Monday, July 23, 2012

SEC West Preview: Guess Who's Back, Back Again

As I've mentioned approximately 842 times within the last few months: there's not a whole lot going on right now. Michigan's fall camp won't be underway for a couple weeks, so this a good time to survey the vast and completely sensical landscape of college football that exists outside of the Big Ten's non-Rutgers-including-footprint. I'll still be working on the basketball player previews as well, but I'll also attempt to take a semi-thorough look at the other major conferences so that you can orient yourself and be well-informed at tailgates and other social functions in the coming months. I mean, is there anything better in life than being able to rattle off mostly useless college football information to your friends, who, in turn, are completely unimpressed impressed as a result? I don't think so.

I'm going to take a look at the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12, and maaaybe the Big East if I'm feeling charitable and/or have time. Probably not the Big East, though. Anyway, this week I'll start with the SEC, the recent dominion of ALL THE CHAMPIONS, Golden Flake potato chips, and the banana republic that is contemporary Tennessee football.

For the sake of readability, I'll divide this into multiple posts. Today, let's take a look at the SEC West, the toughest division in college football.

An SEC West football coach.  

So, about last season. Whether or not you believe that Alabama and LSU should have been allowed to meet for a second time, the fact is that both of these teams were, at minimum, worthy of a shot to play for a national title in a vacuum where Oklahoma State doesn't exist. Now, I'm obviously not saying that what happened was right, but so it goes. I guess that's what this whole "playoff" thing is supposed to rectify, which, we'll see about that starting in 2014.

As you are well aware, the SEC West has dominated college football for the last three years, producing the last three national champions (all from the Yellowhammer state, also known as "Alabama" for those not up to speed on their state nicknames).

Both Alabama and LSU return strong teams, although LSU seems to be the pre-season favorite among most college football media folks despite returning only one more defensive starter than the Tide (5 and 4, respectively).

Elsewhere, we have Arkansas under new interim HC/duck John L. Smith, something which promises quite a bit of hilarity if SEC Media Day has been any indication. On a serious note, the Razorbacks bring back another talented team on the offensive side of the ball, but, as always, the question with Arkansas has always been defense. Arkansas climbed as high as the #3 spot in the rankings last season (that's national rankings, by the way not SECW standings), but after getting thumped by LSU to end the season, it was pretty clear that the duo of Alabama and LSU were simply on another level of quality.

On paper, there's a bit of a step down to the next tier of teams. Auburn had a predictably mediocre year after losing Cam Newton to the NFL. On the bright side, the defense should continue to get better, perhaps regaining the competency that was seen on that side of the ball during the Tuberville era. Brian Van Gorder should be an upgrade over Ted Roof, who left the Plains to take over the DC job at Penn State. Auburn gets a much tougher opener this year in Clemson, but I think we'll see a much better performance to start the season this year than we did last year against Utah State (who Auburn was very lucky to beat).

Mississippi State, after a nice 2010 season that ended with delivering the coup de grace to the Rich Rodriguez era, was probably one of the more disappointing teams of the conference. The Bulldogs might be a competitive team in another conference (even the SEC East, possibly), but the road to a division title in the West is fraught with landmines that might be too difficult to traverse, even for a coach like Dan Mullen.

Lastly, we have a hapless Ole Miss team that should once again occupy the cellar of the division; new HC Hugh Freeze, despite having an awesome last name that won't in any way inspire an endless stream of Mr. Freeze references, is in perhaps the most unenviable position in college football. The Rebels went 2-10 (0-8) last season, the only wins coming against Southern Illinois and at Fresno State (no wonder Pat Hill got fired). With a home game against Texas on the schedule, three wins would probably represent the Rebels' ceiling in 2012. To be fair, that would be an improvement.

Rounding out the conference, we have new member Texas A&M, bringing the high-flying Air Raid to the SEC. The SEC's general reaction thus far has been to: a) point and laugh at that unfortunately pandering video and b) say things like "THAT OFFENSE WON'T WORK IN THE ESSSS EEE CEEEE PAWWLLLL." Imagine Big Ten fans during the RR era.

Comings and Goings 
Notable departures, by team (including but not limited to):
  • LSU: DT Michael Brockers, WR Reuben Randle, CB Morris Claiborne, SLB Stefoin Francois (the most LSU name ever, by the way), WLB Ryan Baker...QBs Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee (LOL)
  • Alabama: DT Josh Chapman, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, CB Dre Kirkpatick, CB DeQuan Menzie, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, SS Mark Barron
  • Arkansas: WRs Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs, OLB Jerico Nelson, MLB Jerry Franklin
  • Auburn: RB Michael Dyer (transfer, Arkansas State), QB Barrett Trotter, S Neiko Thorpe, MLB Eltoro Freeman (yes, Eltoro)
  • Mississippi State: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, DT Fletcher Cox 
  • Ole Miss: OT Bobbie Massie, DE Kentrell Lockett
  • TAMU: QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Cyrus Gray, CB Terrence Frederick 
In order of most returning starters, going from most to least: 1) Auburn-18 2) Ole Miss-17 3) TAMU-16 4) Arkansas-15 5) LSU-14 6) Alabama-14) 7) Mississippi State-13

Predictably, Alabama and LSU lost quite a bit to graduation and the NFL. However, they are obviously the most equipped to mitigate those losses with the returning talent that they do have. Most notable from the above figures is Auburn's 18 returning starters. Auburn has been fairly unimpressive in the two years that Gene Chizik did not have Cam Newton at his disposal (2009 and 2011), but they did finish last season on a solid note with a W over UVA in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This team isn't winning the division, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them jump up and knock Arkansas out of that #3 spot, especially with the coaching turnover in Fayetteville. 

Intra-Division Games To Watch 
1) Of course, this list has to begin with the Alabama-LSU showdown in Baton Rouge. Mark the date: November 3rd. Barring an unforeseen slip up, both should be undefeated going into this one once again. The phrase you're looking for is "deja vu." 

2) Alabama-Arkansas, September 15th. This is a huge tilt for the Razorbacks, who have yet to prove that they can consistently hang with the divisional elites. This game will take place in Week 3, so it could set the tone for Arkansas's season as a whole. The good thing for John L. and Co. is that this game will be at home, a 3:30 CBS game. The crowd should be ready to go, but it's not too difficult to envision a meltdown on Arkansas' part, harkening back to JLS's MSU days. 

3) The Iron Bowl, November 24. As far as rivalry games go, this is clearly the biggest game of the year in the SEC. With that said, you'd probably have to give the nod to the first two games on this list first for the simple fact that things could already be decided by the time this game rolls around. Either way, this will be a hard-fought game. I don't envision this being the blowout that it was last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

4) Arkansas-Auburn, October 6th. This is a critical game for both teams. Auburn has a fairly difficult first four games to start the season, starting off with Clemson in ATL, traveling to Starkville in Week 3, then taking on LSU at home in Week 4. Luckily for the Tigers, they get to take Arkansas on after a bye week, so they should be rested and ready to go. If AU stumbles to start the season, starting off as poorly as 1-3, even, this game would instantly become a must win game in the first week of October. Likewise, Arkansas will be traveling to Auburn for this game a week after going to TAMU. This two game stretch will be the first test of JLS's mettle as an SEC head honcho. 

5) I have to thrown in one game featuring SECW newbie Texas A&M, so I'll throw in the TAMU-Arkansas game here at #5. The Aggies have a deceptively tricky start to the season, beginning with a trip to Louisiana Tech team that went bowling in 2011, then Florida and SMU. The Florida game should go either way, but if the Aggies somehow drop one to either La. Tech or SMU, the Arkansas game on September 29th becomes one that Coach Kevin Sumlin will need to have. 

  • Communist football Air Raid in the SEC: how does it work? With Ryan Tannehill off to NFL, it's very easy to imagine Sumlin's first year in the conference going only slightly better than RR's first in the B1G. 
  • Alabama: 2010 Redux or no? After winning the national championship in 2009, the Tide suffered significant losses to the NFL after the season, resulting in a "down" season the next year (which, for Alabama, means 3 losses and a thumping of the Big Ten co-champs). I don't see Alabama dropping three this season. 
  • With Guz Malzahn taking off for Arkansas State and former John Navarre whisperer Scott Loeffler taking over, it would seem that Auburn is slowly morphing back into Tuberville era offensive form. AU still has a long way to go, and, just like the Tuberville era, the options at QB aren't exactly overwhelming. Clint Moseley is a guy, Kiehl Frazier's passing is still very unrefined, and Zeke Pike will be a true freshman. Luckily, still has talented RB Onterio McCalebb and nice receiving options in WR Emory Blake and TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen. 
  • Many are hoping--i.e. Arkansas fans--that JLS will simply come in and caretake what should easily be a 9+ win team this season. The Arkansas offense is stacked, with the talented triumvirate of Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, and Knile Davis (returning from injury) leading the way. With that said, it's very easy to imagine things falling apart. 
  • Mississippi State took a step back last season, going 7-6 (2-6) after a very solid 9-4 (4-4) year in 2010. With the SECW still looking as stacked as ever, was 2010 as good as it gets for a fanbase that expected big things under former Urban Meyer assistant Dan Mullen? 
Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway
1) Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
2) Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
3) Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas 
4) Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama 

For the second year in a row, LSU will take the division. As we all know, this doesn't mean all that much because HA HA LAST YEAR. With that said, new JUCO QB (and former Georgia Bulldog) Zach Mettenberger gives Les Miles a talented option to work with after bumbling around with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson for the last few years. 

Once again, Alabama should be right there with LSU, even with all the defensive losses in mind. As I showed in painstaking detail, the Crimson Tide return quite a bit of talent, much of it including players that have seen the field a not insignificant amount in their careers thus far. Even so, I don't think it's enough to propel them to a W in Baton Rouge, and a second SEC loss is certainly not out of the question. 

The next tier of teams provides a little more opportunity for speculation. Arkansas was #3 last season, but Auburn and newcomer TAMU should provide some solid competition here. You also can't count out a Dan Mullen coached team, but I have my doubts about him taking the Bulldogs to heights greater than the 2010 team was able to achieve. Ole Miss looks to be bringing up the rear once again. /sad trombone 

Fairly standard with LSU and Alabama at 1/2...the only really notable thing here is that I see Auburn as being on the up and up in 2012. Lots of returning starters and recruiting that continues to be excellent should see the Tigers jump up to 3rd. Maybe I'm being unreasonably bearish re: Arkansas, but I guess we'll find out come fall (I get the feeling that I'll probably want to flip Auburn and Arkansas as soon as I post this). 

SECW Standings
1) LSU
2) Alabama
3) Auburn 
4) Arkansas 
6) Miss. St. 
7) Ole Miss 

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