Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking Down the SEC, Part Two

With my look at the SEC East in the books, it's time to turn our attention to the usually wild SEC West. Gone are the days when the SEC West was viewed (falsely, I might add) as the inferior division of the SEC. LSU has won two national championships this decade while Alabama spent a fair amount of time last season as the top ranked team in the nation. Throw in a 2004 Auburn team that is arguably the best SEC football team this decade (only LSU 2003 and Florida 2008 can enter that debate, but they both lost a game at home) and it's clear that the balance of power has evened out, if not shifted westward. Florida's two national championships may challenge that perception, but it's worth remembering that their losses in 2006 and 2008 came against teams from the West. In fact, if you look at Spurrier's Florida teams from the 1990s, you'll see that the Gators generally rolled through the East, but comparatively struggled against Western division teams. In fact, after realignment, Spurrier's teams lost four games against Eastern division foes from 1992-2001 while losing ten games to Western division foes in the same time period. The West has always been a microcosm of the SEC in that it has been pretty balanced top to bottom, as evidenced by the fact that five different Western division teams have played in the SEC Championship game since 1992 (Ole Miss being the only team not to make it). This pattern of balance looks to continue this season with Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss all receiving equal attention as favorites for Atlanta.

If there is one team in the SEC that actually may fancy its chances against Florida going into the season, it's LSU. Even with last year's relative debacle, there is perhaps no other team team in the SEC, maybe not even Florida, with more talent than the Bayou Bengals. The issues last year were suspect quarterback play and a talented defense that went missing in action. By the end of the season, the quaterback issue seemed to be resolved with the emergence of Jordan Jefferson, but despite the shutdown of Georgia Tech's offense in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Les Miles knew the defensive situation needed to be addressed. Enter John Chavis, engineer of the best defense in the SEC last season at Tennessee. Even if LSU were not returning seven starters on that side of the ball, their defense would already be substantially better with Chavis running the show. On offense, LSU's biggest problem last season was Jarrett Lee throwing half as many touchdown passes for the opposing team as for his own. Otherwise, there were a lot of things to like about the offense last season, not least among them, Charles Scott and the running game. Scott is one of the leading returning rushers in the SEC and if Jefferson continues his accelerated development (having Brandon LaFell at receiver won't hurt), this should be one of the better and more balanced offenses in the SEC. On paper, LSU has everything it needs to be a top five calibre team, but their schedule may be a huge factor in deciding the SEC West. Every year, at least one or two SEC teams get dealt a cruel blow in the scheduling department, and LSU is one of the unlucky teams this year. Road games against Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss and a home game against Florida makes for uneasy reading. Even the home game against Florida comes a week after the trip to Athens while the Gators will be fresh from their week off, a situation Urban Meyer has always thrived in. Still, if that game is under the lights at Tiger Stadium, LSU will be confident and it could be a titanic clash. Maybe we'll see the Earthquake Game, Part Two.

Turning our attention to the town whose name I will not write, Bama should find itself in the thick of the SEC West race once again this season. This Alabama team will probalby be more talented than last year, but I don't think anyone is quite expecting the same season as last year (unless you ask Bama fans), mainly because of the experience lost on the offensive side of the ball, particularly the offensive line. As much as everyone raved about JPW last season, I still never thought he was anything more than an average at best SEC quarterback, but sometimes that's all you need to win in this conference. Greg McElroy should do a solid job if the offensive line comes together, but like I said, that is the key for Alabama. As much as Saban might try to blame the fanbase for the loss in the Sugar Bowl, it can't be forgotten how badly Bama struggled against Tulane and Utah without Andre Smith. His loss, along with two of his cohorts, could wreak havoc on the Tide's offensive production, though they have the weapons at running back (despite the loss of Glen Coffee to the draft) and wide receiver to hurt any team if the offensive line does come together. The odds are that Bama will not need a lot of points to win most games with nine starters returning on one of last season's best defenses. The schedule is certainly manageable. I wouldn't put it past Bama to beat Virginia Tech in the opener, but don't expect another statement game like Clemson last season. After that, they can sort of ease into the season with games against Florida International and North Texas before possible sleeper Arkansas comes to town. They get LSU and Tennessee at home, so the schedule certainly offers up some hope of a repeat divisional championship even with the road trip to Oxford.

As for the Rebels, they have been prematurely attacked as being overhyped when, to be honest, I actually don't think as many of the so-called experts are picking them for SEC glory as the media would have you believe. I think most people expect them to be a good, solid team this year with a chance to win the division. Count me as one of those. No doubt, the expectations are raised in Oxford this season, but I don't think we've quite entered 'Auburn ranked number one in The Sporting News' territory just yet, even with this weeks cover of SI coming out. Then again, I guess relative to its comparative status to Auburn, maybe this is a big jump for Ole Miss. I certainly think Ole Miss can compete for the divsion this year, especially with the way their schedule sets up, but I think the bigger issue will not be dealing with expectations, but reaching a consistent level of play. We're talking about a team that lost to Vandy and South Carolina at home while beating Florida on the road in between those two games. The end of the season certainly brought some consistency, but that doesn't mean it will lead into the coming season (as Auburn found in 2003). They have plenty of starters returning on both sides of the ball and the offensive skill set looks marvelous, but the loss of Michael Oher on the o-line and Peria Jerry on the d-line could prove to be hurdles too big to clear. The schedule plays out very nicely and the non-conference schedule is weak at best, but a good schedule does not really become a good schedule until the games have been played. Yes, they get Bama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU at home, but it's hard to see them winning all those games and while the road schedule looks soft, they did lose to Vandy and South Carolina at home last year and must visit those places this season, and Auburn was unlucky not to get something out of the game in Oxford. Expect Ole Miss to win eight or nine games again, but they'll have to take it to another level that neither Ole Miss nor Houston Nutt have taken it to before if Ole Miss fans get the season they want.

Now we'll turn our attention to your Auburn Tigers. Given that this is the Auburn Football Insider Blog, I won't spend too much time commenting on the good guys since I'm sure they'll be covered in depth throughout the rest of the summer and coming season on this website, but I'll do a cursory glance nonetheless. Like Tennessee, I think that while the roster may not be quite to the level of recent years, I do think there is some talent there. The big issues for me are getting consistent QB play and seeing how we handle our lack of depth in some positions. After watching the A-Day, I do genuinely believe that Malzahn's offense is not your typical spread offense. Yes, it runs out of the shotgun and yes, it runs the no huddle, but like all great Auburn offenses in the past, it builds everything off of the power, north and south, running game. It was nice this Spring to see our offensive linemen (all eight of them) excited about getting big again and playing true Auburn football. Now if only a quarterback would step up (my money's on Caudle). On defense, I'm not sure if we'll scale the heights of 2004 or 2007, but we should still be pretty solid there barring a huge amount of injuries. The schedule is not the worst I have ever seen, but it's not the best either. It's nice to open up with four home games, but only if we win them all. If we can find a way to start 4-0, that will provide a nice platform for the meat of our schedule coming up afterwards, but things rarely ever go off without a hitch with a new staff (though Tubs was a Ben Leard broken collarbone away from starting the 1999 season 4-0 or 5-0).

Out in Fayettenam resides one of the more interesting looking teams in the SEC heading into 2009 season. Arkansas has everything it needs to be a sleeper except for the schedule, which is one of the most brutal in the SEC. Say what you will about Petrino (and having worked for the team when he was there in 2002 and in 2003 when he was part of the attempted coup, I don't care much for him as a human being), but the man can coach offense. If I could pick any kind of offense in the SEC to run myself, it would be his. So balanced. With probable starter Ryan Mallet, Petrino has the sort of quarterback he wants for the system. The issue on offense for the Razorbacks will be filling some of the holes on the offensive line after the loss of a couple of starters from one of the better offensive lines in the conference last season. With Petrino running the show, not to mention leading returning SEC rusher Michael Smith, they'll still be capable of moving the ball and putting up points. The bigger issue for this team in general will be the play of a defense that returns every starter, but struggled last season. Here is why things must improve. Road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, and LSU, with a veritable road game at Texas A&M (the game will be played in Dallas) thrown in for good measure. The home schedule is more foregiving, but the Hogs will probably be underdogs against Georgia and maybe even Auburn. Look out for that game against Georgia though, which comes on September 19. Petrino would probably not want to have an off week before that game so early in the season, but if they can build a rhythm in the first couple of weeks of the season, they will beat the Dawgs. But they could be much better than last season and still finish with the same record, such is the difficulty of their schedule.

2009 looks to be a transition year down in Starkville after the surprising capture of Dan Mullen as head coach. He has all the makings of great head coach and I know he has State fans excited, but it's hard not to assume that there will be a huge amount of culture shock with the transition that team will undertake, especially on offense. We saw what happened when Auburn, after being 2 seconds away from Atlanta in 2007, tried to institute the spread in 2008. How will things go for a team that was 4-8 the previous season? Tyson Lee is a great competitor with a lot of heart, but he's an SEC quaterback. Don't be surprised if highly rated true freshman Tyler Russell is starting by mid-season, though he'll still need some established targets to throw to. Anthony Dixon IS an SEC running back. If Mullen can adapt his style a bit to help out Dixon, that could at least give the Bulldogs a decent running game off which to work with and get creative with the passing attack. State is always solid on defense and that could give them a chance in several games. The SEC road schedule is not obscene with trips to Auburn, Vandy, Kentucky, and Arkansas, but they would be underdogs in all those games if they played tomorrow. The home schedule offers no respite whatsoever with the likes of LSU, Florida, Bama, and Ole Miss all coming to town. It's hard to see a win there, though if Ole Miss's season has sort of sputtered by that point, a revved up Davis Wade Stadium may see the Egg Bowl Trophy return to Starkville. The non-conference schedule looks tricky with a road trip to MTSU (why on why Mississippi State do you keep playing road games against teams like La Tech and MTSU) and a home game to Houston as well as ACC favorite Georgia Tech. Mullen will have a free pass this season and the team will likely struggle at times, but look for Mullen to produce at least one shock that gets State fans excited about the future of their program.

That is my breakdown of the SEC West. Look for things to come to a head in November when LSU travels to both Alabama and Ole Miss. My head tells me that with LSU's schedule, Alabama will come out on top in the West, but given this is an Auburn blog, I'll go with my heart and say LSU's depth in talent will triumph in the end, with Bama coming in second. I think Ole Miss will win some of those big home games they, but they will also lose a couple of games that they shouldn't and finish third. Auburn and Arkansas look interchangeable at fourth and fifth while Mississippi State looks likely to finish bottom. Whatever happens, it will be fun to watch in the SEC West this season. It always is.


depressedAUfan said...

Michael, enjoyed the in-depth analysis of the Western division.I think Arkansas finishes ahead of Auburn, hopefully not. You have a unique insight into Petrino. Long-term, do you think Arkansas will be happy they brought him in as coach? There is no offensive coach I dread seeing more than Petrino on the sideline. His people skills, on the other hand, seem to be not-so-good. Of course that seems to be the norm(Saban, Meyer, etc) in todays SEC. Always enjoy your take on SEC football!

Michael said...

Thanks Depressed. I think I agree on Arkansas. I think both teams will finish about the same, but the game is in Arkansas, which is never an easy place to play at.

As for Petrino, I think fans will be happy long-term with him, but only if he stays, and that's a big if. I'm guessing he'll stay at least five years, if for no other reason than to dispell the notion of him as a mercenary coach. The only thing stopping Arkansas from being any good under Petrino is defense, and I'm sure Petrino will make the right hire when and if he needs to. Like I said, don't care for him as a person, but he's a great offensive coach.

The enigma of succesful coaches (Petrino, Saban, Meyer, etc.) who lack people skills is sort of mystifying to me. I look at someone like Saban and Petrino and wonder how they are able to sell their programs so well (or at least Saban, not really sure about Petrino's recruiting prowess yet).

With Petrino, back in 2002 he took the Louisville job, but he stayed on for the Capital One Bowl with Auburn and it was really weird remembering all of the sudden Petrino tried to get a little personality going. He would actaully attempt to smile at people other than his immediate family and tried to appear outwardly friendly. It came off more weird and creepy to everyone else more than anything, but I guess he was trying to make the transition for head coach (or maybe it was because he was trying to take some Auburn recruits with him to Louisville). I still think he has some work to do there, but it's funny to remember now.

§teve From Columbia said...

Your predicted finish pretty much lines up with mine. I can see the top 3 finishing in any order, although I think LSU has the biggest potential for greatness.

As for Bama and JPW, Bama ran the ball an ungodly number of times last season. I think it was around 2/3 the plays were runs, which lead to JPW being moderately successful. When you can run it that much with success, your passing game will work. I don't expect the Bama running game to be nearly as successful, but I expect the passing game to pick up.

Ole Miss is a wildcard. I can easily see them winning the west, but there is also the potential for a huge crash. That is how nuttball works.

As for Auburn, I expect us to come in 5th in the West, but we will remain in contention at least until the LSU game.