The final chapters of the 2010 season have not been written yet, but for obvious reasons I think most of us are already looking ahead to 2011. With that in mind, let's take a quick overview of the SEC West as it appears to be shaping up next season:
Alabama: Any projection moving forward for 'Bama has to be somewhat taken with a grain of salt until word comes back on the decision of several players regarding the NFL Draft, but even if several players leave early the 2011 projection still looks fairly optimistic. Even with NFL Draft attrition, the overwhelming majority of the two-deep roster returns, another top recruiting class is on the way with several players expected to enroll early, and if history is any accurate guide Saban will find a way to use the disappointments of 2010 to make everyone work harder and become more focused on 2011. The schedule eases up a bit too, including the much-ballyhooed bye week issue that generated so much controversy in 2010. Road trips to Florida and Auburn may be difficult, but 2010 road games against Arkansas and LSU turn into 2011 home games, and South Carolina drops off the schedule entirely and gets replaced with Vanderbilt.. Any national championship talk is premature until raw potential translates into actual on-field development, but the odds seem good that 'Bama gets beyond 9-3 next year.
Arkansas: With Ryan Mallett expected to leave for the NFL Draft, his departure will surely get all of the hype out of Fayetteville, but his loss may be somewhat manageable. Tyler Wilson has looked good in spot duty, and you have to think that as long as Petrino remains he'll have a productive quarterback regardless. The bigger issues will be the loss of D.J. Williams, DeMarcus Love, a handful of players on defense, and how a season-ending injury affects Greg Childs moving forward. Nearly the entire offensive line must be rebuilt, and while you have to figure the Hogs will be pretty solid next with the way the schedule works out -- they avoid Florida and Georgia on the rotational schedule, and the OOC schedule is weak outside of Texas A&M -- but I still get the feeling that if they were legitimately going to make some noise on the national scene this was their year.
Auburn: Many will dismiss it, I'm sure, as sour graves from a rival fan base, but when I look at this Auburn team moving forward next year I see a very big drop-off. Pythagorean Wins indicates Auburn was a huge overachiever this year anyway -- the second biggest overachievers in the SEC since 1997 -- but the problems run deeper. I don't think anyone legitimately expects either Cam Newton or Nick Fairley to return, the offensive line must be totally rebuilt, and the same goes for the defensive line. Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, Zac Etheridge, Demond Robinson, and Wes Byrum are all gone. And who knows if Gus Malzahn cashes in on a head coaching job? The schedule, too, gets much, much tougher. 2010 home games against South Carolina, Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia all turn into 2011 road games, and Kentucky drops off the schedule to get replaced with Florida. I'm not predicting a complete implosion, mind you, but I don't see any chance of a repeat run, and a 7-5 season wouldn't be much of a surprise.
LSU: I think it's easy to look at this team and say that, given their reliance on their defense, they will be in a lot of trouble with Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis, and Kelvin Sheppard headed to the NFL, but I'd urge caution. John Chavis had a lot of young guys on that defense playing well last year, and while losing Joseph Barksdale will hurt at left tackle, I honestly think Zach Mettenberger signs with LSU and comes in and plays at a very high level. Having established that, say what you will, but this is an entirely different beast with competent -- much less good -- QB play. Also, the in-state recruiting crop is one of the best in ages, so a couple of incoming freshmen will likely make key contributions as well. The schedule is a bit of a concern because there is really only one patsy on the OOC schedule with LSU picking up Oregon in Dallas, a road game at West Virginia, and a home game against Southern Miss, but this team looks to be a contender again next year. I don't see a national championship yet, but I figure another nine or ten wins is a fairly safe bet. I know the standard caveat about Miles, but it's really hard to bet too much against a team with this much talent if they have any chance of competent quarterback play.
Mississippi State: No SEC coach has done more with less than Dan Mullen the past two years, and I tend to get the feeling he'll have to work his magic again in 2011. He had basically a no-name team last year with relatively few standouts, but most of those standouts will be gone after this season. Derek Sherrod, J.C. Brignone, Pernell McPhee, K.J. Wright, and Chris White will all be somewhere other than Starkville next season, and replacing them won't be easy. Recruiting has been pretty solid under Mullen and should only improve after an 8-4 season and back-to-back Egg Bowl wins, but 8-4 is probably going to be nearly the ceiling in Starkvegas. They do draw four cupcakes on the OOC schedule plus Kentucky, so they'll likely be in bowl contention once again, but getting back to eight regular season wins will be tough. In 2010, MSU pulled off a couple of big upsets over Georgia and Florida, and they'll need a couple of more big SEC upsets to get back to the level they reached this season.
Ole Miss: Colonel Reb was at the bottom of the SEC West cellar in 2010, and I really cannot see that changing in 2011. Jeremiah Masoli won't return and horrid QB play looks to be the expectation, and there are few other bright spots. Brandon Bolden returns, but it seems like most other players that really made a positive impact this year will be gone, guys like Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent, and Markeith Summers, and Melvin Harris' situation seems really up in the air moving forward after his Egg Bowl suspension. Kentrell Lockett applying for a sixth year could give some relief, but no one knows how he will recover from a major knee injury, and honestly I don't see anything in the current recruiting class that looks to give them immediate help. I honestly figure the odds are better that Ole Miss again finishes at the bottom of the SEC West and Nutt gets given the heave-ho than the Rebs making any real run. Their only hope in my eyes is an easy OOC schedule and getting Vandy on the SEC schedule should guarantee them five wins if they are even remotely competent, which they certainly weren't this year.
All in all, while things can change quickly, the SEC West was the center of power in the SEC in 2010 and it certainly looks like that will be the case again in 2011, even though we can probably assume that Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee will all see at least some degree of improvement. I think we can say with a reasonable level of certainty that Auburn will decline quite a bit and that Ole Miss will likely remain in the cellar, but outside of that the rest of the division looks like one giant toss-up.
Alabama probably has the most potential of the remaining four, and if more progress is made in player development and injury luck is a bit more kind then I figure the Tide is probably the early favorite from the SEC West moving forward. Having said that, though, better development and improved injury luck are far from givens, and LSU and Arkansas are not far behind. With some good quarterback play LSU will almost certainly be in national championship contention, and even if Arkansas has some defensive struggles again next season the odds seem good that Petrino will still find a way to score enough points to be dangerous. Mississippi State is probably on the outside looking in, but a bowl game seems probable, and they could be capable of a timely upset or two.
On the whole, though, the SEC West still looks to be very tough, and will likely remain the toughest division in all of college football. We probably will not see another undefeated team next season, but it will still very competitive at the top of the division with likely a razor thin margin of error for any aspiring champion.