Forecasting the SEC West in 2011
An earlier than early look at one of the nation’s toughest divisions
LSU linebacker Ryan Baker registers a sack of Alabama signal caller Greg McElroy in Tiger Stadium a season ago. In 2011, Baker will be one of the top ‘backers in the conference (photo by Gail Chisum).
By BEN LOVE
Tiger Rag Editor
Here’s a statement for you: The SEC West was college football’s best conference last year.
You read that right. A single division — and only half of what’s universally held high as the best conference in the non-professional football free world — was the NCAA’s best and most complete pool of teams during the 2010 season.
Think about it. Did any entire conference in the country have a top five that could compete favorably with the West’s best?
In national champion Auburn (14-0), BCS bowler Arkansas (10-3), LSU (11-2), Alabama (10-3) and up-and-comer Mississippi State (9-4), the West had a ridiculous bounty of riches in its treasure chest. Only Ole Miss (4-8) finished below .500 on the season to shame the division’s name a touch. And fanning the flames of this argument, the Hogs were the sole bowl loser from the division. The other four won, three of them in very convincing fashion.
Go a bit deeper into the numbers for more emphasis: Excluding the Rebels, the SEC West was a stupefying 54-12 in ‘10. That’s good enough for an 81.8% winning percentage. Heck, toss Hoity Toity back in there and the West was still 58-20 (74.4%). By comparison, the down East had only two teams (Florida and South Carolina) finish with a winning record, and both of those squads notched five losses apiece. The Eastern division’s top five — omitting punching bag Vandy — went a combined 35-31 (53.0%). With the ‘Dores, the East was a shocking 37-41 (47.4%).
So, cuing up Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, “Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”
Entering 2011 it’s difficult to see the division duplicating that type of dominance, particularly with Heisman toter and No. 1 NFL draft pick Cam Newton off to the pros along with four other West players selected in the first 13 picks of April’s draft (Alabama DT Marcell Dareus, third; LSU CB Patrick Peterson, fifth; Alabama WR Julio Jones, sixth; and Auburn DT Nick Fairley, 13th).
But, in spite of the mass exodus of talent, the cupboards are stocked well enough at most of these locales that the West should again contend with just about anyone in ‘11.
The division will likely feature closer to three or four elite teams on a national level, as opposed to five, but, with the right breaks, one of that grouping could make it three crystal balls in a row for the West (and four in the past five seasons).
The three which appear to be a cut above the rest? In no particular order — Arkansas, LSU and Alabama.
That trio has a lot in common from a season ago. They all won double-digit games. They all ranked in the nation’s top 12 in the season-ending AP and USA Today polls. And, most revealing, they all lost to the Auburn Tigers.
Now that Newton and Fairley no longer roam on the Plains, expect one of that threesome to jump up and grab a spot in the BCS Title game in New Orleans. Recent history tells us it’s going to happen for someone in the conference of Dixie, and it’s hard to envision who that team would be from the Eastern division.
‘Bama will run out the tunnel into the ‘11 season with understandably heavy hearts, a team playing with a purpose and for several causes — rallying the state after the damaging effects of recent tornados and in honor of fallen teammate Aaron Douglas. The Tide will also be supremely P.O.’ed after failing to live up to expectations and repeat as national champs last season. All of that motivation can only propel Alabama, one would think. Wanna know what will help out even more? Getting fellow contenders Arkansas (Sept. 24) and LSU (Nov. 5) at home.
Arkansas lost its big gun at quarterback in Ryan Mallett, but fans shouldn’t expect Pig Sooie to encounter much of a letdown on offense with first-year starter Tyler Wilson pulling the strings for Bobby Petrino. Wilson was last seen shredding the Auburn defense inside Jordan-Hare Stadium last season when Mallett went down with injury in the second half. The new AU QB will also have the luxury of handing off to Knile Davis, arguably the best returning back in the conference along with Alabama’s Trent Richardson and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore. Throw in one of the best receiving corps in America, and the Hogs will score points. If it finds a way to defend consistently, another BCS berth could be in the making.
LSU is an extremely interesting case study, at least when compared to the other two major West contenders. The reason: The Tigers are probably more loaded with talent than ‘Bama and Arkansas from positions 1-21 on the gridiron, but ol’ No. 22 happens to be quarterback — where LSU still doesn’t have a reliable option for the third straight season. But, man, does it look good just about everywhere else. The front seven will have to plug some gaps from a season ago, but the secondary will be as talented and deep as anyone in the nation and the offensive line returns four starters, all upperclassmen. Like Arkansas on the defensive side, if LSU can get consistent production from Jordan Jefferson or whoever’s lining up under center, a trip down I-10 to the Superdome (think 2003 and 2007) is definitely realistic.
Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bulldogs are next in line and may even sneak up to third in the pecking order should one of the above teams struggle.
There’s a lot to like about what Mullen is building in Starkville. In ‘10 his team’s only four losses came to the Western division behemoths detailed at the beginning of this piece. The Cowbellers did, however, beat Georgia at home, slayed Florida in The Swamp, beat rival Ole Miss for the second straight time and pulverized Michigan during bowl season. Coming into this campaign, MSU has a lot of talent returning, although it does have to replace stud defenders Chris White and Pernell McPhee. As for the schedule, there’s a mix of good and bad. The good: MSU hosts LSU at home on a Thursday night and also welcomes in South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss. The bad: Mullen’s bunch travels to Auburn, Georgia and Arkansas. If the Bulldogs can take two of those three road games and beat the Rebels again, Mississippi State might just finish third in the West.
And then we have the reigning national champions.
Auburn has been slotted into many analysts’ preseason Top 25 polls, and there seems to be a consensus that Gene Chizik’s troops will finish third or fourth in the Western division. Personally, I don’t get it.
My vote at SEC Media Days in two months will have Aubie at fifth, and nothing short of landing Russell Wilson (the two-sport playing QB recently jettisoned by N.C. State) will come close to changing my mind.
Admittedly, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has a few nice weapons returning on offense. But Cam Newton isn’t one of them. The newest Carolina Panther carried that offense last season more than any one player in recent memory, save possibly Tim Tebow in 2007. Then, on defense, consider that Nick Fairley was the only player Auburn landed on the first or second All-SEC defensive teams in ‘10. He ain’t coming back either. Gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em, and the War Eagles will have to scratch and claw to six or seven wins this season.
Finally, Ole Miss again rounds out the six teams in the West.
It’s nothing against Houston Nutt, who is a fine coach and has a knack for preparing his teams to play well in the David role of David and Goliath. But there’s simply not enough experienced talent to figure the Rebels will land anywhere else. If Bastrop product Randall Mackey can make some noise at quarterback, perhaps Ole Miss could inch its way out of the cellar. But it’s a long shot, at least as we stand here today in mid-May. About the only thing going right for the Rebs entering ‘11: the schedule. Ole Miss gets BYU, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU at home while Auburn and Mississippi State appear to be the only tricky road games looming.
Editor Ben Love covers LSU football and men’s basketball for Tiger Rag. Reach him at email@example.com.