SEC West wrap-up

The sun will set on the 2003 SEC college football season after LSU and Georgia stage their rematch in the Georgia Dome on Saturday. <br><br>The season was one full of surprises, both of the pleasant (Ole Miss' run at the division title) and the not-so-pleasant variety (Alabama's collapse and Auburn's off-the-field woes).

Here's a quick rundown of where everyone in the SEC West finished and what they can either hang their hat on -- or resolve to change -- in the future.

LSU (11-1, 7-1)

In a nutshell: A program on the verge of dominance

Nick Saban has built an impressive team.

Everyone knew LSU would be strong because of its veteran defense and good special teams. But few people were expecting quarterback Matt Mauck to lead the league in passing efficiency and finally develop into the star most Tiger fans expected when he hit Baton Rouge.

LSU's coaching staff has shut the door tight on recruiting both in-state and in LSU's general region. A strong stable of running backs that includes Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard has the LSU running game set for the future.

Next year will be challenging, as the Tigers must replace most of its secondary and could find itself needing to replace three-fourths of its defensive line if Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill opt for the NFL draft. But head coach Nick Saban has a plan in place that works, and LSU looks like the SEC West leader for many seasons to come.

Ole Miss (9-3, 7-1)

In a nutshell: Rebels finally make a run, but was it their last gasp for a while?

Will there be Rebel life after Eli Manning?

Simply put, Eli Manning had too much talent at quarterback to expect Ole Miss to underachieve for three consecutive years under his leadership.

But it was the improvement on defense, overseen by coordinator Chuck Driesbach, that really made the difference. The Rebels finished 16th in rush defense, although poor pass defense early skewed Ole Miss' overall defensive rating.

The biggest question for Ole Miss is whether the Rebels can keep this level of play up next year and beyond. Early signs say no. Unless Robert Lane or Michael Spurlock can immediately step into Manning's shoes, the Rebels are likely to struggle. They lose Tremaine Turner and Ronald McClendon out of the offensive backfield, as well as top receiver Chris Collins, two starting offensive linemen and the entire heart of its defense.

Head coach David Cutcliffe has raised the expectations bar in Oxford; whether the fans will let him rebuild is another matter.

Auburn (7-5, 5-3)

In a nutshell: Disappointing season magnified by year-end screw-up

Tommy Tuberville got the strangest "vote of confidence" in the history of college football.

Auburn was supposed to contend for the national championship, but that talk didn't even make it past the first week of September. Auburn spent the season looking for an offensive identity and never really put together three good games in a row.

A season-ending win over Alabama was quickly marred and forgotten due to the inexplicable actions of the school's board of trustees, athletic director and president. With Tommy Tuberville seemingly in for at least one more year -- an embarrassing loss in the Tigers' bowl game could change things yet again -- the task becomes winning enough to develop stability and rebuilding the defensive front seven, which could be very weak in 2004. Auburn must also settle its special teams questions and find replacements for long-serving offensive linemen Monreko Crittenden and Mark Pera.

Auburn has the talent to contend for the division in 2004, but not if the Auburn house continues to be divided.

Arkansas (8-4, 4-4)

In a nutshell: Solid season for the Hogs, but challenges lie ahead

Matt Jones will be back.

Arkansas was like a diesel engine on a cold morning -- powerful, but it ran rough the whole year. The team pinned its hopes to a strong ground attack and an aggressive defense, which was the right call for this group.

Quarterback Matt Jones has another year to give defensive coordinators headaches, but Arkansas will have to replace heavy losses after this season. Fullback Mark Pierce will probably head to the NFL a year early, while the entire offensive line and defensive secondary may also be gone. Additionally, Arkansas' defensive line, which returns almost intact, is the division's worst unit.

It's hard to say where Arkansas is going, but the Razorbacks should be applauded for getting to the places they've already been.

Alabama (4-9, 2-6)

In a nutshell: Disastrous 2003 campaign must be forgotten quickly

Mike Shula will have his work cut out for him next year.

Nothing went right for Alabama in 2003, unless you count the improvements in special teams towards the end of the year. But special teams are a miniscule affair compared with an entire offense and an entire defense that didn't inspire confidence in anyone.

Injuries also contributed to an already combustible mix of post-season ban, two coaching changes and reduced scholarship numbers, and the end result was the worst season in Tuscaloosa in perhaps nearly 50 years.

Things won't get quickly better for Alabama, as essentially the same team returns for the 2004 campaign minus playmakers Shaud Williams and Derrick Pope. It will be incumbent upon head coach Mike Shula to improve, as well as help some very average talent play above their heads to help mitigate the Crimson Tide's thin numbers.

What Alabama fans should hope for is that the disastrous final results haven't undercut the players' confidence in Shula and his staff.

Mississippi State (2-10, 1-7)

In a nutshell: Dawn of a new day in Starkville as Sherrill finally rides off into the sunset

Mississippi State endured a miserable season.

It's scary to think of just how bad things got in Starkville, as Mississippi State not only recorded a deplorable 2-10 season, the Bulldogs fell even further than their neighbors to the east, Alabama, which at least had the excuse of probation to fall back upon.

Instead, Mississippi State squandered decent talent on its way to posting a terrible record and looking generally disinterested for the season's second half.

New head coach Sylvester Croom inherits a bloody mess that is about to get bloodier thanks to an NCAA investigation, but he'll get the time needed to turn this team around.

Assuming Croom can adjust to being a head coach for the first time, he has the opportunity to build a solid team in Bulldog land. But he must upgrade the talent on the offensive line, find receivers that can catch, develop a quarterback and deprogram some blatantly terrible coaching on the defensive side of the football first.


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