The SEC West isn’t just the tougher of the two divisions of the Southeastern Conference. It is clearly the toughest division of any conference in college football.
That’s good in that the division enjoys the respect of the fans and, perhaps more importantly, the voters in the polls. It creates intense competition and brings out the best in each program. The winner of the SEC West has found itself deep in the national championship conversation at the end of the season in at least six of the last eight years. The West team won it in four of those years, not to mention an undefeated Auburn in 2004 and a tough Alabama barely missing out in 2008.
The bad side, of course, is that if one particularly special team cannot rise to the top and out-muscle the other titans of the West, the likelihood is that they will knock each other off and prevent each other from reaching the BCS title game. This concern was voiced from the very beginning of the two-division SEC in 1992. Very rarely has it actually manifested, however; some way, somehow, somebody in the SEC usually manages to win enough games to force themselves into the championship scenario.
Will that happen this year? Has parity at the top finally grown so great that nobody can come through unscathed? Time—and the series of titanic contests we are about to bear witness to—will tell. In the meantime, here is how your intrepid Wishbone columnists see the West shaking out.
As with the East in our previous installment, we will discuss each program’s current football situation as well as drawing for each a comparison with a superhero and a national soccer team. If you don’t quite grasp how that works, don’t sweat it—you’ll get the idea as we go along.
One other note: We omit our own beloved Tigers from this column because our next installment will be devoted entirely to a preview of the 2011 Auburn squad.
So, without further ado, we give you the SEC Best—err, West:
Here they go again. The experts, or at least a bunch of ‘em, seem to think this is Alabama’s year once more. They’re all suited up and ready to autograph their names on a national championship. As with 2009, we can only keep throwing opponents at them and hope at least one can send the Tide a cease and desist letter before they reach the crystal football in January. It didn’t work out so well last time. We have to hope these T-Town Men will Wear down before that comes to pass.
Coach: The Ol’ Butt-Smacker; Cap’n Meltdown
Mascot makes us think of: Large gray rats roaming the sideline; pools of red algae; boxes of detergent.
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 10 on defense
(And that ten on defense is a big reason why they’re up here at #1.)
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 88%; Rushing Yards: 42%; Receptions: 52%
(Yes, seven starters are back on offense—but the four who are gone took a lot of production with them.)
Strength of schedule: 24th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Florida, at Ole Miss, at Mississippi State and at Auburn. They face Penn State in Happy Valley, as well as some cupcakes out of conference. (Theirs is the easiest schedule of any SEC West team.)
Questions: Despite the statements that “Richardson has been better than Ingram all along and we will be fine without McElroy and Jones,” we are not completely buying it. It’s not easy to take unproven quarterbacks into Happy Valley or into the Swamp or Jordan-Hare and win. And with depth at running back now an issue, Richardson must stay healthy—which he has not been able to do the last two years. And without Julio Jones to draw double coverage, can the other receivers make plays?
Superhero analogy: The Sentry. Sure, he seems to have “the power of a thousand exploding suns,” or whatever nonsense they used to say about him, before he got himself ripped in half during one of the recent crappy Marvel “events.” But an awful lot of his “glorious history” also smells somewhat… manufactured. There’s been an awful lot of rewritten history here. You get the drift.
Another possibility is the Man-Thing. Whosoever knows fear burns at the Saban-Thing’s touch. But if you look really closely, you’ll see they’re mostly just ambulatory swamp scum. (Thanks to Will Collier for that suggestion!)
Country/Soccer team analogy: They want this to be “Brazil,” and in some ways it’s a match—a number of titles in the past, a legendary figure associated with the program, a revolving door of coaches, and a wholly unrealistic fan base that dresses funny and obsesses about it 24/7/365. But there’s also a “Germany” connection—big reputation but not as much success in recent decades as one might think.
Best case (for them) scenario: The national title stays in the state for a surely-unprecedented third year.
Worst case (for them) scenario: Young quarterbacks melt under the pressure and the Tide loses a close game or three. At worst, a New Year’s Day bowl and another thrashing of a mediocre Big Ten team.
Van and John think: Don’t buy into all the hype. They’ll be good… but will they be that good? We somehow doubt it.
Originally we had Arkansas at this spot, and we have to admit we were even beginning to be swayed by all the recent “Arkansas is the new Auburn” talk. But then came word that super RB Knile Davis broke his ankle in practice. Uh oh. So much for that awesome Petrino offense. It might still be good—very good—but without an elite back like Davis to balance out the passing game, talk of a surprise run to the BCS title game should probably be shelved for the time being.
That opens the door for a powerful LSU squad to move up into the top challenger spot. They do look impressive, as they have for quite some time now. Patrick Peterson and a few others may be gone, but they continue to recruit well and are loaded with speed and power across the board. If they can mold their QB position into any semblance of a positive for their team, they could win the division.
Coach: Chewie; the Mad Hatter; The Ol’ Clock-Mismanagement Coach
Mascot makes us think of: A crazed animal actually devouring the grass of the field and—wait, what? That’s the coach? You mean—and they have a tiger who’s the mascot? And it’s the coach who’s the one eating the—? Ummm. Okay. Whoops.
Returning starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Offense lost: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 53%; Receptions: 37%
Schedule: 5th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Alabama, at Tennessee, at Ole Miss and at Miss State. They play Oregon (in Dallas) and West Virginia (in Morgantown) out of conference, along with a pair of directionals.
Questions: As good as they were in 2010, they finished the season last in the SEC (!!) in passing offense, and 107th in the nation. Can Jordan Jefferson throw more touchdowns than interceptions this year? Or will Zack Mettenberger come in and steady the offense? Losing Patrick Peterson hurts in the return game as much as on defense; where will the big plays come from? Can the team handle this tough of a schedule if things start to go wrong? And what happens at the end of a close game when LSU has the ball? Can they make the tough yards? Will Miles’s wacky clock-managing ways finally catch up with them? So many questions, it’s enough to make you eat grass.
Superhero analogy: Gambit. Vaguely French; enjoy shooting off fireworks at random inopportune moments; often can be found drunk.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Argentina. Historically, the team is practically a state-run organization. Insert Huey Long for Juan Peron and other random military dictators and juntas. Don’t cry for me, Billy Cannon!
Best case scenario: One of the quarterbacks plays well and they climb into the top 100 of all teams in the NCAA in passing. The defense tightens up a bit and young guys step in for Peterson and the others. A BCS bowl game is entirely feasible, especially with the players lost by Arkansas (to injury) and Auburn (to graduation, the NFL, etc.).
Worst case scenario: The quarterbacks are inconsistent and the schedule is unforgiving. They do make it to Atlanta… for the Chick Fil A Bowl.
Van and John think: There’s always a lot of talent in Baton Rouge. Even so, between the erratic Miles and the ongoing quarterback situation this is a very hard team to predict. Could be 12-1, could be 8-4. Nothing would surprise us. (Well, we say that every year, and then here comes Les to surprise us once again…)
Obviously, our thoughts about Arkansas in 2011 have…evolved somewhat in the past few days, as word leaked out that super RB Knile Davis broke his ankle in practice and is lost for the season. Just before that unfortunate event, we had just about bought into the growing hype about the Hogs as “this year’s Auburn.” Now? Probably not so much.
Even so, they’ll be formidable. Their defense has improved each year under Petrino, even as he’s worked to supercharge their offense. Occasionally it has shown flashes of competence; perhaps even brilliance. Their new quarterback looked every bit the world-beater against the secondary of the soon-to-be National Champs last year, but then, so did a lot of QBs. They have a great corps of receivers. And their running game isn’t entirely erased—they’ll still be Pigs on the Wingo.
Coach: The Larry Brown of football; the Falcon who flew the coop mid-season.
Mascot makes us think of: Delicious pulled pork sandwiches; King Robert getting killed on Game of Thrones.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Offense lost: Passing Yards: 89%; Rushing Yards: 0%; Receptions: 18%
Schedule: 20th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games in conference are at Alabama, at Vandy, at Ole Miss and at LSU. Their schedule actually sets up rather oddly: They begin the season with three cupcakes at home, then go to Tuscaloosa and to Arlington to play soon-to-be SEC member Texas A&M. Their first meaningful home game of the year is actually Auburn on October 8. And then they don’t play at home again until South Carolina on November 5. Weird!
Questions: Can the frat parties on campus replace Ryan Mallet? Those will be some big shoes to fill. Of course, he also played quarterback for them, but that won’t be as tough of a task, with Tyler Wilson waiting to step in. Knile Davis’s absence is a huge blow—can Wingo carry the load? They also must replace three starters on the offensive line. On the bright side, they get to refine their offense and defense against easy pickings for three Saturdays before visiting Alabama in week four. Will the new starters be ready for that game? Can the defense improve just enough to keep every game from turning into a shootout?
Superhero analogy: Sure, there’s an obscure Marvel character actually called “Razorback.” But let’s be honest—Bobby Petrino is Wolverine. Some people love him, others hate him, and still others are just sick of him. Some say he’s best there is at what he does, bub. And, of course, if you blink your eyes, he’s on a different team.
Country/Soccer team analogy: The Defenders. A team that probably ought to be very good and very compelling, with lots of accomplishments, but yet has never quite reached that level. But, hey—when your coach is Wolverine (here he is on yet another superhero team!), anything’s possible.
Best case scenario: They still manage to roll out the best offense in the SEC with Tyler Wilson playing at an All-American level, and they win the West. It’s off to Atlanta and then maybe somewhere else after Jan. 1.
Worst case scenario: Wilson shows that his interceptions against Auburn were indicative of an ongoing bad habit and every game turns into a 42-38 shootout.
Van and John think: They are a legitimate top 10 team in the country. They have the best group of wide receivers in America—regardless of how they performed (or rather sort of didn’t) in New Orleans back in January. If Wingo can make everyone forget Davis—look out.
See our Auburn 2011 Season Preview, coming soon!
5: Mississippi State
Coach: Urban Meyer’s Brain
Mascot makes us think of: Caninus Cowbellus
Returning starters: 9 on offense, 7 on defense
Offense lost: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 0%; Receptions: 9%
Schedule: 15th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Georgia (that should be fun!), at Auburn, at Kentucky and at Arkansas. Out of conference games look fairly easy at first glance but maybe not so much; they play Memphis, UT-Martin, UAB, and Louisiana Tech.
Questions: The defense should be fine again. But—can MSU find a way to score more points against the tougher teams? Against Auburn, LSU and Alabama last season they averaged only 11 points.
Superhero analogy: Gilgamesh the Forgotten One. Who? Exactly.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Paraguay. Like “Ole” Uruguay but without the early championships.
Best case scenario: The offense improves just enough and MSU breaks through to finish in the upper half of the West and reach a top-tier New Year’s Day bowl.
Worst case scenario: The offense regresses and the defense is not as stout. Even so, it’s hard to see them sinking below fifth place in the West. Or, honestly, rising far above it.
Van and John think: This is a talented and well-coached team. They would probably win the Big East. The only problem they have is their conference and in particular their division. When you’re hoping to jump the defending national champions in order to secure fourth place out of six teams, you know the competition is absolutely brutal and cutthroat. Yow.
6: Ole Miss
Coach: He’s still there?! Wow. Hey, remember how Terry Bowden had a great first year at Auburn, only to have things start going south in a hurry afterward? Hmmm…
Mascot makes us think of: Return of the Jedi. (As opposed to how their mascot used to make us think he was about to go and deep-fry South Carolina’s mascot.) Confederate aliens disguised as bears.
Returning starters: 9 on offense, 4 on defense
Offense lost: Passing Yards: 100%; Rushing Yards: 28%; Receptions: 65%
Schedule: 13th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. They play road games at Vanderbilt, at Auburn, at Kentucky, and at MSU. They welcome BYU, La Tech, and Southern Illinois to Oxford (Van is excited because the Salukis are his wife’s alma mater and he wishes the Rebels would make this a home-and-home series so he could go next year). They travel to Fresno State. Wait—they go to Fresno? Seriously? What—they’re doing it for the hordes of Ole Miss fans in central California? Or are there a lot of Jedi out there? Or black bears, maybe? Mon Calamari??
Questions: Yes, they have some starters back, but Jeremiah Masoli was a huge chunk of their offense and he is gone. And the defense last year was atrocious: opponents averaged 6.5 yards per play against them last year. Can they improve with only four starters back? There’s only so much a rousing Houston Nutt pep talk can accomplish.
Superhero analogy: The only bear superhero that comes to mind is Ursa Major (or Major Ursa?) of the Soviet Super Soldiers. That’s probably giving Ole Miss way too much credit. That pretty much leaves us with ol’ Admiral Ackbar, simply because he is (of course) the “Rebel leader.” He’s not a superhero exactly, but he definitely knows that Oxford is a TRAP!!
Country/Soccer team analogy: Uruguay. A couple of big accomplishments many, many years ago… but nothing much since then. But, hey—we’re not Paraguay!
Best case scenario: A plucky Ole Miss team scrapes out seven wins and goes to a bowl.
Worst case scenario: The wheels come off, the Death Star’s weapons are operational and the shield isn’t down, and Ole Miss fans find themselves pining for the glory days of the Ed Orgeron era.
Van and John think: The worst team in the West.
SEC WEST OVERALL FORECAST
1. Alabama 12-1, 7-1
2. LSU 10-2, 6-2
3. Arkansas 10-2, 6-2
4. Auburn 7-5, 3-5
5. Mississippi State 7-5, 3-5
6 Ole Miss 5-7, 1-7
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.
Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.
Lipstick on a Hog: Pat Dye gives us his picks… on sunglasses (and the championship game)
Pat Dye spent Thursday night signing books at the Academy Sports in Auburn. Before he left, he gave TWER his gut-feeling on the national championship game between Auburn and Oregon (and his thoughts on the Iron Bowl)… while picking out a pair of sunglasses for his trip to Glendale.
War Eagle, Coach.
* Auburn fans light up Portland bridge in orange and blue
* The Secret History of Pat Dye Field
* Erin Andrews at Toomer’s Corner
* In the time of “Got 13″ she was a Tiger
* Was Walt Disney an Auburn fan?
* AU fan possibly contributed to Courtney Love’s teenage delinquency
* Player on 1972 ‘Amazin’s’ squad battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease
* Playboy in Auburn, 1989
* Coeds. Watermelons. 1973.
* How Bama remembers “Punt, Bama, Punt”