SEC West Preview

Here's a look at the West Division of the Southeastern Conference:

***ALABAMA (6-7 overall, 2-6 in conference)

*Returning starters: 14 with nine on offense and five on defense.

*Summary: Another disappointing season led to Mike Shula's dismissal as head coach. After a prolonged search that saw WVU's Rich Rodriquez turn down the job, Alabama was able to land Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins. Saban is credited with turning around the LSU program and winning a share of the 2003 national championship. The schedule is never easy in the SEC but home games against Georgia, Tennessee and LSU will help.

Saban brought in Major Applewhite to run the offense. Last season, the Crimson Tide offense was nothing spectacular, ranking 65th in total offense and 68th in scoring offense. But with nine starters returning on this side of the ball, expectorations should be higher. Quarterback John Parker Wilson is back after throwing for over 2,700 yards and 17 touchdowns. Senior wideout D.J. Hall will be the primary target after catching 62 balls for 1,056 yards and five touchdowns in 2006. Keith Brown is a nice compliment at the other receiver spot. Both players stand at 6-3. The running back job is up for grabs. Jimmy Johns is the leading returner after running for 293 yards last season. All five offensive linemen are back, led by left tackle Andre Smith. The running game was 77th nationally but look for those numbers to improve.

Saban made his mark at LSU on the defensive side of the ball and Alabama will be installing the 3-4 defense. The Crimson Tide were 23rd in 2006 in total defense but must replace six starters. In the front seven, LB Prince Hall is the leader of the group. Hall totaled 77 stops last year, including 10.5 TFL. But Hall is the only returning starter back and the move to the 3-4 relies on a solid linebacker core. An improved rush will be a challenge for Saban. Alabama was 115th in sacks and 108 in tackles for loss. In the secondary, CB Simeon Castille picked off six passes last season and is back to anchor the defensive backfield. In 2006, the Crimson Tide were 19th in pass defense and have to replace two starters in the group.

Jamie Christensen was 13-of-17 in kicks last season, including 12-of-13 from 39 yards and in. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald averaged 38 yards a boot and a third of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

*Impact Players: QB Parker Wilson (2,707 yards, 17 touchdowns), WR Hall (62-1,056-5 TD's) and CB Castille (71 tackles, 6 INT's).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: FB Jeramie Griffin (6-1, 220), LB Rolando McClain (6-4, 230) and DE Luther Davis (6-4, 255)

*Key Games: September 22nd vs. Georgia, September 29th vs. Florida State (in Jacksonville), November 3rd vs. LSU and November 24th at Auburn.

***ARKANSAS (10-4 overall, 7-1 in conference)

*Returning Starters: 10 with six on offense and four on defense.

*Summary: Arkansas was sitting at 10-1 with an outside shot to play for the national championship. But three straight losses, including a 17-14 defeat to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, ended the 2006 season. It went from bad to worse when a few players decided to leave the program, including prized QB Mitch Mustain, who went to USC. Road trips to Alabama, Tennessee and LSU await this year for the defending SEC West Champions.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Tulsa on the not-of-best of terms. That doesn't mean the philosophy will change and that is give the ball to Heisman Trophy candidate Darren McFadden as much as possible. As a sophomore, McFadden ran for 1,647 yards, scored 14 touchdowns on the ground, had another one receiving and returned a kickoff 92 yards to the house. For good measure, the 6-2, 205-pound speedster threw three touchdowns. The bad: that was one third the total of Casey Dick, who completed just 49 percent of his passes in 2006. It's safe to say defenses will continue to stack the box against McFadden and Felix Jones, who ran for 1,168 yards and six touchdowns last year. Marcus Monk, a 6-6 wideout, can relieve some of the pressure in the passing game. Monk caught 11 touchdowns in 2006 and hauled in 50 balls for 962 yards. Only two starters are back on the offensive line but C Jonathan Luigs was an All-SEC player last season.

The Razorbacks were 26th in total defense and 24th in scoring defense last year but only four starters return. LB Weston Dacus registered 95 stops in 2006, including eight for losses and 3.5 sacks. Defensive end Antwain Robinson totaled 8.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL last season and anchors the line. Watch for Freddie Fairfield, who is back at linebacker after missing last year with a knee injury. In the secondary, S Michael Grant and CB Matterral Richardson are back. Grant is coming off knee surgery while Richardson had 63 tackles and one INT in 2006.

Jeremy Davis hit just 6-of-13 kicks last year. Freshmen Alex Tejada and junior Brian Vavra should compete for the job. McFadden and Jones are also dynamic as return men.

*Impact Players: RB McFadden (1,647 yards, 19 total TD's), RB Jones (1,168 yards, 6 TD's) and DE Robinson (8.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: C Seth Oxner (6-4, 280), TE David Williams (6-2, 243) and TE Grant Freeman (6-7, 244).

*Key Games: September 15th at Alabama, October 13th vs. Auburn, November 10th at Tennessee and November 23rd at LSU.

***AUBURN (11-2 overall, 6-2 in conference)

*Returning Starters: 11 with five on offense and six on defense.

*Summary: A midseason loss at home to Arkansas was the difference in Auburn not playing for the SEC Championship. Head coach Tommy Tuberville's group beat Nebraska 17-14 in the Cotton Bowl to end the year at 11-2. The Tigers have eight home games this season. But road trips to Florida, LSU and Georgia will determine the success the of 2007. Also, Nick Saban and Alabama are coming to town for the "Iron Bowl."

The problem for the Tigers last season was the inconsistency of the offense. The group was 76th in total offense in 2006. It starts with QB Brandon Cox. The signal caller threw 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions and completed 60 percent of his passes last year. An improvement in Cox's game could do wonders for the Auburn offense. Kenny Irons is gone but Brad Lester will pick up the slack at running back. Lester ran for 510 yards and nine touchdowns in 2006. Four starters on the offensive line are gone and must be replaced. Rodgeriqus Smith is the main returning receiver after catching 26 balls for 452 yards and four TD's.

Auburn has made its name on the defensive side of the football. The Tigers were seventh in scoring defense last season, allowing just 13 points a contest. The strength should be along the defensive line, where three starters are back. Quentin Groves totaled 9.5 sacks in 2006 while fellow end Sen'Derrick Marks registered 11 TFL. The situation at linebacker has to be determined as three starters are gone. Auburn was 14th in pass defense last year and three starters are back. S Eric Brock is the team's leading returning tackler with 50 stops.

Both the kicker and punter must be replaced. But KR Tristan Davis averaged 27 yards per return and Auburn was fourth in the nation in this category last season.

*Impact Players: QB Cox (2,198 yards, 14 TD's), RB Lester (9 TD's) and DE Groves (9.5 sacks, 35 tackles).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: QB Kodi Burns (6-2, 190), C Ryan Pugh (6-3, 275) and OT Lee Ziemba (6-7, 295).

*Key Games: September 29th at Florida, October 20th at LSU, November 10th at Georgia and November 24th vs. Alabama.

***LOUISIANA STATE (11-2 overall, 6-2 in conference)

*Returning Starters: 14 with six on offense and eight on defense.

*Summary: LSU had one of the most talented teams in the country but losses on the road to Auburn and Florida deflated any chance of a national title. That didn't stop the Tigers from winning their final seven games of the season, including a 41-14 beat down of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. LSU hosts Virginia Tech in a huge non-conference tilt and also welcomes in Florida and Auburn to Baton Rogue.

No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell is taking snaps with the Oakland Raiders now. That leaves Matt Flynn as the top option at quarterback. If Flynn, who was the MVP of the 2005 Chick-fil-A Bowl, can't get the job done, Ryan Perrilloux will be called upon in new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's system. One thing is for sure: there will be a lot of backs to hand the ball to. Keiland Williams, Jacob Hester, Alley Broussard and others gives LSU plenty of options at the position. Early Doucet is one of the top receivers in the SEC after catching 59 balls for 772 yards and eight touchdowns but the losses of Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis to the NFL makes it a priority to find another option. Three starters are back on the offensive line. In 2006, the Tigers were 9th in scoring offense, 18th in passing offense and 31st in rushing offense. Throw in super speedster Trindon Holliday to the mix and these numbers could stay steady in 2007.

LSU was third in total defense, 4th in scoring defense, 3rd in passing defense and 14th in rushing defense last year. Needless to say, there weren't too many holes. Eight starters return from this group. The defensive line might be the best in the nation. DT Glenn Dorsey totaled 64 tackles in 2006 and bypassed the NFL for his senior season. DE Tyson Jackson had eight sacks last year. LB Darry Beckwith was the team's second top tackler in 2006 with 65 stops. All three linebackers return. In the secondary, LaRon Landry's departure to the NFL means there's a hole at one of the safety spots. S Craig Stelz led the Tigers with four INT's last season. Both cornerbacks in Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon return.

Colt David was 8-for 13 in kicks last year and is back. A new punter must be found. Doucet and Holliday gives LSU two special options as return men.

*Impact Players: WR Doucet (772 yards, 8 TD's), DE Jackson (8 sacks) and DT Dorsey (64 tackles).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: WR Terrance Tolliver (6-4, 195), S Chad Jones (6-3, 232) and DT Joseph Barksdale (6-5, 315).

*Key Games: September 8th vs. Virginia Tech, October 6th vs. Florida, October 20th vs. Auburn and November 3rd at Alabama.

***MISSISSIPPI (4-8 overall, 2-6 in conference)

*Returning Starters: 14 with seven on offense and seven on defense.

*Summary: Head coach Ed Orgeron went from three wins in 2005 to four in 2006. The Rebels came close to springing two big upsets. But Ole Miss lost to Auburn and LSU, both in overtime. The Rebels have Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU coming to Oxford.

The offense was downright bad last season. Ole Miss was 111th in total offense and 108th in scoring offense. Seven starters return to improve the dreadful numbers. A bright spot was RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in 2006. Four of five starters are back on the offense line to pave the way for Green-Ellis. The big question mark is at quarterback. Brett Schaeffer was inconsistent at best, tossing nine touchdowns to ten interceptions while completing 47 percent of his passes. Seth Adams might push Schaeffer for playing time. Shay Hodge and JUCO transfer A.J. Jackson need to produce from the wideout position.

Ole Miss was 76th in total defense and 61st in scoring defense last season. A major problem was not making enough impact play. The Rebels were 106th in sacks and 103rd in TFL. Gone is Patrick Willis, who won the Butkus Award last year as the nation's top linebacker. DE Greg Hardy registered three sacks in 2006, which leads the returning 2007 group. In addition to Willis, there are holes at the other two linebacker positions. Ole Miss was 46th in pass defense last season and return two starters. S Jamarca Sanford was the team's fourth leading tackler in 2006 with 64 stops.

Special teams should be a strength for the Rebels. Joshua Shene was 14-of-17 in field goals as a freshman. Punter Rob Park averaged 39 yards per boot.

*Impact Players: Green-Ellis (1,000 yards, 7 TD's), QB Schaeffer (1,442 passing yards, 100 rushing yards, 10 total TD's) and S Sanford (64 tackles).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: WR Jackson (6-6, 226 as a JC transfer), LB Chris Strong (6-3, 260) and DT Ted Laurent (6-1, 285).

*Key Games: September 22nd vs. Florida, October 13th vs. Alabama, October 27th at Auburn, November 17th vs. LSU and November 24th at Mississippi State.

***MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-9 overall, 1-7 in conference)

*Returning Starters: 13 with eight on offense and five on defense.

*Summary: The Bulldogs struggled to another mediocre season in 2006 under head coach Sylvester Croom. In three years since taking over at MSU, Croom is only 9-25. The going gets tough right away. Mississippi State opens up at home against LSU and also has road dates versus Auburn, West Virginia and Arkansas.

The offense was part of the problem last year. The Bulldogs were 97th in scoring offense and 103rd in total offense. Eight starters are back in Starkville to help fix the glitch. Anthony Dixon returns after rushing for 668 yards and nine touchdowns. QB Michael Henig battled two collarbone breaks last season and is poised to lead the offense. Henig threw seven touchdowns to nine interceptions in seven games played. The strength should be the offensive line, where four starters are back. At wide receiver, Tony Burks, who stands at 6-4, will be option No. 1 after catching 35 balls for 850 yards and five TD's in 2006. Tight end Eric Butler averaged 16 yards per catch last season.

Defensively, MSU was 41st overall in total defense but a poor 83rd in scoring defense. DE Titus Brown totaled 7.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL last year and should be a force along the line. LB Jamar Chaney was the team's third leading tackler with 66 tackles, including 7.5 for losses. Derek Pegues, who scored twice last season on interception returns, moves from cornerback to safety, leaving two starting spots to fill on the edge of the secondary.

The special teams returns K Adam Carlson and P Blake McAdams. Carlson was just 6-of-12 on attempts while McAdams had a 38-yard average per boot. Pegues took a punt return to the house for a touchdown.

*Impact Players: QB Henig (1,201 yards, 7 TD's), RB Dixon 668 yards, 9 TD's) and S Pegues (32 tackles, 4 INT's, 3 total TD's).

*Key Incoming Freshmen: RB Robert Elliot (6-1, 195), OT Derek Sherrod (6-6, 303) and DE Jazzmen Guy (6-5, 260).

*Key Games: August 30th vs. LSU, September 15th at Auburn, October 20th at West Virginia, November 10th vs. Alabama and November 24th vs. Mississippi.


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