It feels like just yesterday I braved icy roads to drive to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy my official Alabama Crimson Tide National Championship gear and yet eight months have passed since that glorious night. The celebration must come to an end and it’s time to move forward with another great season of college football and in particular SEC Football. We’re 10 days from kicking off all over again so it’s time to get down to business and start looking at the SEC West.
Regular BC contributor J. Newcastle, Eddie McCoy, and I kicked off a weekly podcast dedicated to SEC Football and we call it the SEC Football Breakdown. For the first week, we released two podcast episodes previewing the East and West divisions of the SEC. In the coming weeks, we will break down each SEC game and give you our perspective on the critical matchups and predict the winners.
What follows are some of the notes I used to prepare for the podcast. I have notes, thoughts, questions, and predictions for each of the SEC West teams. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? What don’t we know about them yet? These are just a few of the notes I came up with. Download the SEC West preview podcast if you want to hear Jay and Eddie’s thoughts as we agree, disagree, and discuss all six division teams.
Alabama Crimson Tide
- Greg McElroy is a winner with good skills but needs to improve consistency and get a better feel for when to take chances and challenge defenses and when to play it safe.
- TE Colin Peek was excellent when healthy last year but is now gone. This is one area where someone will have an opportunity to play their way in and become a factor in the passing game.
- Julio Jones has to be far more consistent catching the ball and Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have to be more consistent week-to-week as alternate threats for McElroy if opposing defenses continue to roll their attention to Jones.
- The running game could actually be better this year with Trent Richardson entering his second year and Eddie Lacie providing a third option to Heisman winner Mark Ingram and with the massive physical specimen that is DJ Fluker more and more likely to take over for Drew Davis at RT.
- Fluker has slimmed down to 340 pounds and footwork that earlier seemed too slow has improved a great deal according to head coach Nick Saban.
- The secondary returns S Mark Barron, an excellent player who flourished last year intercepting 7 passes. Robbie Green played a lot last year and was supposed to step in for Justin Woodall at the other S postion but he’s ineligible this year. Alabama will send athletic, talented players personally coached by Nick Saban to their secondary but they lack experience.
- Marcel Dareus’ status for the upcoming season is in some question after attending a party hosted by an agent. If his version of events is true, he should be eligible for the majority of the season and Alabama will need him to be as he is one of the nation’s best pass rushers.
- Rolando McClain leaves, Donta Hightower returns as does Nico Johnson and Josh Chapman. The Tide should be stout against the run again this year.
- LB Courtney Upshaw showed potential as a pass rusher to complement Dareus, but pass rush is going to be a question mark and it’s something Alabama will need to address with such youth in their secondary.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Dan Mullen is contemplating a 2-QB system with Chris Relf lining up as the likely starter but with Tyler Russell contributing.
- RB Anthony Dixon is now a 49er in the NFL. He was productive and consistent and it was easy for Mullen to call his number. The backs now on the roster have that dreaded word “potential” but they probably don’t have one guy they can count on and will rely on a committee approach.
- Regardless of which combination of players is in the backfield, they’ll line up behind an offensive line with four returning starters.
- Mullen says his #1 concern is the receiving corps. They have returning players but their depth and quality will be a concern.
- The front four and back four for Miss. St. are filled with veteran performers. It’s LB where they will be looking to new faces to help them stop opposing offenses.
- This defense ranked #10 in the conference last year. Is returning eight starters from that defense a good thing or a bad thing? They have to get better this year if they are going to get the six wins that will return them to a bowl game.
Ole Miss Rebels
- Jeremiah Massoli is unquestionably talented and experienced in big games but he’s moving cross-country and into a new conference because of poor judgment off the field. He can be a difference maker for a team that doesn’t have many but he’s going to have to stay out of trouble and his history suggests that might not happen.
- Regardless how Massoli plays, it looks right now like Houston Nutt plans to play Nathan Stanley some as well. No one knows if it’s because Massoli is taking some time to adjust to his new team or if Stanley has come on strong during camp.
- There are three returning starters on this offense. Nutt has coached toughness wherever he’s been. He’ll need to get that OL to come together quickly.
- The Rebels have potential threats at RB but neither Brandon Bolden nor Enrique Davis could establish themselves as a counterpart to elusive Dexter McCluster (now a Kansas City Chief). Davis has started to give some separation in camp but the tiny McCluster leaves big shoes in Oxford.
- The WR position is wide open this year. Massoli’s ability as a college QB could help these new players establish themselves but this is not a team with much in the way of proven targets in the passing game.
- Tyrone Nix is a veteran, capable defensive coordinator who has built excellent defenses without the elite playmakers boasted by other schools. He’s going to have to do that once again this year as an above average unit from last year needs to replace five starters.
- Kentrell Lockett gives Nix speed off the edge at DE and Jerrell Powe is a stout senior presence in the middle of the line. These two guys will need to hold up and contribute upfront to help the newer players around them.
- The Rebels have an all-new secondary this year and this is where things can unwind quickly. They are going to want to pound the football but that won’t be an option if they can’t get pressure on the QB and these youngsters can’t hold up and hemorrhage points.
- Auburn was thin on the offensive line last year but surprised many with a rushing attack that led the SEC. We don’t know a lot about the depth of the line but the Tigers return four starters including C Ryan Pugh and G Mike Berry. This unit is the key and it could be very good.
- Is Cam Newton a QB who is an excellent athlete or is he an athlete trying to play QB? Newton is an unknown with a ton of upside. Can he absorb OC Gus Malzahn’s offense? Can he develop from week-to-week and lead this squad to points consistently?
- WR Darvin Adams emerged as a playmaker last year. Can he continue that and how are the receivers around him? There seems to be a lot of talent here. If they develop, Newton could lead a diversified passing attack.
- Ben Tate is gone. Auburn has talented but puzzling Mario Fannin at RB. They also have Onterio McCaleb and five-star freshman Michael Dyer to help as Auburn looks to continue to retool a running game that has been great for the last several years.
- They can’t be much worse than they were last year. Are the eight returning starters better than they were last year? Can the vaunted recruiting class begin to contribute to a squad that struggled mightily last year?
- Gene Chizik was a top-flight defensive coordinator and might have to spend a little more hands-on time with this group to get them out of the SEC cellar. They just need to grow and improve. Playmakers would be great but they just have to not be dreadful and this team can make some noise this season.
- Ryan Mallett is being universally hailed as one of the best QBs in the country. The arm strength and release are there but there are a couple areas I want to see him improve upon:
- Footwork: he isn’t mobile and didn’t always handle it well when the pass rush came
- Leadership: I didn’t like his body language when things went wrong last year. He needs to grow up and lead this team down the field.
- It’s a new day in Fayetteville- the ‘Hogs ranked 10th in the conference in rushing and I haven’t seen much to suggest to me they’ll progress dramatically in this area. They don’t have to be great because the passing attack should be but they probably need to show some improvement on the ground.
- If Georgia’s defense last year was a war crime, I don’t know what you call what Arkansas did on that side of the ball. They’re horrible. Jerry Franklin is a terrific linebacker but that’s about all they had and it wasn’t near enough.
- Seven starters on defense return but I’m not convinced Willy Robinson will get more out of them – let alone enough out of them – to make the jump so many experts are expecting.
- Jordan Jefferson matured in his first full year as a starter. He’s not in the upper echelon of SEC QBs but he’s got skills and at times played efficiently. He needs to continue that forward progress.
- The running game was ordinary last year; part of that was due to OL injuries and part was because Charles Scott was an ordinary SEC running back. They have to improve in that area in order to help Jefferson continue his development.
- Terrence Toliver will need to step in as the primary receiving target for Jefferson and they’ll also have Ruben Randle. LSU always has so many athletes to play the receiver position. Can those athletes develop the finer points of the receiver position and become productive weapons.
- John Chavis has to replace seven starters. LSU each and every year is going to have an army of four and five star talent. The key for them is coaching on both sides of the ball and with Les Miles at the helm. They have to have coaches who can turn these athletes into great football players. If that happens, LSU will be a contender for BCS Bowls and National Championships. If not, they’ll be an underachieving enigma.
My SEC West Prediction:
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi State