Looking West

At the national Scout.com convention going on in Las Vegas this week, there is a lot of talk about the upcoming college football season. And when it comes to the Southeastern Conference Western Division, there are more questions than answers.

Almost all of those involved in SEC coverage seem to think that Nick Saban left LSU in pretty good shape and that the Bengal Tigers will be the favorite to win the Western Division. The one question regarding LSU seems to be whether JaMarcus Russell will be the quarterback everyone expected. And if not whether someone else will be able to get the job done. Some expect incoming freshmen Ryan Perrilloux to be the man. At the head of the list of people who expect that is Perrilloux.

But new LSU Coach Les Miles does have nine starters back on offense, and the Tigers are expected to be explosive. On defense, LSU does have to replace end Marcus Spears, who may have been the league's best.

There is a natural bias, to some extent. Mitch Dobbs and Kirk McNair of BamaMag.com, Clay Henry of the Arkansas site, HawgsIllustrated.com, and Mark Murphy of autigers.com all put Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn in the next three spots, though not necessarily in that order.

Auburn is the defending SEC champion, and some would put the Tigers number one until they are dethroned. But four lost number one draft choices, including at the critical quarterback and tailback (two deep) positions, and there is a wariness on the part of some to rank Auburn high. It is also pointed out by some that Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville was on the verge of being fired a year before going 13-0 because he had taken a team with much more talent than the 2005 squad will have and underachieved to 9-4. In fact, Tuberville's 13-0 mark is the only coaching season he has had without four, five or six losses.

Few casual fans can think of any Arkansas player from last year except quarterback Matt   Jones. He had three huge plays that single-handedly led the Razorbacks to a win over Alabama. Most think Arkansas will be decent on defense, but will struggle until finding a quarterback. (Although Coach Houston Nutt listed Robert Johnson as number one on the post-spring depth chart, many believe Decatur native Cole Barthel, who has been in pro baseball for four years, will take the job by early next season.)

The primary case for Alabama is defense, nine starters back on a unit that was among the nation's best last year. But even in Las Vegas the questions center on the injury situation. And even more on whether quarterback Brodie Croyle, halfback Kenneth Darby and fullback Tim Castille will be back full strength is whether they will stay that way. Croyle, particularly, must be considered as injury-prone. Additionally, Alabama depth is suspect at a number of positions, notably in the offensive line.

Consensus opinion is that Ole Miss and Mississippi State will be in the final two spots in the SEC Western Division.

Injury luck is critical to success, and any Bama follower from a year ago can relate to that.

Schedule luck is also important. It is probably not good for Alabama that the Crimson Tide slate does not have Kentucky this year. In place of the Wildcats is Florida, expected by most to be the favorite to win the SEC Eastern Division. So Alabama's three East opponents are heavyweights Florida and Tennessee and South Carolina, expected to be rejuvenated under new coach Steve Spurrier.

LSU also has Tennessee and Florida. (Oddly, both Bama and LSU host those strong East teams.) The Bengal Tigers have Vanderbilt as their third East opponent.

Arkansas traded Florida from last year's schedule for Vanderbilt on this year's schedule, and the Hogs do not play the Gators or Tennessee. South Carolina and Georgia are the other Eastern Division opponents for Arkansas.

Auburn also has it easy from the East, dropping Tennessee and picking up South Carolina to go along with Georgia and South Carolina.

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