SEC West: The Conference within a Conference
Auburn and Alabama will fight again for the top spot in the SEC West in 2014, and that usually leads to a shot at the national championship.
The Tigers ran out of magic last year, coming within 13 seconds of hanging on for the BCS title before losing to Florida State.
And while many 'Bama partisans claim the Iron Bowl's final play was a fluke, it's better described as the Tigers taking advantage of a rare Tide coaching lapse. Field goal units rarely need to be concerned about covering lanes, but that's an issue with long attempts. How a Nick Saban-coached special team could not have gunners on the field to prevent a wide-lane runback was, as the nation saw, an egregious error.
Auburn arose from 3-9 to 12-2 in one year, and coach Gus Malzahn intends to keep them among the elite. Nick Marshall, off-season problems aside, returns at quarterback for the Tigers, and all signs point to a rematch with the Crimson Tide on 29 November in Tuscaloosa for all the marbles.
Alabama is still stewing from that last second 34-28 defeat at Auburn and must find a replacement for quarterback AJ McCarron. (This, of course, begs the question of whether the newly-appointed SEC Network lecher Brent Musberger needs to find a replacement for Katherine Webb, but he's no doubt up to the task.)
The Tide followed that shocker by getting pounded in the Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma and are now hoping that Jacob Coker can be the dude to re-kindle the offense. TJ Yeldon returns at running back, a depth position for Alabama, as usual; Derrick Henry will get a fair share reps, with others awaiting their turn. Alabama has to face LSU on the road, but the schedule looks favorable for the Tide to have a chance to play in the SEC championship game.
Mississippi, Mississippi State, and LSU are teams that can pull an upset at anytime. Hugh Freeze has Mississippi on the upswing, and the Rebels will look to improve their 8-5 season. The loss that stings is the 17-10 overtime defeat to rival Mississippi state in last season's Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs took momentum from that victory and defeated Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl to finish 7-6. Both of these Magnolia State institutes of higher learning return their quarterbacks, Bo Wallace for the Rebels and Dak Prescott for the Bulldogs.
LSU will be in the mix every year as long as Les Miles is coaching, but their roster is thin on experience in 2014. The first game this season against Wisconsin will be a huge test for the young Tigers.
Texas A&M will have to replace Johnny Manziel, and the Aggies must travel to South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn while playing LSU on Thanksgiving.
Arkansas was winless in the league last season and may not get any better this year, as Bret Bielema has yet to adjust to the SEC.
If there's a division that's figured out the playoff system -- BCS or CFB -- it's the SEC West. Nestled within the SEC's reputation and judiciously placing byes within a schedule featuring non-cons that are glorified scrimmages, its schools have perfected the art of offering dramatic clashes at opportune times that easily overcome strength-of-schedule and eight-conference-game schedule arguments in the perception of those who decide playoff qualifiers.
This year will be more of the same. At least one of these teams will make the CFB's final four. They know the game, in every aspect of the term. And they're good at each one of them.