With the start of the college football season a mere three days away, a few thoughts from around the SEC West:
Alabama: National championships can never be the baseline expectation, but with no real front-line weaknesses on either side of the ball, 'Bama figures to at least be in contention yet again in 2012 even with a difficult schedule ahead. Depth issues at quarterback, offensive tackle, nose guard, and cornerback could become problems should injuries hit, and the special teams concerns are obligatory at this point. Various injuries to Eddie Lacy should limit his workload, but tailback depth is generally outstanding. Bit of a baptism by fire for the inexperienced, particularly on defense, with a neutral site game against Michigan and a road game against Arkansas in the first three weeks, but largely just too much talent not to end up with another strong season. Newcomers T.J. Yeldon, Deion Belue, and Amari Cooper figure to become standout players on short notice.
Arkansas: Lots of attention will be on this team early given the Bobby Petrino debacle. Tyler Wilson may be the best quarterback in the league, but offensive line issues, attrition in the wide receiver corps, and the loss of Petrino as playercaller will make his job more difficult. Wilson survived a beating last year, and likely will have to again this year as well. Return of Knile Davis should help the running game significantly, and the scheme continuity is a plus by bringing in John L. Smith as the interim coach. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes needs a strong year for Arkansas to legitimately challenge 'Bama and LSU, but he arguably does not have a great deal to work with in terms of personnel. The linebackers and safeties appear adequate, but there looks to be issues on the defensive line and at corner, and quality depth is limited at best across the entire defense. The schedule is very favorable, with no Georgia, key games at home, and non-conference games against Jacksonville State, ULM, Rutgers, and Tulsa, so don't be surprised to see a solid win total, but it's somewhat hard to see them closing the gap on 'Bama and LSU.
Auburn: Losses of Michael Dyer and Jovon Robinson were big ones, and the offensive line is still probably a year away. Decent talent at tight end and receiver, but do they have a viable passer at quarterback in Khiel Frazier? If not, 8-4 will probably be the high end for this team, if they can reach that. The defense could be surprisingly effective under Brian VanGorder, led by a strong defensive line, but he will have to instill fundamental discipline in the defensive backfield and overcome a weak linebacker corps. Special teams, as usual, will be a big strength, and Corey Lemonier could be a superstar pass rusher. All that said, this team has big gaps to close against 'Bama, LSU, Arkansas, and Georgia, and the numerous off-field issues and significant roster attrition in the past year certainly cannot help matters.
LSU: Much like Alabama, there are no real front-line weaknesses, only depth concerns at quarterback, linebacker, and cornerback. Zach Mettenberger could under-perform some projections, but realistically all he needs to do is protect the football and be a competent, even if unspectacular, passer; his teammates will do the rest. Depth on the offensive line is superb, there is a legitimate four-player rotation at tailback, the wide receivers corps features several players who could be standouts, the speed of the defensive line is without peer, and arguably the best kicker and punter duo in the conference to boot. The loss of Tyrann Mathieu has garnered much attention, but barring a string of injuries at corner the on-field impact should be quite minimal. Returning an embarrassment of riches from an outstanding team and facing an easy schedule in the first five weeks of the season, LSU is the smart money favorite.
Ole Miss: No top-end talent, no depth at any position, and a roster that, as their own head coach recently admitted at SEC Media Days, has not largely bought into the process. 2011 Ole Miss was one of the worst SEC teams in recent memory, and there is nothing to indicate that 2012 will bring meaningful improvement. "Success" for this team may be defined as 4-8 with one conference win mixed in somewhere along the way. For the time being, Ole Miss just hopes to avoid outright embarrassment and wait until Hugh Freeze can hopefully build something more potent in the years ahead.
Mississippi State: 'Bama and LSU may get all of the attention, but the MSU secondary can hold its own with anyone, and Johnthon Banks may be the best cover corner in the conference. A weak linebacker corps is offset by a decent rotation on both lines, but with the team going to a more passing oriented attack, the question is whether Tyler Russell can finally live up to the prep hype and put enough points on the scoreboard to make MSU more than an also-ran. The wide receiver corps looks decent enough, but impotent offenses have long since been the plague of Starkville, and recent NCAA inquiries and the termination of the wide receivers coach won't help matters. Big statement game in week two against Auburn. Very weak schedule should be a tremendous help to the final record come late November.
Texas A&M: Losing Ryan Tannehill has taken all of the attention, but this team has a strong offensive line and legitimate talent at the skill positions with Christine Michael, Ryan Swope, and Uzoma Nwachukwu all returning. Freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel is the big unknown, but he has a relatively easy job in a friendly scheme with good talent surrounding him. The Aggies should score enough points, but the question is can they stop anyone defensively? Their front seven looks solid, but the transition to a 4-3 could create issues, the defensive backfield looks like a mess, and frankly this unit has significantly underperformed relative to its talent level for several years. The Aggies do have some issues, but this is a talented roster and as such they have the firepower to pull off a legitimate upset at some point. Eight wins wouldn't be a big shock in their debut campaign.