By JC Shurburtt
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For years now, the western division of the Southeastern Conference has been considered the toughest single division in college football. With the presence of Alabama, traditional powers like LSU and Auburn and programs with loads of potential to round it out, that’s been the case for the better part of this decade. But while the 2018 season should again be a bloodbath inside the SEC West, the Big Ten East may actually end up being better.
Prior to the 2014 season, the B1G scrapped the “Leaders and Legends” divisions and moved to a more traditional geographic format. That piled four elite programs onto one side of the league. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State joined Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana. At the time, the Nittany Lions were in a period of transition and the Wolverines were under-performing. If you compared that to the SEC West, where Ole Miss and Mississippi State were enjoying banner seasons, Arkansas was getting its head above water, Texas A&M was a high-profile newcomer that had a Heisman Trophy winner its first year in the league and those teams still had to contend with Auburn, Bama and LSU, it was a no-brainer to say that the SEC West was far and away the best division in college football.
Things are different heading into 2018.
Penn State has re-emerged as a power under head coach James Franklin and returns several key players off of last season’s team. Michigan has Jim Harbaugh as its coach and though there are some haters that want to see him fail at his alma mater, he has a big-time quarterback on the roster in the form of Shea Patterson, who transferred in from Ole Miss, and one of the best defenses in the country. Michigan State had one bad season, then rebounded. Some believe the Spartans, who are one of the most consistently good programs in the country, actually will be the favorite to win the division this year. That’s not even mentioning Ohio State, where Urban Meyer and staff will again have a loaded roster that includes quarterback Dwayne Haskins who could be a star right out of the gates in Columbus. Maryland has recruited well under head coach D.J. Durkin and the Terps won’t be a pushover. Rutgers is building and Indiana, while pesky at times, isn’t a threat to win the division. So the bottom two leave a lot to be desired on paper.
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Contrast that with the SEC West, where there is transition galore. Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher), Mississippi State (Joe Moorhead) and Arkansas (Chad Morris) all welcome new coaches to campus. Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke is in his second full season after being promoted to the full-time gig. Luke had what was by all accounts a successful 6-6 season last year in a tough situation. LSU is still finding its way on offense, though the addition of Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow is going to help solidify the Tigers at quarterback. Auburn and Alabama should again be among the best teams in the country this season, but outside of that there are questions galore.
Another interesting point that isn’t mentioned a lot. Patterson left the SEC West for the Big Ten East. Burrow went in the opposite direction as did Moorhead, who was Penn State’s offensive coordinator prior to heading to Starkville. It will be intriguing to line up the results next season and see the impact each made on the division as a whole.
But for right now, because it’s June and it’s what legendary head coach Steve Spurrier used to call “talking season”, the conversation I am having is that for now, the Big Ten East is the best division in college football. That could change for sure, but it’s doubtful, at least for this year.