State Of The Hogs: LSU Looks The Best In SEC West

Talking preseason Southeastern Conference football did not dominate the down time during a college sports publisher's conference in Las Vegas this week.

No, saying that would be a stretch.

But during one break in the discussions about the future of the Internet in college sports and before we talked about the age-old problem of how to force the U.S. Postal Service to deliver our magazines on time, a handful of SEC West publishers did brainstorm on what to expect this fall.

There was one disclaimer offered by all; none know much about the other's team and would like another crack at picking the West in about two months, after they've digested the summer football magazines filled with the spring updates.

Here's what Kirk McNair (Alabama), Mark Murphy (Auburn), Chuck Rounsaville (Ole Miss) and this writer (Arkansas) came up with after putting our old heads together: LSU is the best, then flip a coin between Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas with Ole Miss and Mississippi State at a slightly lower group.

"I think we all agree that LSU looks the best," McNair said. "I think we know that Auburn lost four great players, but still will be pretty good. I know Arkansas has almost everything back except for Matt   Jones and I know he pretty much beat (Alabama) last year.

"I just can't imagine Ole Miss and State being very good. What I think you have to look at after LSU is who has the best schedule. A huge deal is whom you play in the East. I know Arkansas dropped Florida and picked up Vandy. Alabama loses Kentucky from the schedule and gets Florida. That's a one-game swing right there."

Alabama might be right there if quarterback Brodie Croyle stays healthy. There is talent and more depth than the Tide has had in several years. The ‘Bama defense returns 10 of 11 starters from a unit Joe

Kines molded into one of the nation's best. Rounsaville called Croyle the SEC's "most savvy" quarterback.

"Alabama's defense is not of '92 standards, but it's real good," McNair said. "If Croyle is healthy, he might be the best quarterback in the West. Still, if LSU gets it's quarterback situation settled, it could be better."

Both McNair and Murphy asked about the status of Arkansas freshman quarterback Cole Barthel, an Alabama product. They did not seem surprised that the former minor league baseball player impressed in his first spring with the Hogs.

"Quarterback is the key when you look around the SEC West," Murphy said. "It's interesting that Jason Campbell is gone at Auburn, but it could be that the offense is still OK there. I think Brandon Cox will be perfect with (offensive coordinator) Al Borges.

If Cox is OK, then Auburn will be good on offense even with losing the two (first-round draft pick) tailbacks. There were some who thought Cox was the better quarterback over Campbell in the spring of 2004."

Murphy wasn't sure of much of anything about Arkansas except that Jones is gone.

"That's true of the Auburn fans, too," Murphy said.

"The thing that keeps you from knowing too much about Arkansas is that they don't recruit from the same area as Auburn. So we don't hear about their young players until we see them on the field. I fans will know less about Arkansas than any SEC team we face. I will say this and I bet it's the same everyone in the SEC, folks at Auburn, coaches and fans, are so glad that Matt Jones is gone."

The other unknown is the coaching changes around the SEC West. Ole Miss and LSU both have new bosses and Arkansas brought in a new defensive coordinator.

"I don't think you know how those three situations are going to play out," Murphy said. "That makes it hard to read the West."

Rounsaville thinks LSU will survive the change in head coaches just fine.

"Nick Saban left the cupboard full," Rounsaville said. "I think Reggie Herring will make a major impact at Arkansas. Houston Nutt has enough athletes recruited that Herring's defense will be tough.

"Ole Miss is in transition. I think what you still worry about is quarterback. Same as Arkansas losing Matt Jones, you don't realize how good someone like Eli Manning was until he's gone. The major problem at Ole Miss is that three great offensive linemen were lost in the draft, two in the first two rounds.

That's hard to replace. Still, finding that leader at quarterback is still a big thing, just like it will be for Arkansas this year."

I didn't do much talking in these football visits. I was busy taking notes. When asked about Arkansas, I begged off. After all, I said, Houston Nutt's workouts were closed. I acted like everything in the Razorback Nation was a mystery heading into this season. No one pushed too hard for more information. I was reminded by my peers there are other things to do in Vegas besides talking about SEC West football.


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