Looking again at the SEC divisions, we take a look at the West, team by team, in alphabetical order:
Alabama: Everyone's saying that Bama should be better this year than last year, but I don't really see why. This is a team that has a LOT of holes in the roster, and despite the poor draft showing, lost some of its best and most productive players to graduation. In particular, the loss of Wallace Gilberry on the defensive line will really hurt this team. The DL was not particularly good, and Gilberry was by far its best player. The team went to a 3-man front to compensate for poor depth of talent, but it's still a problem there. Combine that with the problems at linebacker, having only one linebacker with starting experience returning, and this looks like a weak front 7 on defense. On offense, they need John Parker Wilson to play like a 3-year starter at quarterback. Last year, he averaged only 6.16 yards per attempt and threw a lot more interceptions than would have been expected, and this was with a senior-heavy wide receiver corps. This year, the receiving corps is young, and while we all know that Julio Jones is the #1 receiving recruit in the country, any team that makes plans to rely heavily on true freshmen is asking for trouble. Receiver is not a position where players routinely come in and excel as true freshmen.
The offensive line is solid, and has two particularly good players in Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith, but I am skeptical about the unit as a whole. The running backs look pretty good, and I think they'll finally settle in on a running back other than Grant to carry the load.
The secondary should be solid, but they will need to come up with a pass rush and a way to stop the run.
The season starts tough with a neutral site game against Clemson, one of the best teams in the country. Clemson, a great running team, will immediately try to exploit Bama's weaknesses on the front 7. The schedule eases up after that, until they get to Georgia on September 27 in Athens. The second half of the season is going to be tough, as Ole Miss is fielding what should be its best team in years, and Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn all look like they're significantly better than Bama this year. At least, right now they do.
Arkansas: I keep vacillating between thinking Arkansas is going to be awful, and thinking they're going to be merely below average. When I think about the skill position players they lost, I think they're going to be awful. When I think about their complete no-name defense, I think they're going to be awful. When I think about them having a 3-year starter at QB and a pretty solid offensive line, I hedge a little bit. Overall though, I think this is a team that will have a very tough time making it to a bowl, and may end the season without a conference win. They get a couple of patsies early, before they go in for a hog slaughter against the Longhorns in Austin (the Battle of the Livestock). If they're going to make any noise this season, it will have to start the following week at home against Alabama. I think Alabama is significantly better than Arkansas, at least right now, but if Arkansas wants to have a shot at a bowl game, they have to win this one, because after that, they get Florida and Auburn and will likely be 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the SEC. The season will be essentially over at that point, unless they figure out how to beat Bama. If they're better than expected, late season winnable games against Tulsa, Ole Miss, and South Carolina could propel them to a bowl game, but I doubt it. They will need Casey Dick to play like he played against LSU in 2007 rather than the way he played against us in 2006. They will need to find one or more running backs who can really play. They will need to find defensive playmakers. They will need to find a go-to receiver to replace Marcus Monk. That's a lot to ask.
Auburn: As detestable as they are, they are legitimately the favorites in the West this year. Really, there's not much difference between Auburn and LSU this year. We both have question-marks at quarterback. We both have very good line play on both sides of the ball. We both have defenses that should be stout. The difference between the two teams is simple. Auburn plays LSU at home, while LSU plays Auburn on the road. The home team has, of course, won this game 562 times in a row, and the winner once again will be difficult to beat in the West. The winner of this game can probably afford to lose to two different SEC East opponents and still win the West, because tie-breakers favor teams who beat divisional opponents and lose to opponents out of the division.
After LSU in Week 4, Auburn has key games against Tennessee in week 5, Georgia on November 15, and of course the Iron Bowl on the last day of the regular season. The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year.
There's also an out-of-conference game against West Virginia in Morgantown, but that's mostly for fun.
LSU: I hope I'm not just looking through purple and gold glasses when I say that Auburn and LSU appear to be the clear #1 and #2 teams in the West this year. We have arguably the best offensive line and the best defensive line in the conference. We have a tremendous set of wide receivers and a versatile and talented group of running backs. We have a 1st team All-SEC linebacker and even where we are inexperienced we are very very talented. Except at quarterback, where we aren't really sure what we have. If the QB play is good, this team can go a long way.
If your looking for weaknesses, here they are in order:
- Punt returning
Everything else is about as good as the conference will showcase this year. The key, of course is Auburn on the Plains on September 20. If we can somehow, someway figure out how to beat Auburn at Auburn, the path appears to be clear for us to have a really good shot at making the SEC Championship Game. A loss to any other Western Division opponent would be a pretty substantial upset, even though Ole Miss looks better than usual, and neither Bama nor MSU are pushovers. Arkansas? Well, see above. Beat Auburn and avoid upsets and we'll be fine.
Ole Miss: Footbaw! Give Orgeron some credit. This is the team he built, and this is the year he was targeting to complete Ole Miss's rise. This team has very good players in lots of places, including on both the offensive and defensive lines. If Jevan Snead is half as good as promised, he will be able to do for the athletic wide receivers what Brent Schaeffer and Seth Adams couldn't. Make no mistake. Mike Wallace, Shaye Hodge, and Dexter McCluster are good. They may even be the most talented trio of wide receivers in conference east of Baton Rouge, and the gap between LSU's wideouts and Ole Miss's wideouts isn't that great. Michael Oher may be the best OL in the conference, and Greg Hardy may be the best DL (though I think Ricky Jean-Francois would disagree).
They don't have the "talent all over the field" that the elite teams in the conference have. They have to find a good running back, and the secondary looks very average at this point, but they have a lot of good players.
What's more, they should enter a September 27 matchup against Florida in Gainesville at 4-0. That will be a tough one, and will probably be a near-definite loss. After that comes what might be the key stretch of the season. 50-50 games against South Carolina and Bama followed by what should be a win against Arkansas are next. If they sweep those (big if there), they enter a November 1 matchup against Auburn still looking to win the conference. After that, UL-Monroe will try to pull another upset and then you have rivalry games against LSU and Mississippi State. If Ole Miss wins all the games it really should win, and if they can win 50-50 games against South Carolina, Bama, and MSU, this is a team with a real shot at a New Year's Day bowl. Of course, if they don't beat South Carolina or Bama, they could be hosting MSU hoping for a win to get to ANY bowl.
Mississippi State: With a very mediocre offense, one is tempted to say they got to 7 wins in the regular season last year with smoke and mirrors, but a big play defense led the way to wins over Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss to propel MSU to its first bowl game in a long time last year. The big play defense returns, and MSU hopes to improve on its poor offensive output last year. The offensive "star" is running back Anthony Dixon, who averaged a . . . well. . . very average 3.7 yards per carry last year. When they finally settled on a starter at QB, he ended up averaging only 5.46 yards per attempt and threw almost as many interceptions as touchdowns. Both Dixon and QB Wesley Carroll will have to improve on their numbers from last year if MSU is going to do it again. They can't count on the defense to make the timely big plays again this year. This is a team that got a lot of support in my poll last week on who will be better between MSU, Ole Miss, and Bama, but I really don't see it. I think this is the team that has the hardest road of the three.
The good news is that freshmen quarterbacks usually improve once they're no longer freshmen. Even assuming improved play from Carroll, they will still have to find some playmaking receivers to really be any kind of potent.
This is a season that can go pretty much either way. They can be as successful as they were last year, because they certainly are not pushovers, but they could also return to a 4- or 5-win season and miss a bowl game, putting Sylvester Croom right back on the hot seat.
Key games include September 13 against Auburn, which could get ugly because it is a revenge game, and September 27 at LSU, which has been a very one-sided rivalry lately. Those two games can easily get away from MSU, but they will have to recover in time to play winnable games against Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Bama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss. I count 4 relatively easy wins on the schedule in La Tech, USL, Vandy, and MTSU, but they'll have to figure out how to beat 2 or 3 of the other teams to make a bowl game. It could be tough.