Can Anyone Beat Alabama?
The 2020 college football season was a year like no other due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, at the end of the day, the song remained the same as Nick Saban claimed his sixth national championship and seventh overall. As we flip the page to 2021 it’s a familiar situation as Alabama sits on top of the preseason college football rankings. The biggest question is “can Texas A&M or anyone else knock off the Tide?” Let’s go team by team through the division with our 2021 SEC West Predictions.
King Of The Hill
1. Alabama- (13-0 in 2020)– Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. The Crimson Tide win another national championship, lose a ton of players to the NFL, and are still the team to beat. Is there any other school that could lose not only the Heisman Trophy winner in DeVonta Smith, and the nation’s most efficient passer in Mac Jones? Throw in losing the school’s career rushing leader in Najee Harris and that would cripple most teams, but not Alabama
Bryce Young, otherwise known as the “800,000 dollar man” takes over for Jones. He threw for 156 yards and a touchdown in limited playing time last season. While they have question marks at running back and receiver the team is so deep they’ll figure it out quickly. Throw in an offensive line Last Word ranks as the SEC’s best behind Evan Neal and arguably the greatest recruiting class ever and Young will be in great hands.
On the other side of the ball as the offense figures things out the defense may carry them early. Eight starters return including Christopher Allen and Will Anderson, Jr., who ranked first and third in tackles for loss a season ago. Freshman All-American Malachi Moore and Jordan Battle head a secondary that may barely feel the loss of Patrick Surtain. One area that’s been a sore spot for years is kicker but Will Reichard was perfect last year making all 84 extra points and 14-14 on field goals. There are some possible scheduling bumps in the road but in the end, Alabama tops the west again.
Key Games: Miami- September 4th- game played in Atlanta- At Florida- September 18th, At Texas A&M- October 9th
Is This The Year?
2. Texas A&M- (9-1 in 2020)- Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies finished in the top four in the nation for the first time since winning the 1939 National Championship. However, in order to take that next step, they have some key pieces to replace. That starts with who replaces Kellen Mond at quarterback. The battle between Zach Calzada and Haynes King could go up to the September 4th opener against Kent State.
One position where the Aggies are strong is running back. Isaiah Spiller returns after finishing second in the league with 1,036 yards on the ground. In addition to Spiller Orange Bowl MVP, Devon Achane is back and Fisher may end up splitting up carries between the two. Mr. All-Purpose Ainias Smith racked up 932 yards and 10 scores a season ago playing both back and receiver. If there is a question mark on the offense it’s up front where four starters are gone from last season. However, Kenyon Green returns and will shift from left guard to left tackle.
The Aggies also have nine starters returning from a group that was statistically the league’s best. DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy return up front while linebacker Aaron Hansford was the team’s second-leading tackler. The strength of the group is the secondary where everyone returns from 2020. Jaylon and Myles Jones are as good as any cornerback tandem in the SEC. The safeties are strong as well behind Leon O’Neal Jr. and Demani Richardson. As far as the schedule goes it’s all about October 9th when A&M hosts Alabama.
Key Games- Alabama- October 9th, Auburn- November 6th, At LSU- November 27th
Continuing on with our 2021 SEC West preview we look at a school hoping for a return to form.
A Bounce Back Year?
3. LSU- (5-5 in 2020)- It’s no secret the Tigers had a major national title hangover in 2020. Marred by a series of injuries and player opt-outs Ed Orgeron’s club had to win the last two just to finish at .500. As a result Coach O brought in five new coaches in hopes of regaining the magic of 2019. Heading into the 2021 season Myles Brennan was your starting quarterback. However, a broken bone in his left arm put his season in doubt and elevated Max Johnson as the starter. The sophomore threw for 1,069 yards and led the Tigers to season-ending wins over Florida and Ole Miss.
Juniors John Embree Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price lead the running backs after gaining 824 yards and six scores combined. Kayshon Boutte, who set an SEC record with 308 receiving yards in the Ole Miss win, heads the receivers. Up front, the Tigers return four starters but did lose Dare Rosenthal to Kentucky.
New defensive coordinator Daronte Jones has nine starters returning including the best cornerbacks in the SEC. All-American Derek Stingley Jr. and freshman All-American Eli Ricks lead this group. It’s hard to believe LSU was last in all of college football giving up 323 yards per game. Up front, the Tigers return the entire defensive line led by Andre Anthony and Ali Gaye who led the team with 32 tackles and 5.5 sacks respectively. Kicker Cade York made all 36 extra points and 18 of 21 field goals. As a result, Last Word named him as the league’s top kicker. An eight or nine-win season is certainly in play down in Baton Rouge.
Key Games- Florida- October 16th, At Alabama- November 6th- Texas A&M- November 27th
A Heisman Campaign?
4. Ole Miss- (5-5 in 2020)- As expected Lane Kiffin’s Rebels scored a ton of points in 2o2o. However, they also gave up a ton. Eight starters return on offense with quarterback Matt Corral leading the way. A season ago he led the NCAA in total offense with 384 yards per game. In addition, he was fifth in passing a seventh in touchdowns with 334 and 29 respectively. Only a junior, Corral is generating some serious Heisman hype.
Running back Jerrion Ealy returns after racking up second-team All-SEC honors gaining 900 yards and finding the end zone nine times. Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo are the top returning wide receivers. One big plus for Corral is the offensive line where four starters return making it one of the best in the league.
Six starters return on defense and whether that’s good or bad is up to you. In 2o2o the Rebels gave up 6.7 yards per play. Furthermore, they ranked last in the SEC in rushing yards. Leading tackler Jacquez Jones transferred to Kentucky leaving Lakia Henry as the leader. A.J. Finley and Keidron Smith are the top players in the secondary. The defense has to take a big step forward this year or once again Corral will have to score 50 every time out.
Key Games- -At Alabama- October 2nd, LSU- October 23rd, At Mississippi State- November 27th
Continuing our 2021 SEC West Preview we turn to another school looking to make some noise.
New Man In Town
5. Auburn- (6-5 in 2020)- Unlike the east where there are three new coaches Bryan Harsin is the lone newcomer in the west. After going 69-19 in seven years at Boise State, Harsin makes the move from Idaho to Auburn. Quarterback Bo Nix leads the offense coming off a season where he threw for 2,415 yards but had seven interceptions and 12 touchdowns. He did add another 388 yards on the ground.
Speaking of the ground attack, one of the best names in college football Tank Bigsby is back for his sophomore year. In 2020 Bigsby ran for 834 yards and five touchdowns. Auburn’s top three receivers from 2020 are gone leaving a very talented albeit inexperienced group. The entire offensive line returns as well.
The defense has a new boss in former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. He has some good experience returning on the defensive line and at linebacker. However, the strength of the defense is in the secondary. Senior safety Smoke Monday had 73 tackles and two interceptions in 2020. Cornerback Roger McCreary led the team with three interceptions. Harsin is looking to change the culture at Auburn and it may take a year to get that going.
Key Games- At Penn State- September 18th, Georgia- October 9th, Alabama- November 27th
Looking For Improvement
6. Arkansas- (3-7 in 2020)- Many thought Sam Pittman wouldn’t win a game so going 3-7 was quite the accomplishment. The Razorbacks return eight starters on offense but quarterback Feleipe Franks is gone. In his place look for K.J. Jefferson to get the nod. The sophomore threw for 295 yards and three scores in a limited time in 2020. Trelon Smith ran for 710 yards in 2020 and is primed for a big year. Treylon Burks and his 51 receptions is the go-to guy for Jefferson. Another bonus is the entire offensive line returns.
Nine starters are back on defense headed by linebackers Grant Morgan and another great name Bumper Pool. Morgan led the NCAA with 12.3 tackles per game while Pool had 101. This was second only to his teammate’s 111. Safeties Jalen Catalon and Joe Fucha head the six-back attack run by Razorbacks. With a few breaks, a six-win season isn’t out of the question for Pittman.
Key Games- Texas- September 11th, Auburn- October 16th, At LSU- November 13th
Wrapping up our 2021 SEC West Predictions is a look at the team we have projected at the bottom.
Better In Year Two?
7. Mississippi State- (4-7 in 2020)– Saying things didn’t go quite as planned in Mike Leach’s first season in Starkville is an understatement. The “Air Raid” struggled to take off averaging 21 points a game only reaching 30 twice. Will Rogers threw for 1,936 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven picks. When Kylin Hill opted out that forced Dillon Johnson and Jo’quavious Marks into action. Between the two they rushed for 537 yards and seven touchdowns. The Bulldogs have a ton of talented wide receivers led by Jaden Walley. In 2020 he broke a 43-year-old Mississippi State record for single-season receiving yards with 718.
On the other side of the ball linebacker, Aaron Brule leads the defense. He was second on the team with 74 tackles in 2020. Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes lay their claim as the best cornerbacks in the SEC. Forbes led the league with five interceptions with three of those returned for touchdowns. Emerson was third on the team in tackles with 72 and also had 11 pass deflections. The Bulldogs played much better at the end of 2020 and a favorable schedule could get them to six wins.
Key Games- At Memphis- September 18th, Kentucky- October 30th, Ole Miss- November 27th
Now that we’ve given you are 2021 SEC West Predictions let’s put some numbers on it.
1. Alabama 12-0 8-0
2. Texas A&M 10-2 6-2
3. LSU 8-4 5-3
4. Ole Miss 8-4 4-4
5. Auburn 7-5 3-5
6. Arkansas 5-7 3-5
7. Mississippi State 5-7 3-5
Thanks for checking out our 2021 SEC Predictions here at Last Word On College Football. In case you missed them check out how we think how the east would play out. Next time, we’ll have our preseason bowl projections.