Alabama (as usual) team to beat, but potential runs deep in SEC West

by Ricardo Gutierrez - There's the Tide, of course, but Texas A&M is loaded, while Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn and LSU all remain intriguing.

SEC West football preview: Alabama again team to beat, but potential runs deep in division 7:00 AM ET Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer Close Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com. It took nearly 15 years, but former pupils finally got one over on the master. Alabama 's Nick Saban had never lost to a former assistant until Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M squad did the deed with an early October upset; three months later, Saban lost to longtime protege Kirby Smart and Georgia in the national title game. Then Fisher outdid Saban in recruiting as well, which eventually led to the offseason's huffiest storyline . Is this the long-awaited moment of Saban vulnerability? Probably not. Alabama heads into 2022 with questions, but they're mostly of the Alabama-style "Which of these eight blue-chip sophomores will step up?" variety. The Tide have maybe the two best players in the country -- quarterback Bryce Young (who won the Heisman) and outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr . (who would have if I ran the world) -- and there's a very good chance they start out the season No. 1 in the preseason polls. They start out as the favorite in the SEC West, too, though every team in this division has top-20 potential, and every intradivision game will have subplots galore. This should be both the best and most dramatic (exhaustingly so) division in college football in 2022. Let's preview it! Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team. 2021 recap By Bama's standards, 2021 was underwhelming. The Tide finished the season third in SP+ -- only the second time in 13 seasons that they weren't either first or second -- and of their seven regular-season conference wins, four came by just one score. That's the most of any Saban-era team, and this wasn't the strongest SEC it had ever taken on, either. That the Tide made the national title game in a rebuilding season -- following a blemish-free run to the 2020 title -- was something only they tend to do. But their vulnerability opened the door for an upstart, and no one could take advantage. Texas A&M got quality quarterback play only against Alabama and went 8-4. LSU 's and Auburn 's offenses were even worse, and both sets of Tigers finished 6-7. LSU fired Ed Orgeron two years after his national title run, and after paying Gus Malzahn an obnoxious buyout to leave town a year earlier, Auburn spent part of the winter weighing whether to do the same to first-year coach Bryan Harsin. There were more stable stories elsewhere. Sam Pittman's Arkansas Razorbacks went a rousing 9-4, their best season in a decade, while Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss topped that, winning 10 games and finishing with the school's second-highest AP poll finish (11th) in the past half century. And in Mike Leach's second season at Mississippi State , the Bulldogs got back on the right side of .500 for the first time in three years. 2022 projections TEAM SP+ RK OFF. DEF. AVG. W CONF. W BOWL ODDS Alabama 2 2 3 10.2 6.4 100% Texas A&M 8 36 6 8.0 4.6 98% Ole Miss 17 22 26 7.9 4.3 95% Arkansas 26 29 38 6.4 3.8 72% Mississippi St. 15 28 17 7.3 3.7 91% Auburn 22 40 11 6.7 3.6 76% LSU 36 47 27 5.9 2.8 45% Alabama obviously starts out on top, and with the way recruiting has gone of late, Texas A&M is a pretty clear No. 2 even if the quarterback situation isn't entirely clear. But No. 3 through 7 is an absolute crapshoot. If a big group of transfers thrive for Ole Miss and/or LSU, either could be a top-15 team. Auburn's defense alone could drive a strong performance (if the offseason drama doesn't get in the way), and Mississippi State's experience levels -- the Bulldogs are currently 12th overall and first in the SEC in my returning production rankings -- could trigger a strong season if a loaded schedule doesn't get in the way. Arkansas is a bit of a mystery; the Hogs have the second-best QB in the division (KJ Jefferson ), and the vibes emanating from Fayetteville couldn't be more positive, but they have to replace an elite receiver (Treylon Burks ) and eight of the 13 defenders with 300-plus snaps last season. Burning questions How does the master get one back on the pupils? Alabama was mostly Alabama-like in 2021, averaging at least 6.2 yards per play in 10 games and allowing fewer than 5.0 per play in nine. The Tide boasted the best pass rush in the country as well. But they were less consistent than most Bama teams, and a glimpse at the two-deep from the national title game hints at why: More than half the players listed were either freshmen or sophomores. Nick Saban and the Tide had something of a down year in 2021, at least by their lofty standards. AP Photo/Paul Sancya Young had some youthful mistakes among his brilliant plays, and when injuries struck down star receivers John Metchie III and Jameson Williams late in the year, there were no veterans to step in. Plus, the secondary was merely good, not great. Bama gave up 41 points to Texas A&M and 35 to Arkansas, and scored only 20 on LSU and 10 in regulation against Auburn. You never totally knew what you were getting. This shouldn't be as much of an issue in 2022. Young is battle-tested, and his line should have at least three senior starters, including All-American candidate Emil Ekiyor Jr . The defensive line will be anchored by the dominant Byron Young , Will Anderson Jr. and the steady Henry To'o To'o returning at linebacker, and senior safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams roaming in the backfield. That's as good of a starting point as you're going to find. Put just Anderson on any defense in FBS, and you'll have a top-five pass rush. (A quick aside: I just can't say enough about how utterly ridiculous Anderson's 2021 numbers were. He had 34.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks! He was second in the country in run stops! He dropped into coverage 58 times and allowed a total of 16 passing yards when QBs threw at his guy! He is a Derrick Thomas for the 2020s.) The question marks are pretty significant, though. The top two cornerbacks are gone from the good-not-great secondary, and Bama will likely be leaning heavily on a sophomore (Kool-Aid McKinstry ) and a newcomer (LSU transfer Eli Ricks ). Both could be brilliant, but it's hard for a cornerback corps to simultaneously get less experienced and more consistent. An even bigger question: Who catches passes? Of the six guys targeted more than 30 times last season, only tight end Cameron Latu returns. A year after landing maybe the single best transfer of the season (wide receiver Jameson Williams), Saban leaned heavily on the portal again to bring in a trio of home run hitters: running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech) and receivers Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville). Their explosiveness is unquestionable, but Bama will still need contributions from some unproven former star recruits, such as sophomore Ja'Corey Brooks , who mostly blended into the scenery last season. Does Texas A&M have its quarterback? And can Jimbo Fisher get the most out of him? In the seven seasons since Jameis Winston left Florida State (three at FSU, four at A&M), Fisher's quarterbacks have averaged a Total QBR ranking of just 45th. The Fisher offense is based on physicality, safe passing and minimal bells and whistles, and with the way he recruits, it can produce at a high level. Three of his past seven offenses finished in the offensive SP+ top 10, after all. But in the 14 losses A&M has suffered in Fisher's four-year tenure, an Aggies quarterback has played well in two of them, at most: Kellen Mond in a near-upset of Clemson in 2018 and maybe Zach Calzada against LSU in last year's 27-24 loss. Those were the only two times in those 14 games when A&M produced a passer rating of even 140. The other 12 produced a combined 54% completion rate, 10.7 yards per completion, more interceptions than touchdowns and a ghastly 106.6 passer rating. I say all that to say this: If A&M isn't a top-five(ish) team in 2022, the passing game probably will be why. The run game was excellent last year despite a green line, and now it's more seasoned. Leading rusher Isaiah Spiller is gone, but that will just mean more chances for junior Devon Achane , who averaged 8.0 yards per touch in 12 touches per game. Of the six defensive linemen and linebackers who saw 400-plus snaps, five are gone, but it's difficult to worry much considering there are, by my count, 16 former blue-chippers vying for a spot in the lineup. A&M's top-ranked recruiting class was heavy on D-linemen, including four of the class' five five-star signees, and returnees McKinnley Jackson and Shemar Turner have breakthrough potential. So does linebacker Edgerrin Cooper , for that matter, and the secondary could be unreal. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was a curious choice, considering both the toxic culture issues that arose when he was Maryland's head coach and the mediocre numbers he produced in two years as Ole Miss' co-coordinator, but this defense could pretty much pilot itself. That leaves the passing game. Seeing the writing on the wall after a so-so season, Calzada transferred to Auburn, leaving Max Johnson (LSU transfer), Haynes King (the original 2021 starter before injury) and Conner Weigman (No. 1 pocket passer in the 2022 class) to vie for the job. Johnson was just 58th in Total QBR in 2021 (Calzada was 72nd), but he has an experience edge. The receiving corps still has high-efficiency slot Ainias Smith but will need at least a couple of high-profile youngsters, perhaps sophomore Moose Muhammad III or five-star freshman Evan Stewart , to come through quickly. The quarterback needs to come through even more. Can Bryan Harsin save his job? You know your first year on the job hasn't been great when the best thing that happens is an announcement that you aren't getting fired . After a 6-2 start, Auburn finished the season with five straight losses (four by single digits), scoring more than 17 points in regulation just once in the process. Harsin's first staff, full of "I need SEC guys!" hires instead of assistants he was familiar with, fell apart, with five guys either leaving or being forced out. Austin Davis, his first choice for replacing fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, also resigned after barely a month on campus, and with defensive coordinator Derek Mason leaving for Oklahoma State, Harsin eventually landed on both of the coordinators from his 2020 Boise State staff (Eric Kiesau on offense, Jeff Schmedding on defense). Editor's Picks SEC East preview: Can Georgia avoid a hangover? 1d Bill Connelly 2 Related Harsin will now attempt to earn a third season while taking on a schedule that features six opponents projected 17th or better in SP+, five in the final seven games. Good luck. He should have another top-20 defense at his disposal, at least. A stellar line returns ends Derick Hall , Colby Wooden and Eku Leota (combined: 31 TFLs, 21 sacks), and while corner Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday are both gone, transfers D.J. James (Oregon), Craig McDonald (Iowa) and Keionte Scott (juco) are welcomed additions. The uncertainty comes on the other side of the ball. Auburn was just 56th in offensive SP+, trailing off dramatically after quarterback Bo Nix (who has since transferred to Oregon) got hurt. Incoming transfer Zach Calzada was mostly uninspiring at Texas A&M, as was T.J. Finley during his late 2021 audition filling in for Nix. Whoever wins the QB job (probably Calzada) will work with an experienced receiving corps that is led by Shedrick Jackson and tight end John Samuel Shenker , but it's hard to predict anything amazing. Given all that, expect a heavy dose of running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter . Bigsby did next to nothing against good defenses last year -- 3.3 yards per carry against Penn State, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Alabama, 6.5 against everyone else -- and Hunter trailed off dramatically after a fast start. But they still provided a majority of the rare bright moments last season, and they'll have a senior-heavy line in front of them. Can Ole Miss keep scoring points with all its new pieces? It's easy to assume Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin just has this offense thing figured out. After a failed stint as USC's head coach, he was brought to Tuscaloosa to modernize Nick Saban's offensive philosophy at Alabama. It worked well -- Bama's recent offensive track record certainly speaks to that -- and since landing the Florida Atlantic head-coaching job in 2017, Kiffin has found an offensive rhythm of his own. FAU played at a top-50 offensive level for all three of his seasons in Boca Raton, and both of his Ole Miss attacks were in the top 20 in SP+. He uses tempo when most coaches have backed off that, and Ole Miss distributed the ball to tons of players in 2021. Almost all of those players are gone, from quarterback Matt Corral to the top three running backs to six of last year's top seven targets. In response, he brought in a cornucopia of transfers: 17 and counting, in fact. As many as seven could end up starting on offense, from quarterback Jaxson Dart (USC) to running backs Zach Evans (TCU) and Ulysses Bentley IV (SMU) to receivers Jordan Watkins (Louisville), Malik Heath (Mississippi State!) and Jaylon Robinson (UCF) to tight end Michael Trigg (USC). At least four of the Rebels' eight defensive transfers also could start. There are a few high-level returnees -- right tackle Jeremy James , defensive end Cedric Johnson , nickelback Otis Reese (backup nickel Tysheem Johnson is intriguing, too). But this is a ridiculously new lineup. Kiffin has embraced the portal. "The whole theory of signing a ton of high school kids because you have them for five years, that's not true anymore," he told me in March . "What's gonna be the percentage that leaves now that they can?" Considering how well Kiffin has done walking into new jobs, this could all work. But this really is basically a new team, one for which it is awfully difficult to set expectations. That said, recent history suggests the Rebels will play at a top-20 level on offense and something less than that on defense, and they'll have a shot at anything between third and seventh in the hyper-competitive division. Is this a reload or a rebuild at LSU? Kiffin bringing in so many transfers in his third season was unique; Brian Kelly doing it in his first offseason at LSU was a little more understandable. The former Notre Dame head man sprouted an accent and brought in 15 new players via the portal, including Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels and six defensive backs. That the past three head coaches hired have each won national titles is a reminder of LSU's forever-ridiculous potential. But things fell apart for Ed Orgeron following 2019's title run. The Tigers went just 11-12, slipping to 45th in SP+ in 2020, then 65th last fall. There are still former blue-chippers everywhere you look, but few have proven much in Baton Rouge. Brian Kelly has some talent to work with at LSU, but he'll need to fit all the pieces together. John Korduner/Icon Sportswire Defensive coordinator Matt House's first D-line could be excellent, with former Missouri defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo joining end BJ Ojulari and tackles (and former top-60 recruits) Jaquelin Roy and Maason Smith . Linebacker Micah Baskerville is a keeper, and the newcomers in the secondary -- corners Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), Mekhi Garner (Louisville), Sevyn Banks (Ohio State) and Colby Richardson (McNeese State) and former Arkansas safeties Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr . -- are tantalizing. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock rejoins Kelly after five years as Cincinnati's OC, and he'll be overseeing both a three- or four-way quarterback battle -- Daniels vs. Myles Brennan vs. redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier vs. blue-chip freshman Walker Howard -- and a total rebuild of an offensive line that lost four starters. Daniels scrambles on more than 15% of his dropbacks (a very large number) and threw 10 interceptions last season, while Brennan has been injured for most of two seasons. My guess is that Daniels holds the edge, but the matter might not be settled when the season begins. The running back position is terribly unproven, as is the line, but the receiving corps, led by a healthy Kayshon Boutte and reinforced by Jaray Jenkins and a trio of sophomores (Jack Bech , Malik Nabers , Brian Thomas Jr .), is high end. Whoever the quarterback is, Denbrock might find himself leaning on the passing game. Can Arkansas keep it up on defense? In a division full of divisive (and sometimes cranky) personalities, Sam Pittman is a ray of sunshine. The Pittsburg State grad worked his way up every rung of the coaching ladder, from the small-town Oklahoma high school level to JUCOs to mid-majors to majors, and when he landed the Arkansas head-coaching job after 35 years on the grind, he wasted absolutely no time, taking a team that went 2-10 and ranked 108th in SP+ in 2019 and converting it to 9-4 and 22nd in just two years. To say the least, expectations are rising sharply. But that makes 2022 pretty tricky. Kendal Briles' offense must replace three of last year's top four receivers, one of whom (Treylon Burks) went 18th in the NFL draft. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom has even more work to do, replacing about two-thirds of his rotation. He still has some disruptive veterans to build around, such as tackle Isaiah Nichols , linebackers Bumper Pool and Zach Williams and cornerback LaDarrius Bishop . But as with last year, when transfers Tre Williams and John Ridgeway transformed the defensive line, Odom will be relying on guys from the portal to either maintain or raise the defensive standard. They might do just that. Defensive end Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech), linebacker Drew Sanders (Alabama), corner Dwight McGlothern Jr. (LSU) and safety Latavious Brini (Georgia) are all experienced and productive. But it's still a little scary to field an almost entirely new starting lineup. There's far more continuity on offense, receivers aside. KJ Jefferson returns after a thrilling sophomore season that saw him combine 2,676 passing yards and 825 non-sack rushing yards. He gets three sophomore running backs back, and he'll be operating behind a line that returns four starters. Arkansas was relentless with the run last year, and it opened up opportunities in the passing game. (It also led to problems when the Hogs had to pass -- they were 32nd in success rate on standard downs, 81st on passing downs.) Jefferson's new receiving corps will be built around senior Warren Thompson and transfers Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma possession man) and Matt Landers (Toledo big-play threat). It's pretty easy to see the offense keeping up last year's progress, even if the defense has quite a bit of work to do. What can experience do for Mississippi State? When my SP+ projections came together for 2022, Mike Leach's Mississippi State Bulldogs showing up in the top 15, a year after going 7-6 and ranking 34th, caught me off guard. MSU was certainly solid last season, passing as much (and as efficiently) as ever and showing further improvement in defensive coordinator Zach Arnett's Rocky Long-esque 3-3-5 alignment. The Bulldogs won four of five late in the season, though an Egg Bowl defeat, followed by a blowout loss to Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl (in which they dealt with a couple of key opt-outs), dampened the mood. Now the Bulldogs return more production than anyone in the SEC. Quarterback Will Rogers is back after a 4,739-yard, 36-touchdown performance, and of the eight players who caught at least 20 passes, six return. The Bulldogs could desperately use a few more big plays and easy points, as their statistical profile (eighth in success rate, 127th in my marginal explosiveness measure) was basically that of a particularly good service-academy offense. None of the primary returnees averaged even 12 yards per catch, but it will be as difficult as ever to get the offense off the field. If there's a genuine top-15-level breakthrough in store, it will likely be because of a defense that has improved from 70th to 34th in defensive SP+ in two years under Arnett and now returns almost everyone, including havoc raisers in nose guard Cameron Young , linebackers Tyrus Wheat and Jett Johnson and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes . Plus, unsatisfied with a secondary that allowed a few too many big plays despite playing a lot of zone coverage, Leach brought in four transfers -- West Virginia's Jackie Matthews (another super-aggressive corner) and three former blue-chippers. MSU dominated the efficiency battles in 2021 but lost the big-play battles; maintain the former and fix the latter, and you've indeed got a top-15 team. My 10 favorite players (not named Young or Anderson) There's nothing new I can tell you about Bryce Young or Will Anderson Jr. They're amazing. But here are 10 other guys I like. With 2,676 passing yards and 825 rushing yards last season, KJ Jefferson brings some excitement to Arkansas. Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports QB KJ Jefferson, Arkansas. He needs to improve in obvious pass situations, but few quarterbacks combine a 67% completion rate with 6.9 yards per (non-sack) carry, much less in a 6-foot-3, 245-pound package. Jefferson is unique and exciting. RB Devon Achane, Texas A&M. He's a track-and-field All-American who ran a 10.1 in the 100 meters this spring, and he averaged 3.7 yards per carry after contact last season. And he's a good receiver! He's one of college football's most unfair players. WR Kayshon Boutte, LSU. In his past nine collegiate games, Boutte has caught 65 passes for 1,035 yards. Give him a full 13 games this year, and he could produce 1,500-plus yards and earn quite a few Biletnikoff Award votes. T Jeremy James, Ole Miss. Matt Corral dropped back to pass 465 times last season. James -- a 6-5, 305-pound tackle from Cumming, Georgia -- allowed sacks on zero of them. He barely missed any run blocks, too. DE Derick Hall, Auburn. The best of a trio of excellent ends, Hall recorded nine sacks and forced two fumbles and 11 incompletions or interceptions. He also was first on the team with 12.5 TFLs and second with 10 run stops. DE Byron Young, Alabama. Only Will Anderson Jr. could have overshadowed what Young did last year. A 3-4 end is not expected to be particularly disruptive, but Young took part in 12 TFLs and 11 run stuffs. At 292 pounds. NG Cameron Young, Mississippi State. He occupies blockers as a 310-pound nose guard is supposed to do, but he stands out because he's both disruptive (10 run stops) and relentless -- he made tackles on 11% of his snaps. Usually only linebackers produce a percentage like that. LB Dallas Turner , Alabama. The top-15 recruit from Fort Lauderdale was an immediate difference-maker opposite Anderson -- he recorded 8.5 sacks in just 181 snaps, a 4.7% sack rate that was higher than even Anderson's 4.0%. SS Jordan Battle, Alabama. Pick on the safety in coverage? A bad idea against Battle, who was the primary coverage man on 28 passes and allowed just 11 completions and 2.9 yards per attempt. Oh yeah, and he's physical enough to have taken part in six run stops. NB Antonio Johnson , Texas A&M. Johnson is an almost perfect nickelback: physical enough to play the run like a linebacker (six run stops) and absolutely dynamite in coverage (one interception, six breakups, 18.1 QBR allowed). Honorable mention: RB Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama), RB Dominique Johnson (Arkansas), G Layden Robinson (Texas A&M), G Keiondre Jones (Auburn), DE BJ Ojulari (LSU), DE Jordan Domineck (Arkansas), LB Bumper Pool (Arkansas), LB Tyrus Wheat (Mississippi State), LB Khari Coleman (Ole Miss), S Latavious Brini (Arkansas). Anniversaries In 1947, 75 years ago, Ole Miss hired John Vaught. In 25 seasons, the TCU grad was behind six SEC titles, 10 top-10 finishes and shares of three national titles, all of which came between 1959 and 1962 (when his Rebels went a combined 39-3-1). The Rebels have managed just one top-10 finish since he retired. In 1977, 45 years ago, Lou Holtz nearly took Arkansas all the way. A Bobby Petrino for his day, Holtz had left NC State for the New York Jets a year earlier but made it just 13 games (and three wins) before returning to college as the hand-picked successor to Frank Broyles at Arkansas. Succeeding a legend is rarely easy, but under Holtz, the Hogs immediately jumped from 5-5-1 to 11-1, leading the country in scoring defense and losing only to No. 2 Texas, 13-9, on a late-game comeback. They finished the year by blowing out No. 2 Oklahoma 31-6 in the Orange Bowl and ended up third in the AP poll, their best finish of the last 56 seasons. In 1982, 40 years ago, Pat Dye and Auburn served notice. Bryan Harsin can at least take heart in the fact that Pat Dye also struggled in his first year at Auburn. Dye's 1981 Tigers went just 5-6 and ranked 95th in scoring offense, but they surged in Year 2, starting the season 6-1 and finishing it by beating both Alabama and Doug Flutie's Boston College team in the Tangerine Bowl. A freshman by the name of Bo Jackson led the Tigers in rushing, and the defense basically controlled everyone but Nebraska and Flutie. After going 9-3 in 1982, the Tigers jumped again, going 11-1 in 1983 and finishing third in the AP poll, their first of five top-10 finishes in a seven-year span. (And they had an excellent case for No. 1 in 1983.) In 2007, 15 years ago, LSU made it to the top (again). After maybe the messiest (in a good way) season in college football's history, Les Miles' Tigers, who had started the year No. 2, ended it No. 1. They took down seven ranked teams, and while a pair of incredible, triple-overtime losses (to Kentucky in October and Arkansas in November) typically would have eliminated them from the BCS conversation, 2007 was so chaotic that they were able to rise back to No. 1 both times. They slipped to seventh following the loss to Arkansas, but No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia both lost over championship weekend, and the Tigers' 21-14 win over No. 14 Tennessee -- saved with a Jonathan Zenon pick-six in the fourth quarter -- boosted them all the way to second. In the BCS championship game against Ohio State, two touchdowns in six offensive plays (with a Chevis Jackson interception in between) turned a 10-10 tie into a comfortable LSU lead, and the Tigers cruised 38-24. It was their second national title, and their fourth top-10 finish, in a five-year span. Also in 2007: Alabama hired Nick Saban. Six national titles and 14 straight top-10 finishes suggest this has worked out reasonably well for everyone involved. We complain sometimes about how college football has become more predictable than it used to be, but really, that's about 94% Saban's fault. He's the greatest ever. Also in 2007: Mississippi State arose from its slumber. One of the first Black players to take the field for Alabama, Sylvester Croom also became the first Black head football coach in SEC history in 2004, taking on what is always a tricky MSU job at a really difficult time. The Bulldogs were hit hard by sanctions from the end of the Jackie Sherrill era, and they had won just eight games in Sherrill's last three seasons. Predictably, it took a while to generate traction. MSU won three games in each of Croom's first three seasons but broke through in 2007, riding an outstanding defense to wins over Auburn, No. 14 Kentucky and Nick Saban's first Alabama team, then finishing an 8-5 season with Egg Bowl and Liberty Bowl wins. Croom couldn't keep the progress going and was forced out after 2008, but he left a much sturdier program for successor Dan Mullen than what he had inherited. In 2012, 10 years ago, Johnny Football happened. Change was everywhere at Texas A&M in 2012. The Aggies had gone just 7-6 in 2011 thanks to a series of blown leads and tight losses. Mike Sherman was fired in favor of Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who elected to start a redshirt freshman at quarterback just as A&M was making the leap to the vaunted SEC. A painful transition? Nope! The Aggies lost their SEC debut by just three against a top-10 Florida team, then ripped off 11 wins in 12 games. Johnny Manziel threw for 3,706 yards and rushed for 1,410 more -- a nearly unfathomable combination even a decade later -- and scrambled his way to a road upset of No. 1 Bama and a Heisman.