Though the LSU Tigers weren't a shoe-in for the SEC West title for 2008 by any stretch, the "experts" now must predict a more level playing field with Ryan Perrilloux's recent dismissal from the team. Everyone was calling for Auburn to be the darkhorse to win the West. Now that LSU has come back down to earth-- thanks to sub-par recruiting by head coach Les Miles (his recruits are being stolen all along the Gulf Coast by the Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida coaches)-- and Perrilloux's exit, Auburn, perhaps inexplicably, has become the favorite to win the West according to the "experts."
These notions are false. There is no favorite to win the West. There are four, that's right, four teams who could take the West crown. With the exception of Ole Miss and Arkansas, who will be in quick re-build mode, the race is as even as it has been this millennium. If you're keeping pace with this article, you're realizing that Mississippi State is included in this race. Neither the Bulldogs nor Auburn are darkhorse candidates to win the West because there is no darkhorse. The precise reason that a four-team season-long slugfest of unpredictability will occur is because every team knows the other is just as good as they themselves are. The team that answers the challenge week in and week out against SEC competition will be the team that prevails as the West champ. Let's look at each team's case.
Auburn is attempting a coordinator overhaul, electing to let go of Al Borges (offense) and Will Muschamp (defense), arguably the best coordinator duo in college football the last few years, is not going to be easy to replace. The transition may be relatively smooth on offense, especially since the Tigers won't have the less-than-mobile Brandon Cox under center trying to run the newly-implemented spread attack. They have two seemingly capable candidates to fill the QB position with Kodi Burns and Chris Todd. They have a stable of capable RBs behind them to help the two young signal-callers adjust in the early going as well. Look for Mario Fannin to shine in their deep backfield a little more than the rest due to his versatility. His playing time should be somewhat akin to Knowshon Mareno's last season (Georgia is known for always having a deep offensive backfield). However, it's the defense that could actually be the concern with the new transition. Auburn, through any of its offensive woes this decade, has been able to rely on strong team defense and special teams. However, they have had stability with their defense that is flushed away this season. The veterans, along with the youngsters always had a known system to buy into, study, and execute (with the same coach). With new defenses, team speed slows down because the players cannot instinctively react as they would had they practiced the same philosophy for, say, three to four years of repitition. Auburn has always been solid on defense because, with what they lack in athleticism, they make up for in knowledge and trust in a proven defensive system. Expect some defensive miscues that lead to big plays by the opposing teams' offenses next season, especially early on. The offense will have to account for the defense's miscues, no simple task for two unproven QBs in a new spread system. Especially in the one league in college football that has proved to be impossible to run a true spread against because of its stellar defenses. But then again, they are Auburn after all, so it all coming together is a possibility for them. Verdict: Auburn will lose some games they shouldn't, but could also win some they shouldn't.
As long as people still count Mississippi State as somewhat of an underdog, they will beat some good teams. They are proof that when you hire a coach for rebuilding, he deserves about five years for results. A program in the dumps cannot be saved in three years, much less one or two. Hats off to the athletic board at State for allowing Sly Croom to do his thing without the pressure of having his job threatened. Wesley Carroll will be widely talked about this season. He was battling injuries as the starting QB for an SEC school as an 18-year-old kid last season and was still productive. He's bigger, has better arm strength, and loads more confidence and knowledge than last season. Anthony Dixon is one of the better backs in the SEC and Ducre is a fine backup. An incoming TE, Nelson Hurst, showed great promise in the Spring. On the other side, the defense returns a strong Linebacking corps, the heart of the defense. The question with the Bulldogs is the same as always: team speed. Verdict: Mississippi State has a shot if they can overcome a lack of speed and athleticism with consistent execution.
LSU loses Ryan Perrilloux, an extremely promising QB prospect. Nobody even really thought much about his back-ups until now, when they are front and center. He was the centerpiece to that team. I don't buy into the idea that his departure is a good thing. Perrilloux as a distraction off the field isn't nearly as detrimental to the Tiger team as his absence is on it. The offense is still producing capable receivers year in and year out, as is the offensive backfield (although losing the versatile Jacob Hester is no small blow). Their defensive front seven looks to be very strong again, though I don't buy Les Miles' statement that they're better than last year. Losing a Glenn Dorsey doesn't make any front seven better. Watch for teams to air it out against the Bayou Bengals. They lose one of the best, most experienced defensive backfields this season. They lose Jonathan Zenon, Chevis Jackson, and Craig Steltz (all had All-SEC talent). The one bright spot is that Harry Coleman filled in admirably for the injured Steltz in the Championship Game. Les Miles is in damage control mode. He keeps saying that they are still a "damn fine football team," and that his defensive line is better than last year. We all know he's a loon who possesses little self-awareness, and we all know that he's hurt from not being allowed to take the Michigan job. Kirk Herbstreit promised that he knew Miles was going to bolt for the Wolverines after the season. Herby was right, but he did it right before the SEC Championship, forcing Miles to call an emergency press conference denying the claims so that his players wouldn't feel betrayed. After winning the National Championship (which they were, indeed, the rightful pick to play in the game as they were the best team in the country), he couldn't lose credibility by still choosing to go to Michigan (though it's a perfect fit on both ends). Dumb mistake. As stated previously, he can neither recruit nor coach with the best of the SEC coaches. He called ridiculous plays that went his way (see the last play of the Auburn game) last season and he was playing with master recruiter Nick Saban's players. Miles is lucky, but in over his head. Verdict: LSU is on a very steady decline and will be beaten by teams who can prove to throw the ball consistently against them.
The Crimson Tide spent last season learning two complex pro-style systems on offense and defense. They possessed talented players, but lacked any depth whatsoever. This season is different in the sense that they have increased exposure to the Saban schemes and philosophy along with added depth. The catch is that most of that depth comes in the form of the Freshmen that make up the nation's top recruiting class. Those "in the know" know that something special is brewing in Tuscaloosa. However, that championship season is still a year or two away. The Tide has a veteran QB, strong O-line (as do LSU and Auburn), and a litany of RBs at their disposal. The defense has tons of questions in its front seven, like "Who's going to step up?", but should be about as good as last season. The defensive secondary should be even better this year with last year's true freshman standout Kareem Jackson and All-SEC Safety Rashad Johnson returning. Return-man extraordinaire Javier Arenas is back and looks like a fine CB in-the-making to boot. The biggest question with Alabama is whether they can stay healthy long enough for the Freshmen to learn enough to make a difference. This is especially true of OLB Jerrell Harris and WR Julio Jones, the cornerstone's of that Freshman class. If the tide can work them into full-time roles by mid-season without having to rush them in due to injuries, they could challenge for the West title. Verdict: If the team can have it's star-studded Freshman class producing by the Georgia game in Athens, Alabama could be the favorite in the West.
Auburn may play as well as anyone at the end of the season, but they will lose too many games early in a transition year to win the West crown. Mississippi State's toughness will get them some wins, but their lack of athleticism will lose them too many games to teams that don't overlook them as they did last season. LSU will be somewhat confident early because of the easy early-season games mixed with their own self-delusion. When they start losing SEC games, Les Miles' mouth will distract them far worse than Perrilloux's attitude ever could. Alabama has the most pure chance because their quest for the West title can be marred only by injury. If they can scrape by the season opener against Clemson and come out on the other side healthy, and get their talented Freshman involved and learning against the cupcakes early, the Tide has the best shot at playing in the Georgia Dome at the end of the regular season. These teams are all haunted by big "If's" though, and it will be interesting to see who prevails.