Western Division hopes to dominate SEC football again

Western Division hopes to dominate SEC football again

June 11th, 2015 by David Paschall in Sports - College

The SEC West made college football history last season by becoming the first division to have every member receive a bowl invitation.

History will be made again this year, as each coach in the Southeastern Conference's seven-team pressure cooker will make at least $4 million.

"I think it's always been the toughest division in college football," LSU coach Les Miles said on a recent conference call. "With Ole Miss and Mississippi State being nationally ranked for a majority of last year, (it) goes to show you how talented the Western Division is. It ensures that you must be ready every Saturday."

SEC West teams were a combined 28-0 against nonconference opposition during the 2014 regular season. Most of those victories were against the outmanned likes of Florida Atlantic, Lamar and Louisiana-Monroe, but Auburn won at Kansas State, and LSU and Ole Miss claimed neutral-site matchups against Wisconsin and Boise State, respectively.

An Arkansas rout of Texas and a Texas A&M outlasting of West Virginia early in the bowl season gave the SEC West a 30-0 mark against outside foes, but that was followed by an unexpected collapse. Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State lost their bowl games, souring what had been an unprecedented run.

"I can't speak for all the others who had lesser performances than what they expected," said Ole Miss coach High Freeze, whose Rebels were humiliated 42-3 by TCU in the Peach Bowl. "We played a really good football team that had an edge about them, and everything that could have gone wrong did. I made a decision after the Egg Bowl to have surgery on two of our offensive linemen so that they could be back for spring, and looking back, I don't know if that was the best idea because we lost two more in the game."

The late swoon has not tempered expectations for another wild West scramble in 2015, when the division will be seeking to produce the overall SEC champion for a seventh straight year.

Auburn is No. 3 in the Sporting News preseason poll, while Alabama is fifth, LSU 14th, Arkansas 15th, Ole Miss 16th and Mississippi State 25th. The only West team outside the top 25 is Texas A&M, which is 28-11 the past three seasons with four straight top-15 recruiting classes.

There is no lack of star power within the division, ranging from running backs Derrick Henry (Alabama), Alex Collins (Arkansas) and Leonard Fournette (LSU) to receivers Duke Williams (Auburn) and Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss) to menacing defensive end Myles Garrett (Texas A&M). Yet the only elite returning quarterback in the West is Dak Prescott (Mississippi State).

The SEC West in 2010 became the first division to account for five of the top 15 teams in the final Associated Press poll — Auburn (No. 1), LSU (No. 8), Alabama (No. 10), Arkansas (No. 12) and Mississippi State (No. 15) — but it had never been stronger from top to bottom until last season. Arkansas went 0-8 in league play during coach Bret Bielema's first season in 2013, but last year's Razorbacks recorded late-season shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss after losing 14-13 to eventual league champ Alabama.

"I came in here knowing I was in the SEC West and wasn't surprised by my first day here," Bielema said, "but what was awesome for me to be able to experience was the depth and the rotation and the learning curve that evolved during Year 1 and Year 2. I have a tremendous amount of respect for so many coaches in this league and their different styles and philosophies, and they are ones that work.

"We can go round and round about pace of play and what you believe in defensively and in the kicking game, but the bottom line comes down to winning. We're honored to be a part of it."

SEC West teams went 10-4 against their Eastern Division counterparts a year ago, with Georgia and Missouri accounting for all four of the East wins. Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee made the Sporting News preseason top 25, but the early hype is again being reserved for the West teams.

All seven of them.

"After we played Arkansas last year, I made the comment that those guys were a different team from the year before and that they could beat anybody," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, "and I think everybody saw that in the second half of their season when they started to get some momentum. I think, top to bottom, now that Arkansas is playing well and the two Mississippi schools are playing extremely well, there are no weeks off.

"It's a man's league and a man's division, and you have to play well each week to win."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.