Preaseason Breakdown - SEC West

How good is the west?

Click below to see team breakdowns

             

Alabama

One of the more interesting facets of Alabama’s recent run, in my opinion, is the perspective many have regarding the “best” of Alabama’s teams. In particular, I disagree with many regarding whether the 2013 team is actually one of our best. FootballOutsiders compiles statistical metrics for each team. The S&P ratings describe a team in terms of important stats, and could be described as focusing on a team’s explosiveness. FEI, on the other hand, is focused on efficiency. So, how does the post-2008 Saban run stack up?

Year S&P Rating FEI Rating
2009 24.0 .329
2010 22.9 26.8
2011 27.5 .299
2012 28.5 .315
2013 22.9 .289
2014 28.3 .291
2015 30.0 .333

Most would be none too surprised to discover that the 2010 team is the least efficient, and one of the worst overall. Similarly, it likely isn’t surprising that 2009 team was far more efficient than good. Also, it’s interesting to note that the 2014 team was rated quite highly despite not being very efficient; in short, Kiffin worked some magic to take a good team and make them great through an explosive offense. The 2015 team, with perhaps the best combination of an explosive offense and dominant defense, is the highest rated.

However, how many would guess that arguably the worst would be the 2013 team? Why would a team, that many still consider a title contender save one horrible evening in Jordan Hare, be rated so lowly?

The notable issue: the schedule. Alabama opened with an ugly game against a bad VT team, had a close win against Johnny Football and Texas A&M, had an ugly win against Colorado State, and had another tough offensive outing against Ole Miss.

"Why would a team, that many still consider a title contender save one horrible evening in Jordan Hare, be rated so lowly?"

Then they played Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Alabama won those games 190-20, but those teams averaged only 2.5 wins each in 2013. When Alabama followed those wins up with by far their best outing of the season in a 38-17 win over LSU, fans were ecstatic. However, even that game is somewhat deceptive. LSU fumbled their first two drives, with their opening series fumbling at the goal line and the second being deep in their own territory. That provided a 10 point swing in a game that Bama led 17-14 at the half. This was still a strong win, but Alabama definitely got some breaks in terms of momentum early.

In short, the 2013 team likely faced the easiest schedule of the Saban era, and feasted on it. However, that team had only one outing – LSU – where they managed to show as an elite team. I contended then, and I continue to contend, that the Oklahoma game was no fluke… that 2013 Alabama team simply had issues in the secondary that left the defense vulnerable (issues that the unusually horrid passing offenses of VT, CSU, GSU, UK, Arky, and UT were almost uniquely unable to exploit), and would have struggled defensively with most above-average passing teams. Though I know many disagree, I do not believe 2013 Alabama would have been able to beat FSU. In fact, I’m not even sure they would have been competitive against a potent Missouri pass-first offense in the SEC title.

So, what about this year, then?

In short, this team should be dominant defensively, and has the potential to be just as dominant offensively. The defense is the fastest under Saban, and has finally caught up to the new styles of play that are giving Alabama issues. I’m still a little concerned by corner depth, but the positive reports regarding the freshman class are very encouraging.

Offense

Offensively, and I hate to say this, this team can be as good as the quarterback lets it be. The offensive line may lose two starters, but, frankly, the right side of the line was a serious liability at times. Jonah Williams is likely an instant upgrade at RT, Cotton is a major upgrade in physicality, and I have long held that Alphonse Taylor’s play has been sub-par (I think the coaches agree, which is why they’ve pushed him so hard in the offseason).

Running Backs

The backs are very good. There may not be a Henry, but there is probably a stronger “running back by committee” than Alabama has had in recent years, given the glowing reviews of Emmons and Jacobs.

Receivers

Alabama likely has the best tight end in the country, and (in my opinion) probably the best receiving corps as well. This receiving corps may legitimately feature two NFL #1 targets in Ridley and Foster. Further, Stewart, Dieter, and Sims (if he gets healthy) will all play in the league. I think this group compares favorably to Woods/Lee in 2011 or Hopkins/Watkins in 2012, though I think Alabama is deeper. With this much receiver depth, and given the inexperience at tailback, one would expect Kiffin to run far more 4-wide sets than we’ve seen in the past. If a mobile quarterback is in play (Hurts), it would not shock me to see Alabama run empty sets with some frequency (notably Scarborough is an excellent receiver, so Alabama may easily motion to a 4 or 5 wide set from different personnel groupings). This should be a dynamic and explosive offense, more akin to what we saw at times in 2014 rather than 2015.

Quarterbacks

I think Hurts is the future, but I still have doubts that he will start. My understanding is that the team will go into USC with something like 40 practices from the spring/fall. With a 14-week season, that means there are 70 practices during the year. That means, though he is “only” a year ahead, Barnett actually has 4x as many practices under his belt (150 practices to Hurts’s 40). That gap will continually narrow as the season progresses, and Hurts will effectively double his reps sometime around week 6-8. As for ability, I have heard that Hurts has the poise and an edge in athleticism, but he isn’t as consistent at the short, “easy” throws. Again, that’s just what I’ve heard. However, Bateman is struggling so badly with velocity on his downfield throws that he may not even be a viable option. The wild card, to me, is actually Barnett. I’ve heard that he clearly has the best arm, but he just keeps putting himself in the doghouse by having a random turnover-prone day.

Here’s your issue: Alabama can probably make the playoff with a quarterback who lines up the team and gets the ball to the receivers quickly and lets them do the work. Alabama does not really need to stretch the field beyond the occasional deep shot to keep defenses honest (lobbing the go/deep post is much easier than rifling a 20-yard dig; Sims could do the former well, and could never execute the latter).

Defense

One area that I am concerned about is run support. I get into this in greater detail later, but be careful in just assuming that Alabama will be Alabama against the run because, well, they’re Alabama. You don’t make a tackle with a script A and a crimson jersey, the defense needs big bodies to stop the run, and they really aren’t in the abundant supply that they were in last year. That’s okay… plenty of teams have been effective with smaller lineman (as many an Alabama fan will remember regarding a rather painful Utah experience). But this is still a team that is losing its 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 6th leading tacklers, and that will probably mean a step back. (Fun fact: Geno Smith, perhaps the least hyped player on the defense, was actually 3rd on the team in tackles). I do think that it’s likely that Dion-Hamilton plays significantly more than many expect. Evans has tremendous potential, but Dion-Hamilton is a very good player, and his physicality may be needed in the trenches.

LSU

LSU becomes the third SEC team to return 18 starters in two years, following Tennessee and Vanderbilt last year. The issue for LSU is that neither side of the ball quite lived up to their billing. The defense was uncharacteristically rough, ranking 26th in yards/attempt and 33rd in yards/rush. Not terrible by any means, but still only good for 6th in the SEC in yards/play. While the defense should undoubtedly improve, it’s probably unrealistic for many to immediately declare them a shut-down defense just because they are returning so many starters. Aranda may well prove an upgrade, but his aggressive style does lead to random meltdowns on bad days. Look for this to be a very good defense, but not necessarily a great one as some are predicting.

The offense last year was Fournette or bust. The rushing offense was ranked 1st in the SEC with 6.1 yards/rush, and the passing offense 4th in yards/attempt (just edging out Alabama). The issue was that the passing game was totally ineffective against better opponents. In conference play, the passing game finished a lousy 10th in yards/attempt. The rushing offense was 1st in every month but November, when it fell to 9th.

So, why the fall? Injuries certainly played a role, as LSU suffered in November without their star fullback in the power run game (a similar issue to what I believe crippled Auburn last year). Still, one explanation may be chunk yardage. LSU and Alabama had very similar yards/attempt averages (7.8 to 7.6). However, LSU had a significantly lower completion percentage (53% to 68%). In fact, LSU’s completion percentage was rock bottom, sandwiched between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. While big plays score points, consistency is needed to move the chains. When you combine high yardage with low completion percentage, as LSU did, you have a lot of big plays that get stranded on drives that stall out. A minor decline in the run game against strong defenses can snowball quickly because you simply cannot sustain drives. That’s my best guess why LSU was just so very bad all of a sudden in November.

The problem this year, if you’re LSU, is that it’s shaping up to be more of the same. There’s a chance that Harris has it in him to be a good quarterback, but that’s just a chance. Both tackles are gone (and both were very good players), but that’s it. This team is probably much like last year. Develop a consistent passing game, or watch yourself flounder when you are rendered one-dimensional.

Mississippi State

I would dare say that no player meant more for his team than Dak Prescott did last year. I had Miss St. pegged for a clear last in the West, but Prescott turned a corner and basically single-handedly kept his team afloat. A fair comparison may be Ainge at Tennessee: a heady quarterback who knew where to deliver the ball and consistently avoided sacks that should have happened. In short, I told my wife that he went way too low when he was drafted (the NFL preseason is validating this remark). However, Ainge's departure marked the end of an era for Tennessee, and I fear the same with Prescott and MSU. In Prescott's sophomore year, Mississippi State struggled to a 6-6 regular season record. Prescott continually improved, carrying his team to a 10-win season in 2014 while accounting for 66% of the offense and a 9-win season in 2015 while accounting for 73 percent of the offense. Prescott accounted for 73% of the offense in 2015.

Now Mississippi State must rebuild, and it's likely that another 6-6 season is at hand while they break in a new quarterback. The defense wasn't great, ranking 10th in the conference in both yards/attempt and yards/carry allowed. The front seven should still be disruptive, but the secondary isn't great and it's hard to identify where the points will come from on offense. The issue with rebuilding is simply talent. In the SEC West, talent is key, and Mississippi State simply doesn't have it.The offense features one four-star. That's it. Alabama will start 20, with 12 of those being of the five-star variety. While I have tremendous respect for Mullen as an X's and O's coach their recruiting has done nothing to make use of their recent success. Check out their rankings in the 247 Sports Composite:

Year National Rank SEC Rank
2013 25 11
2014 35 12
2015 18 8
2016 27 11

These were the worst classes in the West 3 out of the past 4 years, with the 2015 class just managing to edge out Arkansas for 6th place. Given the lack of talent, even with Auburn and Arkansas down this is still probably the worst team in the division, and it will take the best job of Mullen’s career to avoid a last place finish.

Ole Miss

I was of the opinion last year that there were really two teams in their own tier: Ole Miss and Alabama. My thought was that the thing that would hold them back would be depth. Sure enough, Ole Miss was one miracle lateral away from contending for the SEC West crown.

This year I’m not so high on them. While they still have, in my opinion, an NFL-starter talent in Kelly, they lose 3/5 linemen, a stud receiver in Treadwell, and 2/3 of their top rushers (Wilkins, by the way, is a major loss in my book). This wouldn’t be so bad if their recruiting was excellent, but after the star-studded class in 2013, they finished 15th and 17th in the next two classes. Even the 2013 class was only 8th, as it was primarily 3-star prospects. Simply put, Ole Miss does not have quality depth. It’s exactly why they skidded hard after being beat up against Bama, and it’s exactly why I suspect they will seriously struggle to reload this year.

While they still have, in my opinion, an NFL-starter talent in Kelly, they lose 3/5 linemen

As an aside, while Freeze deserves some credit for recruiting elite talent (however skeptical you may be of the process), it’s worth noting just how rare it is for every top recruit to pan out. Tunsil was the #1 OT recruit, and was a first round pick. Nkemdiche was the #1 overall player, and was a first round pick. Treadwell was the #1 receiver recruit, and was a first round pick. The only relative “bust” was Conner, who is still an early round talent.

Going from 247’s composite rankings from 2001 and on, the #1 overall, #1 OT, and #1 WR from the same class have never all been first round picks. Be it Tyler Love, Seantrel Henderson, George Farmer, etc., there has always been a bust on that list. That is, there always was… until Ole Miss pulled perhaps the luckiest catch in the history of modern recruiting.

So it's going to be very much a wait-and-see year for Ole Miss. We will learn a lot in the season opener, but I have a feeling that the losses are going to be felt severely. One thing to watch: how does the receiving corps adjust without their top targets? And it isn't just Treadwell... the 20th ranked NFL player in receiving yards this preseason was actually Cody Core (7 receptions for 111 yards, 15.9 yards/reception... only 1 yard/reception lower than his average in college last year and well ahead of Treadwell in total yardage and yards/play), who has repeatedly done his part to help AJ McCarron's campaign for a starting role at Cincinnati. This is actually magnified by their multi-wide sets. Given Freeze's frequent use of 4-wide sets, this means that their offense essentially trades their 1st and 2nd targets for their 5th and 6th targets from a year ago. Don't underestimate how much that can impact an offense.

Auburn

This was a comment I made on Auburn in the lead-up to last season:

"Take these two QBs:"

Year Pass Yards TDs INTs
QB1 Soph 36/48 (75%) 410 7 0
QB2 Soph 26/37 (76%) 436 3 0

QB1? John Brantley in 2009. Heralded as the next big thing going into 2010 after backing up (and starting for an injured) Tim Tebow in 2009. However, Brantley would ultimately come to be known generally as a failure.

QB2 is Jeremy Johnson. The point here is that you just can't say anything, one way or another, until the pads start popping on a big stage. I'm not going to criticize Johnson, as I haven't seen him, but I strongly caution against those praising him, because you haven't seen him either. Even if he is better, I doubt it shows too much for the reasons above [regarding issues at receiver and in the run game].”

And here were their final stats:

Pass Yards TDs INTs
Brantley 200/329 (60.8%) 2016 (6.3 ypa) 9 10
Johnson 95/157 (60.6%) 1054 (6.7 ypa) 10 7

I’ve got to say, this is probably the most eerily accurate statistical comparison I’ve ever made.

However, with all the above said, I still think Jeremy Johnson is the best quarterback on the team. Sean White’s passer rating was even lower than Johnson’s on the season, and he had only a 58% completion percentage, with 1 TD to 4 INTs (on a similar number of attempts). In short, White avoided the major negative play, but he also rarely contributed impact plays of his own.

But it’s even worse when you look at the competition level. Check out the national rank of the SEC teams each player started against in yards/attempt allowed:

Team Rank
Jeremy Johnson
  LSU 26th
Texas A&M 15th
UGA 10th
Alabama 15th
Average Ranking - 16.5

Team Rank
Sean White
  Miss St 39th
Kentucky 54th
Arkansas 108th
Ole Miss 21st
Average Ranking - 55.5

Jeremy Johnson played three top-15 pass defenses, with his worst being 26th. Sean White’s toughest opponent was Ole Miss at 21st. Their average ranking was double Jeremy Johnson’s easiest conference opponent. This is where your eyes can be deceptive. White looks like a “gamer” and made fewer mistakes because he was playing opponents that were radically worse at defending the pass. Johnson may have looked worse, but he was forced to make far tougher decisions because he faced radically more difficult opponents. Even still, Johnson’s rating in SEC play (119.98) was only just behind White’s (123.84), despite the radically different competition.

Beyond that, my opinion of Auburn this year is much the same as last year. Their defense should be improved, particularly against the pass. Their secondary has finally gotten competent in talent, especially with Matthews and Lawson healthy. I also think Cowart could have a light bulb moment and become a real player. The issue is probably two-fold: quality depth and size in the front seven. Most teams are probably going to challenge Auburn to stop the run before they try to test Auburn’s admittedly disruptive front.

White looks like a "gamer" and made fewer mistakes because he was playing opponents that were radically worse at defending the pass

On offense, issues abound. The true Malzhan offense was really predicated on being able to utilize versatile bigs (Lutz, Uzomah, Prosch) to shift formations at the LOS and gain advantages in the run and the pass. The key to their run game, in 2010 and 2013, was really the power run behind a FB/TE with a power RB and following a powerful offensive line. Last year they had neither, and predictably struggled. However, they seem to be worse off this year. The line loses both starting tackles, they lost both power backs unexpectedly, they don’t have any real talent at tight end, and their best fullback will likely have to play running back to compensate. There are also no proven receivers to pick up the slack. While it wouldn’t shock me to see them play Franklin, it’s going to be because I just don’t see where they will be able to get production in a standard offense. That’s problematic because, as I pointed out in the spring and everyone now knows due to Netflix, Franklin wasn’t even the starter on his JUCO team.

Texas A&M

My stance for some time has been that Sumlin actually underperformed with a greatly underrated amount of talent in 2012, including an offensive line that was actually better than Alabama's vaunted 2012 line, and has steadily declined since. Sumlin's system, which relies on frequent 5-man protections and deep passing routes, has essentially destroyed every quarterback without Manziel's magical escapability. The A&M quarterbacks know this, and (partially due to bizarre player management) they now lose two 5* prospects to transfer and will instead start their own transfer in Trevor Knight. I firmly believe that their season derailed last year because Allen simply took too many hits and suffered a shoulder injury. Knight's mobility will be key to avoiding that fate again, but I still just don't think that this system works against defenses with a high-level pass rush. The defense will be improved, and the offense will look greatly improved early, but I fully expect to see Knight suffer the same physical and mental collapse we've seen from A&M quarterbacks for two years running (especially with two or more freshman starters on the offensive line).

Defensively, this year is really going to test the presumption that returning starters are a good thing. On the one hand, Texas A&M returns their top 8 leading tacklers. On the other hand, those tacklers managed to be 103rd nationally in yards/rush allowed. Any time a team is below the top 75 in a major category, I tend to view it as preferable to lose players in the starting lineup (or at least replace them with young talent). They weren't even that young, as the top 7 were at least sophomores, so it isn't like there were a lot of freshman mistakes. While the defensive line has great talent, including superstar Garrett and fellow five-star in Daylon Mack, they simply didn't produce.

The poor run defense also highlights why I always prefer per/play statistics. Because Texas A&M was so bad against the run, teams very rarely passed. In total defense, they ranked 4th. Great, right? Not so fast. In yards/play, they ranked 15th. Still very good, but not one of the premier pass defenses in the country. The difference is almost entirely due to the fact that teams were predominantly run-based against this defense; there was no reason to pass. This shakes out when you compare the rankings in wins/losses. Normally a team does better in wins, and worse in losses. However, Texas A&M was bizarrely consistent. Comparing them against other teams when each team won or loss, they were:

  • 5.9 yards/attempt in 8 wins (54th nationally)
  • 6.1 yards/attempt overall (15th nationally)
  • 6.3 yards/attempt in 5 losses (6th nationally)

Despite the fact that the yardage goes up, their total ranking gets radically better. Why? Because most teams do really well in wins and really poorly in losses. In Texas A&M's case, their wins and losses had virtually nothing to do with the pass defense, they lost games entirely because they couldn't stop the run (giving up 4.55 yards/rush in wins and 5.6 yards/rush in losses) or that they couldn't score (scoring 37 points/game in wins and 12 points/game in losses). Basically, the passing defense was made completely irrelevant because opposing offenses could and would simply avoid throwing the football.

Finally, the above also brings things full circle to the discussion at the beginning of this breakdown. The drop in scoring during their losses was stark. They were 117th nationally in points/game in their losses, meaning that when things didn't work, they really didn't work. Overall, the key to this team will be for Mazzone to incorporate the quick-passing game and some semblance of a run game into the offense while limiting the long plays that got their quarterbacks killed. This is made even more crucial by the loss of three solid offensive linemen. The run defense is going to give up points, which means that the offense can't absolutely tank against good defenses the way it has the past two years.This is a schematic issue, and probably one of the greatest wastes of talent in the conference, so Sumlin likely needs to either find a way to fix it or find a new job.

Arkansas

In 2015, Arkansas beat Ole Miss on a miraculous play where senior quarterback Brandon Allen threw to NFL first rounder Hunter Henry, who in turn pitched the ball back to Alex Collins, who kept things going. None of those players return. Nor do 3 of 5 starting linemen, including an All-American guard and the starting LT. The Arkansas offense that took off late last season really did so based off dominating at the line of scrimmage and buying plenty of time for Allen to execute in the play-action pass game. Without those pieces, Arkansas returns to a typical pro-style attack. While that has its merits, with even Alabama slimming up to deal with more spread offenses, it's hard to see a pro-style offense thriving when there are no significant threats at quarterback, running back, or receiver.

And that's before we get to the defense. The Arkansas pass defense was, at times, atrocious last year, to such an extent that it may well cause Arkansas to take a significant step back . Returning defensive starters is great and all, but you tend to better replacing a bad defense than letting it get older. Arkansas was 108th in yards/attempt allowed last year, and were a full yard/attempt worse than any other team in the SEC. The group wasn't that young (all the starters were at least sophomores), and the leading tackler (Rohan Gaines) is gone. Further, there isn't any talent in the wings, as there isn't a single 4-star defensive back or linebacker on the entire roster. Given the lack of talent and production, it just isn't likely that the defense suddenly gets competent against the pass. The run defense, 31st nationally last year, isn't good enough to pick up the slack, so this Arkansas defense is going to give up a lot of points.

Arkansas was 108th in yards/attempt allowed last year

Much of this depends on Austin Allen. His older brother experienced truly remarkable growth under Bielema's tutelage. In 2013, Brandon Allen was dead last in the SEC in QB rating. In 2015, he was first. Simply put, Arkansas doesn't make a bowl the past two years with freshman Brandon Allen. The question is: how much of that was due to Brandon, how much was due to experience, and how much was due to coaching? If it's the latter, then maybe little brother Austin can come in as a junior and continue Brandon's success from late last year. But if it takes some time and Arkansas drops close games against TCU and Texas A&M early, they may not make a bowl with a murderer's row of Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, and Missouri all in a row to end the season.

Bielema has succeeded by developing physical units that can wear down opponents and take over late in the season once people start getting beaten up. However, Bielema has recruited quite poorly, and has only ever finished ahead of Mississippi State in the SEC West over the past 4 years. The problem with Arkansas is that there really is almost nothing notable about them whatsoever, and that's probably not a good thing. They better hope that Bielema trots out a new set of powerful linemen and repeats his success because, if not, anyone inheriting this program will be coaching a team that is devoid of impact players at virtually every position on the field.