Breaking Down The SEC West

Jay WortherCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2009

DALLAS - JANUARY 02:  Head coach Houston Nutt of the Mississippi Rebels before a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the AT&T Cotton Bowl on January 2, 2009 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

With SEC media days inching ever closer, it's time it's time for another meaningless prediction of how the season will shake out.

Here is a quick look at the six teams in the SEC West division and the roads that lay ahead.  (Listed in order of projected finish)

1. Ole Miss Rebels

I have to admit that I've been drinking the Ole Miss kool-aid during the offseason.  They are returning most of their starters from last year's team that finished the season with six straight wins.  That stretch included a 31-13 win over then No. 18 LSU in Baton Rouge and a 47-34 victory over then No. 7 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. 

The most important piece of this puzzle is starting QB Jevan Snead.  Last season, the SEC West was devoid of quarterbacks with any meaningful experience except for Alabama, and it showed on the field. 

If the Rebels survive their first SEC test Sept. 24 at South Carolina and the home game against Alabama on October 10, they could easily find themselves sitting at 7-0 going into Auburn for their toughest road game of the season.  The schedule sets up nicely for a trip to Atlanta in December for the SEC Championship game.

2. LSU Tigers

LSU was one of the unlucky teams to find themselves without a quarterback going into last season.  The untimely dismissal of Ryan Perrilloux left a void that LSU struggled to fill for most of the year.

Enter Jordan Jefferson.  Jefferson started two games for the Tigers last season, and finished 1-1, thanks to his defense not being able to hold off Arkansas in the regular season finale.

LSU is loaded with talent, and the experience Jefferson got at the end of the season is enough to put them in the second spot in the West. 

LSU should start the season 4-0, but on October 3 they hit a stretch that starts at Georgia, followed by home games with Florida and Auburn.  They also have to go to Ole Miss and face former coach Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The schedule looks brutal, but the value of a talented quarterback can't be underestimated in the SEC.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama fans are excited coming off of last year's 12-0 regular season, but a closer look shows that their three biggest rivals—Auburn, LSU, and Tennessee—went a combined 8-16 in the conference, and only Ole Miss was the only other team to finish .500 or better in their division.

Alabama's biggest weapon in 2008 was experience behind center.  They not only have a new starter this season, they also lost their two best offensive linemen and starting running back.

The defensive side of the ball should be the strength of the Tide, even with the loss of leader and quarterback of the defense, Rashad Johnson.  Alabama has linebackers on their depth chart that could start for some other SEC schools.

Alabama's success may depend on the ability to create turnovers and score defensive/special teams touchdowns—an area they excelled in last season.  But if the offense isn't able to move the ball effectively, you only have to look at the 2008 Auburn Tigers to see what happens to a top-rated defense when they spend too much time on the field.

The 2009 campaign starts off with another appearance in the Georgia Dome, this time against a Virginia Tech squad that will likely not be the pushovers that Clemson turned out to be last season. 

A win in this game would be a boost to Alabama's season, but a poor performance on offense could sting until their first SEC game, hosting Arkansas on Sept. 26.

Alabama travels to Kentucky on October 3 and meets projected division winner Ole Miss in Oxford on Oct. 10.  If the 'Bama offense has come together at this point of the season, this game could decide the representative for the West in Atlanta.

4. Auburn Tigers

Many people may have forgotten that Auburn has plenty of talent on the sidelines after watching the Tony Franklin offensive debacle of last season.  With a new attitude and some unity in the locker room, Auburn could actually be a dark horse in the West.

Auburn brings in new head coach Gene Chizik, fresh off of his underwhelming 2-10 season at Iowa State that ended with 10 straight losses.  The bright side for Auburn fans?  The last time Chizik coached at Auburn was 2004, when the Tigers went 13-0 and barely missed out on the BCS Championship game.

Chizik has also assembled one of the best staffs in the SEC, starting with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.  A completely new set of coaches should help avoid the tension that plagued the Tigers in their 2008 campaign, resulting in the dismissal of Franklin mid-season and the ultimate firing of Tommy Tuberville.

Auburn will be looking to install Malzahn's hurry-up offense.  This no-huddle attack proved very successful at Tulsa, providing the nation's top offense in his two years there.

Auburn's defense may get a little more rest than last season, but Malzahn's quick-strike capability might leave them on the field a little more than they like.  At least this season, they may get to return after a score instead of after another three-and-out.

Auburn opens their SEC schedule hosting Mississippi State on Sept. 12, unlikely to repeat the 3-2 snooze-fest that Auburn won in Starkville last year.

The first major test should be at home against West Virginia on September 19.  This WVU squad will be trying to replace departed QB Pat White, and Auburn will be the first BCS team that the Mountaineers face.

Auburn's first conference road game will be against Tennessee on Oct. 3, in a meeting of two first-year head coaches.  If Auburn can get past the Mountaineers and Volunteers, they could be looking at a 5-0 start to the season.

5. Arkansas Razorbacks

Bobby Petrino will be looking to improve on the 5-7 record he posted in his first year at Arkansas.  Hopefully the new artificial turf will give him a little more of a home field advantage.

Arkansas is another team losing a starting quarterback—Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett will be trying to improve on the performance of Casey Dick.  This may be just the spark that Petrino's pass-happy offense needs.

The Hogs will face their biggest obstacle in their scheduling.  This year, the teams that Arkansas will face from the East division are Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

There will be a lot more parity in the West this season, and it would be easy to argue that Arkansas will finish higher than fifth in the division, but the key will be the level of play that they get out of Mallett.

Arkansas will jump right into the meat of their schedule, facing Georgia at home Sept. 19.  This will be followed by a road trip to Alabama, and subsequent games against Texas A&M, Auburn, Florida, and Ole Miss.

If the Razorbacks have enough players left to field a team after this stretch, it should be considered a successful season.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State is another team in the first year coaches club.  They will debut with first time head coach Dan Mullen who is fresh off of a national championship as offensive coordinator at Florida.

Since 2002, the Bulldogs have gone 11-45 in SEC play, with four of those wins coming in 2007.  Mullen will definitely have his work cut out for him in rebuilding this program.

The good news for the new coach is that Mississippi State fans aren't expecting much.  If Mullen can get them into a lower-tier bowl game, they will probably be satisfied for a while.

Unfortunately, with Georgia Tech, Houston, and MTSU on the non-conference schedule, this probably won't be the year for that bowl.

The Bulldogs typically field a good defense every season.  Maybe coach Mullen's experience on offense will be just what they need to move from the cellar of the SEC.

MSU will get their first test on the road against Auburn on Sept. 12.  Look for them to score more than the two points they got in last year's 3-2 defeat.

The Bulldogs will host LSU on September 26, Georgia Tech on Oct. 3, Florida on Oct. 24, Alabama on Nov. 14, and Ole Miss on Nov. 28. 

They may steal a game here or there, but there just aren't enough winnable games on the schedule this season.


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