Y'all Play Nice: SEC West Deep Dive
Who's ready for a Do-Over?
Every week, CFN's Brian Harbach and Russ Mitchell break down the SEC games you need to watch, the SEC questions you want answered, and of course, the SEC Power Rankings. All things SEC from two different SEC writers, with two different SEC points of view. One of 'em always right. Now y'all play nice.
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for CFN. Follow him @harbachcfn
Y'all Play Nice: SEC East Deep Dive
3 SEC WEST QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who is the most overrated/underrated team in the SEC West?
Have to agree with Brian on this one. Oh what might have been… On January 11, Arkansas was my early days pick to win the 2012 BCS title. Then came BlondieGate, and Vegas now has the Hogs at 8.5 wins. Smoke that corn pipe for a minute. Yes, one man truly can make a difference, and no that one man isn't Knile Davis – no matter how fast, strong and talented that running back might be. Arkansas hasn't finished a season ranked in the top half of the FBS in run defense since…? They haven't even been in the top 70 since 2007. After losing so many stars in the front seven from last year, plus being down to only two linebackers in camp (Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright should return this week, although it speaks to depth), how can anyone in their right mind expect this Razorback defense to stop the rushing attacks of LSU and Alabama – behind two of the nation's best (and biggest) offensive lines? And without Petrino, the Hogs are unlikely to score enough to keep up. I have Arkansas losing three games – and if the wheels come off the cart, four is a real possibility. Oh Bobby, look what you've done.
Ole Miss. There...I wrote it. Since the ill-fated decision to fire David Cutcliffe, this program has failed to win even a third of its conference games – and that includes the Nutt years, when Houston feasted at the trough of Ed Orgeron's recruiting prowess. Yes, we realize the Rebs might have one of – if not THE – most difficult schedules in the nation this year. Plus a new head coach and AD, and all the distraction that entails. However, this is an improved team, and Hugh Freeze has already brought a new energy to Oxford. Eight starters return on both the offense AND defense, and JUCO transfer quarterback Bo Wallace (4606 yards, 53 TDs, National Jr. College Player of the Year) has a talented receiving corps to target. It won't show up in wins, but this Rebs team will be far more competitive in 2012 than most folks realize.
This is pretty obvious. No matter how much love one gives Tyler Wilson, and he will get plenty of love from YPN this fall, he cannot overcome the absolute disaster of a head coach now in charge of the Arkansas Razorbacks. John L Smith is a train-wreck; if history is any guide, he is impulsive and irrational as the top man. Bobby Petrino's shortcomings can be debated but his results on the field speak for themselves. Smith consistently lost games to inferior teams while in charge at Michigan State; nearly every season at MSU there was at least one jaw dropping loss to a team the Spartans were decidedly more talented than. In 2005, MSU started 4-0 only to end the season 5-7. In 2006, there was the shocking result against Notre Dame when, up 37-21 in the middle of the fourth, he managed to surrender 19 straight points along with the game, 40-37. This is a man in charge of a supposed top ten team??? What was Arkansas AD Jeff Long thinking? The last few years this column has been a steadfast supporter of the Razorbacks, at least on this writer's behalf, but the Razorbacks get the dubious distinction of being overrated in 2012.
Auburn is underrated in a sense, but they are listed here more by default than anything else. Arkansas has been discussed above, the Mississippi schools aren't going anywhere, same for Texas A&M with a pretty steep learning curve, and neither Alabama nor LSU can qualify. That leaves us with Auburn. There are some arguments for the Tigers doing better than expected this year…the offensive line is more talented than a year ago, albeit younger. There are some playmakers on offense with quite a bit of experience: WR Emory Blake (Sr), TE Philip Lutzerkirchen (Sr) and RB Onterio McCalebb (Sr). The defense returns nine starters and new DC Brian VanGorder should have an instant impact. Those positives, plus even years traditionally bring a more friendly schedule, and there is a good argument for Auburn finishing third in the West, ahead of most analyst predictions.
(ii) Who emerges from the SEC West shadows for a breakout season?
LSU has been running five wide receiver sets early in camp. Past wondering what the temperature is in hell, it should be clear that the 2012 Tigers will throw more this year than since Matt Flynn and the 2007 National Championship team roamed Death Valley. So far, the beneficiary of that looks to be receiver Jarvis Landry, who steps in for last year's receiving leader Rueben Randle, now of the New York Giants. At 6-1, 200 pounds, Landry has good speed and route running skills, and if you watched any of the Tigers kickoff and punt coverage last year, you already know #80 loves contact. But what many don't know is Landry might just have the best hands in the SEC. Word out of camp has the true sophomore making one-handed grabs with regularity; on a daily basis. Good news for a unit that is relying on more youth than usual. (Runners up: Arkansas senior WR Cobi Hamilton AND true freshman WR Mckale McKay, and Bama true sophomore LB Trey DePriest).
Aaron Murray is too good to make any Georgia Bulldog fan pine for Zach Mettenberger, but Zach is going to make some LSU fans scratch their heads as to why this young man was not playing in 2011. For three years now, LSU fans have entered the season expecting their experienced quarterback to become more comfortable in the offense and open it up. The problem the last two years has been no quarterback on the team was capable of doing that. Mettenberger is a quarterback, he isn't an athlete; he is a down field throwing quarterback with an NFL arm. Les Miles likes special teams and defense to run the show, and a great running game to put teams away...but he needs explosive plays to come from other places than kick returns - particularly with the Tyrann Mathieu now licking his (self-inflicted) wounds. Mettenberger has a number of young, fast receivers that will be open down field, and he is the player to take advantage of that. Expect a big year from this LSU quarterback throwing the football.
(iii) What every SEC West fan should be talking about this preseason, but isn't?
Well, it's certainly not the dismissal of LSU's star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who just sent the Honey Badger college legacy up in smoke. This one is actually easy – very few SEC West fans can even spell Aggie, let alone discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of this season's Texas A&M program. So here's your primer: A&M will sport a solid offense, but new head coach Kevin Sumlin must replace star quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has just been tabbed as the Miami Dolphins starter. Sumlin will rely on a redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, who has virtually no experience. Behind him are three just as equally inexperienced signal callers – all underclassmen. Running back Christine Michael might just be the second most underrated tailback in the conference (behind Auburn's Ontario McCalebb). The A&M offensive line is on par with many SEC programs, and includes arguably the conference's best left tackle: 6-6, 310-pound Luke Joeckel.
Past quarterbacking concerns, the A&M defensive line will average just 275 pounds, and must replace two key stars in tackles Eddie Brown and Tony Jerod-Eddie. Arkansas will weigh in around 280. Miss State: 285. Bama: 295. Florida: 290. UGA: 310. Some Aggie fans will point to LSU's average weight (276)…and when A&M has two of the top five picks in next year's NFL draft as its ends (Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery), along with five-to-six additional players that would likely start in College Station tomorrow, then yes, a 275 pound average is OK.
The final strike for A&M is simply distraction, in every shape/form. The Aggies must adjust to a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes (back to a 4-3 defense), while adapting to new teams, new cities, new stadiums, considerably more media requests/time demands, etc. At a time when the Aggies need to concentrate most, their attention will be torn from every direction.
Texas A&M is a great under-covered story for the SEC West. Kyle Field is on many a bucket list, and having that tradition/atmosphere part of the SEC is something all fans should be excited about. Of course, everyone is talking about A&M but no one is discussing new head coach Kevin Sumlin. If Mike Sherman were still the Aggie coach, not much would be thought about the program competing against the SEC. But smartly, Texas A&M fired Sherman. Sumlin on the other hand has some experience against SEC defenses and has done well in those attempts.
Sumlin was 1-1 against Mississippi State while coaching at Houston, averaging 28 points a game against the Bulldogs. 28 points a game is nothing to sneeze at against a decent SEC defense, but that was more than 14 points lower than Houston's average of 42 points per game those two years. Sumlin will have to start from scratch with a new quarterback, literally, plus trying to change an offense that does not necessarily have the players to fit his system. It will be very interesting to see how he does against SEC defenses week in and out. Sumlin has a great offensive mind. while the Aggies are new and exciting in their own right, Kevin Sumlin deserves equal discussion.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC West Coach/Player is in the Spotlight this season?
In the "What have you done for me lately?" world of college football, it remains to be seen what Gene Chizik can do without the good graces of one of the sports' greatest college quarterbacks ever. Another 8-5, .500 in conference, season is a distinct possibility, unless the Tigers upset the…Tigers (Clemson) on September 1. (NOTE: Clemson's not joining the SEC, not since the Gamecocks already wrap up those TV markets; but how crazy would four Tigers in one conference be?) Against LSU, UGA and Bama, Auburn surrendered 45, 45 and 42 points, respectively, in three humiliating losses. With nine returning starters and a great new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder, that's unlikely to happen again this season. But with no clear cut starting quarterback, and a strong possibility that three underclassman will see material playing time on the offensive line, can the Tigers from the Plains score enough points to keep the heat off Gene? (Runner up: Auburn senior RB Ontario McCalebb.)
To be fair to Dan Mullen, he has essentially come in and done what many MSU coaches do in Starkville: he has done OK. The problem is Mullen was not brought in to just do fine; he was brought in the change the culture. So far, that hasn't happened. Taking the teams to consecutive bowl games is a great accomplishment, but Mullen has yet to defeat any SEC West team without a Black Bear as its mascot in his three seasons. MSU is better in recent years under Mullen, but better doesn't necessarily mean good. MSU is 9-15 against the SEC in three seasons and 3-12 against the West. It is time for the Bulldogs to put up or shut up in the West and become a factor.
SEC WEST POWER RANKINGS
1 LSU – Losing Mathieu hurts more than many realize, but Bama in Red Stick the diff
2 Bama – No bye before LSU is going to sting; literally; 2nd best team in America
3 Arkansas – Depth issues at LB & inexperience w/ front 7 could drop Hogs further
4 Auburn – From 3 returning defensive starters in 2011 to 9; more QB instability/new OC
5 State – Could be 7-0 when they trip to Tuscaloosa; could then lose every game thereafter
6 Texas A&M – See "What Every SEC West Fan should be talking about, but isn't" above
7 Ole Miss – Will be far more competitive this season, but schedule of horrors
1 LSU – Miles gets Alabama in Baton Rouge with revenge on his mind, and hat
2 Bama – Only reason the Tide's not listed 1st is the trip to BR
3 Auburn – D should be better, but what will the O look like without Gus Malzahn?
4 Arkansas – Wilson deserved better from Bobby Petrino, and better than John L Smith
5 Texas A&M – SEC talent in College Station, but are they ready for an SEC season?
6 State – Should we worry about Tyler Russell never beating out Chris Relf?
7 Ole Miss - Hugh Freeze has a lot of work to do without a lot of talent in Oxford
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) Alabama at LSU, November 3rd. Very likely the biggest game of the year. Unless they play again in Miami, in which case that'll be the biggest game of the year. Which takes us to hype: if last year's "Game of the Century" was rendered meaningless just four weeks after it was played, every game clearly doesn't matter - so let's ditch that foolish argument once and for all. Bring on a playoff and kill the USA Today Coaches' Poll while we're at it; active coaches have no business participating in a poll that impacts the season/$$$.
2) Alabama at Arkansas, September 15th. We get to find out how good this Hogs defense is – particularly its razor-thin linebacking corps and troubled defensive line, which hasn't finished in the top half of the nation in run defense since forever. We also get to witness early how ready this inexperienced Bama defense is, after losing a ton of talent in the offseason. This game is more important to Bama…Arkansas still gets LSU at home while the Tide must travel to Red Stick. It's early, but we have little faith in that Hogs defense, even with a slightly hobbled Tide RB Eddie Lacey. (Speaking of hobbled running backs…where is Arkansas' Knile Davis? He's being held out of tackling situations into the final week of camp…this from a guy who last saw material action in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State? Marcus Lattimore suffered a torn knee ligament months after Davis' injury, and yet he's taking big-kid hits in Columbia. J.L. Smith must have gone to the Allen Iverson school of practice.)
3) LSU at Arkansas, November 23rd. The Golden Boot. Last season was one of the few times this game wasn't a nail biter. The final game of the season, it could come down to the depth of the Hogs defensive front seven by then. LSU has a wealth of experience at both offensive line and running back, and you can expect the Tigers will try to take the crowd out of the game with a grinding running attack. Last year, every LSU runner averaged five or more yards per carry against Arkansas. Regardless of how potent its offensive might be, the Hogs will have to do better on run defense.
1) Alabama at LSU, November 3rd. This game is at the top of every list. The most anticipated game in the SEC West, if not the entire nation, the winner has the fast track to a shot at the BCS title. The loser too.
2) Auburn at Alabama, November 24th. The last three national championships will be represented in Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl. ("Three straight for the state." RM)
3) Arkansas at Texas A&M, September 29th. This has been an amazing rivalry to watch the last few seasons, and it should only heat up this year. It is also the Aggies first divisional game in SEC history. The 2011 contest saw one of the wildest second half comebacks in recent history.
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for CFN. Follow him @harbachcfn