- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Your long nightmare is over. Football is back.
With camps opening all over the SEC this week, we’re rolling out our division-wide previews. Earlier today we wrote about the East. Now it’s the West’s turn.
Camp opens: Aug. 6
Big question: Are they over Ohio State?
They were distracted by the draft. They didn’t take Cardale Jones seriously. They ran out of gas. The reasons why Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff have been plentiful, justified or not. But something larger is at play: The facade of dominance around the program is eroding. At Big Ten media days last week, Wisconsin players asked, “Who’s to say we can’t beat Alabama?” And Badgers tailback Corey Clement said Ohio State “gave Alabama a wake-up call." Tide coach Nick Saban has called it an issue of rediscovering their “identity,” which has less to do with talent (four straight No. 1-ranked recruiting classes say it can’t be) and more to do with being “relentless competitors,” “tough” and “hard-nosed” again.
Camp opens: Aug. 4
Big question: Is the hype real?
It’s easy to get swept up in the hype around Arkansas these days. It has been riding a wave of momentum ever since winning four of its final six games last season, including a convincing 24-point win over Texas in the Texas Bowl. But to go from 7-6 to serious playoff contenders will take more than good vibes. Quarterback Brandon Allen must develop into more than a passive threat on offense. Replacing Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight on defense won’t be easy either. Arkansas snuck up on a lot of teams last year, but that won’t be the case this season.
Camp opens: Aug. 4
Big question: What’s realistic with Will Muschamp?
Even a proper cynic is capable of giving Auburn’s offense the benefit of the doubt. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson has all the earmarks of a star, Duke Williams is back as one of the country’s top receivers, and the O-line is promising with four starters back. But the defense, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as well thought of. And rightfully so, considering its 25.7 points-per-game average over the past two seasons. The secondary has given up too many big plays, the pass-rush has given quarterbacks too much time, and the linebackers have missed too many tackles. So how does Will Muschamp fix all that in the span of one offseason? Gus Malzahn called him the best defensive mind in football and his $1.6 million salary begs an early return on investment, but he may need time.
Camp opens: Aug. 6
Big question: Will a quarterback emerge?
Look at LSU’s roster. What’s not to like? Leonard Fournette has Heisman Trophy potential at running back, Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre could form one of the best receiver tandems in the conference, and the return of Vadal Alexander gives the offensive line some much-needed experience. That’s not to mention a defense that’s loaded with talent, especially in the secondary. But there’s a hole on the depth chart, and it’s a glaring one: quarterback. Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings are back under center, but nothing about their combined six interceptions and seven touchdowns in SEC play last season gives cause for hope. Neither QB separated himself during spring practice, but someone will have to soon. If not, the rest of that roster will go to waste.
Camp opens: Aug. 3
Big question: Was last season a flash in the pan?
Last year was magical at Mississippi State. Dak Prescott made a run at the Heisman Trophy, the Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history and the season culminated with a New Year’s Six bowl game. But is that level of play sustainable? Or was it simply a blip on the radar for a program that has perennially finished near the bottom of the West? Prescott is back, along with his favorite receiving target, De’Runnya Wilson, and defensive linemen Chris Jones and Ryan Brown certainly hold promise. But there are major concerns, the least of which being a stacked division. Three-fifths of the offensive line is new, Josh Robinson is no longer at tailback, and the majority of the defense will be first-time starters.
Camp opens: Aug. 6
Big question: Who’s the answer under center?
For the first time in a long time, Alabama might not be the SEC team most NFL scouts salivate over. That title could belong to Ole Miss, which boasts four potential first-round picks: Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil. With a strong season, Tony Conner could work his way into that mix as well. But conspicuously absent from the Rebs’ many draft prospects is a quarterback. With Bo Wallace gone, it’s a three-man race with neither Ryan Buchanan, Chad Kelly or DeVante Kincade separating themselves. Kelly has the highest ceiling of the three, but off-the-field issues have many in Oxford feeling antsy about Ole Miss’ chances in 2015.
Camp opens: Aug. 10
Big question: What’s John Chavis’ impact?
Like Auburn, Texas A&M delivered a home run by hiring longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. But like Muschamp, the job before Chavis is a hefty one. The Aggies have been putrid on defense the past two seasons, ranking 110th out in the FBS in yards per game. Myles Garrett is one of the best pass-rushers in college football, but it’s hard to imagine Chavis snapping his fingers and making that roster into a top-five defense. But setting those lofty goals aside, the real question is how much better A&M’s defense needs to be in order to compete in the West. A few more possessions per game would make a world of difference, and that might be something Chavis can deliver.
2hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill
5dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough