SEC West Preview

NEW NATIONAL CHAMP COULD COME FROM POWERFUL SEC WEST AGAIN

The last five BCS Champions have come from the Southeastern Conference. Three of the last four have come from the SEC West.

January 2011: Auburn beat Oregon
January 2010: Alabama beat Texas
January 2008: LSU beat Ohio State

With the recent decline in the SEC East (as outlined yesterday in the first part of this weekend series on the conference), it's very likely up to the SEC West to continue the league's dominance on the national landscape.

Preseason suggestions suggest this group is up for the challenge!

*Alabama is picked #1 by respected Athlon magazine, the publication we've always used for guidance in our annual summer previews.

*LSU is a consensus top ten team in early polls, and clearly has a chance to lift their game back to the most elite level in the country.

*Auburn is the defending national champs…and is 'the man' until somebody beats the man. The loss of Cam Newton has perhaps caused pundits to be too pessimistic about this team this season.

Before we jump into the data, let's quickly review what this amazing division did last year in the college bowls.

*Auburn beat Oregon 22-19 to win the national championship

*Alabama beat Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, providing another reminder that the best in the SEC are still WAY better than Big 10 contenders. This one was so ugly right out of the gate that most fans changed the channel because the carnage was so brutal.

*LSU beat Texas A&M 41-24 in the Cotton Bowl. This is a Texas A&M team that's getting a lot of run this season in terms of making a national statement. Big time performance for the Tigers.

*Mississippi State beat Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl, reminding everyone that head coach Dan Mullen may have been a big reason Florida was so good a few years ago, and is so vulnerable now without him on the staff.

*Arkansas lost to Ohio State 31-26, losing an entertaining game to a dirty program that's been cutting corners ever since the SEC embarrassed them twice in successive BCS championship games.

Not perfect, but obviously a dominant showing as a group. There's been some talent turnover since you last watched these teams play. Let's see how the 2011 regular season might play out.

SEC WEST

ALABAMA
Athlon Ranking: 1st
2010 Total Offense: 22nd
2010 Total Defense: 5th
Strength: Rush Defense (10th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (29th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Notebook: If there's going to be an Achilles Heel in the SEC West this year, it's going to be at the quarterback position. Alabama must replace Greg McElroy. We're not going to put any team breaking in a new quarterback at the top of our in-house ratings until we see greatness on the field. Now…there's a lot of greatness here outside of quarterback obviously. You know that a Nick Saban coached defense is going to be great…and that there will be balance on offense. A lot of experience does return from a team that may have won a BCS playoff if one existed. We're not going to say Alabama is obviously not national title material. Let's see how the new quarterback performs in September on the road at Penn State, and at home against Arkansas. An October 1st visit to Florida could be interesting if there are growing pains. The biggest SEC West game based on early season expectations will be in Tuscaloosa when 'Bama hosts LSU on November 5th. The rivalry game with Auburn is on the road though. That could be a big deal once we get to it around Thanksgiving.

LSU
Athlon Ranking: 8th
2010 Total Offense: 86th
2010 Total Defense: 12th
Strength: Rush Defense (10th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (107th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Les Miles
Notebook: The Tigers are one of those teams that will look great after you've given up on them, but break your hearts once you believe they're the real deal. That 86th ranked offense last year (hurt by a truly horrible passing game) prevented them from reaching greatness. The bowl blowout of A&M may have been more an indictment of the fading (and shrinking) Big 12 than a warning flare from Les Miles. They do return quarterback Jordan Jefferson, which is rare for the division this year. But, he was the guy who couldn't pass! LSU has a great defense and a lot of experience back. They deserve to be on the short list of national title hopes in a year where so many powers are either breaking in new quarterbacks or had offseason turmoil. That could be because the rest of the country is falling back to where LSU was…rather than Miles lifting the team up to greatness.

ARKANSAS
Athlon Ranking: 16th
2010 Total Offense: 9th
2010 Total Defense: 36th
Strength: Pass Offense (4th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (71st)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bobby Petrino
Notebook: It will be interesting to see how much of the Hogs' success last year was because of giant quarterback Ryan Mallett, and how much was because of Coach Petrino's schematics. Both got a lot of the credit for that 4th rated passing offense (particularly difficult when playing in a great conference). If the new quarterback can pick up where Mallett left off, this is a dangerous team. If there's a step backward…then we're going to see a lot of sloppiness on offense, and a defense that's still probably soft against the run. That creates a very wide scope of possibilities for the Hogs. Feels like we're saying that about everyone so far. That's what happens when you either have new quarterbacks or riverboat gambler head coaches. The early schedule is easy until a September 24th visit to Alabama. We'll learn a lot about both teams then. An Alabama-Texas A&M-Auburn triumvirate could derail this Arkansas season before mid-October. 

MISSISSIPPI STATE
Athlon Ranking: 27th
2010 Total Offense: 42nd
2010 Total Defense: 49th
Strength: Rush Defense (15th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (91st)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Dan Mullen
Notebook: Last year was pretty amazing when you think about it. Mississippi State went 9-4…and the four losses were to Auburn, Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas. The Bulldogs went 9-0 against everyone else! That everyone else included Georgia, Houston, Florida, and Michigan in their bowl. The loss to Auburn was only by a field goal. The loss to Arkansas was in overtime. We now have a returning quarterback, a lot of starters, an enthusiastic head coach still making a name for himself (instead of making a name for Urban Meyer), and a schedule that's spaced out in a way that could lead to a blockbuster season. There are two-game gauntlets (this is the SEC afterall), but no three game stretches that would be crippling. Quarterback Chris Reif needs to take a step forward. State only ranked 86th passing last year. Given the new faces at the position in 2011 across this division, he may not be much of a negative. We really like this coach…and we are very likely to have a big play or two on Mississippi State this season.

AUBURN
Athlon Ranking: 42nd
2010 Total Offense: 7th
2010 Total Defense: 60th
Strength: Rush offense (5th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (108th)
Returning Starters: 2 on offense, 3 on defense
Head Coach: Gene Chizik
Notebook: Can a team fall from #1 in the country all the way to #5 in a six-team division so quickly? Athlon says yes. When you look at the paltry number of returning starters…and the 'one-man show' tendencies of Cam Newton last year…you can see why there's skepticism about the Tigers this year. September challengers against Mississippi State and Clemson will tell us a lot. October starts off ugly with South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, and LSU in succession. This could turn into a long, grinding season very quickly. Can Coach Chizik handle the pressure that's going to come from that decline? Alumni get spoiled very quickly.

OLE MISS
Athlon Ranking: 69th
2010 Total Offense: 43rd
2010 Total Defense: 81st
Strength: Rush Offense (18th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (103rd)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 3 on defense
Head Coach: Houston Nutt
Notebook: Last year was a disappointment. Adding Oregon's outlaw quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to the mix was supposed to get the Rebels to a bowl. They turned out to be the only divisional team unqualified to play in the postseason. And, a 1-7 record in the SEC made it clear that the program was well off the pace in a brutal league. Now…you have only three starters back from a defense that was bad to begin with. And, Ole Miss has to replace their quarterback in a conference with good defenses. We'll start off skeptical. The Rebels will have a chance to impress us in a season opener at home against BYU, then later in September at home against Georgia. Road games will be ugly if Ole Miss doesn't thrive early at home.

There are no new head coaches in this year in the SEC South, but we'll have new starting quarterbacks at Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, and Ole Miss…and returning signal callers with unimpressive passing stats at LSU and Mississippi State. That sets up a smash mouth campaign where the first team to get good production in the air has a leg up on the field. We'll have to take a few more trips around the map before knowing how this group will fair nationally. Even with some question marks here and there with this group, we're not ready to suggest another conference somewhere else is ready to knock the SEC off its pedestal. The best football is played in the Deep South until a bully from somewhere else breaks through and changes people's minds.

Our summer football series continues next weekend with the ACC, where Florida State and Virginia Tech are getting a lot of preseason hype, with Miami of Florida lurking in the shadows. Saturday and Sunday in two weeks, we'll finish off the majors with the Big 12 (now just 10 teams) and the Big East.

Baseball coverage resumes tomorrow. Don't forget that BIG JUICY BASEBALL WINNERS can be purchased from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK every day here at the website, even if we're talking football in the NOTEBOOK. We also have great rates for the rest of the season. Complete details, and news about early bird packages is just a phone call away at 1-800-323-4453 if you have any questions.

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