This is another case of a schedule not as tough as others helping out a team. Auburn gets LSU and Georgia at home and their toughest road game is at Alabama, against whom they've had a little success recently. Maybe you heard about it. In addition to the schedule, the Tigers have 16 starters returning, including most of the offensive line and their leading rushers. And, if you haven't heard, they will be running some form of the spread offense. One would think this would help them out on offense, but that all depends on the quarterback. I'm assuming we'll see Kodi Burns and Chris Todd until one of them takes over. If Burns learns to throw, we'll never hear about Chris Todd again.
The defense has a new coordinator, Paul Rhoads from Pittsburgh. My first thought was ouch, then I checked him out and he did lead Pitt to the 5th best defense in the country last year. Granted, not against strong competition, but still impressive. Plus, Auburn usually has a pretty good defense filled with very large and very fast people.
My one real concern with this pick of Auburn to win the West is that the new offense they'll be running isn't a grind-it-out, boring, clock-eating one. It's fast-paced and puts more pressure on their defense since they'll be on the field more. Auburn's style of play was horribly boring, but when you have a good defense, you don't really need to light up the scoreboard. But in the end, the favorable schedule should help get Auburn to Atlanta.
Just like Georgia in the East, if LSU had the schedule of Auburn, they'd be in Atlanta. The Tigers go to Auburn, Florida, and South Carolina and get Georgia in Baton Rouge, which I think is too much for a team that could be quarterbacked by a Harvard transfer. Les Miles hasn't named a starter, but it looks like Andrew Hatch will at least get some playing time. I've seen a near-Ivy League quarterback play (or at least warm-up) in the form of Billy Tapp. Not good times.
As for good times, LSU does return three of their defensive lineman, most of the offensive line, and a bunch of good running backs. There's plenty of talent at wide receiver so whoever ends up playing the majority of the time at quarterback will have options and, as we all know, it's good to have options.
The defense should be one of the better ones in the conference, but I could see them struggling early. They'll have to replace the top two corner backs, best linebacker, and best defensive lineman. There's loads of talent to take over those positions, but it's untested talent. So if you're an LSU fan, understand your season is riding on a Harvard transfer, a redshirt freshman, and a true freshman. It's for that reason and the killer schedule I don't see LSU returning to Atlanta.
3. Ole Miss
That's right, I'm guzzling the kool-aid. Free-basing it is probably a little more accurate. I would put Alabama right here, but I don't have any faith in John Parker Wilson to avoid meltdowns at crucial moments. So, the Rebels, who return 16 starters, get the nod here. Four offensive linemen return (a group with 101 starts, most in the SEC), arguably one of the top wide receiving groups in the league, and solid talent at running back. Of course, just like LSU and Auburn, the success of the offense rides on the quarterback, which in this case is Jevan Snead. If he lives up to some of the hype, this could be one of the conference's better offenses. If not, we've got the past four years to remind us what happens when your quarterback sucks.
As for defense, until Greg Hardy (best lineman in the league when he wants to be. There, I said it.) and Peria Jerry revealed they were made of glass, the defensive line was probably going to be one of the better ones in the conference. Those two will be back, but I don't know if they can hold up all year, especially Jerry. There's talent at linebacker, but not experience (other than Ashley Palmer, who is one of the more underrated guys in the league). I don't even want to talk about defensive back. It's bad enough here that a wide receiver and running back were moved here to add depth. Then one of them almost won the starting job. Ugh. If the front seven plays as well, that will take some pressure off a group in which I have little to no faith.
I look for the Rebels to make a little noise, get soundly thumped once or twice, but this should be a massive improvement over last year. Look, you have to figure horrendous coaching cost the team at a minimum three games. Now, with a competent coach and someone not named Seth Adams at quarterback, you have to figure that's worth three to four more wins.
At Georgia, at Tennessee, and at LSU, plus they have Auburn, which has owned them for the past six years. I mention that road schedule because one, it's hard, and two, John Parker Wilson on the road is never a good thing. His stats from conference road games at Auburn, State, Ole Miss, and Vandy (not exactly a murderer's row there) last season: 68 of 128 (53%), 0 TDs, 5 INTs. Those numbers don't bode well for this year's schedule. But, Wilson does have four starters back on the offensive line (albeit not a great one), the leading rusher Terry Grant, and a seemingly solid group of wide receivers.
On defense, this group should be better with more talent getting some playing time. I would think they'll be a little like LSU's defense in that they should get better as the year goes along. Saban loves defense and someone will probably be killed if this defense doesn't improve over last year's. Most likely the $*#@%!& video guy, as Saban once called him.
Bottom line, if Wilson taps his inner Rush Probst, Alabama should have a good season. If not, the Liberty Bowl will come calling.
5. Mississippi State
I'm sure I'll be accused of being biased here, but I'm not high on this team at all. Think about it, this team was a Michael Henig broken bone away from being 4-8. If Henig keeps playing, Croom keeps throwing the ball (remember the LSU game) all season. Instead, Henig goes out and he has to play an untested quarterback and does exactly what you should do (and what you should do if your quarterback has a career completion percentage in the 40s). Run, run, run some more, play defense, and pray for the breaks to fall your way. Now, the defense deserves credit for what they did last year. They kept the team in the game and in some cases changed the game.
But take a look at these three games last year:
-Alabama - The Tide dominated the first half and a classic John Parker Wilson meltdown handed the game to State. Again, State's defense played very well, but their offense was outgained in every category.
-Auburn - Caught the Tigers at the perfect time. Early in the season and Auburn hadn't figured out that Brandon Cox was terrible (which is amazing given the first few years of his career) and what they needed to do to win.
-Ole Miss - A miserable 3-8 team dominated them for 50 minutes. Then the Shrimpboat took over and the rest was history.
The breaks fell State's way last year and I don't see that happening again. One, teams know that State is not the miserable State team of a few years ago. And two, they go to LSU, Tennessee, and Alabama. That's pretty rough.
As for the players, Wesley Carroll performed well enough that he'll be splitting time at quarterback with JUCO transfer Tyson Lee. I had no faith in Carroll before, now it's possible I have negative faith in him. Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducree make a nice combination at running back and I'm wondering if Robert Elliott will become a factor. If he's everything he should be, State will have a pretty good backfield. The offensive line only returns three starters so that could make things a little tougher on the running game.
The defense should have one of the better secondaries in the conference, but lost defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who in my opinion was the best coach on the staff. The linebackers should be a good group, but I think the defensive line will be a little down from last year. The defense should be in the middle of the pack in the league and will be the crutch on which the team leans. If Wesley Carroll or Tyson Lee turns in a season no one would predict and I'm able to name one wide receiver off the top of my head by the end of the season, State could have another winning year, but I'm not seeing it.
The good news is Arkansas has a pretty good schedule setup. The bad news is Arkansas returns only eleven starters. Even more bad news, I can't name a single defender. It could be a rough year on that side of the ball for a defense that wasn't that great last year.
On offense, Casey Dick is surprisingly above average. In his carer, he's thrown 34 touchdowns and only 20 interceptions. Certainly not outstanding, but not as bad has he's made out to be. Of course, it's a little easier to throw when teams are loading up to stop Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. In Petrino's offense, Dick will be expected to throw and throw some more. I'm guessing he'll have some success early, but will struggle as the year goes on. Once teams figure out his tendencies and what throws he can't make, they'll adjust and I think we'll see that INT number inch closer to the TDs. Throw in the team is adjusting to a new coach (and one of the most hated in all of sports) and this could be a rough year in Fayetteville.
*East predictions are below.