Finally. The season is less than a week away.
What follows is a series of overall observations/expectations about the SEC West for this year based on what I see the teams have going into the season, along with what I’ve read about their fall practices. In other words, it’s pure, unadulterated navel gazing.
I’ve also listed key games for each of the major contenders.
I’ll throw out the same stuff for the SEC East tomorrow.
Alabama. In 2000, his first season in Baton Rouge, Nick Saban-coached LSU went 8-4. That seems like a good place as any to project the Crimson Tide for ’07. This is a team, remember, that went 6-7 last year. It always takes a little time for a new coaching staff to wring out all the (presumably bad) habits from the prior regime. (Steele ranks them third in the conference in experience, which may not necessarily be the best thing with a coaching change.) The schedule, as it usually does, sets up nicely for the Tide. The two toughest road games are FSU (which is restructuring in much the same way that ‘Bama is) and Auburn. Which is why that 8-4 record looks much more impressive than it will turn out to be. (BTW, Tide fans, after winning the SEC in ’01, LSU took a step back in ’02, finishing 8-5. Just sayin’…)
Arkansas. The schedule is laughable, as there isn’t a single noteworthy OOC opponent on it, and the Hogs play eight at home. But they do have to travel to Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. If they’re lucky, Monk will be back for the ‘Bama game (they have an off week before that game). Yeah, Casey Dick leaves a lot to be desired at QB, but with those running backs, Reggie Ball could win nine games with this team. I’d like to pick ’em to win more, but the losses on the oline and on defense make me hesitant – although the Hogs rank second in the conference in Steele’s experience ratings. Anyway, now that they’ve taken his cell phone away, what else does the Nuttster have to live for?
Key game: at LSU. Arky’s got to win it to have a shot at Atlanta.
Auburn. The hardest team to figure in the SEC this year. This is usually the kind of below the radar team that Tuberville does a very good job with, as Michael Elkon notes, and I’m a little tempted to pick the Tigers to steal the West from an LSU squad that’s clearly more talented. But… I look at that offensive line, with less experience than even Georgia’s, and their receiving corps and it looks like Borges is going to be hamstrung again this year. On defense, the secondary looks mediocre at best, although the front seven should be terrific. They’ll lose to Florida and LSU, but the visitor’s been strong in the Arky and Georgia series of late, so I’m thinking they’ve got an outside shot at ten wins. Maybe. More likely nine is what the Tigers wind up with.
Key game: at Arkansas. The road team has been strong in this series lately, but Arky has the perfect offense to give Auburn fits. Like last year…
LSU. Book those rooms in Atlanta, baby! Isn’t that what they said last season? On paper, this should be easy. But then again, last year this team was +132 in net yards per conference game, which was tops in the SEC by almost 80 ypg (!) and still didn’t play in the SECCG. The schedule is manageable, with an off week before the road game at Alabama. They should run the table, but I won’t be surprised in the least if they don’t. Still, the West looks just weak enough that these guys make it to Atlanta with one loss.
Key game: Believe it or not, Virginia Tech. There will be a ridiculous amount of hype/ESPN “narrative” about this game. If LSU wins comfortably, the national buzz will grow significantly, as will the expectations and confidence of the team. Obviously, the Florida game will get a lot of attention, as well.
Mississippi. What does it say about Orgeron that most concede that he’s been successful in starting to restock the talent base in Oxford, but don’t see a rising talent level translating into an improved won-loss record? Adding the most overrated defensive coordinator in recent conference history won’t likely add much. Their OOC schedule has one modest challenge with Missouri. The Rebs play five road games. They were last in conference net ypg in ’06 by a pretty wide margin (a number that’s worsened every year under Coach O). Four or five wins, tops, I’m afraid.
Mississippi State. My one bold prediction for the SEC West in 2007: one of the coaches in the Egg Bowl is going to be croomed. That’s the only game in the West I can see MSU with a shot to win. There’s a brutal non-conference game at West Virginia, too. There aren’t more than four wins on that schedule I can see.