Continuing from yesterday's way-too-superficial look at the SEC, here's my quick take on the Western Division. In no particular order:
LSU: The Other Tigers lost a lot of big, fast linemen and linebackers from the last couple of years, and I think those losses will hurt, particularly in the first half of the season. I also think the three-headed quarterback situation has been grossly overblown in the press. Unless one of more of the quarterbacks turns out to be a major head case (and I guess that's possible, since some pretty big egos are involved), I expect Jimbo Fisher to crank out another solid squad. That said, I won't be surprised if the Bengals take a step back defensively from last season. They've got the bodies, but it's going to take a while to get some experience for all those new guys up front.
The scene off the field might be more interesting to watch, at least for SEC fans who don't smell like corn dogs. A fast start is nothing new at LSU; of their last few coaches, only the hapless Curley Hallman didn't do well in the first year or two. The question for Les Miles is, can he keep up the momentum from last season? The mild-mannered Miles is light years of personality different from the only LSU coach to win with consistency in the last 20 years, Nick Saban. Loss of focus on the football team has always been a problem in Red Stick, even under Saban. With just one year under his belt, the jury is still very much out on whether Miles' "nice guy" style can succeed over the long run.
UAT: When I asked my old bud Scott Brown what he was expecting out of the '06 Cringing Turds, he replied, "Very un-Alabama. They're going to score a lot of points on offense, but give up a lot of points on defense." I asked Scott just why he expected the offense to get better with sophomore Sarah Jessica Parker Wilson replacing fifth-year senior Sackie Croyle at quarterback, and he didn't have much of an answer. Suffice to say, I expect he's right about the gutted defense, and er, wrong about the offense. I'll grant that UAT has a good stock of receivers and a solid running back in Ken Darby (although Darby isn't anywhere near as good as he seems to think he is), but they're at least a year and likely a better assistant coach away from having a credible offensive line. And the less said about Little Mikey Shula's play-calling, the better.
Still, the Turds have a cupcake home schedule, at least until the Thumb Game in November. They'll have to really implode to win less than seven or eight games this year. I've seen a few Auburn folks picking Hawaii in this weekend's opener, but I don't buy it. Granted, pitting Mike Shula up against June Jones and Jerry Glanville looks something like a replay of Bambi vs. Godzilla in terms of coaching experience, but Hawaii rarely plays well on the mainland, and more importantly, they're very suspect in the trenches. This is the kind of game that UAT tends to win very comfortably, and that's what I'm expecting for Saturday.
After that, of course, the Mullet Nation will declare itself Universal Champions and start speculating on their margin of victory in Phoenix on January 8. Fortunately for me, I don't live in Alabama any more, and won't have to hear them.
Arkansas: First of all, I'd like to send all of Arkansas a heartfelt "thank you" on behalf of myself and other football bloggers who love junior-high humor. We thank you, we thank you, we thank you for having a coach named Nutt who gets to choose between quarterbacks named Johnson and Dick. Houston, you are the Great Cornholio, and we'll bring some T.P. to Toomer's Corner just for you.
Okay, (more) seriously, Arkansas is a trendy pick to make some noise in the West after two four-win seasons. I can see why some people are picking them that way, what with approximately 17 million starters returning, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Pigs just might be the flop of the year. Nutt's decision to bring in a high school coach as offensive coordinator doesn't just smack of desperation, it looks like the kind of blunder that could make Tommy Tuberville's disastrous 2003 promotion of Hugh Nall look brilliant by comparison. Add in Darren McFadden's mysteriously-injured toe, and the Other White Meat [insert Nutt-Johnson-Dick joke here] is likely to have a very shaky offensive start, at a minimum.
I think the Pigs will be pretty good on defense, and could well make a minor bowl, but the whole high school coordinator thing (especially since the guy was apparently hired to ensure the signing of his high school quarterback) would give me the serious heebie-jeebies if I had a plastic hog head in my closet.
Ole Miss: Another trendy-for-no-apparent-reason preseason pick is Ole Miss. Sorry, don't see it. About the only thing this team has going for it is defensive superstar Patrick Willis, and he's more than legitimate. After that, it's all Ed Origami's bluster and a lot of misplaced faith in a quarterback with so many character problems he couldn't even play for Phil Fulmer. As much as I hesitate to quote from the collected works of Ratt on these pages, I suspect it's back to the cellar for the [they still don't have a mascot]s in '06.
Mississippi State: Even given the Hiroshima-like level of destruction levied upon the Other Bulldogs' program by Jackie Sherrill, I'd expected Sly Croom to be doing better than he is by this point. After two years, his only wins of note have come over Ron Zook and Ed Oregano, and let's face it--the only reason you might be worried about those guys is if you happened to taunt them at a fraternity party. If you're an opposing head coach, not so much. State's pathetic offense is unlikely to get any better after the departure of Jerious Norwood, and I haven't seen any signs that the MSU defense has improved much, either. If Croom is going to show any improvement, this is the year it has to start being apparent. If his team doesn't start winning something soon, I suspect it never will.
Auburn: The hell if I know.
No, really. Sure, the Tigers look great on paper, the schedule is favorable, the attitude looks good, even the ratings are in good shape for #4 AU (#1 Ohio State and #3 Texas play each other, and a laughably overrated #2 Notre Damn could very well be 1-3 before September is over). But I have no idea how they're going to do. Seriously. Over the last four seasons, I have been almost exactly 180 degrees wrong in all my predictions about Auburn. The only exception was in the wake of 2004's first thrashing of Tennessee in Knoxville, when I did figure the Tigers would go undefeated--but that was hardly a bold prediction by then. Other than that, every time I figured AU would romp, they'd get killed, and vice versa.
So I'm out of the predictions game regarding Auburn. Not gonna do it, wouldn't be prudent. But I am damn sure ready for this season to go ahead and get started...