This has a chance to be one of the wildest SEC West races in a long, long time. Below is how my five research magazines broke it down followed by my own picks. Give me your projected finish and tell me where I’m wrong.
Athlon: Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State
Lindy’s: LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State
Phil Steele: Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State
Sporting News: Ole Miss, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Mississippi State
The Kickoff: LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State
What we learned: The three-way battle among Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss is going to be “Must-See” football this season. Two of the magazines picked Ole Miss to win the division and make its first-ever appearance in the SEC championship game. Two others picked LSU to bounce back from an 8-5 season and make a run to Atlanta. Alabama, the defending division champion, was picked by only one magazine to repeat. Mark your calendars: Alabama is at Ole Miss on Oct. 10. LSU is at Alabama on Nov. 7. Ole Miss hosts LSU on Nov. 21.
Alabama: A lot of assumptions are being made about Alabama. Because the Crimson Tide must replace veteran quarterback John Parker Wilson and three starters on the offensive line, it logically follows that they cannot repeat as SEC West champs. I respectfully disagree. Alabama will be a different team, especially on offense, but will still find a way to get to Atlanta on Dec. 5. Let’s start with the offense. Last season Alabama could pretty much wear opponents down by steamrolling them with that huge offensive line. This season, behind new QB Greg McElroy, Alabama will have to show a little more finesse on offense. There is plenty of talent on that side of the ball if the offensive line comes together. The reason I like Alabama in this division is that that Tide is not going to need that many points to win. The defense is that good. Nine starters return and, yes, Alabama will miss the exceptional leadership of safety Rashad Johnson. But the linebackers (Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower) are great and NG Terrence Cody is now in shape and ready to play his best football.
LSU: LSU went 8-5 last season for two reasons. No. 1, the Tigers could never settle on a quarterback. It took most of the season for freshman Jordan Jefferson to grow into the job and now it appears LSU is set at the position. No. 2, head coach Les Miles made a major mistake by not hiring a proven defensive coordinator to replace the departed (to Nebraska) Bo Pelini. The Tigers finished ninth in the SEC in total defense (325.5 ypg). Miles has corrected that mistake by hiring veteran DC John Chavis. Over the years Chavis has proven that when he has good athletes, particularly up front, his defense is pretty good. LSU has a bunch of really good athletes in its program. The only thing that kept me from picking the Tigers to win the division was the schedule: They have to go to Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss while getting No. 1 Florida at home (on Oct. 10).
OLE MISS: The Rebels are getting a lot of love and they should. They have the second best quarterback (Jevan Snead) in the SEC and a bunch of guys who can make plays. They also have the best schedule among the SEC West contenders as Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU all come to Oxford. Florida rotated off the schedule and Tennessee came on. But there are a couple of issues that keep me from jumping on the Ole Miss bandwagon. One is physical. Ole Miss has to replace a first-round draft choice (tackle Michael Oher) on the offensive line and first-round draft choice (tackle Peria Jerry) on the defensive line. Bobbie Massie, a big-time recruit, could wind up at that offensive tackle position. If Jerrell Powe, who has been waiting in the wings for a long time, can come through at the defensive tackle spot, the Rebels may be okay. The other concern I have for Ole Miss is psychological. Ever since the Rebels upset Florida (31-30) last year in Gainesville they have been billed as the “next big thing” in this league. Ole Miss is pretty much a consensus Top 10 pick in the preseason. This is a different mindset for the Ole Miss football program. How it handles the hype remains to be seen.
ARKANSAS: Despite having the worst defense in the SEC last season (375.2 yards per game), Arkansas finally started looking like an SEC football team in the second half of 2008. Three of the final four losses in a 5-7 season were by a total of six points to Kentucky (21-20), Ole Miss (23-21) and Mississippi State (31-28). Then the Hogs upset LSU 31-30 to finish the season. There are a couple of reasons I believe Arkansas will make a significant step forward in Bobby Petrino’s second year. The defense will be better because it has to be. Nine starters return and some new talent is coming in to help. The offense will be better because Petrino now has a quarterback (Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett) who knows how to run it. Petrino also went out and got some help for running back Michael Smith, who rushed for 1,072 yards last season but took a considerable pounding to his small frame (5-7, 173 pounds). Arkansas is still waiting to see if Southern Cal transfer Broderick Green (6-1, 242) will be eligible for the fall. The schedule, however, is a bear with trips to Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, and LSU.
AUBURN: New coach Gene Chizik insists that the program will be built methodically with no short cuts. That is an admirable goal, but it means that Auburn is probably going to take its lumps in the short term. No question that Chizik is trying to shake things up with the hiring of Gus Malzhan as his offensive coordinator. Malzhan’s offense put up huge numbers at Tulsa but I’m not convinced that any of the quarterbacks he had in camp this spring can run the offense as it is drawn up. Will Auburn get frustrated and turn to a true freshman like Tyrik Rollison? The offensive line looks a little thin to me and I don’t see a whole of big plays from the wide receiver position. It doesn’t help that WR Tim Hawthorne broke his foot and will be out for at least four weeks. The defense is still a work in progress but there are some hopeful signs for new DC Ted Roof. Auburn is going to need to play good, consistent defense while the offense tries to figure out what it is doing. Auburn gets a break in scheduling because first four games (Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Ball State) are at home.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Like Auburn, Mississippi State is trying to install and entirely new offensive system without the proven talent to run it. Dan Mullen, the former OC at Florida, takes over as head coach but there are no Tim Tebows to be found in Starkville. Senior Tyson Lee is the guy until true freshman Tyler Russell arrives in August. Russell was Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi last season and looks like the perfect athlete to run Mullen’s system. But will Mullen entrust the team to a true freshman out of the gate? There also seems to be a dearth of guys who can catch the ball. The defense will be run by veteran Carl Torbush, who will take five returning starters and try to make something of it. Four of Mississippi State’s first five games are against Auburn, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Georgia Tech. It looks like a pretty bumpy first year for Mullen.
Programming note: Today I am in Florence, Ala., where Terry Bowden is now the new head coach at Northern Alabama. Later today I’ll be sitting down for a roundtable with all of the Bowden coaches: Terry, Bobby, Tommy, and Jeff. I’ll have a report for you on Wednesday.
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