Last week I revealed my ridiculously early 2011 SEC East rankings. This week, we go out west. If it was its own conference last season, the SEC West probably would be considered the best conference in college football. In 2011, that trend will probably continue. Will Auburn maintain its perch atop the division? Will LSU find its way back to Atlanta? Here’s how I see the SEC West shaking out in 2011 (predictions subject to, and probably will change).
6. Ole Miss Rebels
So Rebels, was the PR hit taken from the admission of Jeremiah Masoli worth the last place finish in the division? Was it worth a year of being stuck in neutral, only to find yourselves right back where you were one year ago? Nathan Stanley will be an adequate replacement for Masoli and the ground game will be solid with the underrated Brandon Bolden, but there are too many question marks to put the Rebs anywhere but the cellar at this point. Just as it did in 2009 the schedule sets up nicely, with road games at Vanderbilt, Fresno State, Auburn, Kentucky and Mississippi State. But the Rebels won’t have the talent, depth or coaching staff to compete in a year-in, year-out basis in the SEC West. However, don’t be surprised all six SEC West teams make a bowl in 2011.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen’s name was hot this offseason during several coaching seraches, but his team in Starkville is even hotter. In just two years, he transformed Mississippi State from perennial SEC doormat to a nine-win team. In Starkville, that’s quite an accomplishment. But are the Bulldogs ready to take that next step to become an SEC West contender? No. At least, not yet. Name me Mississippi State’s biggest SEC win during Mullen’s two years at the helm? Overrated Ole Miss in 2009? Mediocre Florida in 2010? Color me unimpressed. The Bulldogs lose several key pieces on defense, including defensive end Pernell McPhee, linebacker Chris White and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard are back to lead the offense, but I won’t hop on the Mississippi State bandwagon (which is getting more crowded by the day) until the Bulldogs prove they can hang in the SEC West.
4. Auburn Tigers
Don’t take this the wrong way Auburn fans. Being ranked fourth in the SEC West is not an insult. Alabama finished fourth in the West last season and wound up in the top 10 of the final AP poll. The losses of quarterback Cam Newton, defensive end Nick Fairley and a veteran offensive line will force the Tigers to take a step back in 2011, but it won’t be a step off of a cliff like some are predicting. In three years head coach Gene Chizik has completely rebuilt a roster that was depleted under former head coach Tommy Tuberville. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn set records at Auburn with Chris Todd at quarterback in 2009, so whether it’s Barrett Trotter or somebody else that steps in at quarterback on the Plains, he should be in good hands. With road games at South Carolina, Clemson, Georgia, Arkansas and LSU, the schedule doesn’t do Auburn any favors. The Tigers will win some big games and contend for the division, but inexperience will rear its ugly head enough to prevent the Tigers from going to a BCS game for the second straight season.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Last offseason, it was Alabama’s defense that was the question mark. This offseason, the focus is on the offense. Gone are running back Mark Ingram, quarterback Greg McElroy, wide receiver Julio Jones and offensive tackle James Carpenter. Considering that the Tide offense was sporadic at times with these guys in the lineup last season, it’s going to go through some growing pains without them. Trent Richardson has the potential to be a Heisman Trophy caliber running back, but he hasn’t had to carry the load as the feature back during his career. With Alabama breaking in a new quarterback, he’s going to have to in 2011 – especially early. Schedule-wise, things set up relatively nicely. The Tide travels to Florida and Auburn, but gets Arkansas and LSU at home. Alabama will contend for the division title, and just like most contenders, if the ball bounces the right way, a trip to Atlanta is certainly possible.
2. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas’ offense kicked into overdrive last season when Knile Davis emerged as the No. 1 running back. Sure Ryan Mallett is gone, but the nation got a sneak peek at what Tyler Wilson is capable of when Mallett went out with a concussion against Auburn. Wilson will get the benefit of having receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams (if he can hold on to the ball) and Jarius Wright all back to make his job much easier. Couple a potent offense with a veteran defense, and you have a legitimate SEC contender – which is exactly what Arkansas will be in 2011. The Hogs have to travel to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge which won’t be easy, but I have more faith in the veteran Hogs than the more inexperienced Crimson Tide.
1. LSU Tigers
LSU lost a veteran running back in Stevan Ridley, but returns four starters on the offensive line, has a junior college transfer quarterback who’s familiar with the SEC coming in and has most of its tough conference games except for Alabama at home. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, that’s the same story we wrote about Auburn last season. Remind me again how that worked out for them? Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will step in and compete with veterans Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee for the No. 1 spot. The Tigers averaged 39.5 points per game over the last four games of 2010, and with maligned offensive coordinator Gary Crowton gone in favor of Steve Kragthorpe, the Tigers are sure to get at least a minor offensive boost in 2011. That’ll be all they need. All-everything cornerback Patrick Peterson is gone, but the Tigers return seven starters on defense. That’s more than enough for defensive coordinator John Chavis to work his magic. The opener against Oregon will be interesting, but even with a loss, LSU will still be right in the thick of the national championship hunt.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
2010/2011 Off-Season Column Archive:
Ridiculously Early SEC West Rankings – January 23, 2011
LSU Hires OC Four Years Too Late – January 20, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC East Rankings – January 19, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cam Turns Pro – January 14, 2011
BCS National Championship Review – January 11, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cotton Bowl – January 8, 2011
Five Thoughts On Why Auburn Wins – January 7, 2011
Five Thoughts On Dan Quinn – January 5, 2011
Tuesday Question: Should Rich Rod Be Fired – January 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Charlie Weis – January 4, 2011
CFN Analysis: Charlie Weis as the Florida OC – January 3, 2011
CFN Analysis: Outback Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Gator Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Capital One Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Liberty Bowl – December 31, 2010
CFN Analysis: Music City Bowl – December 30, 2010
End Of The Season Accountability – December 27, 2010
Pryor Can’t Be Compared To Newton – December 23, 2010
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam’s Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Click here for the 2010 regular season archive
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
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