With the summer rolling full-steam ahead toward Labor Day and the start of the 2012 college football season, TigerSportsDigest.com will feature LSU and SEC-relevant stories under the umbrella “Countdown to kickoff” for the next nine weeks as the Tigers season-opening battle with North Texas draws near.
To get things started, here is my predicted order of finish in the SEC West Division race:
It's hard to see anybody else in the division finishing on top as long as the Tigers remain healthy at a few key positions and quarterback Zach Mettenberger gives them as much of an upgrade as projected. LSU is stacked at every position, to the point of gluttony at some, especially on the offensive line and in the backfield. Special teams will again be a deciding factor when necessary and the schedule sets up well with the toughest test the obvious one when Alabama comes calling to start November. Assuming there’s no lingering hangover from the BCS Championship game loss to the Crimson Tide – and there was no hint of that in spring ball – LSU is poised to again dominate the West and earn a spot in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
No, there won’t be a massive dropoff for Alabama and there is plenty of talent left on the Capstone, led by quarterback A.J. McCarron after his dazzling performance in the national championship game. But it’s hard to overlook what the Crimson Tide lost, especially on defense and in the backfield. That doesn’t make games vs. Michigan in Dallas and a road trip to Arkansas in the first three weeks all that easy to navigate. Should Bama stumble in either or both of those, the season takes on a much different look, and with Nick Saban, the season after a national championship has been a grind in normal circumstance. That could especially be true if there are a few blemishes on the Tide record before the showdown in Baton Rouge. Alabama will be prepared for Michigan and Arkansas, but both teams have enough offensive firepower to test an evolving defense.
If not for an ill-fated motorcycle ride, the Razorbacks could be in the hunt not only for the West but even for an overall SEC crown. Yes, as despicable a person as Bobby Petrino is, he was that valuable to Arkansas as an offensive play-caller. Without him, the Hogs are still loaded on offense with Tyler Wilson back at QB and Knile Davis back from a nasty ankle injury to balance out the unit. Finding a new set of receivers is a priority, but that shouldn’t be tough for an offense built around flinging the ball. Taking Petrino out of the mix levels the field against top-notch defenses, though, and leaves Arkansas on the outside looking in vs. LSU and Alabama. Still, 9 or 10 wins looms as an obtainable goal, which should make the head-coaching job attractive to whoever steps in after the season.
4. Mississippi State
With a new coach upstate at Ole Miss and Texas A&M joining the West, you have to think the Bulldogs’ window of opportunity is starting to get awfully foggy, making this season vital to the long-term health of Dan Mullen’s tenure. State has a chance to roar out of the chute with seven winnable games before a road trip to Alabama on Oct. 27, which starts of stretch of games that includes the Aggies, LSU and Arkansas. Tyler Russell has to carve a spot as an SEC-caliber quarterback and give Mullen something at least resembling the offenses he orchestrated at Florida. The defense needs to build a head of steam before the late-season gauntlet arrives. With those two elements, the Bulldogs could even soring an upset against one of the big three in the division.
5. Texas A&M
Culture shock won’t be a huge factor for the Aggies because two of their first three SEC games are at home against Florida and – keep an eye on this one – Arkansas on the last weekend of September. Should A&M navigate those first two games well and get comfortable in the SEC, there is enough offensive firepower to keep the Aggies in most games. They have to tighten up on defense and prove they have discovered the ability to finish games after all six losses in 2011 came by a touchdown or less, two in overtime. The Aggies won’t factor into the West race this season, but they aren’t that far away under Kevin Sumlin if they can get the defensive talent to match what they have stockpiled on offense. Look for a major A&M upset somewhere along the line.
New offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator and Cam Newton isn’t walking back through the locker room door any time soon. Not a great combination on the Plains. New OC Scott Loeffler will give the Tigers a different look than the power spread that Newton worked to perfection in 2010, but the quarterbacks he has to work with aren’t great. New DC Brian Van Gorder won’t have to do a lot to improve a defense that ranked 11th or worse in every major category in the SEC a year ago. AU allowed 34 points or more five times and against the league’s elite, the Tigers got torched for 42.5 points a game in four lopsided losses. Gene Chizik’s job is safe for now, but outside of the Newton and Nick-Fairley led 2010 club, he is 16-10 overall. Maybe a year under the new coordinators will get AU headed back in the right direction, but there figure to be some very tough growing pains this fall.
7 . Ole Miss
You have to wonder if the administration at Ole Miss showed Hugh Freeze the roster of, um, talent he’d have to work with before he accepted the monumental task of reviving the Rebels. As bad as Ole Miss was in 2011 – and even 2-10 doesn’t do justice to how bad the Rebels were – there were pockets of talent on both sides of the ball. Those pockets have been emptied, with both starting offensive tackles gone, along with steady back Brandon Bolden. Now Freeze essentially has to build from the ground up on both sides of the ball and that will be a rocky road to travel for a few years – perhaps none tougher than this first season when the Rebels will have to scratch and claw for anything resembling success. Minus a visit from Texas, the home schedule at least gives Ole Miss a chance with league games in Oxford against Auburn, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in the final six games of the season.