The SEC is one of the toughest conferences in America. Whether it's the best or not is a debate for another column.
The SEC went to its current two-division format in 1992. Each division (East and West) sends its champion to the conference tournament in Atlanta.
Today, I will break down the teams in the SEC West.
During the early years of the current format, Alabama dominated the West. They participated in the SEC Championship Game five out of the first eight years.
Since then, Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU have been the dominant teams in the West. Ole Miss tied with LSU in 2003 but lost out in a tiebreaker.
Mississippi State's lone appearance in the title game came in 1998, when they lost to eventual national champion Tennessee.
One factor that helps to determine the success of a season is the schedule. I am writing about how each team will do within the SEC, so I am disregarding the non-conference schedule. (So don't remind me that Auburn plays West Virginia. I know. It's not important for this conversation, though.)
When I compare the schedules of teams all within the same division, it is difficult because most of the opponents are the same. Therefore, the conference road schedule played a major role in how I determined whose schedule is the easiest and whose is the hardest.
Easiest Schedule: Auburn. By no means is their schedule easy, but this is a comparison. Three of Auburn's road games are against mediocre to average teams: Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss. The other is against Alabama. That game is tough no matter where it's played.
Hardest Schedule: Ole Miss. I almost went with Alabama here, because they play Tennessee, Georgia, and LSU on the road. I went with the Rebels because two of their road games are against the most recent national champs, Florida and LSU. Also, new Rebels coach Houston Nutt has to lead his team on the road against his former Razorbacks.
10 intriguing SEC games involving at least one West team:
September 13 - Auburn @ Miss State
A real chance for the Bulldogs to pull an upset here as the Tigers get used to new coordinators.
September 20 - LSU @ Auburn
Realistically, this early season game may determine who represents the West in Atlanta. Road teams have not fared well in the past decade in this matchup.
September 27 - Alabama @ Georgia
The Tide might be able to spoil the Bulldogs' championship hopes in this battle in Athens.
October 11 - LSU @ Florida
This is a meeting of the last two national champions. Tim Tebow cried on his way out of Tiger Stadium last year and is looking for redemption. This is turning into one of the better rivalries in the SEC.
October 25 - Georgia @ LSU
Another tough spot in Georgia's schedule. Their last visit to LSU ended in disappointment.
October 25 - Alabama @ Tennessee
This intra-divisional rivalry is the second-oldest in the SEC. These two teams play every year and hate each other.
October 25 - Ole Miss @ Arkansas
This game is only featured because of who is coming to town. Houston Nutt returns to coach against the team that fired him after 10 seasons.
November 8 - Alabama @ LSU
All Tiger fans still bitter about Nick Saban agreeing to coach the Tide have this date circled in blood on their calendars. It should be a lot of fun.
November 15 - Georgia @ Auburn
The loser of this game may have blown its chance to play in Atlanta.
November 29 - Auburn @ Alabama
One of the fiercest rivalries anywhere. Alabama hopes to restore some bragging rights in this series.
Here's how I see the West shaping up:
6. Ole Miss
Not only do they have a very difficult schedule, they are in rebuilding mode again. I have confidence that Houston Nutt will turn around this struggling program, but it will take a few years.
Ole Miss will probably rely on transfer Jevan Snead as their quarterback. While he has the skills to play in the SEC, he will need a year to adjust to Coach Nutt and his system.
The graduation of BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaves a gaping hole at running back. Despite the lack of experience in the backfield, the Rebels return an experienced wide receiver corps.
The defense is led by a couple of All-SEC selections in Peria Jerry and Greg Hardy. Even though he was not a full-time starter last season, Hardy led the SEC in sacks with 10. Look for his playing time to skyrocket this year.
Here's another SEC West team that is starting the season with a new head coach. Bobby "Screw you, I'm leaving" Petrino takes over at Arkansas.
I would say that no team lost more in the backfield in the offseason than Arkansas. Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis are all gone. Casey Dick returns, but he has not been much of a passer the past two years.
The returning wide receivers don't inspire a lot of confidence. Marcus Monk is gone, and he was the main target.
It looks as if the Razorbacks will struggle at times defensively, especially against teams with big offensive lines and powerful running backs. They are very thin at linebacker and don't return a single starter in their secondary. A small but athletic line will be the strength of the defense.
4. Mississippi State
I don't think that the Bulldogs from Starkville are ready to play in the SEC Championship Game, but don't be surprised if they pull an upset or two.
Mississippi State started off 2007 by getting walloped by LSU 45-0 at home. But man, they improved greatly as the season continued. They beat four SEC teams, won the Liberty Bowl, and finished the year 8-5. Not bad for a team that won a combined nine games in three seasons.
Head coach Sylvester Croom believes in the old-school philosophies of toughness and pounding the football. 240-pounder Anthony Dixon turned into a 1,000-yard back while accumulating 14 touchdowns.
Perhaps the biggest problem this offense has is a lack of proven playmakers.
Defensively, the front seven doesn't provide any proven edge rushers or big clogs in the middle. That may change during the season, though, as Croom has number of talented underclassmen ready to prove themselves.
The secondary features All-SEC standout Derak Pegues. Pegues is a playmaker at safety. The Bulldogs also return a couple of starters at corner. Mississippi State's pass defense should be solid.
Here's another team that may suffer because of a tough schedule.
In his second year at Alabama, Nick Saban looks to improve upon last year's 7-6 record. Fans in Tuscaloosa went nuts after the Tide started out 6-2. But a four-game free-fall brought the Crimson Tide faithful down a bit.
Nick Saban's teams at LSU and Alabama each lost a bad game or two in his first season. LSU lost to UAB in 2000 and Alabama lost to UL-Monroe last season. While embarrassing, this may be a result of Saban inheriting players who don't have the work ethic or attitude that he expects out of his players.
Based on his record, don't expect this to last past this season.
Alabama is one of a few teams that returns an experienced senior quarterback. John Parker Wilson enters 2008 as a third-year starter. While Wilson can be prolific at times, he is also prone to turnovers at the most inopportune times. His turnovers last season dramatically flipped the momentum in games against Miss. State and LSU.
Running backs Terry Grant and Glen Coffee appear primed to handle the load running the ball. Play-maker D.J. Hall graduated and leaves a big hole at wide receiver.
While there are tons of concerns in the front seven, the secondary seems to be a pretty solid group. It'd better be, because no-nonsense Nick Saban specializes on the defensive side of the ball and was a defensive back in college. The unit is led by All-SEC performer and senior Rashad Johnson.
The defending champs return to the bayou with a big ol' target on their backs.
The biggest news for LSU during the offseason involved anointed starting quarterback Ryan Perrilloux. Perrilloux was kicked off the team after a number of incidents. These incidents included being a "person of interest" in an FBI counterfeiting investigation, attempting to board a casino boat with his brother's ID, and playing a role in a bar fight.
This leaves the Tigers with no real experience at quarterback.
However, Les Miles has a loaded backfield with Keiland Williams, Charles Scott, and Richard Murphey. They will replace the production lost with the departure of Jacob Hester.
At receiver, LSU lost Early Doucet to the draft but return capable replacements, including Demetrius Byrd and Brandon LaFell. They also return Trindon Holliday, a track star. He will be used in a variety of ways on offense and special teams.
Defensively, LSU lost leaders and All-Americans Glenn Dorsey and Craig Steltz. They must also replace two corners and LB Ali Highsmith.
Despite the loss of Dorsey, the Tigers may have the best defensive line in the country with Ricky Jean-Francois, Charles Alexander, and Tyson Jackson, among others.
They return one starter at linebacker in Darry Beckwith.
At the back end of the defense, LSU brings in Chad Jones, Harry Coleman, and Danny McCray. Coleman did an excellent job filling in for the injured Craig Steltz against Ohio State.
Auburn will implement the spread offense full-time in 2008. Tommy Tuberville hired Tony Franklin right before their December bowl game. Tuberville decided to give his offense a crash course in the spread in the couple of weeks leading to the bowl, and it paid off. The Tigers controlled the clock and amassed over 400 yards.
Kodi Burns and Chris Todd will battle for the starting quarterback position, and, in fact, may split time. Burns is more of a runner, while Todd is a more polished passer.
Auburn returns senior Brad Lester as well as junior Brad Tate as their featured running backs.
Auburn hopes to get a lot of production out of their wide receivers. Seniors Rod Smith and Robert Dunn are the leaders at wideout.
Defensively, the Tigers are always solid. Preseason All-American Sen'Derrick Marks occupies one of the spots at the interior of the line. Antonio Coleman returns after leading the Tigers in sacks a year ago.
While the linebackers represent a strong unit, there is concern in the secondary. Auburn must replace three departed starters.
I perceive 2008 as a relatively weak year for the SEC West. LSU needs to find a quarterback, Auburn will be adjusting to two new coordinators, and the other teams are still rebuilding to where they want to be. Alabama and Mississippi State are a year away from seriously contending.
Auburn and LSU will be the top two contenders to win the SEC West. If the LSU/Auburn winner also beats Georgia, they will likely make it to Atlanta.