(This is the second in a four-part series on what SEC coaches had to say about other SEC programs. The coaches agreed to be quoted but not identified. Here is a look at the top three contenders in the SEC West.)
By Jimmy Hyams
Alabama hasn’t won a national championship since 2017.
But that’s no reason to panic – or write off Nick Saban.
Injuries and a buzzsaw named LSU derailed Alabama’s hopes last year.
Clemson got in the way the year before.
But if the Tide stays healthy and Mac Jones – or freshmen Bryce Young – plays well at quarterback, Saban could win a six national title at the Capstone.
“I think they will be right in the mix for the SEC and the national championship,’’ one SEC coach said. “At quarterback, Mac Jones is a very good football player.
“It’s a team sport and not to take anything away from Greg McElroy at all but he’s not playing in the NFL. He’s an announcer and Alabama won a national championship with him because they’ve got a lot of really, really good players, a lot.
“And they have a coach that knows how to win.’’
On defense, linebacker Dylan Moses was the key injury. But that unit appears to be healthy heading into this season.
“The defense could be better than last year,’’ said an SEC coach. “The coordinator (Pete Golding) will have been there a year longer to adjust to coach Saban’s way and they were hit with a lot of injuries – not a lot of teams could have done what they did with as many injuries. At the end of the year, they were playing with several guys that wouldn’t have been on the field, not that they were bad players, it just wasn’t their turn.’’
Unlike Alabama, Auburn had a healthy defense last year, but lost a ton of star power up front, including Derek Brown and Marlon Davidson.
“They lost a lot of starters on defense,’’ one SEC coach said, “but they have a lot of guys that played a lot. One corner spot is a concern. All the linebackers are back and that’s a solid group (led by K.J. Britt).’’
One SEC coach is high on quarterback Bo Nix, who led the Tigers to wins over Oregon and Alabama, but sputtered at times in other games.
“The quarterback is back and he can be whatever he wants to be,’’ said one SEC coach. “He’s got all the tools, and the physical and mental makeup.
“They’re young at running back but talented. They have a cast of receivers that includes a big-play possession guy that can make the body catches in Seth Williams, and Anthony Schwartz is the fastest guy in college football. They’ve got speed, size and diversity in the receivers.
“But they’ve got no offensive linemen returning. You’re talking about losing all five guys. That’s rare in this league. But they’ve got a good young running back in Tank Bigsby.’’
Auburn has a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, but he didn’t have spring practice to work with Nix. That won’t matter, one SEC coach said.
“It’s Gus Malzahn’s offense,’’ the coach said. “When Morris was at Clemson, his passing game was different than Gus’. Gus’ is all play action, hit big plays. Chad has more concepts. His third-down passing game is a little more like the NFL.’’
Rarely has a national championship team lost so much from one year to the next.
LSU had a record-tying 14 players drafted (including a Heisman Trophy winner), a talented tight end was a free agent signing, and a defensive coordinator and pass-game coordinator departed.
Then, three more Tigers opted out to prepare for the NFL draft.
So how will the Bayou Bengals deal with all those departures?
“They’ll be good, they’ve recruited well, they’ve got a good roster,’’ one SEC coach said. “Everybody wants to say, `but they lost (14 drafted players).’ It’s college football. They knew they were losing some good players, but they’ve got a good roster.’’
But can LSU come close to repeating?
“Comparing it to their magical year, you can’t compare it to a magical year,’’ one SEC coach said. “No they’re not going to be what they were last year, but they’ve got good enough players and coaches to be LSU.
“(Quarterback) Myles Brennan has got the talent, he just hasn’t played very much. And it takes time in this league. Look at Joe Burrow from one year to the next.
One coach said, “there is only one guy that you have to know where he is on the field, Ja’Marr Chase; he’s special.’’
But Chase has declared for the NFL draft.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda took the head coaching job at Baylor and Bo Pellini was hired to replace Aranda.
“Both are great defensive minds, but different personalities,’’ one SEC coach said. “One coaches like the Pope. Another coaches like he’s in a rock band.’’
Said another SEC coach: “I thought Aranda lost his stinger a little bit last year. LSU’s defense wasn’t as good as it had been in previous years.’’
Yet another coach said: “They’ve got players on defense, you just don’t know their names yet.’’
LSU lost pass game wiz Joe Brady but offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger returns.
“The return of Ensminger was important,’’ one coach said. “His fingerprints on that offense were grossly overshadowed.’’