Remember the old teams from the SEC West? The smash mouth backs with excessively bulky shoulder and neck pads, wishbones and wing-t’s, Russell Athletic, coaches with skinny ties and big bellies, probation, a Heisman Trophy or two…well, these days the bellies are still big and Russell is still around (because Mississippi State’s calls to Schutt were not returned?), but a new brand of football has taken hold of the once proud bastion of conservativeness. With the likes of Houston Nutt (Ole Miss), Gus Malzahan (Auburn), Bobby Petrino (Ark), Gary Crowton (LSU), and Dan Mullen (MSU), the shootout as they say, is on. Now, just need some quarterbacks…
Ole Miss Last year: 9-4 (5-3)
Hot Toddies: The preseason hype surrounding Ole Miss has just about jumped the shark. Yes, they have a strong-armed “riverboat gambler” of a QB, a handful of future NFL studs, the ‘Wild Rebel’ formation and they smacked around Texas Tech in a madcap Cotton Bowl last year, but we all know the story here: Ole Miss is not going undefeated and likely won’t even win the West. Houston Nutt is a great college coach and right man for that job, but what makes anyone think this year will be anything but his usual 8, maybe 9 win season? Is Snead a more transcendent talent than Darren McFadden and Felix Jones? Probably not, but the schedule is quite favorable and could be enough to shoot Nutt over the hump. I think Snead will win a lot of games this year but I think he will also cost them one or two trying to do too much, couple that with some unproven holes on the O-line and I don’t see the Rebs overtaking Bama or LSU for a trip to ATL.
Sked: Money. The Rebs avoid the East heavyweights and get Bama and LSU in Oxford.
LSU 8-5 (3-5)
A Kingpin of the league for the past decade, LSU frankly was not very good last year. Quarterback play was an atrocity and the defense ranked last in the league despite yielding several NFL talents. This can almost certainly be attributed to the patchwork defensive coordinators Les Mi. chose to run with which was resoundingly resolved with the hire of John Chavis from Knoxville. Perhaps no other coordinator knows the SEC like Chavis, who if you’ll remember, boasted the nation’s 4th best defense just last year at UT. How OC Gary Crowton scrounged up 30ppg with all of those INT’s is quite the feat and an ominous sign for the rest of the league as the raw but highly skilled So. QB Jordan Jefferson showed some late season vigor. He’ll have the help of arguably the league’s most solid RB, Sr. Charles Scott, All-SEC WR Brandon LaFell, a seismic O-line, and the nation’s top recruiting class just might swing LSU back on top of the West…or, fans will literally deep fry Les Miles, break him apart, suck the juices from his head and other various stereotyped things.
Sked: While they must go b/t the hedges (10/3), the Gators must come to Death Valley (10/10).
Arkansas 4-8 (2-6)
The Hogs are this year’s enigma. You knew Petrino would eventually employ is balanced, tempo and mind controlling attack down in Fayetteville, but I doubt many thought it would come by the end of his first season with the Dicks under center. Scatback Michael Smith was the surprise of league last year, coming from obscurity to lead the SEC in all-purpose yards a year ago, will be aided by former blue chip Wolverine Ryan Mallet, at quarterback. Mallet is a hoss (6’6″) with a cannon and looks to be exactly the piece Petrino needs to get the Hogs bowlin’ in his second year. The real question mark is the defense, which ranked last or at the bottom in every category last year. Petrino went shopping for some JUCO bandages but don’t expect vast improvement this soon. Offensively, Petrino has most of the tools he needs to “do what he does” but unless the defense can make a miraculous turnaround, look for the Hogs to be hovering around the equator.
Sked: Tough road slate sends the Hogs to Bama (9/26), Florida (10/17), Ole Miss (10/24), and LSU (11/28). They do get swap Texas for Texas A&M (10/3), which although on in Coll. Station, is a winnable game.
Auburn 5-7 (2-6)
A year after the Tony Franklin experiment imploded in an abrupt, awkward plume new head coach Gene Chizik puts his offense in the hands of another former pass happy high school innovator, Gus Malzahan. Are they crazy? Well, maybe, but unlike Tony Franklin, Malzahan proven himself at this level already, both at Arkansas and Tulsa, but it’s still an offense no less that requires tailored personnel, and almost always the dreaded p-word: patience, a virtue not seen on the Plains since it mysteriously disappeared sometime around the turn of the century (local legend says it was beset by the hay fever epidemic of 1899). Nevertheless, Wo’ Eagle trudges forward with the same QB’s who, by accident, managed to move the ball past midfield a few times last year. E-town’s Chris Todd is the default official opening day starter, but he’ll likely share snaps with disappointing Jr. Neil Caudle and the regressing Kodi Burns will probably do some kind of Wild War Eagle formation. RB’s Ben Tate and Mario Fannin will be the focal points of the offense and Malzahan will likely find some unique ways to get get them touches. Has Auburn ever had an All-conference WR? I can’t remember one, and it’s doubtful yet again this year as top returner Montez Billings will have to sit out the first 4 games on academic suspension. Even on defense, where Auburn has traditionally been able to hand their hat and head coach Gene Chizik thrives, looks to be in a rebuilding year, though DE Antonio Coleman is as good as you’ll find anywhere else.
Auburn has some talented starters but very little depth and certainly no QB with the ability to fire all of Malzahan’s buttons.
Sked: Tossing in a program like West Va. to the docket is a tough ask, but at least they get em at home (9/19). If they can win either in Knoxville (10/3) or in Fayetteville (10/10) and defend home turf against Miss St (9/12) and UK (10/17) then this “rebuilding year” just might translate into a Bowl game.
Alabama 12-2 (8-0)
Expectations are rational and tempered in T-Town now after Saban and Co. reeled off a perfect regular season in just his second year on the job. Gone is the trusty arm and careless bangs of John Parker Wilson, the dependable transport of RB Glen Coffee and the obesity of Andre Smith. But Saban has stockpiled some quality depth with yet another top 3 recruiting class and a defense that should rival Florida as tops in the land. Obviously, how Jr. QB Greg McElroy can do (or, not do) is the biggest concern, but the kid knows the offense and will not be asked to do much more than hand the ball off and throw it to #8.
Sked: Another kickoff special in the Dome against Va Tech (9/5) will tell us a lot about the fortunes of this team. While they travel to Oxford (10/10), LSU comes to T-town (11/7).
Miss State 4-8 (2-6)
Dan Mullen is officially the most exciting thing in Starkville. Whether or not the former Florida play caller will have similar success with the spread here in the West remains to be seen, but mercy, this program could use some flash. Sly Croom was a pioneer and as classy as they come, and honestly his blue collar style fit the program to a T, and that is why Miss State is Miss St. This polar change in coaching philosophy will make for a rough season in which a conference win or two and a few signs of hope will be about all State fans (anyone? anyone?) should expect this year.
Sked: Brutal. G-Tech (9/19) is a tough addition to the SEC slate, and so are Houston (10/10) and @MTSU (10/17) for that matter.
P.O.Y: Charles Scott, LSU
Game of the Year: Bama @ Ole Miss (10/10)