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Friday, July 26, 2013
Evolving SEC West a challenge for Tide

By Alex Scarborough

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- SEC Media Days was a lot of talk and not a lot of action. That's the way it always is. But in the midst of all the hot air circulating through the Wnyfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., last week, there was a sense of momentum, a feel for the way each program was headed.

For Alabama, the direction is clear. It's championship or bust again for the Crimson Tide. For the rest of the SEC West, it's a matter of playing catch-up and knocking coach Nick Saban's squad off the top of the mountain.

With that in mind, TideNation set out to rank Alabama's divisional competition, including a look at what lies ahead for each program.

1. Texas A&M

C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen said they aren't looking forward to the bye week that comes before Alabama's trip to College Station, Texas, to face the Aggies, but the coaching staff should count their lucky stars for the extra time to prepare for Johnny Football and Co. With a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a franchise left tackle and a wide receiver who could go in the first round of next year's NFL draft, Texas A&M is easily the most dangerous offense Alabama will face. Combined with the location of the game and the early spot on the schedule, there's no question the Aggies are the Tide's biggest challenge.

Future outlook: "Volatile" is the word that comes to mind for a program whose stars seemed destined to leave. Jake Matthews will vacate the left tackle position after this season, Johnny Manziel has an eye on the NFL in 2014 and go-to wideout Mike Evans has the look of an early entry to the draft as well. On top of that, Sumlin could be wooed to the NFL after reportedly turning down offers this offseason.

2. LSU

Forget the loss of the entire defensive line, half the secondary and the captain of the linebackers. That won't matter when LSU takes the field in 2013. Why? Because Les Miles has recruited on the same level as Alabama, as one blue-chip prospect is replaced by another. LSU's offense should only improve under Cam Cameron, who with two Preseason All-SEC linemen, a veteran quarterback and a stable of talented running backs will have the balance needed to run his pro scheme in Baton Rouge.

Future outlook: Miles has always recruited well, but sooner or later the draw of Alabama and Texas A&M will take its toll. Saban has come into Louisiana and stolen some top-flight recruits in the past, and the 2014 class promises to be even more dramatic as the No. 1 overall prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman will decide between Alabama and LSU.

3. Ole Miss

"Momentum" is the word most commonly associated with the Ole Miss program. Hugh Freeze's uptempo offense, led by quarterback Bo Wallace and running back Jeff Scott, is lethal when it's firing on all cylinders, and meanwhile the defense is on the up and up. Though the Rebels outperformed expectations on the field and recruiting like gangbusters off of it, their still a ways away from competing with the elite programs. That said, Ole Miss came into Tuscaloosa last season and gave the Tide their toughest challenge of the year, outside of Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia.

Future outlook: What Freeze and his staff did wooing No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche to Oxford, Miss., was a stroke of genius. Following that up with the No. 1 offensive tackle and No. 1 wideout was something special. A few more years recruiting like that and we might be looking at a dramatic shift in the landscape of the SEC West.

4. Mississippi State

Where Ole Miss is trying to temper expectations, Mississippi State is trying to raise them. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen spoke at media days about his program needing to turn to corner from competitive to championship contender. That means not allowing disappointments like last season to occur again where they lost six of their final seven games. Running back LaDarius Perkins can keep a defense honest, but quarterback Tyler Russell will have to make plays against Alabama's secondary to have a chance come Nov. 16.

Future outlook: Ole Miss' resurgence spells trouble for the Bulldogs. While recruiting to Mississippi State has never been easy, having to contend with another program in your own backyard makes the task of competing for talent all the more difficult.

5. Auburn

Gus Malzahn wants Auburn to get its edge back, but that won't be easy considering the enormous step backward the program took in 2012. Finding a quarterback will be the first order of business for Malzahn, but settling the defense and reestablishing a running game will be key for the Tigers achieving the balance needed to compete against the likes of Alabama. Malzahn will need a few tricks up his sleeve and a few breaks to go Auburn's way to make the Iron Bowl honest again.

Future outlook: Getting Auburn back means getting competitive on the football field again and maintaining momentum on the recruiting trail. Hiring stud recruiter and Dameyune Craig helped the Tigers hold on to much of its 2013 class and finish No. 11 overall.

6. Arkansas

Bret Bielema and Saban can agree on at least one thing: They don't like no-huddle offenses. That was all the talk at media days, but beyond that Arkansas' first-year head coach spoke openly about his desire to play smash-mouth football. The problem, however, is that Saban has had four decades of coaching experience to figure out the I-formation. It's the uptempo, spread schemes that give him some trouble. Because when it comes down to the players going head-to-head, Alabama is going to win that battle of talent and strength nine times out of 10.

Future outlook: Arkansas has nowhere to go but up after the mess Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith left behind. Hiring Bielema brought the excitement back, but the real question isn't how well the Razorbacks are coached, rather it's how well they recruit. He must bring in quality NFL talent in at running back and in the trenches for his brand of smash-mouth football to have a chance.