Posted 05/22/2012 at 03:14 PM
The SEC has won five six straight BCS titles and it has been the SEC West that has won the last three. Last year the SEC West faced three highly ranked teams with LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas all in the mix for BCS bowl games with Alabama eventually redeeming its regular season loss to LSU in the national championship game. LSU and Alabama are by far the two favorites to win the conference this season as well as national contenders. With the expansion to 14 teams and only two interdivision match-ups on the schedule for each team, there will be a different dynamic to college football’s premier conference this season. Here is a look at the seven SEC West teams with attention to the schedule and returning players for the 2012 season. The early odds to win the conference as a whole are listed with each team.
Alabama (+200): Top notch talent continues to flow in year after year at Alabama and while this team will only have 13 starters back in action including just four returning starters on the defense, the Crimson Tide expect to again be national title contenders. QB A.J. McCarron returns but early NFL draft pick and Heisman contender Trent Richardson is no longer there. The offensive line should be excellent but the defense has to expect a small step back given the experience that was present on last year’s squad. The new look schedule in the 14-team SEC pits Alabama against Tennessee and Missouri from the SEC East, while not the easiest draw it certainly beats what rival LSU will face, although both out-of division games will be on the road. That means among the six division games Alabama only has two road games, but they are the toughest two match-ups, playing at Arkansas and at LSU. Alabama will also open the season with a challenging neutral site game against Michigan in Texas. Overall Alabama’s schedule looks much tougher than last season and it could be enough to derail title hopes early in the year.
Arkansas (+525): The Razorbacks will be one of the more interesting teams to follow this fall. Arkansas figured to be right in the mix for the SEC title hunt and a BCS bowl spot but controversy led to the removal of head coach Bobby Petrino. Former Louisville and Michigan State coach John L. Smith took over the team this spring and it is a unique opportunity with 15 returning starters including highly acclaimed QB Tyler Wilson. The schedule for Arkansas also presents great opportunities with Alabama and LSU having to visit the Natural State. The non-conference schedule is quite weak and in East draw the Razorbacks get to play Kentucky, certainly expected to be one of the worst teams in the conference. Arkansas will have to play at South Carolina which could be a difficult game and road games at Texas A&M, at Auburn, and at Mississippi State are certainly not guaranteed wins. If Arkansas can come together in the difficult off-season and transition it could be a special season in Fayetteville and there may be some value as many have been scared off with the coaching change.
Auburn (+2000): The Tigers came out of nowhere two years ago to deliver a perfect season and a national championship. Auburn took an expected step back last season at 8-5 but they were 4-4 in SEC play through one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Auburn brings back 18 returning starters and the youth movement last season provides an experienced squad this season, especially on defense. Losing offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will have an impact and the Tigers will need to improve its QB play after erratic results last season. Auburn draws Georgia and Vanderbilt from the East division, though the match-up with Georgia will be at home. The division is very tough but all things considered the road schedule is very favorable with only the Iron Bowl at Alabama being on the road among the match-ups with the projected elite teams. Auburn opens the year with a big game against Clemson, a series that has been exciting the last two years and then has a big SEC opener at Mississippi State the next week. Games with LSU and Arkansas are also in the first five games so this could be a team that starts off with a poor record but could get on a roll late in the year.
Mississippi (+15000): OIe Miss has the steepest odds in the SEC but new head coach Hugh Freeze delivered a dramatic turnaround in one year at Arkansas State, taking the Red Wolves from 4-8 to 10-3. Mississippi was 2-10 last season including 0-8 in SEC play so it certainly will be a difficult task but there is decent talent returning with 17 starters back in action and a returning starting QB. The Rebels played a few solid games early in the year before the wheels fell off with close losses against BYU, Georgia, and Arkansas and the schedule sets up nicely with non-conference games in the first four games of the season. Ole Miss should be solid favorites in three of those four games and they will have a big statement game opportunity hosting Texas. The SEC slate will be a beast however with road games at Alabama, at Arkansas, at Georgia, and at LSU. The Rebels likely wouldn’t be able to compete with those teams in any venue however so this slate does provide the best opportunities for wins at home. The East draw of Georgia and Vanderbilt is certainly not the most preferable and the Vanderbilt game will be sandwiched in between three of those four brutal road contests. It will certainly be a rebuilding transition year in Oxford but matching the win total from last season could occur in the first two weeks.
Mississippi State (+2500): Given the struggles this program has had in the past decade there can certainly be little to complain about with back-to-back winning seasons including consecutive bowl wins. After going 9-4 in 2010 and dominating Michigan in the Gator Bowl the expectations were high last season however with a veteran squad and yet Mississippi State fell to 7-6, including an ugly 2-6 mark in the SEC. In fairness the SEC West was incredibly strong last year and the Bulldogs also had to play South Carolina and Georgia, the top two teams from the East. Mississippi State only picked up wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss however but they played LSU about as close as anyone other than Alabama and also suffered competitive losses in most of the other games. Only 13 starters are back this year and the window of opportunity for Coach Mullen entering his fourth year may have passed though there are some quality players back in action. The schedule offers Tennessee and Kentucky from the East division which looks like a promising draw especially with the match-up with the Volunteers being at home. The Bulldogs have to play at both Alabama and LSU but with a favorable non-conference slate Mississippi State looks like a team that can again return to the postseason although a big improvement is unlikely.
LSU (+150): The Tigers are one of the four teams in the SEC without a returning starting QB yet LSU will be the favorites to win the conference and one of the favored national contenders. QB was not exactly an area of strength for the Tigers last season despite the huge numbers so the passing game could actually improve with a more conventional and more talented QB in place even with limited experience. The defense has plenty of talent and LSU should be able to overcome the personnel losses with ease even with just 14 total returning starters. Last year LSU faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation with non-conference games against two teams that eventually ended up winning BCS bowl games and this year’s slate is much softer. The only challenging non-conference game is early in the year hosting Washington but the Tigers have a tough SEC slate, drawing South Carolina and Florida. The rematch with Alabama will be at home butt he Tigers do travel to Arkansas to close the season. Three of the first four SEC games will be challenging road games as well as this is hardly an ideal slate for a national title run but there is a bye week before the Alabama games and this team seems to prefer facing a difficult slate of games as many of the recent regular season losses have come against lesser foes.
Texas A&M (+4000): The Aggies will be challenged in the move to the SEC but they are one of two SEC teams that will have to play six road games on the year. The non-conference schedule features two FCS schools at home so it will take seven wins to find the postseason and while the other two non-conference games are against smaller programs, they are both on the road, going to Louisiana Tech and SMU, two decent teams that will be upset minded early in the year. The SEC opener is at home against Florida in the second week of the season and the first division test will also be at home but against Arkansas. The second half schedule is simply brutal with games against LSU, at Auburn, at Mississippi State, and at Alabama in four consecutive weeks. Three straight road games is an extreme rarity for a major conference team and it will be a rude welcome to the conference. The Aggies have a tricky SEC East draw with Florida as well as old Big XII foe Missouri, but both of those games will be at home, meaning four of the six division games will be on the road. Texas A&M has 16 starters returning but it will be a transition season with former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin taking over and needing to replace NFL draft pick QB Ryan Tannehill.