The first goal of the season for LSU this year is to win the SEC West. The task will not be at all easy. There are good teams in this division, and while Alabama and Ole Miss have gotten a lot of attention, I believe Arkansas and Auburn will probably be dangerous opponents as well. Arkansas moreso than Auburn, but don't mark a check in the W column for our game against Auburn yet.
Anyway, here is a brief breakdown of how I see our opponents in the SEC West, the obstacles they have in front of them and their strengths as we all are preparing to start another big season in the SEC.
Alabama: The defensive front seven should be outstanding, probably the best in the conference. They will make tons of plays and be in the backfield much of the night. The secondary struggled towards the end of last year, and the loss of Rashad Johnson at free safety is a significant blow. If there was one position on the defense that Alabama fans considered to perhaps be below par last year, it was cornerback, and some are expecting true freshman Dre Kirkpatrick to come in and be an immediate upgrade. I always find claims that a true freshman can come into a top program and immediately become a key player at a tough position somewhat dubious, but we shall see.
On offense, the big questions are how will Alabama replace John Parker Wilson at quarterback, and how will the offensive line perform? Junior Greg McElroy will be a more-than-adequate replacement for Wilson, who frankly wasn't that good. The real concern, though, is at offensive line. No team has to replace more of its offensive line skill than Alabama. Everyone knows about the loss of All-American left tackle Andre Smith, but the Crimson Tide lost two other starters on the offensive line as well, including All-Conference center Antoine Caldwell, who was the leader of the group. If you can't block effectively, you can't do much of anything on offense. If they get the blocking, the running backs should be about as good as last year, but they continue to struggle to find receiver depth behind Julio Jones.
Bama is probably the toughest competition in the West. I think they have questions like a bunch of other teams, but unless the offensive line is a disaster or injuries devastate their team, they will be a very tough opponent again this year.
Arkansas: I find this team pretty scary. It's not just that they beat us last year, though that certainly affects things. It's the fact that they have good players at a lot of positions. Running back Michael Smith may be pocket-sized, and needs to cut down his carries if he hopes to stay healthy, but he is perhaps the most dangerous back in the conference. Arkansas's receiver corps, led by TE/WR hybrid DJ Williams is as good as anyone's in the conference. Bobby Petrino is an outstanding offensive coach, and if Ryan Mallett is as good as advertised, this Arkansas team will put up some offensive fireworks.
The defense has a long way to go. There are some good players on this defense, but it was a unit that ranked dead last in run defense last year, and 10th in pass defense. To make matters worse, one of their expected starting corners is lost for the season to a torn ACL. The defense will need to play much better than it did last year, but they were very young in 2008. You can expect some natural improvement between the seasons.
The short story here is that I think of Arkansas this year pretty much exactly what I thought of Ole Miss last year: not talented enough to run with the big boys but with enough good players at key positions to be dangerous. Do you remember how that turned out for Ole Miss? The schedule is awfully difficult for this team though, as they travel to LSU, Bama, Ole Miss, and Florida, and also have to play Georgia. They play every team in the SEC that is expected to be good, and get 4 of them on the road. That's brutal.
Auburn: Last year was a train wreck, leading to a mid-season coordinator firing and then a post-season head coach-firing, and a second train wreck when a new coach was hired. The offense was awful in 2008, ranking 2nd to last in points per game. Auburn went and added a couple nice receivers on signing day, but for the most part the personnel is going to be the same on that side of the ball. Chris Todd will be the starting QB again. Much of last year's starting offensive line returns. They just hope that Gus Malzahn can get more out of these same players than Tony Franklin and his successor were able to get. That's actually a pretty tenable position.
Defensively, Auburn had a pretty solid group last year, but they have a fair bit to replace, especially in the middle of the field, as Auburn loses its two best defensive tackles and its middle linebacker. I think this year will be a struggle for Auburn, but if Chizik is at all up to the job (no guarantees there), I think they should be able to win a couple conference games and maybe sneak into a bowl game. An upset of a better-regarded team is not out of the question. But then again, a 4-win season is not out of the question either.
Mississippi State: Has disaster written all over it. The Bulldogs were the worst offensive team last year, scoring only 15 points per game, and were one of the worst defensive teams last year as well. It is hard to name one particularly dangerous offensive player. Senior running back Anthony Dixon is entering his 4th year as MSU's primary running back, but has a pretty pedestrian average of 3.98 ypc over the course of his career. He's also never really had a very good offensive line, but nothing should change there. He also enters the season with an off-season DUI under his belt and may be suspended for the first game or two.
Add in that the Bulldogs do not have an outstanding quarterback and are trying to transition from a power running game to a spread under new coach Dan Mullen, all without really having the wide receivers to run it yet, and you have the makings of a poor offensive season as they transition to the Mullen system that was so successful in Florida.
Defensively, the Bulldogs should be respectable as always. Last year's poor stats are deceptive, because so much of the blame rests with an offense that could not keep the defense off the field, but they lose a good number of starters from last year's unit. The strength of the team is in the linebackers, where Jamar Chaney and K.J. Wright are arguably the best players on the team regardless of position. The secondary should be a nightmare, however.
Ole Miss: They still have one of the best QBs in the conference, and a very good set of wide receivers, but I wonder if the overall talent level is all that high. I think Ole Miss snuck up on some teams last year and caught LSU in a down year, but they won't be able to use that formula for success this year. Jevan Snead, Dexter McCluster, and Shay Hodge form a great nucleus for a passing team, but the offensive line has to be completely rebuilt, and no running back on the team is particularly scary. I'm sure the Red Cup Rebellion guys will love hearing that.
Defensively, the front 4 is very good if healthy. Greg Hardy may be the best defensive lineman in the conference if he can ever get his foot completely healed, and he's actually pretty effective in a limited role even when he's not healthy. Kentrell Lockett and Marcus Tillman round out a very good 3-end rotation, and Ted Laurent is a solid veteran defensive tackle. They will be counting on Jerrell Powe to build on his solid freshman campaign. Behind the defensive line is a lot of question marks. Ole Miss had the worst passing defense in the conference on a "per game" basis, though the overall defense was solid, and they managed to stop the high-powered Texas Tech offense in their bowl game. Looking through their roster, it is hard to pick out a linebacker or defensive back who looks like a difference-maker.
Ole Miss has the easiest rout to Atlanta of any of the most-discussed contenders. They miss Georgia and Florida and they get Bama and LSU at home. They could potentially lose one of those two games and still win the West outright if they don't stumble against a lesser opponent.
Of course, we're going to have to see how all of this shakes out. Every team, even the good ones, have questions and areas of concern, including us. Also, injuries can derail anyone's season, including ours. Upsets are also possible, each and every week. I think we have as good of a shot at winning the west as anyone, except that our tough schedule looms large.