The 2006 SEC West featured three "haves", a pair of "have-nots" and Alabama, who should always be in the first group but played more like the second.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Crimson Tide hired the biggest and most expensive head coach they could find in an effort to keep up with the Jones (or in this case, the Tigers). And seeing as Nick Saban is hardly starting from scratch in Tuscaloosa, it’s bound to be a tighter race in the West in 2007.
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LSU officially finished third in the West last season, but by the time they beat division champs Arkansas last November, they were widely viewed as the best in the West if not the entire SEC. This year the Tigers’ schedule is far friendlier, so much so that they can improve on last season’s 11-2 record despite the loss of some all-world talent to the NFL.
The defense will be the strength of the Bayou Bengals in 2007, bad news for teams visiting Baton Rouge. Five of the Tigers’ six toughest games are at home this season and the combination of defensive talent and crowd noise will make it impossible for opposing offenses to function as planned. The line might be the nation’s best and there’s speed and depth galore elsewhere on ‘D’.
Les Miles’ offense lost its quarterback and top two receivers, but a handful of bruising runners remain as does a very solid offensive line. Matt Flynn has won as LSU’s quarterback before and would love to do so again as a senior this year. If he can keep defenses honest, the Tigers could have a spotless record.
Predicted record: 12-0
It wasn’t a great year for the Tide in 2006. They had an overall losing record, went 2-6 SU in SEC games and lost to Auburn for the fifth straight season. As such, Nick Saban’s assigned tasks are simple: win games, win SEC games in particular, and most specifically, win the Iron Bowl.
His main weapon is quarterback John Parker Wilson and a receiving corps led by 1,000-yard man D.J. Hall. With new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite introducing a lot of innovation to the passing game, Wilson could have the type of season that’ll keep Tuscaloosa talking about him for a while. All five starters return to the line, which should help the Tide’s stable of inexperienced runners.
An improved offense won’t mean much, however, if the defense doesn’t adjust quickly to the new schemes under the Saban regime. The secondary looks solid, but it’ll take a couple of games to gauge the front seven’s progress. Luckily, Alabama’s schedule opens with Western Carolina.
Predicted record: 9-3
No one in the SEC has an easy schedule, but at least one school per season is saddled with an inordinately difficult road slate in conference play. The role will be filled by Auburn in 2007, by virtue of its trips to Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, schools that combined for a 43-11 record last year.
The Tigers lost a lot of talent and experience coming into this fall, especially on offense. Quarterback Brandon Cox is back, but his leading rusher, receiver and four of the linemen starting in front of him are not. Cox took a beating last season and while he says he’s healthy now, how long will that last behind such an inexperienced line?
The defense took a hit as well with some starters graduating, but the depth was there last season to absorb such losses. Head coach Tommy Tuberville knows better than to field a defense that can’t dominate. Speed kills on defense and Auburn has speed to burn, meaning those road games listed above could stay closer than oddsmakers project.
Predicted record: 8-4
Arkansas was the surprise West champion last year and returns a running-back combo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones that combined for almost 3,000 yards on the ground last year. What’s not to like in 2007?
There’s a bad taste in Fayetteville, for starters, since Mitch Mustain and Gus Malzahn left town. They’re the local high school quarterback / offensive coordinator combination whose spread offense was to set the world on fire, no matter how much sense it made to pound the rock with the running game.
Then there are the key starters to replace, especially on defense and on the left side of the offensive line. That latter concern should be a worry for quarterback Casey Dick, who had enough problems passing behind last year’s top-notch protectors. Toward the end of last season, McFadden looked like the best passer on the Razorbacks roster, not a good thing in the defensively-minded SEC.
Predicted record: 7-5
Sylvester Croom came to Starkville before the 2004 season and hasn’t topped three wins since. Whether the Bulldogs can win four or more in 2007 depends on whether an experienced offensive unit can continue to improve.
Mississippi State was only 1-7 straight up in SEC play last year, but went 4-3-1 against the spread thanks to three of the school’s losses being by a field goal. Bulldogs backers look at the nine returning starters on offense and think that things have to get better this year. They might be right. The line is solid, quarterback Michael Henig has a gun as well as a deep threat in Tony Burks, and running back Anthony Dixon is a load.
The Bulldogs have a lot of holes to fill on defense, especially on the line. If the ‘D’ doesn’t at least match last year’s 25.8 points per game allowed, then State will have a hard time escaping the three-win rut with an always-challenging SEC schedule on tap.
Predicted record: 4-8
Folks in Oxford are thinking about a possible bowl season, but the Rebs’ schedule won’t help their cause. All four of their conference home games involve schools expecting to return home with a win, and rightfully so. Missouri is another intimidating visitor this season.
Ole Miss returns a lot of offensive starters but the quarterback picture is muddy, with Brent Schaeffer underachieving last year and Seth Adams a largely unproven senior. Who’ll be taking the snaps in November is anyone’s guess.
The Rebels were a good bet in conference play last year (5-2-1 ATS) largely due to their defense. All-World Patrick Willis is in the NFL now, though, and neither of his fellow starting linebackers from 2006 came back for 2007 either. Ole Miss had only 14 quarterback sacks last year – without run-stuffing Willis behind it this year, the ‘D’-line has to boost pressure on the opposing QBs.
Predicted record: 4-8