As opening day looms across the conference, let's examine the divisions and determine how things may turn out. In this first installment, we will take a look at the Western Division of the SEC.
Last season, the race for the divisional title hinged upon the Alabama-LSU game. Will that be true this year as well or will another team, like Ole Miss, have something to say about who ends up in Atlanta?
1). Alabama Crimson Tide-
Nick Saban leads the Tide into 2009 still smarting from the two game collapse to end last season. The focal point through spring and going into fall camp has been all about finishing. The Tide will benefit this season from their schedule as most of the difficult games will be at home.
Alabama must replace three starters along the offensive front, but so far things have looked well in practice. James Carpenter, the solid Juco transfer, has shown the potential and ability to be a solid starter at the left tackle position. William Vlachos, the strongest player on the team, has grabbed the starting center spot and caught the coaches attention. Brian Motley came away from spring as the starter at right guard; if Motley stays healthy, this position should be a strength.
The defense will once again be amongst the best in the nation. Alabama returns one of the top nose guards in the game in Terrence Cody and boasts perhaps the best linebacking corps in college football with All-American Rolando McClain and All-SEC Freshman Donta Hightower manning the middle.
Alabama returns one of the top wide receivers in the nation in All-American Julio Jones and All-SEC Freshman Mark Ingram powers the running game..
The coaches believe they have a solid Quarterback in junior Greg McElroy and as long as Alabama gets serviceable play from the QB position, they should be repeating their trip to Atlanta.
2). LSU Tigers-
Last season, Les Miles LSU Tigers struggled in a number of areas. One of the most painful to watch was at the quarterback position. Jarret Lee was forced into action after the injury to Andrew Hatch and things went downhill from there.
This spring, Jordan Jefferson looked much more consistent and ready to challenge for playing time at the position. Coaches have been pleased with the solid play from newcomer Russell Shepard as well. Any improvement in the passing game would be significant in helping the Bengal Tigers improve upon last season's record.
The quarterbacks will have All-SEC TE Richard Dickson to catch the ball and All-SEC RB Charles Scott to head up the ground attack.
Former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis was brought in to revamp the defense and return it to more of the aggressive, attacking unit fans are accustomed to seeing.
LSU has to contend with both Florida and Georgia in the East, and they travel to Alabama and Ole Miss in November. The schedule makes the hopes of reaching Atlanta seem like a daunting task.
3). Ole Miss-
Houston Nutt leads a talented Ole Miss team into 2009 with the potential for a special season for Rebel fans.
All-SEC QB Jevan Snead returns to pilot the Rebels offensive attack. Snead is considered by many to be the best pro style quarterback in the SEC. All-SEC WR Dexter McCluster gives the Rebels their best playmaking ability. Running backs Cordera Eason and Brandon Bolden will need to step to take pressure of the passing game.
All-SEC DL Greg Hardy leads a talented, physical front seven for the Rebels. The biggest area for concern here is in the secondary despite the return of Safety Kenderick Lewis. Last season saw inconsistent play in the secondary hurt Ole Miss at critical times. So far, no one has stepped up in the backfield and that will be necessary if Ole Miss can contend in the West.
Houston Nutt is a good coach who has been known to lose some games he shouldn't and get the big win when his back is against the wall. The sometimes inconsistent play of Nutt's teams and the question marks in the defensive back field make Ole Miss more of a spoiler team than a contender for the divisional title.
4). Arkansas Razor Backs-
Last season, Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino suffered his first losing season as a college head coach. This year he hopes to improve upon the building process he implemented in season one.
All-SEC RB Michael Smith leads the Hogs ground attack and QB Ryan Mallett returns after a season under his belt in Petrino's schemes. Arkansas returns a solid group of receivers and any Petrino coached team is going to have an effective passing attack.
Nine starters return for the Hogs on defense and Petrino looks for improvement on that side of the ball.
Coaches worked hard in the off-season to add some size to their smaller defensive linemen and linebackers. The lack of size and strength resulted in difficulties for the defense with ground oriented teams.
The secondary was simply porous in 2008 and improvement there is vital for the success of the Hogs. Some of the young incoming players will be counted on to help shore up the pass defense.
5). Auburn Tigers-
The Gene Chizik era begins on the plains as Tiger fans hope to put a miserable 2008 behind them.
The rebuilding of the talent level is going to take time and many of the same problems that plagued the Tigers last season are still an issue.
During the spring, neither Kody Burns or Neil Caudle managed to grab the starting quarterback position. Burns was ineffective last season and Caudle has been plagued by career injuries. Chris Todd, who struggled as well , returns from off season surgery. Coaches had hoped someone would step up during the spring but that never materialized.
A trouble spot for Auburn in 2008, the wide receiver position will count on incoming freshmen to contribute. Last year's leading receiver was walk-on Rod Smith. The receivers lack of play making ability hampered the success of the offense.
All-SEC RB Ben Tate returns to lead the running game. Last season, under former coordinator Tony Franklin, the running game was virtually non-existant. That has to change if the Tigers have a chance for any success in 2009.
All-SEC DL Antonio Coleman heads up a solid defensive unit for the Tigers. Auburns starting eleven should be solid, but depth behind them is questionable.
6). Mississippi State Bulldogs-
New head coach Dan Mullen comes over from Florida to try and resurrect the Bulldog program.
Senior Tyson Lee is the quarterback expected to try and run Mullen's spread offense. Although small in stature (5'10", 200 pounds), Lee was an All-American Juco quarterback and has adequate arm strength and is mobile enough to run Mullen's schemes.
Powerful tailback Anthony Dixon returns as the best offensive threat for the Bulldogs. Dixon doesn't fit the typical spread RB profile, but Mullen's plans to move him around in various positions to get the ball in his hands.
Wide receiver continues to be an area for concern and Mullen's was looking at walkons in the spring to make contributions.
The defense should be solid. The linebacking corps is talented and deep and the defensive front was upgraded with the addition of Pernell McPhee from the Juco ranks.
Lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball will make Mullen's first season a difficult one.
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