Top five story lines, SEC West division

sports@macon.comJuly 16, 2011 

View from the top

With all due respect to teams in the East, but the conference’s best bets to run its BCS championship streak to six years are in the West. Alabama and LSU, national champions in 2007 and 2009 respectively, are consensus top-10 teams, ready to take another run at the title. The Tide return seven starters on a defense that should rank among the best in the country. LSU, with a good mix of players back on both sides of the ball and one final chance for quarterback Jordan Jefferson, are right there, too. Both have question marks (quarterback for Alabama and ... well, quarterback for LSU), but their strengths more than make up for them. The West had arguably the four best teams in the conference last year and is home to the past two national champions (Alabama and Auburn). If a team can navigate that minefield again, it’ll be in the mix for the BCS championship.

Razorbacks for real?

Which team has the most players on the preseason All-SEC teams? Alabama has the most first-teamers, but Arkansas beat it out by one in total representatives, putting 14 on the three preseason teams. The Razorbacks have seen an upward climb in three years under Bobby Petrino, from five wins in 2008 to eight in 2009 and 10 last year, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl, the school’s first trip to a BCS game. Now, can they get over the top in a stacked SEC West? Big-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett is in the NFL, but his replacement, Tyler Wilson, filled in nicely in a backup duty last year, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn. With All-SEC running back Knile Davis, the best receiving corps in the league and a defense that has shown steady improvement the last three years, even without Mallett, this might be Petrino’s best team.

Awkward exchanges

Auburn faces a daunting task trying to rebuild a national championship team that lost 16 starters, including Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton and monster in the middle Nick Fairley, two of the best players to ever put on a Tigers uniform. The question is, will anyone in attendance want to talk about what’s left? The NCAA’s investigation into Auburn seemed to have faded from the headlines before a New York Times article last week detailed a testy exchange between head coach Gene Chizik and an NCAA enforcement official at the SEC spring meetings last month. Chizik isn’t one to talk about internal matters -- to anybody -- but the media controls the line of questioning in Hoover, which could lead to a contentious battle of wills: the reporters’ desire to get any bit of information they can and Chizik’s desire to keep them at an arm’s length.

Taking a leap?

LSU, Alabama and Auburn have won national championships in the last four years. Arkansas went to a BCS game. Even Mississippi went to back-to-back Cotton Bowls. But Mississippi State hasn’t had a moment as memorable as its Western Division brethren. That might change soon. Dan Mullen, in his third year on the job, has the Bulldogs moving in the right direction, going from five wins to nine in 2010 and probably more important to Mississippi State fans, going 2-0 in the Egg Bowl. Mullen has a veteran quarterback in Chris Relf, plenty of play-makers on offense and an opportunistic defense, so 2011 might be one to remember in Starkville. An entertaining quote at media day, Mullen has emerged from Urban Meyer’s sizable shadow to show he’s a capable coach. It might be a deep division, but his Bulldogs could be a factor.

How will the teams stack up?

Other than Ole Miss, generally considered the weakest of the six teams in the West, the pecking order in the division is anybody’s guess. Auburn, although it lost a lot, will still garner some votes because it is coming off a national championship. Mississippi State is a darkhorse. Arkansas is close to the top. And Alabama and LSU, like usual, are the favorites to occupy the top two spots in the preseason picks. Does it matter? No. Auburn was picked third last year, behind Alabama and Arkansas. But it won’t stop the media from reporting it or fans from reveling or wallowing in their team’s placement. This is, after all, the SEC.

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