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SEC West hasn't lost its luster or bluster

5/27/2015

The humble pie served around the SEC West in January has quickly metabolized (yes, SEC speed translates to the digestive system).

College football's best, most overrated, talent-stocked, grossly overpaid, loudest, deservedly decorated, media-created, proudly provincial, annoying, unfailingly tempestuous division hasn't lost its luster or its bluster entering the 2015 season.

Mention 2-5 (the SEC West's record last bowl season) in the state of Alabama and folks will wonder if the early national championship odds are out for the Crimson Tide or Tigers. Bring up Ole Miss' no-show in the Peach Bowl, Mississippi State's leaky defense in the Orange Bowl or Alabama getting overwhelmed in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and the puzzled looks make you check whether those games actually happened.

Even the fundamental question -- What's next for the SEC West after a season that began with such dominance and ended with such disappointment? -- seems silly to players and coaches around the division. It takes more than a bad bowl showing, two seasons without a national title and key questions from College Station to the Plains to worry them.

"The future for this division?" LSU safety Jalen Mills said, repeating the question. "You're going to have the national champ come out of the SEC West. It's as simple as that."

Tell us how you really feel, Jalen.

"This is the best ball," Mills continued. "You have us, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss. When you have that much talent, you can't do anything but win."

Even those recently back in the SEC West after several years away revere the division's strength.

"This," new LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said, "is where the national championships come from."

The SEC West didn't win the past two championships. Ohio State and Florida State claimed those. Last year, it failed to put a team in the championship game for the first time since the 2008 season. The division dominated the College Football Playoff rankings -- placing three teams among the top four in the initial list and occupying the No. 1 spot (Mississippi State or Alabama) in all seven versions -- and consistently fueled debate over whether it was the best division ever. But the final polls featured only one SEC West team in the top 10 (Alabama at No. 4).

Other divisions, like the Pac-12 South and the Big Ten East, are rising, but players and coaches around the SEC West contend they still deserve top billing.

"It's going to be the same SEC West it’s been since I've been here," LSU senior offensive tackle Vadal Alexander said, "which is probably the best division in the country.”

Whether it's misplaced hubris or appropriate confidence, the sentiment around the division stems from the same source that put the SEC West in the national spotlight for most of the 2014 season: depth.

The division no longer serves up only two main courses in Alabama and LSU, garnished with some special Auburn teams. Texas A&M awaits its true SEC breakthrough under Kevin Sumlin, but the Aggies have shown they can hang with the division’s best in the toughest settings and on the recruiting trail. Arkansas lost its first 13 SEC games under Bret Bielema, but no SEC West team ended last season playing better. The Hogs shut out LSU and Ole Miss in their final two division games before spanking Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl.

"The talent's beginning to spread out," Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott said.

"Could the top teams around the country play with a top team in our division? Absolutely. The difference is Arkansas, a lot of people would say is a pretty good team, and they were last in the West, seventh place. I would say they were the best last-place team in any division in the country. Who was sixth? A&M or LSU. They were pretty good. That's what makes the West so tough. I don't see it changing any time soon."

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen

The dynamic changed most dramatically in the Magnolia State, as Mississippi State and Ole Miss occupied roles usually reserved for their neighbors to the east and south. Mississippi State was No. 1 in the first three weeks of the CFP rankings -- the Bulldogs spent five weeks atop the polls -- and Ole Miss spent three weeks at No. 3 and six weeks in the top 10.

"We didn't make it to the national championship game last year; that's OK," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Could the top teams around the country play with a top team in our division? Absolutely. The difference is Arkansas, a lot of people would say is a pretty good team, and they were last in the West, seventh place. I would say they were the best last-place team in any division in the country. Who was sixth? A&M or LSU. They were pretty good.

"That's what makes the West so tough. I don’t see it changing anytime soon."

Expectations aren’t changing, either. All seven SEC West coaches now earn more than $4 million annually. Coordinator changes defined the SEC’s offseason, but the two biggest splashes happened in the West: Auburn hired ousted Florida coach Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator, a position he held from 2006 to 2007; and Texas A&M hired longtime LSU defensive czar John Chavis to oversee a unit that finished 109th last season against the run.

The nation’s most notable position coach hire also occurred in the SEC West, as LSU brought in Orgeron, a native Louisianan and the former head coach at Ole Miss and USC. The defensive focus around the division isn't mere coincidence. Just look at last year’s Iron Bowl score, or the many that resembled it. Four SEC West offenses ranked among the top 18 nationally in expected points added: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. No other league had more than three teams.

"The offenses are more explosive with the zone-read option and the fast pace," Orgeron said. "That wasn't here when I was here last time. Auburn's scoring 48 points and Bama's scoring 52 or whatever to beat Auburn. It wasn't like that [before].

"It was 13-10 games, 21-14, dominated by defense."

Defense was the offseason focus for most SEC West teams, but quarterback play could be the biggest challenge. Only two teams from the division enter the summer with definitive returning starters -- Mississippi State’s Prescott and Arkansas' Brandon Allen. Three teams will definitely turn to a new starter, and that number could rise to five as LSU once again looks for Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris to separate, and Texas A&M's Kyle Allen must beat out heralded incoming freshman Kyler Murray.

Three SEC West teams (Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State) must replace most of their starting offenses, while the other four are well-stocked. But bringing back a triggerman like Prescott can't be overstated.

"That’s something that goes a long way when you talk about competing to win this division," Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said. "If you've got a quarterback, it gives you a chance."

That every team has a chance, on any Saturday in any venue, is the new reality in the SEC West. The SEC as a whole became college football's kingpin because it had so many teams capable of winning a national championship. The rise of programs like Ole Miss and Mississippi State has created a similar competitive dynamic within the West.

"The teams that were good last year will only get better," Alabama running back Derrick Henry said. "That was motivation for some teams."

How the division is perceived entering the season remains to be seen. SEC West teams could pack the top of the preseason polls again. Or voters could take a wait-and-see approach after the lessons of last season.

Folks haven't forgotten misleading games like Texas A&M's season-opening win at South Carolina (remember Kenny Trill?), and, to a lesser degree, Auburn's win at Kansas State. Auburn and Texas A&M ranked No. 5 and No. 6, respectively, at the end of September. Auburn rose to No. 2 the following week. Both squads finished 8-5.

Recruiting ratings, like preseason polls, should be viewed with a critical eye. But SEC West teams occupied the top spot, three of the top 10 spots and six of the top 19 spots in ESPN's 2015 class rankings.

You could build a case against the SEC West in 2015. You just wouldn't convince anyone within the division.

"Because of the recruiting base, because of the coaches in the SEC West, because of the money that’s spent in the SEC West, I don’t think it’s going anywhere," said new LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who came to the Tigers after his second stint on Alabama's staff. "It’s pretty strong.

"There's not a day off."