One of the most intriguing story lines to emerge out of last winter's hiring season came when Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen received extension in late February, thereby pushing each and every one of the seven SEC West coaches above the $4 million salary mark. And if every SEC West program now pays its coach at least $4 million a year, that means one of them is paying its coach a cool $4 million for a last-place finish
Already the biggest pressure-cooker in college football, the SEC West has become like one of those puzzles from the Saw movies: seven highly-paid, highly-respected men must destroy each other before the room devours them.
Heading into this 2015 season, each SEC West program can legitimately make a claim for a preseason top 25 ranking. Heck, all seven of them may even be in the first poll. And each has a path, if things fall just right, to win the division and get to Atlanta. All seven can, and probably will, reach a bowl game.
But, still, someone must finish last. What if it's Mississippi State? What if it's Texas A&M? What if it's (gasp) Alabama? To prepare you for that possibility, we've run down what would have to happen for each school to finish last, and anticipated what the internal and external reaction would be in the event that doomsday scenario actually unfolds.
First, here's how the SEC media sees the division heading into fall camp:
5. Ole Miss
6. Texas A&M
7. Mississippi State
Let's start in descending order and work our way up.
Losable games: LSU, at Auburn, at Texas A&M, at Missouri, Alabama, at Arkansas, Ole Miss
How it could happen: September losses to both LSU and Auburn would be a blow that Mississippi State might not be able to rebound from. That would leave State needing to win all of their assumed win games, plus a minimum of two out of A&M, Mizzou, Bama, Arkansas and Ole Miss, all with a roster equal or less talented than the opposition. Dan Mullen should have his program at a level where this shouldn't seem like a question, if it comes down to the final at vs Ole Miss, things could be ugly.
External reaction: "Mullen and Mississippi State are a perfect fit - neither can do any better than what they already have."
Internal reaction: Just yesterday Mullen was ranked as the most secure head coach in the SEC by USA Today's Dan Wolken. That's what a brand-new contract extension will do for you. Mullen could be pressured to take a more hands-off approach to the offense, though.
Losable games: Arizona State, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama, at Ole Miss, South Carolina, Auburn, at LSU
How it could happen: Even hiring John Chavis can't fix the Aggies' defense. Kyle Allen endures a massive sophomore slump and Kyler Murray, successful as he was in high school, isn't ready to take the reigns against SEC defenses.
External reaction: "Kevin Sumlin is the king of pizzazz - recruiting, sales, points - but he can't master the nuts and bolts of building a championship program."
Internal reaction: "You see that stadium out there? We need all those seats to be filled in 2016."
Losable games: At Alabama, at Florida, at Memphis, Texas A&M, at Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, at Mississippi State
How it could happen: Remember those Laremy Tunsil rumors? Turns out, Ole Miss feels compelled to hold him out, and it happens right before the Rebels' season-ending gauntlet of Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, sending the team into a tailspin it can't pull out of. Laquon Treadwell stays healthy for the entire season, but the Rebels can't find a quarterback to get him the ball consistently.
External reaction: How did Hugh Freeze get that one great signing class, and yet not be able to develop them into more than this?
Internal reaction: Quarterback play will be better next year. We need to ensure we give him time to throw and we'll be just fine.
Losable games: Texas Tech, Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at Alabama, Auburn, at Ole Miss, at LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri
How it could happen: With only three games that you feel truly comfortable using ink to jot down as Ws now, the Razorbacks need to win 4 of the "most challenging games" above to get to 7 wins. The defense, which looked so great to close 2014, takes a major step back in 2015, beginning in back-to-back weeks with Kliff Kingsbury and Jake Spavital blistering the Hogs for 40-plus points each. Opposing defenses figure out how to play bend-don't-break against the Hogs' battering ram offense, forcing Brandon Allen to make plays in the red zone and compelling Arkansas to kick field goals where, wouldn't you know it?, the calamitous kicking of last season's Alabama loss rears its ugly head again on three or four occasions.
External reaction: "Bielema's a fun quote and all, but times have changed in the SEC, and he needs to run a modern offense or get left in the dust."
Internal reaction: "Let's, maybe, tone down the bravado until we spend more than one season out of last place."
Losable games: At Mississippi State, Auburn, at South Carolina, Florida, at Alabama, Arkansas, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M
How it could happen: While Texas A&M rides a dynamic, up-tempo offense and an aggressive John Chavis defense to a division championship, LSU can't do either. The quarterback situation is a mess for the umpteenth year in a row, and Kevin Steele's defense just doesn't have the power up the middle to stop anyone.
External reaction: "It's been nearly a decade since Les's national title, and nearly half a decade since his last SEC title. Maybe it would serve him and LSU well to move on."
Internal reaction: Les should be forgiven for losing Chavis. That wasn't his call. At some point, though, he's got to be held responsible for failing to put something resembling a competent passing game on the field.
Losable games: Louisville, at LSU, Mississippi State, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama
How it could happen: The offense doesn't click without Nick Marshall's zone-read ability and Rees Dismukes anchoring the offensive line. The defense looks more like last year's unit and less like a Will Muschamp outfit. Meanwhile, Alabama wins another Iron Bowl en route to yet another national championship.
External reaction: "Malzahn's tenure is trending perilously close to Chizik's: unexpected run to a national championship game, followed by an unforgivable last place finish two years later."
Internal reaction: "We can't possibly spend more on a coaching staff or infrastructure than we already do. We need a big 2016... where we close with Georgia and Alabama on the road."
Losable games: Wisconsin, Ole Miss, at Georgia, Arkansas, at Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, at Mississippi State, at Auburn
How it could happen: Admittedly, it's hard to envision a Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide team finishing dead last in the SEC West. Not even his 2007 team did that. But that's what would make the reaction so harsh in the (incredibly unlikely) event that it does happen. Meanwhile, Amari Cooper and Blake Sims prove far more valuable to the Alabama offense than anyone could have imagined, and the losses to Ohio State in 2014 and to Oklahoma in 2013 provide a blueprint for a division that finally has the horses to take advantage of a vulnerable Tide defense.
External reaction: "It happened to Nebraska, it happened to Miami, it happened to Florida State, it happened to USC, it happened to Texas, and now it's happened to Alabama. Every dynasty eventually ends, and when it does it usually ends badly. Now it's just time for Saban to move on before this gets even uglier."
Internal reaction: A smile is not seen by anyone who wears crimson and white for a living until Sept. 3, 2016. Lane Kiffin takes another job, any job, for his own safety - professional or otherwise.
Some of these scenarios are at least semi-realistic, others less so. But, come late November, one of these seven programs will find itself looking up at its six peers. And that program won't be a fun one to be around for the next nine months.
(Photo credit: Marvin Gentry, US Presswire)