SEC West Preview

LSU AND ALABAMA GO AT IT AGAIN IN BRUTAL SEC WEST

Last year, the two best teams in the nation played in the same division of the same conference. That could very well be the case again in 2012 as defending National Champion Alabama and defending national runner-up LSU are once again rated as superpowers.

LSU took a hit in the polls when they had to suspend a honey badger. But, this is a team with so much depth and swagger that they're still fully capable of running the table and regaining national bragging rights. Maybe the Tigers and Tide will have to battle it out to see who faces Southern Cal for all the marbles in January. Or, maybe the coming season will be full of twists and turns that will give us a surprise finale.

For now, we're comfortable with these nutshell summaries of the two SEC West mega-powers:

  • Both had fantastic defense last year that were off the charts in terms of shutting people down and making high impact plays. Saying they were #1 and #2 in the country actually understates their dominance! They were much better than others in the top 10...and head and shoulders above the nation as a whole.

  • Both lost more talent than you'd like to see to graduation. But, they recruit star athletes on the defensive side of the ball and know how to coach them up. There is at least potential for a step backward or two this season though...which does create the possibility for upsets somewhere along the way.

  • To be the man, you've got to beat the man...so both LSU and Alabama have earned their spots at the top of the national rankings. We're not putting USC there until we see on-field weakness from either of the SEC studs. We'll grant that USC's offense is much more explosive. Defense wins championships!

The SEC West race was actually kind of disappointing once you got past the big two last season. Mississippi State regressed a bit after ending so strong the year before. Auburn regressed a lot. Arkansas only lost two games all season...but they were by scores of 38-14 and 41-17 to Alabama and LSU. The Hogs didn't make the studs shake in their boots by any means. (They'll have a better chance to do that this year because both meetings are in Fayetteville).

Texas A&M joins the field this year with a chance to make things very interesting. Let's run our key indicator numbers and see what might be in store in this elect section of the SEC...

SEC WEST

LSU
Athlon Ranking: 2nd
2011 Total Offense: 86th
2011 Total Defense: 2nd
Strength: Rush Defense (5th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (106th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Les Miles
Notebook: The loss of Tyrann Mathieu happened after Athlon went to press...so it's likely Alabama would be sitting on top of the magazine rankings for this division had that news been known. We still see this as a scary group...one who's toughest non-conference challenge this year will be a home game against Washington. Trips to Florida, Texas A&M, and Arkansas will provide legitimate challenges. The key to greatness may lie on the arm of Zach Mettenberger. He gives the Tigers hope for a downfield attack that could push them to another level. That being said...giving Les Miles a chance to open things up may be a negative that just invites more mistakes. Some serious drama could be awaiting the 2012 Tigers!

ALABAMA
Athlon Ranking: 3rd
2011 Total Offense: 31st
2011 Total Defense: 1st
Strength: Rush and Pass Defense (1st)
Weakness: Pass Offense (69th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Notebook: A.J. McCarron returns at quarterback...but pass offense was the clear weakness on this team last year. If McCarron takes some steps forward...that could make up for what's been lost on defense. It's going to be pretty depressing for the sport as a whole if Alabama and LSU don't drop a bit this year after taking so many hits on defense! We're very interested in the season opener against Michigan. It's easy for defending champions to come out flat because of overconfidence. That could cause an immediate headache against a high octane opponent who has nothing to lose. A road game in Arkansas later in the month won't be a gift either. A visit to Missouri will offer a new challenge. And, this year's game with LSU will be on the Bayou. Could BOTH the Tigers and Tide start drifting back to being mere mortals? We're not going to assume that. But, we're going to be on the lookout for it.

ARKANSAS
Athlon Ranking: 13th
2011 Total Offense: 29th
2011 Total Defense: 47th
Strength: Pass Offense (13th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (81st)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: John L. Smith
Notebook: You'll recall that Bobby Petrino was fired from the program after some misbehavior that put himself and the university as a whole in a bad light. We're not the biggest fans of John. L. Smith in terms of big time football. He was exposed as being in over his head at Michigan State (after doing well with softer challenges at Louisville). He's likely to be outmatched chess-wise by others in this division. That being said...there's a ton of talent here and quarterback Tyler Wilson is back for his senior season. An easy non-conference schedule will help the Hogs post a great record. And, they're certainly capable of pulling off a big home upset if a few plays break their way. We have a question mark besides Arkansas in our Power Ratings because of Coach Smith. This is a team with top 20 talent, but probably not a top 40 coach in terms of major conference football.

AUBURN
Athlon Ranking: 30th
2011 Total Offense: 100th
2011 Total Defense: 81st
Strength: Rush Offense (32nd)
Weakness: Pass Ofense (105th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Gene Chizik
Notebook: It's rare to see a team that ranked 90th on average between offense and defense suddenly jump up to being a top 30 team. We don't have Auburn as high as Athlon does in our own proprietary Power Ratings. But we do respect the amount of returning experience in a division that has a lot of new faces. And, Coach Chizik is probably more dangerous when expectations are low than they are when expectations are high. There is a chance to become relevant again this year after a disappointing 8-5 mark in 2011 (7-5 until a bowl win over Virginia, who wasn't really a bowl caliber team). A September schedule that includes Clemson, Mississippi state, and LSU will tell us a lot very quickly about the Tigers. If the team is destined to make a statement...the sound will be among the first things heard in the 2012 season because of that challenging schedule. 

TEXAS A&M
Athlon Ranking: 32nd
2011 Total Offense: 7th
2011 Total Defense: 59th
Strength: Rush Defense (12th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (109th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin
Notebook: This could be a brutal wake-up call for Texas A&M...or it could be a brutal wake-up call for mid-level teams in the SEC! The Aggies have a new head coach, who's experience as the head man was at the mid-major level. They'll be starting a young quarterback with moxie but not experience. They'll only return four starters on defense in a league where defense means so much. And, oh...by the way...they had a vulnerable defense anyway! At least they graded out well against the run last year...which will give them a chance against the toughest SEC foes. The September home opener vs. Florida will tell us quite a bit. If the Aggies can't beat the Gators...then they're going to have real trouble against more than half of their remaining schedule. If they impress against Florida...then we have a team that may not be in over its head in these uncharted waters. College Station is buzzing about the move...and this team may give them something to buzz about. For now, we'll remain skeptical because the coach and QB are both unproven in terms of the big time.

MISSISSIPPI STATE
Athlon Ranking: 47th
2011 Total Offense: 84th
2011 Total Defense: 35th
Strength: Pass Defense (27th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (94th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Dan Mullen
Notebook: Last year's team was a disappointment based on what we had seen late in 2010...but 7-6 is nothing to sneeze at in general for a program that had been down in the dumps for awhile. This group comes to play every day...and would be seen as a better squad if they played in a different conference. But, this is the conference they're in...and they'd better score a statement win this year if they don't want potential recruits to think 2010 was a fluke. We like Coach Mullen a lot. We don't like him as much now as we did after the Gator Bowl rout of Michigan! They barely beat Wake Forest last year in the Music City Bowl. Auburn represents the only tough major opponent in the first half of the schedule. The second half is going to be brutal. It's a shame a team and a coach this good have to rank sixth in a division.

MISSISSIPPI
Athlon Ranking: 71st
2011 Total Offense: 114th
2011 Total Defense: 90th
Strength: Pass Defense (22nd)
Weakness: Rush Defense (112th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze
Notebook: Freeze gets a chance to step up after turning some heads at Arkansas State. He has a few mediocre quarterbacks to choose from to run his preferred style of offense. You can see that offense was a disaster in last year's stat rankings. A home game with Texas will provide an early test compared to what's otherwise an easy easly schedule. The Rebels will probably be underdogs in all of their conference games, certainly seven of the eight. We'll look for attrition to start taking a toll in the second half of the season. There's just to way to be optimistic about the conference campaign given the dynamics in play.

That wraps up this weekend's look at the SEC. Games of interest on TV involving the SEC in the coming days:

South Carolina at Vanderbilt Thursday on ESPN
Texas A&M vs. Louisiana Tech Thursday on ESPNU
Tennessee vs. NC State in the Georgia Dome Friday on ESPNU
Auburn vs. Clemson in the Georgia Dome Saturday on ESPN
Alabama vs. Michigan in Cowboys Stadium Saturday on ABC
Kentucky at Louisville Sunday on ESPN

All that's left is the Big 10, which will be featured starting Monday and Tuesday as we countdown to the start of the 2012 college campaign. If you haven't taken care of business yet for the coming season, please do so now right here at the website. If you have any questions, call JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK at 1-800-323-4453.

Football is here...you can't afford to waste another minute!

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