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SEC West: 2016 preview and predictions

Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

With claims to six of the past nine national championships, and having produced four of the past seven Heisman Trophy recipients, the SEC West stands apart as the premier division in college football’s most decorated conference.

Here is a look at what to watch from the SEC West this season.

Alabama

Alabama has several key holes to fill heading into the season, including the starting quarterback and running back jobs. As the Crimson Tide have shown time and time again during Nick Saban’s reign of dominance, though, it doesn’t really matter.

The Alabama offense will have a dangerous rushing attack, despite the loss of 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and the receiver corps will be led by one of the nation’s most talented sophomores, Calvin Ridley. Although the Crimson Tide have yet to produce an answer under center, their consistent track record of succeeding with first-year quarterbacks generates little cause for concern.

One thing to watch will be how the defense performs without Kirby Smart pulling the strings. Smart has been the defensive coordinator for each of Saban’s four national titles in Tuscaloosa. Now that Smart’s at Georgia, the Crimson Tide will have a new face commanding the defense for the first time since 2007: Jeremy Pruitt, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator last season.

December 29th, 2014: Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema during the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Texas vs Arkansas at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

December 29th, 2014: Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema during the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Texas vs Arkansas at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. Robert Chambliss/Icon Sportswire

Arkansas

The No. 1 question facing the Arkansas football program is whether Austin Allen will be able to fill the shoes of his older brother Brandon, who passed for 7,463 yards and 64 touchdowns over the course of the past four seasons. The younger Allen brother has generated optimism with his growth this offseason, but with only 19 career passing attempts, a learning curve should be expected during his first season as a starting college quarterback.

Another story line to watch: how Arkansas responds to the departures of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who combined to rush for 5,793 yards and 52 touchdowns from 2013 to 2015. Sophomore Rawleigh Williams will attempt to carry the Razorbacks’ rushing attack after picking up SEC All-Freshman honors last season.

Auburn

Jovon Robinson was not supposed to be the savior of Auburn football, but he was certainly the most talented player on an offense searching for answers. With Robinson kicked off the team after multiple off-field incidents, the Tigers’ hopes for a turnaround from their 7-6 2015 campaign dimmed considerably.

There is hope, however, and it comes in the form of an uncertain quarterback battle.

Sean White, John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson are currently competing for the starting job. White and Johnson both struggled while sharing starting duties last season, while Franklin, a junior college transfer, has minimal FBS experience. Each has shown promise, and with Auburn not expected to contend in 2016, the upcoming season will serve as an important developmental stage for the team’s starting quarterback.

12 September 2015; LSU Tigers at Mississippi State Bulldogs; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) rushes the ball during an NCAA football game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi.

12 September 2015; LSU Tigers at Mississippi State Bulldogs; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) rushes the ball during an NCAA football game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi. John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

LSU

The LSU Tigers boast one of the most experienced rosters in college football, and with 17 returning starters, they enter the season as a popular national title pick.

With Heisman contender Leonard Fournette and the seasoned wide receiver duo of Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, LSU has the potential to produce an explosive offense. Ultimately, though, the Tigers will only go as far as the highly-talented but inconsistent Brandon Harris takes them.

The recent loss of Christian LaCouture will hurt the defensive front. The defensive tackle is expected to miss his senior season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.  The Tigers have the talent to survive LaCouture’s absence, but the interior defensive line could struggle early on — especially against Corey Clement and the Wisconsin rushing attack in the season opener at Lambeau Field.

As usual, the biggest obstacle standing between LSU and a trip to the conference title game appears to be an early-November showdown with Alabama. The Tigers are seeking their first win over the Crimson Tide since 2011.

Mississippi State

All eyes in Starkville this fall will be on the Mississippi State starting quarterback competition. With record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott — arguably the greatest player in program history — no longer on campus, Damian Williams, Nick Fitzgerald and Nick Tiano are in a heated battle for the job. With week one quickly approaching, nobody has emerged as the clear-cut leader.

Mississippi State does benefit from a manageable early-season slate of games, which could ease the team through its quarterback uncertainties. Aside from a Sept. 17 showdown on the road at LSU, the Bulldogs do not face at team ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 until mid-November.

Ole Miss

The Ole Miss Rebels return the SEC’s leading passer from 2015 in senior Chad Kelly, but they also lose their biggest playmaker.

Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings, led the Rebels in receptions in each of his three years on campus. After having his sophomore campaign cut short by a horrific leg injury, he responded by hauling in 82 catches for 1,153 and 11 touchdowns, in addition to earning first-team All-SEC honors last season.

The Ole Miss passing attack is still a serious threat, even without Treadwell’s presence, but somebody will need to step up. Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow are the most likely candidates to carry the torch.

One factor that could result in success for the Rebels this season is a talented defense, led by a deep defensive line. An upset over Florida State in the season opener would immediately thrust Ole Miss into the College Football Playoff conversation.

Texas A&M

Following an electric start to its SEC tenure in 2012, Texas A&M appeared to be on the rise as one the most promising college football programs in the country. Now, faced with a variety of negative headlines — ranging from losing a pair of former five-star quarterbacks to transfers, to assistant coaches engaging in Twitter spats with recruits, to sexist behavior from other assistants at a football clinic for women — the Aggies are on the verge of becoming the sport’s biggest dumpster fire.

Fortunately, the upcoming season will shift attention back to the football field.

The Aggies feature what might be the top wide receiver corps in the conference, as well as a defense that took major strides in its first year under coordinator John Chavis. If graduate transfer Trevor Knight can thrive as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback, SEC title contention is not out of the question for the Aggies.

Who will win the West?

LSU and Alabama are easily the favorites to represent the SEC West in Atlanta for the conference title game, combining to account for 322 of 331 first-place votes in the SEC Media Days preseason poll. Ole Miss and Texas A&M should not be slept on, and Arkansas could emerge as an upset threat if it finds consistent production under center. Ultimately, the division title will come down to the Nov. 5 meeting between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.

SEC West Champion: LSU

Projected Final Standings

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Texas A&M
4. Ole Miss
5. Arkansas
6. Mississippi State
7. Auburn

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