How will Auburn replace its massive skill position losses --- and the leadership intangibles accompanying those departed players --- from last season?
Just exactly where will Alabama's pass catching come from? Will the Tide be able to put everything together on offense after a year of hard labor without the luckless and injured Brodie Croyle? Will the returning quarterback be able to establish a sufficient amount of chemistry with his receiving corps? After a year of pounding the ball between the tackles --- by necessity and limitation alike --- will the Tide be able to turn into an offensive force?
How will Arkansas make plays without a dynamo (albeit an often frustrating one) such as Matt Jones? The Hogs counted on his ability to make something out of nothing—and run a boatload of misdirection plays that had nothing to do with traditional pocket passing ---for four seasons (and a number of multi-overtime games in which Jones always seemed to find himself). It will be a transition of the toughest --- and blandest --- order for Houston Nutt to go from a playmaking machine to a more traditional and pedestrian offensive concept in which he doesn't have a guy like Jones to dig his team out of the ditch.
And then we have the two Magnolia State programs from Oxford and Starkville. They're both wallowing in fairly typical desperation. ‘Nuff said there.
The intriguing team in the West is this LSU outfit. Les Miles' ballclub demands most of the attention in the division because of its athleticism and talent. But even with a group widely acknowledged to be the best in the West, a few loud questions remain.
First of all, LSU is not the same job it was when Nick Saban took over. Back in 1999, LSU was a sleeping giant that needed awakening. Safe to say, Saban roused the LSU program from its slumber. Now, it's a live giant, a colossus that needs someone big enough to sustain it. The jury is very much out --- to put it charitably --- on the topic of Les Miles and his ability to be the man to continue what Saban started.
Yes, Miles beat Bob Stoops twice, but after that, the resume gets thin. Miles' Oklahoma State defenses got destroyed by Texas and a lot of other teams in the Big XII. The Cowboys did reach the upper echelon of a tough league, but when they began to play the Sooners and Longhorns in games where they were viewed to be competitive, they faltered. It was only as a decided underdog in Miles' earlier seasons in Stillwater that Oklahoma State truly flourished and played to the full extent of its capabilities. Since then, there's been a leveling off process that only deepened last season, capped by a miserable Alamo Bowl performance against Ohio State. It's hard to think that Les Miles has enough credentials in the coaching profession to take the wheel at LSU and pilot the Tigers to the same kinds of accomplishments that Saban achieved during his stay in Cajun Country
The second humongous question surrounding the LSU program concerns quarterback JaMarcus Russell. As can be said of the program as a whole, the issue with Russell is this: can his raw talent find a level head and competitive toughness to accompany it throughout a full season of Saturday wars? There's no doubting Russell's physical skills or his passion for the sport, but the kid has a lot of learning to do. He's a very unpolished product who has great upside, but needs to grow up quickly in the SEC, the conference that will test a college quarterback's intestinal fortitude more than any other league in the country. If Russell doesn't deliver the goods, there's no Marcus Randall to fill in the void this season. You could paint the SEC West in Crimson colors if Russell fades, and it's that possibility of losing the West as a decided favorite that provides cause for uneasiness, in tandem with the comfort.
There's one more point to be made about LSU, a point that only underscores why there's considerable justification for both optimism and pessimism in the town that's French for "red stick." If LSU does win the West, the Tigers will be besieged by questions from the national media about their legitimacy as an SEC power leading up to the SEC Championship Game against a member of the Old East Triumverate (Florida, Tennessee, Georgia). Given the thinness of the West this season, the Tigers might enter the Georgia Dome without the body blows that develop a fully hardened and tested team.
Yet, because LSU is now a big-time program --- a creation of Nick Saban --- that is being pegged in some corners as USC's most likely Rose Bowl opponent, there is the perception in many quarters that anything less than an SEC championship would not just be a mild, but major, disappointment. In the end, it's all about the appropriate level of expectations for the Tigers and their followers. Should the West be the baseline standard of success, or should an SEC title be demanded?
You can appreciate that this is where (and how) things get tricky, given that the Bayou Bengals are trotting out a less than fully proven first-year coach to replace a man who succeeded wildly, far beyond anyone's expectations.
If Les Miles were to win the SEC West but lose in Atlanta, would that really be a downer? For those skeptical of Miles' chops, merely managing not to screw up in year one would rate as a positive thing, a springboard to future seasons where, with both feet firmly on the ground, the former Oklahoma State coach could become a big name in the coaching profession (he's not at that level yet).
But on the other hand, there are those who would say that the stature of the program demands SEC titles and BCS bowl appearances. This is a legitimate claim, but it sure places a lot on the back of a new head coach in Year One. It's this columnist's belief that LSU settled for Miles in a somewhat hasty decision, and that any subsequent failures of the Tigers to achieve at Saban's level should be laid at the feet of... well... Saban, for ditching a program he claimed to have complete devotion to. But if you don't fault Saban for bolting to the Miami Dolphins, you must then fault LSU for tabbing Miles.
It's ironic: I don't think Les Miles is the man to keep LSU on the mountaintop, but that very fact means that Miles doesn't deserve most of the heat if the Tigers can't win more league crowns in his tenure. After all, when a man gets placed in a job that's beyond him, the fault lies with the people who put that underqualified man in that position. This strange dynamic --- of a giant program being piloted by a coach with small credentials --- makes it very hard to set a clear-cut level of expectations for LSU this season. It also makes the Tigers a hard to predict team. In the end, LSU probably has enough material to outlast its SEC West competitors, but not enough to win in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December.
Assuming that scenario plays out, should LSU fans take comfort in their division flag, or discomfort in failing to win the league and make a BCS bowl in a season where their preseason ranking is so lofty? Comfort and discomfort are sleeping together in Baton Rouge, and they don't figure to leave the same bed until the season's over. LSU will be a fascinating story in the SEC this year... about as compelling as another drama that will unfold in a town called Gainesville.