A Song of Turf and Pigskin, Book Two: A Clash of SEC West Kings

The first season of “Game of SEC Thrones” ended with the shocking execution of Houston “Ned” Starknutt in the main square of Ackbar’s Landing.

Now join us as this highly-rated series continues with a look at the clash of would-be kings from the royal division of the conference: The SEC West!

Alabama Crimson Tide

Coach:  Took the summer off to play the villain in “the Dark Knight Rises.”  No, the other one.

Mascot makes us think of:  Infestation of giant gray rats with very long noses.

Returning starters:  6 on offense, 5 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 60%; Receptions: 68%

Strength of schedule: 28th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and LSU.  They avoid playing Georgia or South Carolina.  They also take on Michigan (in Dallas), Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, and Western Carolina out of conference.

Questions:  How will the offense handle losing Trent Richardson as well as its best receivers and pass catching tight end? Who can make a play with the ball in their hands?  And after losing so much experience and talent off the defense, how long will it take the new players to mesh and play fast in that system?

Game of Thrones character:  Tywin Lannister.  He’s on top of the world, relishing all the riches that come with being on top of the world.  He’s a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard (with a daughter who can hold her own in a fight!).  He shows no mercy to anyone, including his own people.  And we can just imagine Saban, in true Tywin style, riding a horse into SEC Media Days and ordering the horse to take a dump on the gathered media figures.

Best case scenario:  AJ McCarron and the strong offensive line carry the offense while the receivers and Eddie Lacy get it together.  The defense hangs on against Michigan and then settles down before Arkansas.  Win the West and back they go to the SEC Championship Game, while Van and John throw up.

Worst case scenario:   Fans and college football writers have vastly underestimated how easy it will be to replace all the defensive players that are gone.  Just because a guy was a 4 or 5 star in high school doesn’t mean he will be anywhere close to the level of the player who started for three years and is now in the NFL.  As happened in 2010, they drop a couple of tough, close games to teams that happen to be playing lights-out that particular day, and end up 10-2 or 9-3.  Not a horrible “worst case scenario”—unless you happen to be the Tide, with that army of benighted and highly spoiled fans demanding a national title every single year.

Van and John think:  Losing Richardson and all the talent on defense hurts against the top teams on the schedule.  Bama fails to win the SEC West (again) and settles for just a humdrum New Year’s Day bowl.

 

LSU Tigers

Coach:  Crazy like a rabid fox.

Mascot makes us think of:  “Swamp People.”

Returning starters:  7 on offense, 6 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 96%; Rushing Yards: 9%; Receptions: 42%.  How many LSU fans would look at the departure of 96% of the team’s passing yards and say, “Yeah, we’re fine with that?”  If you answered “all of them,” you know your SEC football.

Strength of schedule: 29th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas.  They avoid playing Georgia.  They also take on North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson out of conference.  Bama comes to Red Stick.

Questions:  Can Zack Mettenberger step in and be the guy, especially in those four SEC road games?  Will there be any kind of hangover from the worst and most humiliating big game performance since Oklahoma in 2004?

Game of Thrones character:     Khal Drogo.  He is supremely dangerous and unpredictable, a crazy killing machine that could also lose focus at any point and allow some lesser team to hang around and cut him.  He’s a crazed savage invading a world that is strange and different to him; he’s often irrational and unpredictable; he’s a danger to himself as well as to others. Yes—he’s KHAL-LES DROGOMILES.

Best case scenario:  The defense continues at an elite level while the offense is better due to improved quarterback play.  Wins the SEC West.

Worst case scenario:   Mettenberger isn’t ready for the big road games and the defense isn’t quite at the level it was.    They still get to a New Year’s Day bowl game—likely a good one.

Van and John think:   LSU was a dominating team in 2011 with minimal help from the quarterback position.   Mettenberger will be an improvement, but he isn’t ready for those four road games—and a loss or two result.   And like bama, everyone is assuming the defense will be performing at the same level as last year and recent years.  It will be very good, but not great all the time.

 

Arkansas Razorbacks

Coach:  The bankrupt former Weber State coach (for five minutes) who replaced the guy who wrecked the motorcycle with the mistress on board. But hey, he was funny at Media Days, so who cares.

Mascot makes us think of:  Homer Simpson’s “Magical Meat Animal.”

Returning starters:  7 on offense, 6 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 29%; Receptions: 49%. Plus they get Knile Davis back.

Strength of schedule: 18th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State.  They avoid playing Georgia.  They also take on Jacksonville State, Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers and Tulsa.

Questions:  How will the head coaching change impact this team that should have been an SEC West contender?  Is Knile Davis the player he was before the injury?

Game of Thrones character:  We’re actually torn here.  On the one hand, they could be Tyrion Lannister:  Underrated by others, plagued by scandal, but still dangerous.   Every time it looks like they will come out on top, everything falls apart.  But on the other hand, there’s that wild boar that killed Robert Baratheon…!

Best case scenario:  Knile Davis is as good as or better than he was before and his strong season allows the Hawgs to have the SEC’s best offense.  John L. Smith is unpredictable in a “Les Miles way” and not an “Ed Orgeron way” (though we wonder if the space-time continuum could allow for such an eventuality) and that helps them slip past LSU or bama and win the SEC West.  If they can do that, even bigger prizes might await.  Face it, Arkansas: This year is it for you.  It’s what you hired Petrino for in the first place.  It’s your big shot, and it’s probably not coming around again anytime soon, since Petrino is gone now.  Make it count!

Worst case scenario:   Arkansas still can’t stay with LSU or bama on the field and, as has been their more usual outcome in recent years, battles Auburn (and now Texas A&M) for third in the West.

Van and John think:   With the conference’s best quarterback and the second best running back, Arkansas has plenty of firepower to beat anyone.  Either LSU or bama (or both) will get taken down in Arkansas this year.  But the road games are too tough to make it through unscathed.   We see a New Year’s Day bowl in your immediate future, Arkansas.  Nothing to sneeze at, but not what you truly covet for this season.

 

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Coach:  Ironjaw the Humorless.

Mascot makes us think of:  Winston Churchill and copyright infringement.

Returning starters:  5 on offense, 7 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 51%; Rushing Yards: 70%; Receptions: 17%

Strength of schedule: 38th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Troy, Kentucky, bama, LSU and Ole Miss.  They avoid playing South Carolina and Georgia.  They also take on the powerhouse behemoth foursome of Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama, and Middle Tennessee out of conference.  (Really, State—playing Troy on the road?  Doesn’t that sort of make us all look bad, just a little?)

Questions:  The one dependable part of MSU’s offense last season seemed to be Vick Ballard, who is now gone.  How will the SEC adapt against tougher defenses without him?

Game of Thrones character:     Stannis Baratheon.  A tiresome, serious and dry man, he has made a pact with the Dark Powers that made him a contender.  In the case of MSU, dark powers means Joe Lee Dunn or Jackie Sherrill.  Even with this assistance they somehow still get denied their ultimate goal, for even the Dark Powers cannot help State.

Best case scenario:  The formula is simple:  Four pretty easy non-conference wins plus keep whipping up on Ole Miss; squeak one out over Kentucky and then steal a game from either Auburn, Texas A&M or Tennessee.  Result:  another off-season chorus of “Dan Mullen is a genius” and a New Year’s Day bowl game.  Fifth or sixth place in the SEC West is not a horrible place to live.

Worst case scenario:   Troy fans storming the field and Hugh Freeze winning the Egg Bowl.  The humanity!!

Van and John think:    MSU gets pushed down one ranking in the West due to the arrival of Texas A&M.  (And, honestly, if A&M can’t regularly finish ahead of MSU, just what is all that money and that fan base good for?)  The MSU schedule allows for a bowl game, but nothing more.

 

Ole Miss Rebels

Coach:  The guy who coached Michael Oher in high school.

Mascot makes us think of:  Rebellious black bears yelling “it’s a trap!”  Missed marketing opportunities by LucasFilm.

Returning starters:  8 on offense, 8 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 42%; Receptions: 11%

Strength of schedule: 2nd toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  (Toughest in the SEC!)  Road games are at Tulane, bama, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia.  They avoid playing South Carolina.  They also take on Central Arkansas, UTEP, Texas and Tulane out of conference.  (Really, Tulane on the road?  At the same time, can you imagine a better road game?)  We’re sure Texas is excited to get to beat an SEC team.

Questions:   Freeze had a very successful year at Arkansas State in 2011, but how will that translate to the SEC and a brutal schedule?  Can JUCO quarterback Bo Wallace make enough plays to score more than 16 points per game?  Can Leigh Ann Tuohy’s voice carry all the way down to the Ole Miss sideline, so Freeze can hear her brilliant coaching suggestions?

Game of Thrones character:  Renly Baratheon.  Stylish, attractive, with dreams of being a contender… but it never quite happens.  The makeup and hair styles are great in the Grove, but they’re not scaring anyone on the field these days.

Best case scenario:  Freeze and Wallace create some excitement and attract recruits for the future.  They beat MSU and come close to making a bowl game.  (When the “best case scenario” still doesn’t involve actual bowl play, you know your work is cut out for you, Coach.)

Worst case scenario:    They went 2-10 last year, so the worst case scenario is 1-11 with a loss at Tulane.  The defense can’t stop anyone and Ole Miss doesn’t have the talent to run the offense Freeze wants to run.

Van and John think:     They will be more entertaining this season (and we never, ever get tired of Admiral Ackbar references), but Ole Miss winning in the SEC West is like trying to make another “Star Wars” movie.  You just know that there is a 99% chance that it won’t end well and you end up as a running internet joke.

 

Texas A&M Aggies

Coach:  The “Air-raid” offense guy who coached Houston last year.  To that stellar loss to Southern Miss.

Mascot makes us think of:  “Timmy’s fallen into the well again, Lassie??”

Returning starters:  7 on offense, 6 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 99%; Rushing Yards: 52%; Receptions: 30%

Strength of schedule: 8th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  (Welcome to the SEC West, Aggies!)  Road games are at SMU, Ole Miss, Auburn, MSU and bama.  They avoid playing South Carolina and Georgia.  (Honestly—does Georgia even play an SEC schedule? It seems like they avoid everybody.)  The Aggies take on Louisiana Tech, SMU, South Carolina State and Sam Houston State out of conference.

Questions:  Ryan Tannehill was a first round pick in April.  Can the Aggies replace him? How will Sumlin’s offense do against the SEC?  Will the grind of the schedule impact this team over the course of the season?  Can they avoid last season’s epic collapses in the second half?  Lots of interesting stuff to watch here.

Game of Thrones character:     Danerys Targeryn.  Coming from far away, with rumors of strange offensive capabilities and potential to do a lot of damage.  As soon as Kevin Sumlin figures out how to unlock the door and let the air-raid dragons out—look out!  …Or maybe not.

Best case scenario:  The home fans (12th Man!) carry the team to a few wins and the offense is among the best in the conference.   Texas A&M surges to 2nd or 3rd in the West in its first season in the SEC.

Worst case scenario:    The new quarterback isn’t ready to play against SEC defenses, the offense doesn’t quite click yet, and A&M struggles on the road.  Lower to mid-tier bowl game.

Van and John think:     The Aggies will be a fun and interesting team to watch.   We think they will be immediately competitive in the SEC West and will make the toughest division in college football even tougher.  We see 9-3 and a good bowl game.

As always, the Wishbone will present a separate preview article covering only the Auburn Tigers.  Stay tuned.

Related: Twitter Trooper Taylor Spy: A (Very Short) Novel of Espionage and ‘Crootin.

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 are waiting for you here.

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