Wednesday, August 16

The HJS Shut Up! This Could Totally Happen! 2006 SEC preview (part 2): How the West will be won.

Last week I did my first bit of actual football prognosticatin' with a preview of the Eastern Division of the SEC. This week it's the Western Division, where I suspect the horse race for first place will be even more tightly contested than in the East. As before, I'll begin with my pick for the division winner and work my way down, and no, my pick for the West champion isn't whom everybody else is picking . . .

Alley Broussard lays the smack down on an Auburn defender. Remember this image in a month or so.

1. LSU Tigers
Last year: 11-2 (7-2 SEC), capped off by a 40-3 red-assed beatdown of the Miami Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl

Yeah, you heard me: LSU, not Auburn, will be the team representing the Western Division in the Georgia Dome come December 2. As you'll read below, this selection may have a lot more to do with my doubts about Auburn than it does to do with confidence in LSU, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of reasons to be confident about the Bayou Bengals. On offense, the key is to establish JaMarcus Russell as the starter early so that he can build confidence coming back from last year's shoulder injury; if he does, he'll have an excellent receiving corps to throw to. RB Alley Broussard, too, is coming off an injury, one which caused him to miss all of last season, but I think he's better than people give him credit for. On defense, LSU has done their usual incredible job of recruiting top-notch talent, but are going to be forced to throw a lot of those guys in right away, particularly in the front seven; still, I'm always going to give the benefit of the doubt to a Bo Pelini defense. The secondary, at least, should be well-equipped to counter the passing threats of teams like Auburn and Tennessee.

I know I'm sticking my neck out to pick LSU, a team that definitely has its share of question marks, ahead of the team everyone else has picked to walk away with the SEC title and maybe more. But what can I say -- I just have this feeling that the LSU-Auburn game on September 16 may turn out to be a helluva surprise. No telling what happens after that, but . . . alls I'm saying is, don't overlook the Tigers who wear purple.

Absolute best-case scenario: 12-0, an SEC title, and a shot at the ADT Trophy.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 6-6 and a short ride to Shreveport on Dec. 27.
My prediction: 11-1 and a horrifically vengeful rematch with Florida -- their one loss of the regular season -- in the SEC championship game.

"Keaton always said, 'I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him.' Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Kenny Irons.

2. Auburn Tigers
Last year: 9-3 (7-1 SEC), followed by an inexplicable 24-10 humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl

Every poll I've seen has Auburn in the top 10, many in the top five (including mine); Phil Steele and Gold Sheet have them at #2. has them going 11-1 in the regular season, winning the conference title, and playing in The Show. Stewart Mandel calls them a "title contender." So why are they sitting here staring up at LSU, a team I have ranked just below Auburn on my initial Top 25 ballot?

The expectations game. That's all I can say. Three years ago, everybody and their brother was talking about Auburn and their #1 ranking by The Sporting News, and the Tigers proceeded to fall flat on their faces right out of the starting gate as they limped to an 8-5 season. The year before, Auburn had been predicted to make a repeat appearance in the SEC title game but got embarrassed by Arkansas and got punked by an arguably inferior Florida squad and injury-rattled Georgia. Quite simply, this is a team that, when the expectations are high, finds ways to lose.

I know that sounds like an awfully vague, intangible criterion by which to doubt a team, and honestly, I sure can't doubt the Tigers based on talent: promising QB, a rampaging tailback, eye-popping speed on defense. And yet there are just enough potential weak points -- inexperience at receiver and safety, loss of an all-world leader on the offensive line -- that, in this season of major expectations, I can see Auburn getting tripped up just enough to miss out on a Brad-Pitt-in-Troy destiny-seizing moment and find themselves on the outside looking in when the SEC championship game is played.

Absolute best-case scenario: A second undefeated season in three years and the national title they didn't get in 2004.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: A very 2003-esque five losses and an invitation to a who-cares bowl.
My prediction: 11-1 and runner-up status in the SEC West, but -- with the loss to LSU having happened early in the season -- they get a Fiesta Bowl invite just the same.

How fast is Darren McFadden? He just came into your house, made himself a sandwich, made out with your wife, and left, and you never even saw him.

3. Arkansas Razorbacks
Last year: 4-7 (2-6 SEC), including a stunning upset at the hands of Vanderbilt and a 70-point donkeypunch by USC

Mitch Mustain is OMG teh hottest QB EVAR. Yeah, I heard you the first time. But Mustain alone won't be able to suddenly yank the Razorbacks out of four-win purgatory and back into conference contention. For that, they'll have to use the same game plan they've been relying on for what seems like eons now -- a killer running game and strong defense. The running game is definitely there, with nightmare-in-the-making Darren McFadden running behind an excellent fullback in Peyton Hillis. The defense will probably be there, too, with Sam Olajubutu leading a scary linebacking corps and a lot of promising, though raw, talent at most of the other positions.

Still, even though they're returning 19 starters, this strikes me as a somewhat inexperienced team in a lot of respects, even when you get past the quarterback situation. Enough that they're probably one year away from making a serious run at the SEC title -- but that doesn't mean that they can't ruin someone else's ride along the way, and I think they'll have the stones to pull one or two major upsets this year. Auburn plays Arkansas the week before they play Florida, while LSU travels to Little Rock the week before a possible return date in the Georgia Dome, and I'd be vary careful not to overlook the Hogs if I were a player on either of those teams.

Absolute best-case scenario: 10-2 in the regular season and a stunning march to the SEC title game.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: Mitch Mustain turns out to be Ron Powlus and the Hogs go 5-7.
My prediction: 8-4 and their first bowl invite in three years.

They call Alabama the Deacon Blues . . . no, wait, that's that guy in Steely Dan. These guys are the Crimson Tide.

4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Last year: 10-2 (6-2 SEC), capped off with a win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl

I like Mike Shula. Like the fact that he's a Catholic, like his dad, like the fact that, after a bizarre sequence of events that brought him to Tuscaloosa, he's presided over four pretty much scandal-free years there. Like the fact that the look he wore last season was more steely Bob Stoops gaze than deer-in-the-headlights befuddlement. But if recent history tells us one thing, it's that Alabama has had trouble following up breakthrough seasons -- they haven't had back-to-back ten-win seasons since they won the '92 title under Stallings -- and Shula now has to basically rebuild last year's terrific defense and find someone to fill Brodie Croyle's shoes. The 2005 Tide, despite an offense that looked increasingly rickety as the season wore on, could count on the defense to reliably pull wins out of their asses at a moment's notice; they won't be able to do that this year.

But the offense, which returns nine starters from last year, might actually be better than it was a year ago, particularly if Tyrone Prothro can complete an amazing comeback from the vomit-inducing ankle snap he sustained against Florida. And even if the team itself still turns out to be not that good, well, they've scheduled enough laughable out-of-conference games (Feel the power of the Duke Blue Devils! Thrill to the high-flying escapades of Florida International!) that they should be able to snag a third straight bowl invite no problem. As it stands, Alabama seems to be in a murky clump of could-be-good, could-suck-ass mid-tier teams such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and Ole Miss, and their defense will have to learn the ropes pretty quickly to rise to the top of that group.

Absolute best-case scenario: A 10-2 season that ends with the gleeful stomping of Auburn's "fear the thumb" dreams, followed by a second straight January bowl.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: They get upset by Hawaii in their opener, and Tide Nation is calling for Shula's death by firing squad for the duration of a 5-7 season.
My prediction: 7-5 and they get to pick their postseason holiday destination -- Memphis, Nashville, or Shreveport. Lucky y'all!

The Orgeron ponders which member of the press he will ritualistically sacrifice in the Grove next.

5. Ole Miss Rebels
Last year: 3-8 (1-7 SEC), and Ed Orgeron shot the team's water boy at season's end, "just to watch him die"

I'm probably going to get a machete to the skull from The Big O himself for saying this, but I think Ole Miss is really going to regret -- if they haven't started already -- dumping David Cutcliffe, their most successful coach since maybe the John fricking Vaught era, for a guy who had never even been an offensive coordinator, much less a head coach. Orgeron may have maniacal motivational skills and a tasty spouse, but I have yet to see any indication that he's anything special as a head coach; Ole Miss's offense for the past two years has been downright cadaverous, and I wouldn't get my hopes up for a dramatic turnaround in 2006. A lot of people seem to think that a sea change is in order because the Orge managed to snag Brent Schaeffer, former co-QB for the Tennessee Volunteers -- but this is a guy who couldn't beat out Erik Ainge for a starting job, for Pete's sake, and even if he does turn out to be a playmaker he's not going to have too many guys to throw to.

Ironically, the defense -- never exactly a strength under Cutcliffe even when the rest of the team was going great guns -- should be the Rebels' strength this year behind superhero linebacker Patrick Willis. If Orgeron plays his cards right, that defense might be improved enough to seal the deal on the kind of close games that got away from them at the last minute in 2006 (Vandy, Alabama, etc.). A 4-0 start is a possibility thanks to a not-ridiculous-but-not-unbeatable OOC schedule that includes Memphis, Missouri, and Wake Forest, but I still have a hard time seeing this team as one that's going to make a lot of noise in SEC play this year.

Absolute best-case scenario: 9-3 and a New Year's Day bowl.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: They get a grand total of one win, and it's against D-IAA Northwestern State.
My prediction: An even 6-6, two, maybe three conference wins.

Anyone who'd volunteer for the responsibility of turning this team around (and spend a segment of his life in Starkville in the process) is a better man than I.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last season: 3-8 (1-7 SEC), but that one win came in the Egg Bowl, at least

Nobody in Starkville -- or Oxford, for that matter -- wants to hear this, but you could basically throw a blanket over Ole Miss and Mississippi State this year, the two teams are so similar. They've both got moribund offenses, led by QBs who are by no means worldbeaters; running games that seem likely to create the lion's share of whatever offensive production they get; and surprisingly strong defenses led by beastly middle linebackers. Because the talent levels of both teams still seems to be so iffy, I'm making the not-exactly-earth-shattering prediction that the two Mississippi teams will once again be locked in a race for the bottom of the SEC West.

While the on-paper talent level is not great, there is enough returning experience on the MSU squad that they could pull an upset or two. And whatever else you can say about him, Sylvester Croom has succeeded in the herculean task of completely making over this team psychologically, from a team that looked like a glorified Sun Belt squad in the last few years of Jackie Sherrill's tenure to a team that, while still struggling, at least isn't getting blown out by 52-0 margins anymore. The schedule, unfortunately, is not terribly friendly -- only Tulane and D-IAA Jacksonville State look like guaranteed wins, and since they don't get a shot at Vandy this year, they might have to win the season-ending Egg Bowl for a second straight year to avoid finishing with an empty W column in conference play. I think the Starkville Bulldogs are still a year away from seriously flirting with bowl eligibility, but I hope they give Croom long enough to find out.

Absolute best-case scenario: 5-7, with a bowl game a possibility right up until a November 18 loss to Arkansas.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: See Ole Miss (above), only replace "Northwestern" with "Jacksonville."
My prediction: 3-8, winless in the SEC.

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