The battle for the SEC West crown kicks off on Saturday, with six of seven teams beginning conference play. (Arkansas, the only straggler, begins next week.)
No. 1 Alabama at No. 19 Ole Miss (3:30 pm ET, CBS)
Mississippi State at No. 20 LSU (7:00 pm ET, ESPN2)
No. 17 Texas A&M at Auburn (7:00 pm ET, ESPN)
The SEC as a whole has had a disappointing beginning to 2016.
Georgia tried to lose to Nicholls State, Tennessee tried to lose to Appalachian State, Florida was mostly listless against UMass, Arkansas eked by Louisiana Tech, and both Kentucky (to Southern Miss) and Mississippi State (to South Alabama) blew leads and got upset.
Missouri could only muster 11 points against WVU, Ole Miss couldn’t hold on against Florida State, LSU’s offense looked lifeless in a Lambeau loss, and Auburn sent out nearly every QB on the roster (plus a non-QB) and still barely cracked the teens against Clemson.
Still, this disappointment is mostly because of a) the league’s rather high standard and b) the East division. The West still boasts five teams in the AP Top 25 and all seven in the (admittedly still projections-heavy) S&P+ top 25. Its teams have already beaten USC, UCLA, and TCU. If this is disappointing, life is pretty good.
From a projections standpoint, not a ton has changed since the beginning of the season, primarily because per-play and per-drive data isn’t very reliable after two weeks. There are no true opponent adjustments to be made, so preseason projections still account for 75 percent of S&P+.
Still, it’s useful to walk through the SEC West schedule and projections, just so we know when key checkpoints come up for each team.
Win probability (SEC games only) by week
Conference record probability
It probably goes without saying that Alabama enters as the West favorite, but a loss to Ole Miss on Saturday would muddy the waters quite a bit, especially if LSU is able to establish an offensive rhythm at some point.
- S&P+ ranking: 1
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): at LSU (Week 10), at Ole Miss (Week 3), at Tennessee (Week 7).
- How they overachieve: Technically, you can’t do better than remaining No. 1.
- How they underachieve: It begins with a shaky offensive showing against Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide produced almost no big plays against WKU and fell into a lengthy first-half funk. The defense was as dominant as ever, but in theory, you’ll have to score some points. Saturday will be by far the biggest test the young Bama backfield (quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett, running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and B.J. Emmons) has faced.
- S&P+ ranking: 23
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): Alabama (Week 6), LSU (Week 11), Ole Miss (Week 7)
- How they overachieve: The Hogs’ three biggest games are all at home, and if Saturday’s win over TCU is any indication, they might be figuring out how to survive some of their previous September struggles. If they beat Texas A&M next Saturday in the Metroplex, they will have generated serious buzz heading into the portion of the season in which they typically improve.
- How they underachieve: The run game has been terribly inefficient so far (rushing success rate: 40 percent, 87th in FBS), and the run defense has been even less efficient (49 percent, 111th). That puts a lot of pressure on quarterback Austin Allen. The TCU win was big, but the Hogs still have a lot of improving to do.
- S&P+ ranking: 24
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): at Alabama (Week 13), at Ole Miss (Week 9), LSU (Week 4)
- How they overachieve: The Tigers have allowed only 33 points so far in 2016. Granted, the peripheral stats aren’t pleasant — 41st in Def. S&P+, 55th in defensive success rate, nine passes of 20-plus yards allowed (108th) -- but if the defense is able to keep teams out of the end zone, the offense could still be potent enough.
- How they underachieve: The peripherals aren’t great for the defense, and the offense proved against Clemson that it might not be ready to move the ball against sturdy defenses. (Arkansas State’s defense: not incredibly sturdy.) The No. 24 ranking still feels a little bit ambitious.
- S&P+ ranking: 2
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): Alabama (Week 10), at Florida (Week 6), Ole Miss (Week 8)
- How they overachieve: LSU gets Alabama and Ole Miss at home later in the year, and if the offense finds even a mediocre cruising altitude — Leonard Fournette gets completely healthy and rolling, and the QB, be it Danny Etling or Brandon Harris, is able to simply hit open guys in play action — then the defense could be strong enough to win ugly games. It’s not too late for LSU.
- How they underachieve: We’ve seen it thus far. The QB position is awful instead of forgettable, the offensive line isn’t good enough, and the defense keeps giving up a few too many big plays (27 gains of 10-plus yards so far, 71st in FBS)
- S&P+ ranking: 20
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): at Alabama (Week 11), at LSU (Week 3), at Ole Miss (Week 13)
- How they overachieve: MSU is boosted by preseason projections; a team that loses to South Alabama is probably not the 20th-best in the country. Still, Nick Fitzgerald was incredible against South Carolina (17 carries for 195 yards, plus a decent 19-for-29 passing for 178), and since he barely played against USA — he started but was subbed out early as Dan Mullen fell victim to the QB overthinking that has defeated many coaches this year — you could say the SC game is more indicative of this team moving forward.
- How they underachieve: 15 to 20 carries per game is a lot for a QB to take on without injury, and without 15 to 20 carries per game from the QB, MSU’s offense doesn’t have much to offer. And while defense hasn’t been problematic, it hasn’t been great either. A top-20 rating is probably too ambitious, even if Fitzgerald is intriguing.
- S&P+ ranking: 8
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): Alabama (Week 3), at LSU (Week 8), at Texas A&M (Week 11)
- How they overachieve: We saw it in the first half against Florida State, and it was spectacular. Quarterback Chad Kelly dominates with his arm, and a nasty defense overpowers offenses before they can apply counter-maneuvers.
- How they underachieve: We saw it in the second half against Florida State. The Rebels abandon the run, the green offensive line isn’t quite good enough to protect Kelly (you think that might be an issue against Bama?), and the defense’s over-pursuit results in too many big plays. Also: Intriguing freshman receiver D.K. Metcalf, running back Eric Swinney, and corner Ken Webster are already out for the season. Running back Jordan Wilkins is ineligible. Depth is vanishing.
- S&P+ ranking: 22
- Three most likely losses (per S&P+): at Alabama (Week 8), LSU (Week 13), Ole Miss (Week 11)
- How they overachieve: The experienced Aggies are creating running lanes and preventing opponents from doing the same, and the passing game might be coming around. The Aggies are 2-0, and the pass rush hasn’t even gotten going yet. The schedule is tricky, with upcoming trips to Arlington (to face Arkansas) and Tuscaloosa, but if A&M beats the Hogs and keeps its morale intact post-Bama, the Aggies could be positioned to make a strong run.
- How they underachieve: The run game isn’t producing big plays, there’s nothing saying the passing game will come around, and if the pass rush isn’t dominant, the run defense still has time to get exposed. A&M is a major "if" team right now — we’ve caught glimpses of something awesome — but hasn’t earned trust just yet.