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Early 2014 SEC West power rankings: Iron Bowl battle for country's toughest division

At the top, three teams hope to make it out of the scrum with conference and national title hopes alive, and there's no shame in finishing sixth in a division this loaded. Your way-too-early SEC West projections by Chris Fuhrmeister. Also, Connor Tapp has South Carolina and Georgia leading the SEC East.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

1. Auburn Tigers

2013 finish: 12-2, SEC champion, No. 2 in AP and Coaches

Returning starters: 14

The Tigers lose running back Tre Mason, left tackle Greg Robinson and H-back Jay Prosch. The schedule is more difficult, with road trips to Kansas State, Georgia, and Alabama, a home game against South Carolina. And repeating a 6-1 record in one-score games would be quite a feat. But Auburn is fully capable of repeating as division champs.

Replacing Robinson will likely be either Patrick Miller or Shon Coleman, both of whom are former four-star prospects. There probably isn't anyone who can repeat the individual production of Mason -- he did set Auburn records for rushing yards and touchdowns in a season, after all -- but with 600-yard rushers Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant returning, plus the addition of redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and true freshman Roc Thomas, a dynamic five-star prospect, the running back position shouldn't be an issue. Quarterback Nick Marshall will once again be a major threat on the ground, and his arm can only improve.

Auburn was a run-first -- and run-second, run-third -- team in 2013, and while Gus Malzahn still wants to move the ball on the ground, the passing game could be a much bigger part of the offense. In addition to Marshall getting better as a passer, leading receivers Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis will be back. Plus, the Tigers are adding the nation's top JUCO prospect, five-star D'haquille Williams. Williams, who stands 6'3 and weighs in at 213 pounds, is like former Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, only better, according to 247Sports' JC Shurburtt.

The defensive line loses standout end Dee Ford and reliable tackle Nosa Egua, but former five-stars Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel should all be ready to make a big impact in their sophomore campaigns. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost should be able to at least tread water, and possibly improve, at linebacker. The secondary is a major question mark, as Auburn loses cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith. The Tigers will have to hope incoming four-star JUCO safety Derrick Moncrief and rising junior Josh Holsey, who missed much of 2013 with a torn ACL, will be able pick up the slack.

Auburn wants to win with offense, and the offense might be better next season. Because of some question marks regarding the other West contenders, the Tigers should open as favorites.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

2013 finish: 11-2, second in SEC West, No. 7 in AP, No. 8 in Coaches

Returning starters: 12

It's awfully foolish to doubt a Nick Saban-coached team, especially when it's motivated by disappointment from the previous year. The Tide face West Virginia in Atlanta to open the season, which should have them ready to play at a high level from Week 1. No easing into 2014 against a cupcake.

Alabama has won a few football games in its history, and no Crimson Tide quarterback has compiled more victories than AJ McCarron. Over the last three seasons, McCarron has averaged 2,877 yards and compiled 74 touchdowns and just 15 touchdowns. He won't be easy to replace (though that could be a little easier with Jameis Winston's FSU backup, Jacob Cokerlooking likely to compete for the job), even if the Tide are a little more creative under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

But, that running game will be strong. T.J. Yeldon returns, and rising sophomore Derrick Henry, who rushed for 100 yards on eight carries against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, figures to be a candidate to break out. At receiver, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, and Christion Jones will be back, as will tight end O.J. Howard. Those options will obviously help whomever ends up under center.

The problems for Alabama are a couple of holes on the offensive line and key departures at every level of the defense. Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are gone from the O-line. The defensive line loses Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan. Linebackers Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley and safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix won't be back, either. There's no doubt the Tide have plenty of talent waiting to fill those roles -- they're about to have the nation's top recruiting class for the fourth year in a row -- but how quickly the new players can begin playing Saban-standard football will determine whether or not 'Bama will be competing for another title.

The road trip to LSU and home date against Auburn will decide the season.

3. LSU Tigers

2013 finish: 10-3, third in SEC West, No. 14 in AP and Coaches

Returning starters: 12

Not many would rank the Bayou Bengals ahead of the other Tigers or Crimson Tide, but honestly, it's tempting to slot them as the division favorites. The losses on both sides of the ball are significant, but all that returning talent could prove LSU doubters wrong. Not to mention the incoming talent, as the Tigers' recruiting class could finish second nationally to Bama.

On the offensive line, the Tigers lose just guard Trai Turner. And even though Jeremy Hill is gone, the stable of running backs is strong with incoming freshman Leonard Fournette, the top player in the class of 2014, and Terrance Magee and Kenny Hilliard returning. Likely first-year starting quarterback Anthony Jennings loses Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at receiver, but Travin Duval has similar size and was a four-star prospect out of high school. He caught the game-winning touchdown in the regular-season finale against Arkansas.

The interior defensive line is facing a major overhaul, as Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are leaving early, and linebacker Lamin Barrow and safety Craig Loston graduate. But, the rest of the defense remains intact. The linebacker unit could be better in 2014, and so could the secondary (which will likely bring in three of the country's top 15 safety recruits, including early-enrollee Edward Paris).

If the Tigers can get through early road dates at Auburn and what should be a much-improved Florida, they have to feel good about their chances at getting to Atlanta. LSU hosts Alabama this year.

4. Ole Miss Rebels

2013 finish: 8-5, sixth in SEC West, unranked

Returning starters: 14

Remember all that talent the Rebels brought in for the 2013 recruiting class? Those guys aren't freshman anymore, and should be able to contribute toward the continued improvement of the program in Oxford. The Rebels have six more four-star players committed for the current recruiting cycle, which will add more talent to the depth chart.

Ole Miss allowed 370 yards and 24 points per game in 2013, ranking seventh in the SEC in both categories. With nine starters returning on defense, including Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche and first-team All-SEC safety Cody Prewitt, that unit should be much better next season. Three of the Rebs' SEC West rivals -- Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M -- will be breaking in new quarterbacks, and Ole Miss will try to take advantage with a stout, seasoned D.

On offense, running back Jeff Scott graduates and wide receiver Donte Moncrief is leaving early, but quarterback Bo Wallace and receiver Laquon Treadwell are back. How well the offensive line, with three starters, can hold up and how good the running game can be without Scott will dictate offensive success for Hugh Freeze's team, but Wallace and Treadwell are proven commodities at key skill positions.

The Rebels have to travel to LSU and A&M, but they get Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State at home.

5. Mississippi State Bulldogs

2013 finish: 7-6, fifth in SEC West, unranked

Returning starters: 18

Well, look at which team has the most returning starters in the division. Head coach Dan Mullen pulled a big upset over the rival Rebels to end the 2013 regular season, gaining bowl eligibility in the process. That win likely saved his job, and after a lopsided bowl victory over Rice, the Bulldogs have momentum.

The departure of running back LaDarius Perkins won't be easy to fill, but Dak Prescott took control of the starting quarterback position in 2013, and he's a serious threat on the ground, gaining 839 yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games. The Bulldogs lose two offensive linemen, including star guard Gabe Jackson, but every contributing receiver will return.

State's defense should be the team strength, and it could be one of the best in the SEC. Only defensive end Denico Autry departs, with former five-star defensive end Chris Jones and loads of youth all over the two-deep. The Bullies ranked fifth in the conference in scoring D this season (23.0 points per game) and fourth in total D (343.9 yards per contest).

Taking down the West's top three won't be easy, but Mississippi State should be able to hold its own against Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs' cross-divisional games are at Kentucky and home against Vanderbilt, which is about as friendly as it gets.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

2013 finish: 9-4, fourth in SEC West, No. 18 in AP and Coaches

Returning starters: 14

Fortune favors the bold, and the Aggies seem like the right team to go out on a limb over. This would be a steep fall, but keep in mind that last year, the SEC West's fifth- and sixth-place teams ranked No. 33 and No. 28 respectively in Football Outsiders' national F/+. No matter what, a good team ends up near the cellar.

A&M has been a recruiting machine under Kevin Sumlin, and should bring in a top-five class this year. The Ags need some of those blue-chips to step up immediately.

In 2013, they had quarterback Johnny Manziel, one of the best college football players of all time, and wide receiver Mike Evans, one of the best targets in the country. The offensive line was solid, as was Ben Malena at running back. With all that on offense, Texas A&M still lost four games. The Ags lose Manziel, Evans, and Malena, plus wide receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker. Left tackle Jake Matthews also departs, which could mean three top-10 NFL Draft picks gone.

It's now on either senior Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill, or the country's No. 1 freshman quarterback, Kyle Allen, to replace Manziel and on a handful of former five-stars like Ricky Seals-Jones to ease the loss of Evans. If a significant portion of that unproven talent doesn't step up, the offense will take a big step back.

The defense was the SEC's worst, giving up 475.8 yards and 32.2 points per game, and its F/+ rating was No. 86 in the country. The Aggies bring back nine starters, but lose team leader Toney Hurd Jr. They'll have to be much better to take some pressure off the offense.

A look at the schedule shows contests at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn, and home dates against Ole Miss, Missouri and LSU. Ouch.

7. Arkansas Razorbacks

2013 finish: 3-9, seventh in SEC West, unranked

Returning starters: 18

Say what you will about head coach Bret Bielema, but the man is certainly up for a challenge. Leaving an established program at Wisconsin for the brutal SEC West is no picnic.

The offense returns nine starters and should be more accustomed to Bielema's Normal American Football in year two. Although the Razorbacks lose two offensive linemen and a fullback, including the team's best player, center Travis Swanson. They ranked 11th and 12th among SEC teams in total and scoring offense respectively, averaging 357.2 yards and 20.7 points per game during Bielema's maiden voyage at the helm in Fayetteville.

The defense also returns nine starters and should improve, but like the offense, it was pretty bad in 2013. The Hogs allowed 30.8 points and 413.4 yards per contest, good for 12th and ninth, respectively, in the conference.

Arkansas will probably be better overall in 2014, but in a tough division -- maybe the toughest in college football -- the final record might not look so good. Immediate help might not be on the way just yet, as Arkansas' recruiting class currently ranks No. 11 in the SEC on the 247Sports Composite, but Bielema showed last cycle that he's a strong closer.

The good news is that seven or eight of the Hogs' most valuable contributors last year -- including running back Alex Collins, defensive lineman Darius Philon, and tight end Hunter Henry -- were all freshmen. Quarterback Brandon Allen returns, with continuity at the position giving Arkansas at least one advantage over half of the rest of its division.

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