more attention in preseason rankings, and Alabama has still won three national championships since the last time LSU won one.
LSU may end up with more rushing yards and a better quarterback, but you get more attention if you have one go-to running back even though LSU has done pretty well in rotating running backs in the past.
I do think Alabama may be the better team in September–it helps for a new quarterback to start out with a reliable target– but of course what will really matter is which team is better in November.
You might have forgotten, but this team was one play away from winning the national championship.
On offense, three of the four leading ball handlers return from last season among 8 returning offensive starters. There are some more significant losses on defense (6 returning starters), but the offense is used to having to pick up some slack from time to time anyway.
I don’t factor this into my rankings, but the schedule may be the biggest obstacle in repeating for the SEC West title. Auburn has to play Georgia (on the road) and South Carolina in inter-divisional play and also has to go on the road to play Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi st. It does get LSU, Texas A&M, and Arkansas at home.
I don’t think the Rebels will go to their first SEC Championship game this season, but no one expected Missouri to make their first last season, so I guess it’s possible if LSU, auburn, and Alabama beat each other up enough (and possibly lose to lower teams or SEC East teams).
Other than Donte Moncrief, the top players statistically on offense return, although there will be some starters to replace. The defense will return 9 starters.
After being one of the top teams in the SEC West in 2012, the Aggies will probably continue to slide down the list. “Johnny Football” is gone (have I mentioned I hate that nickname?), as are Mike Evans and Ben Melena.
The Aggies do return 14 starters, but most of them on the defensive side of the ball, which has been underwhelming of late.
Mississippi St. returns 16 starters from a bowl-winning team last year, so they may surpass the Aggies.
Arkansas may be bringing up the rear in the SEC West again as the Hogs return 14 starters from a fairly poor performance last season.