Lofty Expectations Could Lead to Bruised Egos in the SEC West

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Lofty Expectations Could Lead to Bruised Egos in the SEC West
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How do you temper the expectations of the most rabid fanbases in the country?

For most squads in the SEC, you don't. You simply ride the streaks as they come, try to win the weekly battles against your bitter rivals, and hope that your team, if it can't get to Atlanta, can at least satisfy what have become the somewhat unreasonable goals of those that support the program.

This season, the SEC West is packed with teams that have seen their projected spots and believe that they can not only exceed the predictions, but make a run that could end in a championship.

Where will the chips fall?  Here is a look at each of the teams in the West that could make some noise before what has become a de facto national championship semifinal in Atlanta in early December.

 

Arkansas

While last week's loss in a shootout to Georgia may have slowed the momentum, Arkansas has shown many positive signs under Bobby Petrino. Michigan transfer quarterback Ryan Mallet continues to impress, throwing for over 900 yards in the first two games of the season.

The matchup with Alabama on Saturday may prove to be the fork in the road for the Hogs. Coming into Tuscaloosa as a 15-point underdog, Arkansas must find a way to make the game competitive to remain relevant in the West. 

A blowout loss after the close call against Georgia would likely signify that they are headed for a middle-of-the-pack finish. An upset would turn Arkansas into a top-25 team and a real player for the SEC West title.

To remain in this conversation, Arkansas must defeat Auburn on Oct. 10. A third loss, especially one that would result in an 0-3 start to conference play, would remove Arkansas from contention.

 

Auburn

No other team in the SEC has seen expectations rise so quickly. Considered an afterthought in the West race, Auburn has turned heads under Gene Chizik and his band of skilled coaches. While the defense looks suspect, Auburn fans hope to ride the newfound enthusiasm and favorable early-season schedule into the top 25.

The unlikeliest of questions concerning Auburn has all of the sudden become relevant.  Can a team that managed five wins last season with an offense that can only be labeled as abysmal continue to build offensive firepower and outscore its opponents in the SEC? 

The scheme is heavy on misdirection and teams that are less than well-coached defensively can have problems. 

The troubling fact for Auburn is that most of those teams exist in conferences outside of the SEC. The breakneck pace and seldom-seen formations can win games against inferior athletes, but can they win against defenses loaded with strength, speed, and talent? 

Road tests at Tennessee and Arkansas are must-wins if Auburn wants to remain in the race. The late-season gauntlet of LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama will be too much to overcome if Auburn has any hiccups early.

 

Ole Miss

Perhaps the team that is least-equipped to handle national championship aspirations is Ole Miss. Houston Nutt has positioned his team firmly in the top five nationally, but is still a marquee win away from being taken seriously.

While talented at nearly every position on the field, the Rebels are in unfamiliar territory, as they have not had a team in the top five in nearly 40 years. In my opinion, this makes them ripe for an upset and the Thursday night game in Columbia may prove to be that stumbling block. 

Steve Spurrier is generally good for at least one unlikely win per year in his stint with the Gamecocks and this one has the potential to be very close.

If I am proven wrong and Ole Miss can show that it is capable of winning the tough road games, it can stick around until the end. Possessing arguably the most favorable schedule in the West, Ole Miss gets Alabama and LSU in Oxford. 

But remember that you heard it here first—the Rebels' title hopes will be derailed, as they will go 1-1 in the their trips to Auburn and South Carolina. This will make their games against the Tide and the (Bengal) Tigers of dire importance and anything better than 1-1 against those two seems unlikely. 

Two conference losses will likely have the Rebels on the outside looking in come December.

 

LSU

Due to a lackluster (at least it seemed so at the time) performance at Washington and the higher rankings of Alabama and Ole Miss, LSU has become the forgotten team in the West. However, they have arguably the most talented overall roster in the division and they have bones to pick with Ole Miss and Alabama.

What works against LSU is the fact that they have to face SuperTim and the Gators, while Alabama and Ole Miss (thankfully) do not. Also, their schedule is made all the more difficult in that their games against Ole Miss and Alabama fall on the road, with another road date in Athens thrown in for good measure. 

Without question, this is the toughest draw of any SEC team.  

The upcoming Georgia/Florida/Auburn portion of the schedule that precedes a trip to Tuscaloosa will be telling, as LSU needs to win two of the three to have a realistic shot.  If LSU can't handle Florida and Georgia, they have no room for error in the West. 

 

Alabama

Consider this: Through three games against comparable opponents, junior quarterback Greg McElroy has thrown for 647 yards and four touchdowns while carrying a 67 percent completion percentage. 2008 quarterback John Parker Wilson threw for less than 500 yards during the early stretch of last year with one touchdown. 

And McElroy managed these numbers in fewer pass attempts.

While one should not judge future performances based on these tune-up games, it is impossible to argue that McElroy is a significant upgrade at the position. Throw in a stable of talented backs and receivers and Alabama's offense is as promising as it has been in recent memory. The play of the offensive line will prove to be the determining factor in Alabama's continued improvement on the offensive side of the ball.

Defensively, Alabama possesses perhaps the best linebacking corps in the conference (some would argue the nation) and a solid if unspectacular defensive line. Considering these supposed truths, Alabama would have to be the odds-on favorite to win the division, if only by a marginal amount. 

Alabama's questions remain in the secondary and on special teams. This weekend's game against Arkansas will certainly answer some of the questions. Alabama's schedule sets up nearly as well as that of Ole Miss. 

Barring a mishap on Saturday, the Oct. 10 trip to Oxford will become the most important matchup of the season in deciding the West race.

 

Prediction

If one were to assume that all five of the teams mentioned can count their respective games against Mississippi State as a win, that leaves five teams in the race.  I think that Alabama and Ole Miss stand the best chance of sweeping their games against teams from the East and due to that fact, I see the Alabama/Ole Miss game as one of the deciding ones for the division. The other will come when LSU comes to Tuscaloosa.  

That is assuming an awful lot.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the West race will become a bloodletting and each team could have multiple losses. While this would eliminate every team from the national picture, the race could come down to some of the odd tiebreaker rules to decide the champion. 

If this is the case, all five teams could realistically have a say in who goes to Atlanta. 

These are the rigors of playing in what has become the best top-to-bottom division in college football. Three teams carry a "championship or bust" mentality and two are looking to spoil the party. 

What results is a season in which every game has championship implications and every upset can bring the highest of expectations crashing back to reality, or the Peach Bowl, if you prefer. 

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