This story was originally published in CFN, Y'all Play Nice. SEC West Deep Dive, August 9, 2009. Grades are marked in-line in green/red.
On a personal note – Mr. Harbach and I would like to publish an open (albeit brief) letter to Mr. Pete Carroll, and the rest of the PAC 10 brass, in an effort to stop the madness. Hey Pete, any football conference that one team can win for seven – going on eight – straight years, is not a competitive conference. Period. While we're on it, the fact you have had that advantage and only have one National Championship to show for it also speaks volumes. Alright then; let's all move on.
3 SEC WEST QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who is the most overrated and underrated team in the SEC West?
We spent time debating this, but in the end Alabama's JV schedule (see below) will save it from carrying this label. Instead, this dubious honor goes to the boys in red, white and blue. Ole Miss is the new bell of the Preseason Top 10 Ball. Bet let's face facts: it's a debutante party for the Rebs. When was the last time Oxford dealt with this kind of pressure out of the gate? Not just the players – everyone! Coaches, players, the university, the town, the state… It's been at least two generations since Ole Miss embarked on a season bearing such lofty expectations. Given the parity in the West, including the return of Auburn and the birth of Bobby-Ball in Little Rock – combined with big changes in the Rebs Oline, no real "go to" tailback, nagging questions about leadership on defense, and no (modern) tradition of excellence – we forecast some stumbles along the way to Turkey Day.
As far back as April, Mr. Mitchell was one of the few in the national media refusing to buy into the garbage the Reverend Houston Nutt was peddling, and he was dead right. Arkansas fans laughed when the Rebels received their preseason Top 10 ranking, and while perhaps not laughing, Russ was right there with them. To the surprise of few in Fayetteville, Ole Miss has flopped, and now the only chance the Rebs have at Atlanta is the Peach Bowl. And at this point, even that's an iffy call.
We really wanted to choose Arkansas here, as the Hogs will absolutely raise more eyebrows this season than the average Bubba thinks today. Were it not for a kindergarten secondary that will cost Arkansas points and games (and stature) , they'd get the nod. Instead, we'll go with Auburn. Y'all remember Auburn, right? Town in Alabama. Beat the state school seven or so straight times. Undefeated something-or-another this decade… Yeah, you remember. Though given the dearth of preseason ink, we'd be hard pressed to fault you for forgetting. We can't recall the last time there has been so little talk about the Tigers outside the plains. True, there are still too many moving parts to expect Auburn to finish in Atlanta, but there's far too much talent for a repeat of 2008 – especially given that had more to do with a crisis in leadership/strategy than on-the-field talent.
Russ has requested I use the word genius in this spot, and had Auburn ended this weekend still in the Top 25 and undefeated, he would have gotten that distinction. But as the Tigers faults were brought to the forefront by the Razorbacks, he will simply get a good call from me. He was correct in saying there was too much talent in Auburn to ignore, but they are nowhere near the team they were in Tuberville's prime on the Plains. As he implied, a mid-level bowl they will go – but challenging for the West, they will not.
It looks like we are getting right into the good stuff, so fire up your email Crimson Tide fans - because Alabama is the most overrated team in the SEC West this year. With all of the losses on the offensive line, as well as at running back and quarterback, it is very hard to see this team in the Top 10 spot that all the pre-season magazines seem to have them in. Three new starters on the offensive line, plus a quarterback (Greg McElroy) who has never started an SEC game, are both more important than the great defense Nick Saban will put on the field. This team could end up highly ranked by the end of the season, but it is premature to rank them that high in August, and they will likely be underdogs in their first game.
Well, Mr. Harbach, there's no denying ‘bama's schedule has been uninspiring (they haven't exactly been tested), but the Tide's defense has been one of the best in America. To date, Alabama has dominated play – undefeated at 6-0, and ranked #2 in the nation, we have to give you a failing grade here, Bucky: D-. Though the book's still out (See: 2008, season end).
Looking at the Arkansas Razorback roster gets me thinking SEC West sleeper. This offense is going to be strong, and it is going to score quickly and often. The running backs are talented and deep, with the next great Hog TB Michael Smith mentoring the youngsters DeAnthony Curtis and Ronnie Wingo. The defense returns almost everyone outside of the secondary, which wasn't a strength last year - so they shouldn't be worse back there. If true freshmen Darius Winston can lock down one of the starting spots this August, look for him to be the best force in the secondary since Chris Houston. When Arkansas travels to Baton Rouge this fall, it will be for the SEC Western Division title. (Note from Russ: Wow! Bold.)
The Hogs have had their moments – both positive and negative. Winston has been unable to lock his dorm room, let alone the corner. The Arkansas secondary was horrid out of the gate, but they've turned things around the past two games (wins over Texas A&M and Auburn). Yes, R-Kansas is 1-2 in conference, but with (i) how little credit the Hogs were getting this summer, (ii) a big win over previously undefeated Auburn, and (iii) progress being made, we'll give this a (lukewarm) passing grade. Think C/C-.
(ii) Who emerges from the SEC West Shadows for a breakout season?
The popular choices are any of the three unsung QBs – Greg McElroy (‘bama), Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) or Jordan Jefferson (LSU), whatever TB Saban plugs into his run-happy offense, or LSU WR Terrance Toliver. An AJ Green/Julio Jones talent coming out of Texas, Toliver has flopped as an underclassman in Baton Rouge. Granted, he has played behind nearly a half dozen wide outs now plying their trade on Sundays. And Toliver is averaging 16 ypc (the same as Jones, one less than Green's 17); so it's not a talent issue. Word out of Baton Rouge says his mind's not in it. Regardless, the opportunity is now Toliver's to lose – he's the #2 beside Brandon LaFell, with only another heralded WR (true freshman Reuben Randle) to legitimately challenge him. But these choices are too easy.
Instead, we go deeper into the bayou shadows by picking LSU CB Patrick Peterson. His performance could quite likely determine the fate of the Tiger's season, and by extension, the outcome of the West. Who then is Mr. Peterson? Tiger fans and recruit-geeks will recognize him - almost (Peterson changed his last name from Johnson about the time he arrived on campus from Pompano Beach). Ranked the #1 HS DB overall in the 2008 class, Peterson played sparingly in his freshman campaign, before being tabbed a starter by season's end. At 6'1", 205, and a year under his belt, sporting blazing speed, mad skills and confidence, plus a mean streak, word out of Baton Rouge has Peterson lighting up Spring and Summer ball with the "most improved" label. Remember the name – Patrick Peterson. Particularly if your team plans on leveraging one "Go To" receiver with a rookie QB (Read: UGA/'bama).
All you need to know about how right Russ was with this pick is how Peterson took on Tebow this past weekend in the open field, and flew in low to take him down. The young sophomore is a flat out player, and he has the speed and instincts to be special in this league. Particularly under a coach who has a history with talented DB's, John Chavis.
Calm down Auburn fans, but your starting QB for the opener against Louisiana Tech will be Chris Todd, and while he won't be receiving any pre- or post-season SEC honors, he will look like the quarterback he was supposed to be last season. If it wasn't for departed OC Tony Franklin ignoring how serious Todd's injury was, Chris would not have the terrible reputation he does with Auburn fans. It says a lot about a young man when he goes through some trying times while hurt, and sticks it out when the coach he came to play for - and is thus now associated with - is fired mid-season. Todd is a good QB when he is actually healthy, and since Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle can't separate themselves, it wouldn't shock us to see Todd start - and play reasonably well.
Smart call. Few folks outside of Elizabethtown, KY had anything positive to say about Mr. Todd heading into August. In fact, a chorus of War Eagle voices were calling for Mr. Caudle (as did I). Todd slipped a bit against Arkansas (15/28, 133, 0 TD/0 INT), but his performance on the year has so far been nothing short of fantastic (81/138, 1,230 yards, 12 TDs, just one INT, and a 161 QB rating). A solid passing mark. A.
(iii) What every SEC West fan should be talking about, but isn't?
There's a lot going on under the covers in the West, but the question leaves out Ole Miss being ranked in the preseason Top 10, just how badly LSU QBs/Defense performed last season, and anything to do with Nick Saban, including, but not limited to, his contract, recruiting, coaching, hair, teeth, or his choice of shoes (Italian leather)… (i) It's been years since this level of parity has existed in the SEC West, and it's going to result in some serious cannibalization. The USA Today Coaches Poll has THREE SEC West teams in the top 10 (‘bama #5, LSU #9 and Ole Miss #10) – but it's even deeper than that. Given the top-to-bottom parity, and the likelihood this division eats its own, we're making the prediction that not a single team from the SEC West will be in the final pre-bowl Top 10, (ii) Auburn's Fall practice has kicked off with seven QBs vying for the starting job, though unlike Mr. Harbach, we believe Caudle is taking snaps by the kickoff of the Iron Bowl, not Todd/Burns), (iii) By contrast, Miss State has zero WRs. Yes, we know – but have you watched them play? Just wait – we stand by the statement. And the last time we checked, the Spread offense seems to lean heavily on those skinny fast guys on the wing. This has the makings of a train wreck, (iv) Staying in Starkville, we understand how others might forget about stud Bulldog RB Anthony Dixon, but there's no excuse for the school itself forgetting to include him on the list of candidates for the Doak Walker award (surely this has been noted before, but ironic that an award for running is named…), (v) Dixon remains this conferences' most underappreciated player. Read that again, (vi) Anyone else notice there has been a material decline in felony arrests of Alabama football players? Credit where credit is due, (vii) While we're on the capstone fellas, and speaking of decline, what's up with that schedule? Thank goodness y'all squeezed in Va. Tech, though the last time the Hoakies played an SEC team they were stronger and still lost 48-7 (to LSU '07). After that neutral site game, the Tide (a) have only three road trips, (b) their SEC East foes are @ Kentucky (2-6 in conference play last season) and South Carolina (4-4), (c) get a bye before LSU visits, and (d) play Florida Intl, North Texas & some place more famous for trains than football (Tenn.-Chattanooga). The combined 2008 win/loss record for Alabama's opponents is a paltry 63-82, or 43%. Can I get an AMEN from ya, Mr. McElroy!!, (viii) And Arkansas replaces all four DBs from a 2008 team that was last in Scoring Defense, last in Total Defense, last in Rushing Defense, but 10th in Passing Defense! Woo Woo! So the Hogs just need to completely start over with their only bright spot on defense. Yes, we've heard the replacements are speedy – and speed at this position is great. But experience is more important for a CB. One thing's for certain – if you like offense, there won't be a lot of boring games with Arkansas this year.
Two things stand out: first is the Caudle comment, because the only time he will see the field during the Iron Bowl is if we get a redo of last year's debacle. Second, the odds are great that Alabama finishes in the top ten, likely top 5, when all said and done. But 6 out of 8 ain't bad.
This year's division is as deep and talented as it has ever been, with four teams that could end up playing Florida in Atlanta. It would not surprise me to see Alabama, Arkansas, LSU or Ole Miss win the West, and it is not because the division is mediocre. These teams will all be ranked at some point during the season, and by the end of the year all four of them will be in the top 25. Compared to the East (which may have two preseason top 25 teams and will likely only finish with Florida ranked), the West is where the best football will be played in 2009.
Arkansas, Ole Miss and Auburn are currently all out of the Top 25. Moreover, after next weekend's Auburn v. LSU game, only two will have a chance at Hotlanta. Ouch. That said, while Ole Miss has disappointed, the West is deep, there's decent parity, and so far it has outperformed the East (winning six of the nine head-to-head contests). Bet you didn't know that. As such, there's still a good chance three West teams end up in the Top 25. We give this a solid C.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC West Coach / Player is in the Spotlight this season?
Spotlight, eh. Since Mr. Harbach beat me to Gus, I'm going with a triumvirate of QBs. With that cakewalk of a schedule (by comparison to other SEC West teams), 'bama's McElroy need only be average. Given all the preseason expectations (read: pressure) and a slightly tougher schedule, Ole Miss signal caller Jevan Snead has to be good. But given expectations, a biting schedule, and a lack of experience, LSU's Jefferson will have to be great. More payback for 2004-2006, Tiger fans. Quick, outside of Mr. Perfect in Florida, when was the last time the SEC had a GREAT 19 year old QB with one conference start (loss to Arkansas) under his belt? And Jefferson's not even 19 until August 25. Moreover, as noted, the West is going to be particularly helacious. Plus the Tigers play Florida and Georgia. Wow. Tiger fans everywhere better be praying for the quick return of their typically tenacious defense.
This was an interesting pick at the time, and even more so given how badly the Fighting Tiger offense has struggled against good defenses. Jefferson still seems to be an enigma, particularly due to his youth… But the talent is definitely there. He has a stronger arm than many realize; he's definitely a pocket passer. In order for LSU to get through the rest of the schedule successfully, Jefferson has to play better, and the coaches have to trust him more.
Gus Malzahn, Offensive Coordinator Auburn. Think of me as your shrink, and let's be honest here: the Auburn offense was bad last year. Really, really bad. Now, after the failed spread experiment with Tony Franklin, Gene Chizik decided to go back to what Auburn football is all about… What? Malzahn is a spread coach also… Oh my. All kidding aside, Malzahn is a sharp offensive mind, and his version of the spread worked in the SEC during his one season as the Arkansas offensive coordinator (Russ Note: yeah, running McFadden and Jones. Ok, I'll stay on my side). The reason Malzahn has the spotlight shining on him is because Auburn has been burned by the spread offense and has a new coaching staff mainly because of the decision to move to the spread. Now that all the offensive coaches are on board, it will work better for Auburn this year. Malzahn will have a big leash to start from the fans, but if they start seeing similar problems with the offense, it will not be pretty.
Another solid call. Not much to add here – Auburn is 5-1, and in that six week span has surpassed perhaps every major offensive statistic for all of last year. Malzahn's offense has been nothing but electric, even putting up 21 points in the third quarter of their only loss. We're looking forward to seeing that O play next Saturday against a talented Tiger D in Baton Rouge. Grade: A-.
SEC WEST POWER RANKINGS
1 Alabama – 43%. ‘nuff said
2 Ole Miss – Veteran QB; manageable schedule
3 LSU – Rookie QB; brutal schedule
4 Arkansas – Prolific; lots of shootout wins/losses
5 Auburn – coin toss with the Hogs; prove it to us
6 Miss State – anybody got a $0.05 for a wideout?
The top and bottom look solid, but the rest is still to be determined. After six games, I don't have a clue which way it will go. But three teams in the right spot sure looks better than the two I have below.
1 LSU – Too many skill players to ignore; decent QB play may be enough
2 Ole Miss – Ole Miss will go as far as Jevan Snead takes them
3 Alabama – Replacing a lot, but depth gets better with each recruiting class
4 Arkansas – If it wasn't for the schedule, they might be special
5 Auburn – How can they still not have a quarterback?
6 Miss State – Spread offense, with no spread players might get ugly
No other way to cut this deck, Mr. Harbach. Look on the bright side – there's still half a season left for everything to change. But as of today, you're on the "go-sit-in-the-corner" side of Pass/Fail.
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) LSU at Alabama, November 7th. This was a toss-up with ‘bama/Ole Miss, but given the added drama of Saban Bowl III, we're going with purple on red. No SEC fan worth his salt, still breathing, is going to miss this game. Lot of time to break this matchup down...
If Jordan Jefferson can learn from his mistakes against Florida and the coaches put him in a better position to succeed, this game could in fact end up being for the West.
2) Alabama at Ole Miss, October 10th. Perhaps the only game in which ‘bama will be a Vegas underdog. (Don't give us Va Tech – uneducated fan money might change that spread, sure. But ‘bama should win that game, even with a rookie QB. There remains too much uneducated support for ACC football, which is shocking given the cumulative, on-the-field results of the past decade.) Think about that for a second – ‘bama's only underdog game on the schedule is a road trip to Oxford. Seriously?
Bleh, what an awful football game. At least you didn't have it #1. If I have to hear one more person tell me how Jevan Snead is a better NFL QB than Tim Tebow, I am going to vomit. Right now, even with Tebow's limitations, he is light years ahead of the head case taking snaps in Oxford.
3) Auburn at LSU, October 24th. There are so many good games on the West schedule, this last one was tough. Ole Miss/Arkansas will be tight, with drama. ‘bama/Arkansas could also be thrilling, especially if McElroy doesn't come to play. But given the contests lately between LSU and Auburn have come down to the wire, for pure smash-mouth football entertainment, we're going Tigers on Tigers. May the best Tiger win.
I don't care what the records are, I don't care what time the game is being played, this has been THE SEC West game this decade, and that won't change this year. Whoever wins this one has the best chance to unseat SEC West Champ Alabama.
1) Arkansas at LSU, November 21st. This may look a little odd, but the winner of this game will be playing for the SEC Championship in Atlanta. After a heartbreaking loss last season, LSU is ready for revenge in the Battle for the Boot, and with stronger QB play, they might get enough to win the West. (Russ Note: Wow. From your lips to Cajun ears, brother.)
With Arkansas sporting two losses, and the one-loss Tigers still trying to find their offense with a rookie QB, the Battle of the Boot has lost some of its luster. Should still be exciting to see the explosive Mallett & Co. square up against that Tiger D, but this isn't the #1 game of the West. You're missing LSU/Auburn vs. Alabama in this spot.
2) Alabama at Ole Miss, October 10th. After all the preseason hype about Ole Miss, they get their first true challenge with Alabama coming to town. They have a big Thursday night game against South Carolina in September, but this game should be circled on all SEC fans calendars. If the Rebels expect to be thought of as SEC contenders this is a must win.
We both missed with this one, though thankfully we redeemed ourselves in the week leading up to kickoff. The Reb's struggles are well chronicled, which can't be said for the mysterious and sudden onset of Jevan Snead's color blindness. He has gone color blind, right? Gotta be, given his inability to distinguish Ole Miss jerseys from those of the opposition.
3) Auburn at LSU, October 24th. This game might have a little more meaning to some of us, but no one can doubt that over the last six seasons this has consistently been the most exciting game of the SEC West. The games have been physically brutal, exciting and usually defensive battles. LSU has the obvious advantage being at home and with a much more talented team, but given history, don't be surprised to see Gene Chizik's bunch make this a game.
Still shaping up to be one of the better games of the West.