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Johnson: SEC West Contenders and Pretenders

  • The SEC West looks fantastic through two weeks, going a combined 10-3-1 against the spread.
  • But a few teams will get exposed over the next few weeks as these teams match up. Which will it be?
  • Former Alabama offensive lineman Mike Johnson dives in and names the contenders and pretenders.

The one thing almost every SEC West fan excels at during the preseason is finding reasons for optimism. And finding reasons to doubt their divisional rivals.

Some fan bases from the East just don’t seem to fit in with their counterparts from the other side of the conference. People from Baton Rouge, Fayetteville, Starkville, and all the other towns that house teams from the West become plugged into message boards and local radio stations, always trying to find good storylines coming out of fall camp.

After two weeks of college football, some of those crazy preseason theories have actually panned out. The SEC West is 10-3-1 against the spread and 12-2 straight-up.

Jimbo Fisher has made Texas A&M more physical, and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has looked every bit the Heisman front-runner he is.

Some other theories have crashed and burned. No, Chad Morris will not be leading an explosive offense to the SEC Championship this year.

So after two weeks, and heading into the meat of the conference schedule, where exactly does your team stand? Is it a contender, a pretender or is the jury still out?

Alabama

By now, Bama being a national-title contender has become a sure bet. This team, however, seems to be hellbent on doing things a little differently than some of the Crimson Tide teams that came before it.

All the talk of an explosive offense led by Tagovailoa has come true. After years of passing offenses led by Calvin Ridley and no one else, the ball is finally being distributed according to how open a player is instead of what number is on his jersey. Tagovailoa leads all SEC starting QBs with 13 yards per pass attempt.

Along with that explosive offense is a defense that’s as stingy as ever, even after replacing the entire secondary from 2017. Deionte Thompson, Shyheim Carter and Saivion Smith all have interceptions. The front seven has done its part as well, picking on offenses that can’t stop pressure.

Alabama’s run game has lacked consistency, and this week’s first true road test of the season in Oxford could cause some issues for the young secondary, but for now, it’s the same old Bama.

Status: Contender

Auburn

In what was probably the most impressive of a few Week 1 nonconference victories by the SEC West, Auburn disposed of Washington in typical SEC fashion — with a dominant front seven and few points allowed.

Jarrett Stidham has looked great through the Tigers’ first two games. Even if his stat line doesn’t look like it belongs to Drew Lock or Jordan Ta’amu, he is most certainly pulling his weight.

Kevin Steele’s defense looks to be pulling its weight as well — the only defense in the SEC that has both nine sacks and four interceptions. Like Bama, the run game so far has been a small disappointment, but JaTarvious Whitlow may be just the guy to alleviate some of the Tiger fans’ concerns after rushing for 122 yards on 14 carries last week.

The offensive line needs work, particularly in run-blocking schemes, but it definitely does not lack talent.

Auburn gets its annual early season stress test this weekend with LSU headed to town, and my money will be on Auburn.

Status: Contender

LSU

Not many people outside of Baton Rouge gave the Tigers much of a chance to make noise this season. With the Tigers coming off a disappointing season (by LSU standards) while losing a starting quarterback, a record-breaking running back and a highly regarded offensive coordinator, we just weren’t sure where the points would come from.

But one thing Ed Orgeron’s team did not lose from 2017 was physicality. The Week 1 matchup against Miami turned out to be a rout in a game that seemed to expose the Hurricanes as much as it shed light on the Tigers.

There is no question LSU has the ability. Nick Brossette seems to be the latest in a long line of franchise running backs, and the Tigers have a whole group of wideouts who seem to run 4.4 40-yard dashes with 6-foot-4 frames. These things should add up to weekly dominance.

But Week 2 against Southeastern Louisiana gives me pause. Joe Burrow’s performance — 10-of-20 for 151 yards — against an overmatched defense did nothing to make people think he was the answer to LSU’s long-term QB woes.

If LSU can stay healthy, however, this team definitely will have a chance to find its stride during the stretch run. This was the toughest choice in the whole division, but for now the Tigers cannot be counted out, or counted on.

Status: Undecided

Mississippi State

Welcome to the SEC West, Joe Moorhead. You’re gonna fit in here just fine.

Many people, myself included, had no idea what to expect from Moorhead. Bringing a coach in from the Northeast to lead a team in Starkville left me asking many questions. But Moorhead has hit the ground running, piling up passing and rushing yards through a variety of ways in the first two weeks.

I’m still not sold on Nick Fitzgerald going anywhere near a Heisman Trophy ceremony, but after his performance at Kansas State this past weekend, it seems he will be just fine in this new scheme.

However, one guy I would be willing to put my money on after two weeks is running back Kylin Hill. Ten yards per carry is good enough for a tie atop the SEC.

If Stephen Guidry or Osirus Mitchell can find a way to make this a two-dimensional attack, the Bulldogs should be playing meaningful games well into November.

Status: Contender

Ole Miss

I’m not terribly old, but I can’t remember a team that looked anything like what Ole Miss has looked like through two weeks. Jordan Ta’amu can pass for what seems like 1,000 yards on a weekly basis, and running back Scottie Phillips has done a great job balancing out an elite wide receiver corps, pacing the entire SEC with 311 rushing yards thus far.

The defense, however, is a completely different story. The offensive explosion put on by Texas Tech (486 total yards) in Week 1 was to be somewhat expected. Welcoming in Southern Illinois in Week 2, however, was supposed to give us a better idea of what exactly we can expect from the Rebel defense in 2018. And, sadly, I think it did.

In a game in which the Salukis racked up 29 first downs and 629 yards of total offense, it became evident that the Rebels’ offense would have to do a lot of heavy lifting this year. This is not to say Ole Miss cannot win meaningful games throughout the season. (Bama should be on notice this weekend.)

But with the defense giving up 1,115 yards after just two weeks, it’s hard to imagine this team becoming well-rounded enough to make a serious push for the West crown.

Status: Pretender

Texas A&M

While I was watching Texas A&M play Clemson on Saturday night, one statement kept climbing into my head: “This is what 75 million guaranteed can get you.”

In front of an extremely thirsty fan base, the Aggies gave Clemson everything they had, and nearly knocked off the Tigers, if not for an extremely unfortunate and controversial touchback call near the end of the game.

In the process, it seems as if quarterback Kellen Mond might be the next household name to come out of College Station. Add in a defense that seems to be playing with a renewed sense of physicality, and the sky is limit for this team.

The one dire problem, however, seems to be a running game that amounted to next to nothing (Trayveon Williams: 31 yards on 17 attempts) against an elite Clemson defensive front.

If the Aggies were in any other league, my reaction would be, “No big deal, Clemson is really good.” Playing in the SEC West, however, means they will be going up against defenses that will look similar to Clemson’s on a weekly basis.

Mond was magical in Week 2, but pulling that off every week for the next three months is going to be a challenge. We shall see, Aggies fans.

Status: Undecided

Arkansas

It almost seems like too much praise to call Arkansas a pretender at this point. The Razorbacks haven’t seemed to pretend to do anything. The most concerning part is that the Razorbacks are already coming off their first loss without even playing a Power Five team, losing on the road to an 0-2 Colorado State team. Chad Morris may still be a guy who can get the job done in Fayetteville, but this is truly a “bare cupboard” situation.

The quarterback competition presses on, in a scenario in which it looks as if Arkansas will be forced to play the better of two QBs who don’t seem like they’ll stand much of a chance in conference play. Devwah Whaley has been above average in the running game, rushing for 193 yards behind an offensive line that leaves much to be desired.

With North Texas coming to town in Week 3, maybe it’s not too late to find some magic.

Status: Pretender

Credit:

USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jordan Ta’amu and Tua Tagovailoa

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