Charting the SEC West

What do you get when you combine a brilliant offensive coordinator, a great running game, a rock-ribbed defense and a favorable schedule? You get a conference championship, which is what I'm predicting for the Auburn Tigers this season.

Counting the 2004 SEC Championship Game, the Tigers are 16-1 in league play since Al Borges became their offensive coordinator two years ago. They'd be 17-0 if kicker John Vaughn hadn't missed five field goals last fall at LSU. Obviously, Borges has made a tremendous difference.

In addition, Kenny Irons is the league's best back and most of the key players return from a defense that allowed just 15.5 points per game last year, ranking sixth nationally. Throw in the fact Auburn plays its four toughest foes – LSU, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia – at Jordan-Haire Stadium, and the Tigers have a chance to run the table.

Here's how I see the division race shaking out:

1. AUBURN: The Tigers' SEC road games are at Mississippi State, at South Carolina, at Ole Miss and at Alabama. The two Mississippi teams are weak, Alabama is rebuilding and South Carolina was routed 48-7 by Auburn last year. I don't see Tommy Tuberville's guys losing a game. SEC RECORD: 8-0. LOSSES: none.

2. ARKANSAS: Nineteen 2005 starters return, including star tailback Darren McFadden and versatile fullback Peyton Hillis. If freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain can manage the attack, the Razorbacks should reverse last year's 2-6 conference record. SEC RECORD: 6-2. LOSSES: at Auburn, at South Carolina.

3. LSU: Like Georgia of the SEC East, the Tigers' graduation losses were big ones – tailback Joseph Addai, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackles Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams, defensive end Melvin Oliver. I see Les Miles' team going 0-4 in league road games. SEC RECORD: 4-4. LOSSES: at Auburn, at Florida, at Tennessee, at Arkansas (in Little Rock).

4. ALABAMA: The Tide won 10 games last year because of Brodie Croyle and a magnificent defense. Now Croyle is gone, along with a top-notch defensive end (Mark Anderson), two great linebackers (DeMeco Ryans, Freddie Roach) and two fine safeties (Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah). Bama could plummet from 2005 to '06 the way Tennessee did from 2004 to '05. SEC RECORD: 3-5. LOSSES: at Arkansas, at Florida, at Tennessee, at LSU, vs. Auburn.

5. OLE MISS: Heralded quarterback Brent Schaeffer will make plays that win some games for the Rebels but he'll make mistakes that lose some games, too. Regardless, he'll be fun to watch. SEC RECORD: 2-6. LOSSES: at Kentucky, vs. Georgia, at Alabama, at Arkansas, vs. Auburn, at LSU.

6. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Sylvester Croom is 3-13 in SEC games after two years, and that mark isn't likely to improve in 2006. Tailback Jerious Norwood was the whole offense last fall and he's now in the pros. SEC RECORD: 1-7. LOSSES: vs. South Carolina, vs. Auburn, at LSU, at Georgia, at Alabama, vs. Arkansas, at Ole Miss.

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