Picking SEC West Division

How much does the Nick Saban dynamic shake up the SEC West race this season? Does Saban's presence at Alabama give the Crimson Tide enough juice to battle with LSU, Arkansas and Auburn at the top echelon of this rugged division? It's a great debate.

Nick Saban's Fourth Quarter offseason program should provide a major boost to Alabama in the stamina department. His in-game decision making should be an immediate lift over that provided by the Mike Shula regime. And in due time his recruiting promises to outperform that of the previous regime.

But in the here and now, he cannot add bodies to a thin defense. As I've written here, I think the Alabama offense will be one of the best in the league this year if quarterback John Parker Wilson's durability continues to hold. Saban's defenses at Alabama, coordinated by Kevin Steele, will continue to improve. This year, the schemes will have to make up for shortcomings in personnel.

With SEC projections due at Media Days this week, it's time to go ahead and make the call on the Western Division.

1. LSU

It's hard to argue against the team many are picking to face Southern California in the national championship game. The Tigers are still loaded, especially on defense, further advancing the notion that Saban, the LSU boss from 2000-04, is an ace recruiter.

Do not underestimate the impact Gary Crowton will have as LSU's new offensive coordinator. The guy can breakdown defenses and create mismatches with the best of them.

2. Arkansas

There has been much anguish in Hog country during the offseason, but that doesn't change the fact that Houston Nutt's 10th Arkansas team is packed with talent. And they're the defending SEC West champs.

New/old offensive coordinator David Lee will aim for a little more balance, but with single-season rushing leader Darren McFadden (1,647 yards, 14 TDs in '06) back in the fold with Felix Jones, the Razorback rushing attack is fearsome. Reggie Herring put together one of the more underrated defenses in the land last season.

3. Alabama

Eight wins and a defeat of either Auburn or LSU (to break long losing streaks) would be considered a solid first season under Saban. If the defense holds together in a best case scenario kind of way, the Crimson Tide has the potential to challenge for No. 1.

4. Auburn

My candidate for falling flat this season is the Tigers. They've rolled along nicely for three seasons now, but have to plug in new starters at RB and WR to supplement Brandon Cox, an average quarterback.

The schedule is nasty, with road games at Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia likely to derail any title shot.

5. Ole Miss

The Rebels last SEC title came in 1963. That won't change this season.

However, their quarterback play should be better, with Seth Adams and Brent Schaeffer ready to lock up for a great battle in camp, and the running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis is formidable.

6. Mississippi State

What can you say? Sylvester Croom has engineered four SEC wins in three years and the trend doesn't look to change in 2007. It appears as though one glorious win per season (Florida in '04, Ole Miss in '05, Alabama in '06) will continue to be counterbalanced by lots of losses.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy, the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register, is a contributor to ‘BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com

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