Midterm Grades: YPN – SEC West
Glass half full? Or half empty?
Halfway in, we pause to reflect and evaluate our Summer predictions. CFN's Harbach & Mitchell grade each other's preseason picks with the respect and affection you expect from southern brothers. Get out the iodine...
This story was originally published in CFN, Y'all Play Nice. SEC West Deep Dive, August 24, 2010. Grades are marked below in-line in green/red.
Last year's picks in brown
3 SEC WEST QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who is the most overrated/underrated team in the SEC West?
Overrated 2009: Ole Miss
Come on, Auburn? To the SEC media members that ranked the Tigers second best in the West, we ask which of the following made you feel comfortable with that pick: (i) How quickly they folded down the stretch last year due to a roster thinner than Calista Flockhart? (ii) That their defense is even thinner this year? (iii) How great their stud QB Cameron Newton looks walking off the bus, even though the last SEC pass he threw was a laptop out of a window? Or (iv) much like Big Bird, you're standing up for the letter Z (Chizik, Malzahn). Auburn certainly has a depth chart that's impressive at the top (the Tigers could have as many as ten players drafted come April), but it's woefully thin once again – particularly on defense, and therein, the secondary. Regardless, before we shoot off and rank a team second best in the hyper-competitive SEC West, is it too much to ask that its QB has actually started a conference game? Especially a team so reliant on offense – and timing.
There is no reason to give Russ too hard a time over this yet because even at 6-0 and ranked #7 in both polls, we don't know a lot about Auburn (RM Note: You're being too generous. Though it's largely because of Cam, and that was tough to handicap.) We know a lot now about Cameron Newton, but the Auburn defense still has some major tests to pass before the Tigers become the SEC contender some feel they are. In two weeks there will be a stronger opinion of the Tigers one way or the other, with games at Arkansas and LSU at home but right now they are probably where most people expected them to be, no worse no better.
Underrated 2009: Auburn
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of SEC football, forgive us for not throwing LSU under the bus just yet. Yes, Les & Co. have had difficulty at the QB spot ever since the departure of Matt Flynn to Green Bay, but the Bayou Bengals still posses more talent than virtually any team in America outside of Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Columbus and Austin. Yes, we have doubts about OC Gary "three years and a crashing thud" Crowton, but LSU does posses three quality WRs all bound for the NFL, a stable of RBs half of whom will also play on Sundays, and an offensive line much maligned for things beyond its control (see below under Jefferson, Jordan). Yes, the Tigers are replacing a bevy of talent on defense and are paper thin at LB, but have you checked the cupboards? Talk about possession... Out goes five star S Chad Jones to the NY Giants, in comes five star S Craig Lostin. And there's more where that came from. The Tigers possess a defensive two-deep that most coordinators would drool over. Yes, LSU certainly appears possessed.
Russ was spot on right with this one. Even with Les Miles good fortune against Tennessee, the Tigers could be the favorites to win the West right now. The schedule's tough, with trips to Auburn and Arkansas. But with Alabama making the trip down to the Bayou, a coach that knows how to win on the road, and with a particularly salty defense in tow, the Tigers are sitting in the catbird seat.
Overrated 2009: Alabama
Arkansas & Auburn. Breaking the rules here by refusing to pick just one overrated team (RM Note: Why not pick all six; cover your bets), but these two are almost the exact same team. Two transfers quarterbacks, two relatively new SEC head coaches, two squads that focus on the offense first and foremost, and two flat out terrible defenses. We aren't sold that either team is yet elite, primarily because of the defensive question marks. Remember – defense wins championships. Still, one of them could end up making a run in the tight SEC West. Until the season begins and one (or both) of these two start winning some important ball games, they're both overrated.
I would give you an incomplete, Brian, but as that's the very definition of midterm you get a failing grade here. Auburn is undefeated, and Arkansas, though with a loss, matches up better against every other team in the West than it did against Alabama. And they choked that game away anyway. Both are sitting at the top with a good shot for the brass ring – so right now it's hard to see either of them as overrated. Two whiffs; that backfired so far, huh ;).
Underrated 2009: Arkansas
Since 2007, LSU has been largely dismissed, chiefly due to a lot of negative bias against HC Les Miles. But the roster is full of great players. This team could break out anytime and win the West; even take the SEC title. All they need is the lights to come on. Jordan Jefferson is a good QB, he just hasn't been consistent. Richard Murphy is a great running back, he's just been hurt. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the country; SEC officials just can't seem to see his toes touching green in Bryant Denny Stadium. The "Third and Chavis" stuff is without merit – the guy is a proven commodity, one of the best coordinators in the country. There is a lot to like about LSU even if you don't like Miles. Don't bet against them making a big statement this year, particularly given their position as an "underdog".
Well Brian, you're clearly better at identifying underrated than overrated. This was a good pick for all the reasons Harbach identified in his critique of my pick above. Though sans this part here about Jefferson being a good QB. Tacos are good. A nice G&T on a hot summer afternoon is good. A girlfriend that doesn't whine when you're watching eight hours of CFB on a Saturday is good. Jefferson is serviceable.
(ii) Who emerges from the SEC West shadows for a breakout season?
2009: Patrick Peterson, LSU
Last August few outside of the recruiting beatniks knew who Peterson was. In fact, he had only just become "Peterson", having changed his name from Johnson. Now he's the superstar he was he was on the cusp of becoming. There are a lot of options this year: Auburn's DE Nosa Eguae, Ole Miss's OT Bobby Massie, Miss State's DB's S Nickoe Whitley and Johnathan Banks, LSU's LB Ryan Baker (broken jaw), and just throw a stick in the direction of Bama – start with DT Josh Chapman. But this season we're staying in the Bayou and selecting RB Richard Murphy. If you don't know the story, it's one you should. Murphy recovered from ACL surgery his junior year of high school to become the fifth best RB in Louisiana history, with 7,059 career rushing yards. Around that time, he and his family suffered the deaths of both parents, and Murphy had to balance school/football with helping a family of nine siblings. Then he suffers another season ending knee injury in 2009, missing most of the year. After bidding his time, word out of Baton Rouge has the fifth year senior back to form and tearing up Fall practice. He's a human blur, hits the hole with extreme prejudice, has soft hands and is a serious weapon receiving out of the backfield. And he plays with an anger that's noteworthy, but controlled. He often gets yards after first contact and always falls forward. He reminds us a lot of Knowshon Moreno, and to say Murphy is focused is an understatement. If the knees hold – and we've been told they're solid – remember the name: Richard Murphy. (It's a bit dusty, but here's a refresher.)
Richard Murphy was an interesting pick, but it doesn't look like Russ will be hitting the mark with this one. Especially with Stevan Ridley currently the second leading rusher in the SEC. Murphy has 10 rushing attempts for 28 yards and no TDs. While I commend Russ for thinking outside the box, this was a whiff. (RM note: Yes, might have reached a bit there. Was really pulling for that young man given his life story. Would like to see him receiving out of the backfield a little more.)
2009: Chris Todd, Auburn
What player has been more dogged than Jordan Jefferson this offseason? (RM Note: Oh my! You are NOT picking Jordan Jefferson. Wow.) Because the kid didn't light the SEC on fire in his first season as a starting QB in the SEC (which he started while still 18 years old), some fans, writers and media personnel are writing him off as a bust. Does anyone remember Jason Campbell his Sophomore year? It wasn't pretty. But by year four the kid was a first round draft pick. It seemed as if Miles wasn't ready to unleash the playbook on Jefferson and was holding him back from the chance to be great. That won't happen this year. The QB that SEC writer Tony Barnhardt ranked as dead last in the SEC West preseason will have the breakout year in 2010. He has some great weapons at receiver and if the O-line can give the running game a little room, LSU could be in Atlanta with Les Miles again.
Ha! You think I missed with this category?! Saddle up, Tonto. :) At least most people don't even know who Murphy is. Ironic that with both missed with LSU players given how many of them are sitting atop the conference statistically right now. Against Tennessee, Jefferson had a Passing Efficiency Rating of 15. FIFTEEN! Y'all know the story... Jefferson is a good role QB, and for that role the Tigers can use him well. But when he's in, teams are putting 8-9 guys in the box to stop the run. No truth to the rumor that Tennessee was actually putting 10 guys in the box and just leaving a receiver uncovered – so confident were they in Jefferson's passing wretchedness.
(iii) What every SEC West fan should be talking about this preseason, but isn't?
Well, that leaves out anything to do with Jordan Jefferson, Les Miles, and wearing Gator hats to Razorback pressers… (i) Bama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson rushed for more yards last year than Auburn legends Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams ever did in a single season, (ii) Ingram and Richardson can't even shave yet (we're suggesting there's still room to improve), (iii) There's no truth to the rumor that Alabama is so thin at DB the unit can no longer cast a shadow, (iv) The over/under on how many WRs will start a game in the Tide secondary before the Iron Bowl: 2.5, (v) Houston Nutt will apparently play both the inexperienced Nathan Stanley and preseason, pre-ganja Heisman candidate Jeremiah Masoli at QB in the Rebs season opener against Jacksonville State, (vi) Vegas odds that Stanley wins that position battle: same as your chance of waking beside Megan Fox, (vii) The last five seasons have seen the Battle for the Golden Boot won by a grand total of 13 points, (viii) That's LSU vs. Arkansas, (ix) it's not a rivalry if you have to explain it to people, and (x) Even with a hellacious schedule, and the loss of last year's conference rushing leader Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State will go bowling come December.
As usual, Russ throws in so much good detail it is hard to discuss it all without your head exploding. Since I'm partial to my head and a glass-half-full guy, we'll review the positive. Alabama's secondary does look shaky, Jeremiah Masoli was the starting QB (not really a shocker), and as of this posting, MSU looks to go bowling even given it's in the hyper-competitive Western Division. Kudos for the MSU call over most everything else, Russ, as the Bulldogs shrugged off a slow start to get back on track. And yes, it's not a rivalry if you have to explain it to people.
With the SEC West, everyone wants to talk about the negative instead of the positive. Don't be a hater. Alabama is ranked number one in both polls! Yeah, but they're losing 10 starters on defense. Arkansas and Auburn are on the cusp of exciting times! Yeah, they have defenses that were abused last year, and defense wins championships in the SEC. LSU is a steady QB away from a trip back to Atlanta. Yeah, Les Miles can't win without Nick Saban's players and is going to be at Michigan next season anyway, so he doesn't care about this season. What the heck is wrong with everyone? This is deepest division in College football top to bottom, and no one seems to want to talk about that.
The SEC West has four ranked teams in both polls, five teams that ranked or received votes in the AP Poll, and every single team was ranked or received votes in the Coaches Poll. The division brings back the BCS National Champion, a 3-1 bowl record last season, and the top two Heisman contenders (Mark Ingram and Ryan Mallett). The SEC West has become the deepest division in the country and could very well put every single team in a bowl game this year. How about that for positive at a time when everyone wants to focus on the negative? Four teams in the division could win ten games… If you include the bowl game, four probably will.
Yes, ole miss has been a disappointment of sorts, but the West is indeed better than the East for a second consecutive season, and with three teams in the Top 10, it is indeed the best division in America. Nicely done, Brian. Moreover, if the Rebs can find three wins in @ Bama, @ Arkansas, Auburn, UL-L, @ UT, @ LSU and MSU, even they will rebound for a bowl spot. Going to be tight.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC West Coach / Player is in the Spotlight this season?
2009: Jordan Jefferson, LSU
Hate to point out the obvious, but when a team like LSU is ranked fourth best in its division by the conference media, something is gravely amiss – particularly given the talent/depth at nearly every position. Say what you will about Miles, but from a W/L standpoint, he's the most decorated HC in LSU history. (And the "with Saban's players" is overrated – no more than Saban did it with Shula's players, or Tressel did it with Cooper's players, etc.) LSU's offensive line has been receiving the brunt of the offseason grief, in large part given its failure to open holes for the running game, or protect its young QB. However, beginning the season before that, when teams realized that RsFr Jarrett Lee wasn't going to beat them, they began crowding the line to take away the run. Remember that Charles Scott was averaging 100 yards plus a game the 1H of 2008, and that production suddenly dropped off a cliff. It's hard to run through nine guys. It hard for five guys to block nine. Teams employed the same strategy last season as sophomore Jordan Jefferson proved mostly ineffective under center. And given the number of INTs Mr. Lee tossed in 2008, it was clear LSU's coaching staff knew it couldn't survive a sequel, which would have placed even more emphasis on its failure to have a seasoned QB in the wings after kicking Ryan Perrilloux off the team. Thus, Mr. Jefferson was told to take a sack over risking an interception. Yes, the O-line needs to get a little tougher, but there's more blame with the QB than meets the eye. With 15 games now under his belt and a ton of talent around him, there's no excuse for Mr. Jefferson not to seize the opportunity and shine. No excuse besides a lack of talent – or an Offensive Coordinator reluctant to use his full playbook.
We have a winner on this one. Jefferson has been in the spotlight all year long, and unfortunately for Miles, not for the reasons LSU fans had hoped. He has been so wildly inaccurate that Miles has been rotating him with Jarrett Lee. Yes Mr. Pick Six has made his valiant return to the SEC field, and we are pleased to report he's improved from his freshman debut. Jefferson will still have a lot to say about what happens in the West; he's still the LSU starter, and with games against Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn left, LSU fans hope what Jefferson is more on the positive than negative side of the spotlight Russ gave him.
2009: Gus Malzhan, Auburn
Jeremiah Masoli, Ole Miss. Hopefully for Houston Nut's sake, the only spotlight on Masoli is the metaphorical one and not the luminescent shine of the police. Calm down Ole Miss fans; I kid because I love. Ole Miss doesn't have the weapons Masoli had at Oregon, and even though the schedule is soft, it isn't "Pac 10 soft". So it it's unlikely Masoli is going to turn a Music City bowl into a Citrus Bowl. But once he becomes the starter he makes the offense a threat. Nathan Stanley is still the man for the opener, but if the offense stalls the way it might, don't count out Nutt giving Masoli 3 or 4 games to get comfortable. Ole Miss will be 5-0 with Masoli, Stanley or you as the starter, so come game six it will be about who can put more points on the board. More likely than not, Masoli is the guy to do that, so come Kentucky it would be shocking if he's not starting.
We're giving this a failing grade, Brian, with the hope that things turn around for Masoli in the second half. Right now the Rebs aren't an "offensive threat" with Masoli. Sorry, but putting points on the board against Fresno State and Kentucky, at home, is not good enough for a passing grade. Masoli is only 7th best in the SEC in Passing Efficiency, 10th in Passing, has 6 TDs to 5 INTs, and for SEC QBs with at least 35 attempts, he's near the bottom at 10th best in Completion Percentage.
SEC WEST POWER RANKINGS
2009: Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Auburn & Miss State
1 Alabama – Bye Bye Bama; a ridiculous schedule/secondary could drop the Tide to #2
2 LSU – Make teams respect the pass & LSU's in Atlanta. Don't & Crowton's unemployed
3 Arkansas – Auburn & Arkansas are based on Offense. Hogs is better
4 Auburn – See above
5 Ole Miss – Masoli will be a fun distraction; and keep Nutt out of the cellar
6 MSU – Still bowling
It may very well be how everything shakes out at the end of the year, but right now, this is a bit out of order. MSU is a better than Ole Miss today, but both will be 5 and 6 on anyone's list today. Overall, this is pretty accurate but not good enough.
2009: LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn & Miss State
1 Alabama – No brainer; don't talk to me about the D until Saban's not the head coach
2 LSU –Miles' luck has to switch back. Right? At least when Michigan is hiring it does
3 Auburn – Malzahn with a mobile QB? AU was 2nd in the SEC with Chris Todd running the show
4 Arkansas – If the D steps up, the Hogs can shake up this entire list; a wait and see approach
5 Mississippi State – Much improved – plus cowbells
6 Ole Miss – Masoli addition overrated
Pretty good at the midway mark. The only discrepancy is moving Bama behind LSU and Auburn.
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) Alabama vs. LSU, November 6th. Both teams get their bye before this contest – shocker – and it's very likely to determine the winner of the West. At this point, you have to like Alabama, particularly given the Tide's rushing attack and the relative inexperience of LSU's D-line. That said, November comes after a lot of football, both in terms of guys finding their feet and a lot can change by then. Regardless, the drama is sure to be off the hook in Red Stick come November 6.
2) Auburn vs. Alabama, November 26th. The Tigers let the Tide off the hook last year with their prevent-defense-only-prevents-you-from-winning strategy. This season the Iron Bowl is in Bama-land; while Alabama will be the favorite, if last year didn't prove to you that it's difficult to handicap these intense rivalry games, nothing will. Also, once again this game could determine who plays for the conference crown. Not so much in favor of Auburn – more that they could knock Bama out.
3) LSU vs. Arkansas, November 27th. The last five seasons have seen the Battle for the Golden Boot won by a grand total of 13 points, and not that surprisingly have included four OTs. While it's something of a made-for-realignment rivalry, a few more years of this kind of tension and we might actually have ourselves a little bit of hatefest. One thing's for certain, you can expect Arkansas's talented offense to be firing on full cylinders by season's end. Will LSU's offense have enough to keep up against a likely to be weak Hog defense?
We have yet to see one of these games, but given how the 1H has set the table, all three are current contenders for Gameday locations. Not having LSU v. Auburn is a bit of a glitch, and shows where you thought Auburn would be relative to Arkansas.
1) Alabama vs. Arkansas, September 25thFor those questioning the Arkansas defense and how well their offense can do against tough defenses, circle this game. Arkansas gets a good test from Georgia in Athens the week before, but that outcome won't have anything to do with what happens in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks will be sky-high for this game, and since it is a division matchup, they should be more focused than they will for UGA. If Arkansas holds any hope of winning the West, they had better beat Alabama at home.
2) Alabama vs. LSU, November 6th. A return to the scene of the crime. Two years ago in his first trip back to Baton Rouge, Nick Saban ripped the hearts out of the LSU faithful with an overtime win. This time he returns with the reigning National Champions (think that'll sting?) and should be in great shape for a repeat. If he wants to turn down the heat, Les Miles really needs to win this game, probably more than any other on the schedule.
3) LSU vs. Auburn, October 23rd. Ignore last year's snoozefest, this has been one of the most exciting, must-see SEC games from the last decade, and one off year is unlikely to change that. Miles has won three straight against Auburn – heck, one of the wins was even with Jarrett Lee as his quarterback. And yes, he threw a pick six. This year should be what you expect from an Auburn/LSU game, not what we got last year.
I don't know if I'd have put Alabama v. Arkansas at the top of this list, but the rest of it I'm fine with. Hard to judge this midterm, as a lot of the conference games have yet to be played.
Don't forget to read CFN's Barrett Sallee Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes every Wednesday.
Russ Mitchell covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He may be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @russmitchellsec
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @harbabd