(This is the fourth in a four-part series on what SEC coaches say about other SEC programs. We focus on the `other’ teams in the West)
By Jimmy Hyams
LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M are the primary challengers to Alabama in the SEC West.
But what about the other West teams? What is expected of them?
Answer: Not much.
Mississippi State had the SEC’s top-ranked defense last year under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop, yet won just eight games.
“Mississippi State missed the boat last year,’’ said one SEC coach. “They had a really good team and one of best defenses in the league. Good for Bob Shoop. He redeemed himself after the crap he put on the field at Tennessee. But they’ve lost a lot on defense.’’
That defense lost two high NFL draft picks: defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and end Montez Sweat. Don’t expect the No. 1 defense in the SEC again.
“Offensively, for Joe Moorhead to be an offensive coach, they didn’t get much offensive production,’’ said one SEC coach. “They didn’t get very creative. They didn’t show much. And they had a special college player in quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
“Joe hadn’t played against SEC defenses; it’s a lot different than Big Ten defenses with speed and athletic ability. Just look at the NFL draft.
“I’ve heard a couple of people say (quarterback) Kayteon Thompson is better than Fitzgerald. But some of those same people thought Fitzgerald was better than Dak Prescott and that wasn’t the case.’’
And, Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens could be named the starter over Thompson.
The Tigers seem to overachieve or underachieve.
But most people agree Auburn has the talent to be dangerous if the quarterback play is competent. Auburn just named true freshman Bo Nix as the starter.
One SEC coach doesn’t think Auburn is headed in the right direction.
“I think Auburn will fire Gus Malzahn before November,’’ the coach said. “I think the Auburn people are fed up. They’ve never been a consistent big-time program but they haven’t played well the last three of four years (Auburn won the West in 2017). If not for (defensive coordinator) Kevin Steele they’d be sub .500. Kevin Steele has held that program together. They play good defense.
“All Gus does is blame the guy calling plays. Hell, then call the plays yourself. … Why has their offense been inconsistent? Coaching.’’
Another coach sees potential on The Plains.
“Auburn has a chance because they’ve got good returners on defense, particularly the defensive line and secondary,’’ the coach said. “This could be their best defense in years.
“The offensive line is much better than it was at this time last year. The running backs and wide receivers are pretty much the same. JaTarvious Whitlow could gain 1,000 yards if he stays healthy. The $64 million question is, most teams that win at a high level don’t do it with a non-returning quarterback. To do it, you have to have outstanding maturity and talent surrounding him.’’
Second-year coach Chad Morris has his work cut out for him. The Hogs were winless in the SEC and 2-10 overall.
“Arkansas is a hard place to recruit to,’’ one SEC coach told me. “It’s arguably the hardest job in the SEC because it’s out there in left field. They don’t have the same recruiting base as most other SEC schools. They’re on par with Vanderbilt in terms of recruiting disadvantages.
“Their recruiting base for years and years and years was Texas, but they only play in the state of Texas one time a year if they go to Texas A&M. People will leave the state of Texas and go play, but only if you’re winning.’’
Morris hopes to win with one or two transfer quarterbacks: Ben Hicks, who passed for over 9,000 career yards at SMU, and former A&M starter Nate Starkell.
“Chad Morris did a good job at Clemson (as offensive coordinator) and he’s reunited with his quarterback at SMU (Hicks). Their offense should be better this year but they don’t have enough talent on defense to stop anybody. They’re getting more energy and creating a positive environment. But they are way behind on players and it’s hard to catch up.’’
Ole Miss lost a productive quarterback and three talented receivers. It will be difficult to make last season’s scoring output.
“Matt Luke has done a great job in terms of managing a difficult situation because he’s a positive, upbeat guy, and probably because he’s Ole Miss family,’’ one SEC coach said.
“He doesn’t get worn out with the frustration of what he’s up against because he’s completely committed to it all the way. Somebody who is not Ole Miss through and through might have thrown their hands up and said, `This is a tough hand we’ve been dealt here.’’’
The Rebels not only lost several talented offensive players, but they don’t have much on defense, either.
“Ole Miss doesn’t have the talent,’’ one SEC coach said. “The probation has served its purpose. They’ve got scholarship reductions but there’s another side to that coin. The players you’re getting know you’re going on probation so you’re not getting quality. It’s not just the reduction of scholarships, but the reduction of quality signees. Plus, you’ve had transfers.
“They’ve been pretty good on offense and had some great receivers. But the offense is not even close to last year. ‘’