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2009 SEC West Preview & Predictions

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In attempting to predict the SEC last year, I simply went through each member school's schedule and made definitive picks, game-by-game, and then compiled everything at the end to determine the overall standings and the division champions. For the 2009 season, however, I decided to scrap that format. As appealing as picking individual games can be simply because of its definitive nature, in many ways it is just a waste of time because there is just entirely too much random chance involved in each particular game, and on the whole it's far better to simply view the season in its entirety instead of trying to dissect its individual components from the outset.

To that end, this year I'm going to focus more on teams as a whole and make final predictions from there, thus omitting the individual game predictions. Moreover, unlike last year where I predicted the entire SEC, this year I'm going to focus only on the SEC West. My thought is that unless the terrorists successfully carry out jihad against Gainesville, the Gators are going to win the East by a mile, and frankly if you aren't a fan of one of the other five SEC Eastern Division members, who really cares what order they go in two through six? Thus, here goes my SEC West preview and predictions for 2009:

 

Alabama Crimson Tide

Coming into the season as the prohibitive favorites for the first time in ages, a quick look reveals why the prognosticators have been so high on the Tide. This is the most talented team we've seen in Tuscaloosa in ages, and the defensive side of the ball should probably be stronger than any defense the Tide has fielded since 1992. With the strength of the front seven -- a front seven that could legitimately feature three All-American candidates -- 'Bama should once again field an elite run defense. The loss of Rashad Johnson won't help things, but 'Bama led the SEC in conference play last year in pass efficiency defense, and by returning every other member of the two-deep rotation in the defensive backfield -- not to mention additions from Dre Kirkpatrick and Burton Scott -- a drop-off in performance is unlikely. Furthermore, things could even better, because for the first team since 2002, Alabama looks to have the pieces in place to at least be a solid pass rushing team, and even a solid, consistent pass rush would work wonders for the overall pass defense given the quality of defensive backs the Tide has.

The offense, too, has more than its fair share of strengths. Mike Johnson is one of the best guards in the country, and Colin Peek will be one of the conference's upper echelon tight ends if he can stay relatively healthy. Of course there is Julio Jones, already probably the greatest pure wide receiver in the history of Alabama football, but aside from him the rest of the receiving corps is deep with many talented playmakers in the fold. Likewise, the backfield is loaded with elite talent including the likes of Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, Trent Richardson, and others. And as an additional matter, quality depth on both sides of the ball is better than we have in years in Tuscaloosa.

With that glowing overview in mind, however, this is far from a flawless team. Greg McElroy has made tremendous amounts of progress in the past 18 months, and he has done effectively all that the coaching staff has asked him to do until this point. I think 'Bama fans can be as confident as can reasonably be expected with him under center, but until you step under center against a hostile defense in a real, live situation, frankly you can never really know what to expect. I think it's fair to say that the reasonable expectation for McElroy right now is that he will provide solid play at the quarterback position, but that is not to say anyone should be overly shocked if he suddenly turned into a liability.

The real concern, though, is the offensive line. The ideal situation for the Tide, of course, is to have the line mow over opponents like last year, dominating the game and turning McElroy into a game manager. Unfortunately, there's no such guarantee of that. The official depth chart will not be released until next week, but that notwithstanding, the starting five is this, going left to right: James Carpenter, Mike Johnson, William Vlachos, Barrett Jones, and Drew Davis. And I'll be frank, though quality depth is much improved, I think we should be a bit concerned with this group. Barrett Jones may play well at right guard (and I figure he is at least decent), but his presence is a major surprise, and we won't be able to give Drew Davis near the help from backs and tight ends that we did a year ago without having Andre Smith locking down the other side. Mike Johnson should do well again, but while James Carpenter and William Vlachos look to be solid players, a step down in performance from what we had a year ago at those positions is probably to be expected. As a whole, I don't think you have to worry about the line being bad -- far from it, I think the line should be pretty good -- but by the same token, I think we'll struggle somewhat in pass protection this year (as we did last year), and in the running game this line probably won't be able to consistently annihilate opponent's at the point of attack like it's predecessor did a year ago. That translates into putting more pressure on McElroy and forcing him to make more plays in the passing game, all of which could turn relatively easy wins into close games, and close wins into close losses.

Finally, special teams remains a legitimate concern for the Tide. Our coverage units should do really well simply because the great athletes we will be able to put on special teams, but the rest remains a concern. There is no doubting that Javier Arenas is an elite returner who will generate his fair share of big plays, but his decision making ability on punt returns is highly questionable at best, and many times last year he gave the opposition points on turnovers as a result of his poor decision making. Moreover, Leigh Tiffin will probably remain highly inconsistent at best (even when he is healthy), and frankly we do not want to see him trotting on the field with the game on the line. Likewise, he doesn't routinely get great distance and / or hang time on his kick-offs, another concern. Along those same lines, P.J. Fitzgerald at punter is a concern as well. He has slowly progressed and improved in his time at Alabama, but he's a small kid with an average-at-best leg, so he has most likely reached his peak. The smart money is clearly on yet another year in which Fitzgerald cannot produce great distance or hang time on his punts. As a result, despite some likely good coverage units and big plays from Javier Arenas, special teams isn't likely to be a strength for the Tide in 2009, and may in fact even be a liability.

Fortunately for Alabama the schedule does set up nicely. The opener against Virginia Tech will be a tough one -- and a loss there, at the very least, likely eliminates the Tide from BCS bowl contention (unless they can run the table from there) -- but a win there and it's relatively easily sledding until the road trip to Oxford the second week of October. Likewise, even after the Rebels, Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina, and UT-Chattanooga remain on the schedule, all four of which should be wins. An upset loss here and there wouldn't be a shock, but the defense and the coaching is good enough to guarantee at least nine wins barring either a complete meltdown by either McElroy, or a terrible run of injury luck.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Bobby Petrino's debut campaign in Fayetteville has about as many obstacles as expected, but things seemingly look much better for year two. It's clear that Petrino and company are still rebuilding the Razorbacks, but this is a much better squad than what we faced last year in Fayetteville, and all of those teams that got an easy win over the Hogs last year won't be so lucky in 2009.

The biggest single addition for Arkansas comes at the quarterback position. The Hogs spent most of last year with Casey and Nathan Dick at quarterback, and suffered the consquences thereof. Neither of the two were legitimate SEC caliber players, but all of that changes this year with the arrival of the gargantuan Ryan Mallett. A former five-star recruit from Texarkana, Mallett played as a freshman for Michigan before transferring to Fayetteville after the arrival of Rich Rodriguez. Mallett will start in 2009 for the Hogs, and in doing so he will not only be a major upgrade over both of the Dick sisters, but he'll have the strongest arm of any SEC quarterback. The reasonable expectation at this point is that Mallett will be one of the conference's top quarterbacks.

And, even aside from Mallett, there are a lot of other promising players at the skill positions for the Hogs. Tight end D.J. Williams is probably the best that the conference has to offer, and scatback Michael Smith -- who led the SEC in all purpose yardage last year -- is probably the best back you've never heard of. He's small, but he has great speed and agility, he's surprisingly effective as an inside returner, and he's much more durable than you would expect given his small frame. Likewise, with Dennis Johnson, De'Anthony Curtis, Broderick Green, and Ronnie Wingo rounding out the rest of the backfield, it's a highly talented group. Moreover, while the wide receiver corps doesn't really feature any truly great playmaker, it's a deep, solid group of guys who have shown that they can get the job done.

The real concern on the offensive side of the ball is the line. Three starters return from a year ago, and a fourth starter (Mitch Petrus) is actually a player who started in 2007. Unfortunately for the Hogs, though, All-American center Jonathon Luigs is gone, and in general the returning starters are the ones who were weak links a year ago. The tackles, in particular, Ray Dominguez and DeMarcus Love, have struggled with edge rushers, and if anything both of those guys probably should be playing inside at guard. All in all, it's just a bit of a concern for the Hogs. If these guys can consistently keep Mallett upright, the Hogs look to have a very potent offense, and one that could give even the best defenses legitimate trouble. On the other hand, a struggling offensive line will almost certainly slow what must be the unit that carries the Hogs to victory in 2009.

The defense, too, remains a major concern. The Hogs struggled defensively in 2007, and were even worse last year. In 2008 they were dead last in the conference in run defense, and the pass defense wasn't much better. Some steps may be made in the right direction in 2009 -- a couple of JUCO transfers in the defensive backfield should help, plus most of the defensive line returns -- but they still have a lot of issues, and it's unlikely that the Hogs will be able to move out of the cellar in most defensive categories in 2009.

All in all, the Hogs are a team that is clearly moving in the right direction, and they will be a dangerous team in 2009. Last year they knocked off LSU, Auburn, and almost beat Ole Miss. Rest assured they will get a couple of big-name upsets this year as well. Though sheer strength of schedule will dictate a few more roadblocks for the Hogs in 2009 -- five teams on their schedule are currently ranked in the AP top 15 -- this is a dangerous team, and one that could really surprise a lot of people if the defense can show some signs of life.

 

Auburn Tigers

Following their worst season in a decade, Auburn made a different kind of splash hire by bringing in former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Though near suicidal upon first hearing the news, most Auburn fans are now predictably bathing in the Kool-Aid, but looking at the Tigers in an objective light reveals that their fan base probably had it right to start with. On the whole, it's nearly impossible to believe their fall from grace in recent years. After going a combined 34-5 from 2004-2006, Auburn now finds itself with scholarship levels reminiscent of a program undergoing major NCAA sanctions, and possessing a depth chart paper thin in terms of both elite talent and quality depth. Things are so bad that almost any true freshman -- though they came from a highly unimpressive recruiting class -- healthy enough to play will be required do so in 2009, and a few walk-ons will be expected to contribute as well. From the outset, the mere fact that the athletic director is publicly trying to cool expectations for the program for the next couple of years ought to tell you all you need to know about their future prospects.

Chris Todd surprised many when he won the starting quarterback job all of a week into Fall camp, but despite a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, Todd's starting job probably has more to do with the shortcomings of the other candidates than it does his own skills. Neil Caudle is a bust now, as is Kodi Burns, and they are going to try to run some Wildcat-type stuff with Burns at the helm. But, of course, no one really knows what to expect of the newfangled Auburn offense. It's going to be a spread offense, but apparently one that is run-heavy, and it's also going to be a hurry-up offense to boot. And yes that's a major break from offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's track record, and yes they are going to run some Wildcat as well. So, no, I don't have any clue as to what they are going to do, and frankly I doubt anyone else does either.

And, truth be told, it probably doesn't matter one way or the other regardless of what they do. Todd is likely to be a below average quarterback, and the offensive line looks to struggle. Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh look good (when healthy), but the rest of the line looks to be in major trouble. Byron Isom, Mike Berry, and Andrew McCain are nothing special, and the depth on this unit is ridiculously thin. A kid like Chris Capps would easily see playing time with this group. And making matters worse, there is zero proven depth at wide receiver. About the only good thing you can say about this offense is that the tailbacks look to be a solid group. On the whole, though, given the overall lack of depth, good quarterback play, and game-changers at the skill positions, this offense looks to struggle regardless of what type of offensive system they implement, which is exactly the reason I'm not going to waste any time here trying to predict exactly what they are going to do offensively. Again, wishbone, run and shoot, whatever, the end result is almost certainly the same.

On defense, too, Auburn has a lot of problems. Last year's group was strong one hindered only by an incompetent defense, but a lot has changed since then. Guys like Trey Blackmon and Jerraud Powers left early, and what is left is largely a shell of what once was. The entire group is thin as a whole, and outside of Josh Bynes and Antonio Coleman, it's hard to identify many defenders who are clearly above average at this point. Mike McNeil is a fine player at safety, but he broke a leg in Spring practice, and at this point it looks like he is going to miss a few weeks of the season at least. Eltoro Freeman is a JUCO transfer who could really help out and be an impact player, but he has missed time this Fall with both an arm injury and a leg injury. All in all, much like the offense, the defense features very few top-end players, and almost no quality depth whatsoever.

On the whole, Auburn has a fairly decent starting 22, but considering modern day college football is a game that needs 50-55 good, solid contributors in order to play at a high level, that doesn't do them much good. Again, quality depth is the name of the game in football, and Auburn possesses almost none of that precious commodity. The schedule isn't easy in 2009, either, and frankly only Furman and Ball State are guaranteed wins. Of course Auburn will get more wins than that, I'm sure, but the point remains that wins likely won't come frequently for the '09 Tigers, and the few that do will likely be the result of some very close, hard fought contests. Much like last year, Auburn expects to be fighting tooth and nail with Mississippi State for last place in the SEC West.

 

LSU Tigers

After a disappointing 2008 campaign, the Bayou Bengal faithful hopes for improvement in 2009, and in all fairness they probably should get it. Jordan Jefferson, at the least, shouldn't be quite as disastrous as Jarrett Lee was a year ago, and while John Chavis is not a spectacular hire at defensive coordinator -- and in fact one I don't like in the long run -- he's an upgrade over what they had a year ago. As a result,

At quarterback the job belongs all to Jordan Jefferson now, and we'll have to see what he has made of. The LSU Hype Machine naturally has him as a superstar in the works, but a more objective view reveals more question marks and uncertainty. He played decent football last year -- relative to what Jarrett Lee did anyway -- but nevertheless he struggled to complete passes, and he took a ton of sacks thanks to his poor decision-making abilities. Based on what Jefferson has shown us, he looks to be a solid player eventually, but he still has a lot to prove, and all of these purple and gold notions just assuming that it's only a matter of time before he becomes a star quarterback are really just wishful thinking more than anything else. For now, what we can reasonably say about Jefferson is that he has a nice physical skill set with good long-term upside, and that if the LSU coaching staff uses him wisely, he might not be a top-end player this year but he will at least provide solid play and not turn the LSU offense into a trainwreck like Jarrett Lee did a year ago.

The rest of the skill positions are generally in good shape in Baton Rouge. Brandon LaFell will be one of the conference's top receivers, and likewise Richard Dickson will be one of the conference's top tight ends. Charles Scott is one of the conference's better tailbacks, and there is a lot of depth in the backfield with Keiland Williams, Richard Murphy, and incoming freshman Mike Ford. Likewise, while I don't think Russell Shephard will ever be an above average quarterback in this league, he's clearly an elite athlete, and I'm sure the LSU coaching staff will find some ways to take advantage of that this year. The only real concern at the skill positions is a lack of experienced depth, but the Tigers have recruited extremely well, and tremendous amounts of raw talent and athleticism are everywhere, so they should likely be fine even though they are not particularly experienced. Besides, experience at the skill positions tends to be a bit overrated, and in any event the Tigers aren't likely to face a legitimate test until the fifth week of the season when they go on the road to face Georgia, so again lack of experience shouldn't be a major concern.

The real concern with LSU's offense in many ways, much like Alabama, is with the offensive line. Jefferson is still green and ideally the coaching staff would be able to use a highly successful running game to take pressure off of him, but again there is no guarantee that will happen. Ciron Black is clearly the best tackle in the conference now, and Joseph Barksdale is more than adequate at right tackle. However, the interior linemen aren't necessariliy strengths. Gone are left guard Herman Johnson and center Brett Helms -- both punishing blockers in the running game -- and while Lyle Hitt returns at right guard, I've always considered him to be the weak link of the line. Making matters worse, T-Bob Hebert was expected to start at center after the departure of Helms, but he has been banged up in Fall camp, and that too is in question now. Moreover, this is a young line that probably doesn't have as much depth as you would at first imagine. The bottom line is that center / guard play of the interior linemen is exponentially important to the success of the running game, and if LSU has trouble here -- regardless of their strengths at the tackle position -- the running game will suffer, and more pressure will be put on Jefferson to make plays on his own. Again, as was the case with Alabama and Greg McElroy, that could very well result in more mistakes from the quarterback position, which can easily turn relatively easy wins into nailbiters, and close wins into close losses.

Defensively, the Bayou Bengals look to rebound from its worst showing in years in 2008. Truth be told, though, the LSU defense a year ago was a tale of two stories... a really good run defense, mixed with a really bad pass defense. And the bad news for the Tigers is that the cornerstones of the run defense -- the defensive line and linebacker Derry Beckwith -- have all moved on to the next level, so there are legitimate question marks there. Most of the defensive backfield returns, but again it is returning a unit that couldn't stop the pass, despite the fact that they were constantly helped by a good pass rush. Nevertheless, LSU has boatloads of talent all over the defense, and the real question is just whether or not they can take full advantage of it. They couldn't do that a year ago and struggled, but it will take an equally bad showing by both coaches and players to get a repeat performance of that poor effort in 2009.

All in all, LSU is a difficult projection, easily the most difficult of the entire SEC, and perhaps even the country. You still have questions at quarterback, and the running game may not go as smoothly as many assume. Furthermore, while the talent is there on the defensive side of the ball, and while John Chavis is an upgrade over Peveto and Mallory, he himself on occasion did field some bad defenses in Knoxville despite having loads of elite talent up on ol' Rocky Top. Plus, each and every year since arriving in Baton Rouge, Les Miles and company have lost games to some not so impressive teams that they should have easily won, and that will likely continue in 2009. On the other hand, LSU is easily still one of the nationally elite programs in terms of raw talent and athleticism, and the schedule once again is doing them a huge favor. Their athletic department continued a commitment to cupcakes approach to non-conference scheduling in 2009 -- getting 0-12 Washington, mixed in with Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Tulane -- and that combined with the luck of drawing the likely three worst SEC teams (Auburn, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt) means that they could play very poorly and still easily sleepwalk to seven wins. As I said two weeks ago, if I had to give all the possible outcomes, I'd say LSU could go anywhere from 7-5 to 11-1, and I'd give them a 20% chance of each individual outcome. Exactly where will they end up along that spectrum? It'll probably come down to the same two things it did a year ago: coaching and quarterback play, but trying to predict exactly where cannot be anything more than a pure guess at this point. Only with ignorance could you be particularly certain of that prediction at this point.

 

Mississippi State Bulldogs

After showing some signs of life for almost the first time in a decade, the Bulldogs came crashing back down in 2008, and the struggles brought a new regime to Mississippi State. Out is Sylvester Croom, and for the first time in almost 20 years a non-Alabama alum is roaming the sidelines in Starkville, as Dan Mullen takes over for the Bullies. And in all fairness to MSU, it's not a bad hire. Mullen is a young, energetic coach who is on the rise, and one who already has a couple of national championship rings on his resume. His hire may very well have been better than either Lane Kiffin or Gene Chizik.

That notwithstanding, though, it looks to be a very harsh reality for the Bulldogs in 2009. Mullen may have been hired because of his offensive background, but it's hard to see him breathing any life into this offense in 2009. It's been hapless for years, and with the 5'10 and 195 pound Tyson Lee leading the offense this year, it's hard to see that changing. It will probably be a major shock if he can withstand a year's worth of pounding in the SEC, and even if he can he's not likely to be very effective anyway. True freshman Tyler Russell is the quarterback of the future in any event, and his reign will likely begin sometime this year in Starkville. That's good news in one sense because Russell is a much more talented player than Lee, and he's a bitter fit for Mullen's spread option system, but I'll let you do the math on the success true freshmen quarterbacks have in this league while surrounded by poor supporting casts.

And speaking of that poor supporting cast, I think that's probably the nicest way to put it. The wide receiver corps has some problems, to put it mildly. Brandon McRae is a fine wide receiver, but who knows how he will rebound from the gruesome, Prothro-esque broken leg he suffered last year against Ole Miss? And aside from McRae, there really are no proven commodities. JUCO transfer Leon Berry will be counted on heavily, and from there true freshmen like Chad Bumphis will get a great chance at playing time. Mullen's spread needs a lot of quality receivers, and the Bulldogs just don't have it right now. Likewise, the offensive line doesn't look very good either. To be sure, most of the starters return from a year ago, but MSU has struggled in the trenches for ages now, and the physical brand of football that the Dawgs often played with under Croom will do them no good under Mullen. How will the MSU linemen handle the transition to the spread option? It's anyone's guess, but nearly everyone will be surprised if they do it with any considerable degree of success.

Probably the best player State has, period, is tailback Anthony Dixon, but even with him you have to worry. He's a big, powerful running back who gets the job done between the tackles. Now, one of you readers, remind me... how successful has Urban Meyer been with big, powerful, between the tackle running backs? His only success with them has been signing them, and then watching them flame out as recruiting busts. His offense has no real need for such a player, and Mullen's might not at MSU either. I'm sure he'll try to work Dixon into the mix as much as possible just because he's one of the few talented players he has, but at the end of the day the point remains that Dixon is built to run out of the I-formation and in between the tackles, not as the centerpiece of the spread option. Look for Christian Ducre to get more of a role there simply because he's a better fit for the scheme.

And the defense is probably in just as bad of shape as the offense. Defense was the strong point of the Croom teams, but only three starters are returning in 2009. The defensive line is both small and without any great amount of depth, so much so that when JUCO transfer Pernell McPhee -- a good player in his own right, in all fairness -- stepped on campus, he probably became State's top lineman almost instantaneously. That's good news for State, but the bad news is that he'll likely have to be a truly dominant player just to give the rest of the line a fighting chance. Likewise, the defensive secondary is effectively a complete makeover. Marcus Washington returns at cornerback, and Damein Anderson looks to start opposite him, with Derek Pegues gone, the rest of the Bulldog secondary seemingly either lacks the size or speed (or both) needed to be high-end defensive backs in this conference. Last year's defensive backfield was a good unit for the Dawgs, but it'd be a major surprise if this revamped unit could pull off the trick again this year.

The only good news for the Dawgs on defense comes at linebacker. If Jamar Chaney successfully returns from his leg injury, he'll be a top end player, and perhaps the most underrated defensive player in the entire conference. Aside from Chaney, both K.J. Wright and Chris White are solid players in their own right, and if this unit can stay healthy, it has a chance to be a good one. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense looks to struggle so much in front of them and behind them that it probably won't give them much of a chance to shine.

As I've said before, I've always had a soft spot for the traditionally hapless Bullies, and I like Dan Mullen to boot, but objectively speaking it looks to be a long year ahead for them. They'll start off with a good fluff win over Jackson State, but from there the schedule is brutal. They will almost certainly be underdogs in every single conference game, Georgia Tech will go through them like a hot knife through butter, and even Houston and Middle Tennessee State probably aren't sure wins.

 

Ole Miss Rebels

The media darlings of the SEC this year, Ole Miss made a big jump last year, and many in the national media are betting that they will make yet another big jump in 2009. Yet, interestingly enough, they were picked to finish third in their own division at SEC Media Days. And that brings me to a point that I keep coming across... the further away you get from the Ole Miss program, the more heightened the expectations are for the 2009 season. The closer you get to it, the lower the expectations get. Personally, I think that is because the people who follow the program on a closer level than the national pundits are able to spot some flaws and weaknesses that the national pundits are apparently overlooking in their rush to deify the Rebels as the next big thing.

And make no mistake about it, despite the hype in some circles, this team does have a lot of holes and a lot of concerns. Jevan Snead is a fine quarterback, and the backfield is generally loaded, but the offensive line looks to be a major concern. The loss of Michael Oher cannot be overstated, simply because he was an elite talent and because the Rebels do not have anywhere even near his level of ability now that can replace him. Many hoped Bobby Massie would be able to do that, but after arriving in Oxford only about three weeks back, that is highly unlikely. And making matters worse, both starting guards are gone as well, and frankly the replacements don't look to be anything overly special. Of the remaining linemen, only John Jerry looks to be one of the best in his conference at his position, and the rest of the starting five have more of the look of a below average line than anything else. It's basically the exact same problem Alabama has, only that the Rebels don't have anywhere near the number of talented players to fill the holes.

A lesser concern on the offensive side of the ball can also be found at wide receiver. With Mike Wallace gone to the NFL, only Shay Hodges remains in Oxford. Hodges is a fine player in his own right, but from there things get dicy. Dexter McCluster will assume the role of a full-time starter now in Wallace's absence, and while McCluster certainly has the talent, he thrived last year in a jack of all trades role, and no one knows how he will do as more of a traditional, full-time wide receiver. And after McCluster, the proven commodities are pretty non-existent. Players like Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers aren't necessarily bad players, but by the same token they aren't the ultra-elite athletes that you find at a place like LSU where you can almost just assume that you can plug and play them and they will perform at a high level. The Rebels are probably going to have to rely heavily on true freshman Pat Patterson.

And the defensive side of the ball has more concerns than the offense. Peria Jerry was the key to Ole Miss' stout run defense last year, and he is now with the Atlanta Falcons, and just like with Michael Oher, the Rebels do not seem to have a player of comparable quality to replace him. Ted Laurent and Lawson Scott will play a lot inside, but I really don't think they would play for any other SEC contender, and for all of his recruiting hype and academic saga, Jerrell Powe has done nothing of note to this point. Likewise, at linebacker, it's a thin unit with no true star players. It's not exactly what you what you dream of having when you prepare for a tough run through an SEC schedule.

Defensive end is a clear strength, and if Greg Hardy finally gets things together, he along with Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett will probably form the best defensive end rotation in the SEC. Unfortunately, that strength is off-set by more concerns in the secondary. They really struggled against the pass last year -- despite having the conference's best pass rush -- and while three starters return, none of those returning players seem to be particularly good. More struggles against the pass seem likely for 2009. Moreover, Houston Nutt's two major recruiting additions to the defensive backfield have already flamed out. Jamar Horsnby, the five-star who washed out of Florida after being caught using a dead woman's credit card, has been kicked off the team after yet another run-in with the law. His next stop will likely be jail. And speaking of jail, the other big recruiting addition to the defensive backfield for Nutt in 2009, Tig Barksdale, also spent some time there recently after being arrested on charges of DUI and driving without a license. Now, Barksdale will not enroll this Fall as a result of "medical issues."

So what do you have when you put it all together with the Rebels? You've got a good quarterback, a good backfield, a couple of good receivers, and a great pass rush. But you've also got major concerns with the offensive line, a middling linebacker corps, a suspect interior to the defensive line, a secondary that will likely struggle again, and a team with very little depth at almost every single position. And your head coach has disappointed almost every single time high preseason expectations have been placed upon his teams. Does that sound like a championship team to you? I'll let you be the judge of that.

Of course, this is not to overly denigrate the Rebels. They went 9-4 a year ago, and they have enough strengths to knock off almost anyone they face on any given day. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them knock off either Alabama or LSU, or both for that matter. However, before we deify the Rebels, it should be kept in mind that they have enough weaknesses to where they could just as easily lose those big games, and also lose some that they are expected to win. When everyone looks back on the 2008 Rebels, they love to remember them as the team that beat Florida in the Swamp, the team that blew out LSU, and the team that spanked Texas Tech. Yet the fact that they lost at home to Vanderbilt, lost at home to South Carolina, lost to Wake Forest, and needed a squeaker to hold off 5-7 Arkansas gets completely overlooked. Bottom line, the Rebels have enough strengths to win a lot of games and get some big wins, but they also have enough weaknesses to where they are also likely to lose some games they should not, and once again, just like last year, be left outside the championship chase.

 

Final SEC West Predictions

(1) Alabama: 10-2 (6-2)*

(1) LSU: 10-2 (6-2)*

(3) Ole Miss: 9-3 (5-3)

(4) Arkansas: 7-5 (3-5)

(5) Auburn: 5-7 (2-6)

(6) Mississippi State: 3-9 (1-7)

* A two-way tie atop the SEC West between Alabama and LSU, with the winner of the November 7th Alabama v. LSU game in Tuscaloosa advancing to Atlanta to face the Florida Gators.