Matt Zemek continues his list of 2017 season expectations for each SEC football team. Today he looks at the seven programs in the SEC West.
Hugh Freeze can coach. Can he survive the firestorm of controversy and waywardness which has engulfed the Rebels during his productive yet rocky tenure? That's an open question, but if expectations are the center of this piece (and they are), Ole Miss's most hopeful expectations should involve Freeze staying around for 2018, with enough political capital to somehow avoid termination. If Freeze can survive, and the recruiting does not fall off a cliff, the program -- after dusting itself off in this bowl-ineligible season -- can mend itself in 2018 and potentially make a run at greatness again in 2019.
It's hard to see how Ole Miss can speed up the timetable beyond those benchmarks. So it goes.
It's not a soaring, towering aspiration, but it is the most reasonable one to put forth in Starkville: Win the winnable games. To be more precise, the Bulldogs need to beat some other Bulldogs from Louisiana Tech -- in other words, win a non-conference game against a Group of Five opponent. Last year, MSU lost to South Alabama. The other game Mississippi State needs to win: Kentucky. Dan Mullen's team lost to the Wildcats last year. Turning a Group of Five game and the Kentucky game into wins will mean a 7-5 regular season after last season's 5-7 mark. Given the depth of the SEC West, that's as good as Mississippi State can reasonably expect.
TEXAS A&M and ARKANSAS
It's genuinely hard to see how either team will do better than an 8-4 regular season, so in a strict reality-based sense, 8-4 is the best expectation for either team. However, neither program hired its head coach to go 8-4 and head to a December 27 bowl game. Both locker rooms need to aim for a 9-3 season and a quality bowl win for a 10-3 January finish. Such a record would almost certainly require one high-end win. Such a level of performance could stave off the jackals, at least to the point that Kevin Sumlin or Bret Bielema would have a job to return to in 2018.
If offensive coordinator Matt Canada really thinks his quarterback and offense can thrive -- not as wish projection but as a genuine belief in the talent he has -- LSU should expect to beat Auburn at home (it will not win at Alabama) and go either 10-2 or 11-1. If that wins the SEC West and then the SEC, great... but if not, such a standard would still represent a highly encouraging first season of the Ed Orgeron era and its unique experiment of relying on two star coordinators to carry the X-and-O weight on the chalkboard.
If LSU coaches privately acknowledge that quarterback is still a weakness, nine wins and a Citrus Bowl are the best this team can expect. This is the toughest team to peg in the SEC West, maybe the whole conference.
Never mind the historical reality that Auburn has a way of stumbling around for three to five years, then going on a huge run. Because of Jarrett Stidham's presence at quarterback, Gus Malzahn has the signal caller he needs to put the pieces together. Auburn should legitimately expect to beat Bama at home, win the SEC, and make the College Football Playoff. This doesn't mean it will happen -- it should not be viewed as a prediction of the same -- but it is what Auburn should expect.
The Crimson Tide should not expect anything less than a national championship, for reasons which need no explanation. The only cautionary note: Jalen Hurts needs to show he is a polished passer for this team to truly put itself in position to go all the way. If Hurts struggles, Alabama would do well to merely make the playoff. If it lost in the semifinals, as it did in the 2014 season, it would be hard to complain about the Tide's performance. Only if Hurts looks like an elite quarterback should Alabama clearly be favored to roll to a national title.