A little over one year ago, I was working on a story about how the balance of power in the Southeastern Conference had shifted from the tradition-rich Eastern Division to the Western Division.
I asked Nick Saban at SEC Media Days. He sassed me a bit and wouldn't go with it. I asked Dan Mullen back in Starkville, but he gave a political answer saying the whole conference is strong. Several players I asked at media days and in Starkville wouldn't touch it. Fast forward to January and five of the six teams in the West finished in the top 15 in the country, including BCS National Champion Auburn. The SEC West was unanimously considered the best division in the country in 2010.
Am I bragging? Sure. Do I have a point? Yes.
A few folks at ESPN, including the good people at the SEC Blog, have said that the SEC West in 2011 will (or could be) the best division ever. Not of 2011. Ever. I won't pretend to be a historian, but you don't have to go very far back to find a division I feel confident was better: the 2010 SEC West. Yep, there it is again. Will the 2011 SEC West be the best division in the year 2011? Yeah, I'd say that's pretty fair. But to say it's the best ever is a reactive claim, basing it on the previous year, rather than truly examining the division, as I did in the summer of 2010.
Let's take a stroll through the SEC West, shall we?
We'll start with the Louisiana State Tigers. I hear over and over that if Jordan Jefferson takes the next step, LSU is an automatic national title contender. First off, that's a big if, but what about the rest of the roster? LSU lost its top running back, top receiver, left tackle, top two defensive tackles, best linebacker and top tackler and the country's best defensive back. So, the only position on the team where LSU didn't lose their best player is at quarterback, the only weak spot on 2010 team? That's not good.
Alabama is one of the favorites not just in the conference but in the country to win the national championship, and they may just do so. But to pretend there are no holes would be downright silly. Saban has a long track record of plugging in start after star, but the Tide lost a lot. Say what you want about Greg McElroy, but he won games and was a reliable quarterback for 'Bama. Plenty of teams would have been happy to have him, and now the New York Jets do. He's gone. The left tackle in 2010? James Carpenter was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Their best receiver and game-changer, Julio Jones? Also gone in the first round. Mark Ingram? Yep, you've heard this one before: drafted in the first round. Trent Richardson may be better, but Ingram didn't win the Heisman for being mediocre. Marcell Dareus, the team's best defensive lineman, the pride position of the SEC? Sorry if I'm a broken record, but he was drafted in the first round.
I think Alabama is the class of the SEC in 2011, but Saban lost his starting quarterback and then saw four of his most important players get drafted in the first round. That's gotta be tough to replace, no?
How about Arkansas? Even before losing Knile Davis for the season, the running back who was on the watch list for nearly every conceivable award a running back can be on, there were questions. I think Tyler Wilson is a good quarterback and I expect him to do well replacing Ryan Mallett. He did well replacing Mallet against Auburn last year. But let's be honest, that secondary was bad, and Wilson still threw two picks. I'm optimistic, but it's not wise to rest hopes on him until we see more, especially considering some less-than-stellar efforts in other games that go largely un-talked about. He will have possibly the best group of receivers in the country to throw to, but the loss of tight end D.J. Williams, the No. 2 pass-catcher in Razorback record books, is not insignificant.
Losing Davis is a tremendous blow, as there are other good backs on the team, but none quite like him. And did I mention the offensive line lost three starters, including both tackles? Throw in the departure of a couple defensive backs and a linebacker, and there are certainly some questions surrounding Bobby Petrino and Arkansas.
That covers the top three teams in the SEC West and we haven't even mentioned Auburn. Gone from the national champion Tigers are the Heisman winner and the best defensive lineman in college football. We all know the numbers: Auburn lost nine starters on offense, eight on defense and both their kicker and punter. I would hardly project that they will be better in 2011 than 2010.
Mississippi State? Mullen hasn't beat anyone in the west other than Ole Miss since he got to Starkville. His 2011 squad may be better, but questions remain among a tougher-than-last-year schedule.
Ole Miss? They were 4-8 in 2010 and have to replace eight starters on a defense that finished 11th in the SEC last season. They lost their starting quarterback, though more depth at wide receiver, a veteran offensive line and a talented running back should keep the Rebels from dipping far below their 6th-ranked offense in the conference from 2010. But are you predicting a turnaround season for Houston Nutt and the gang? Yeah, me either.
Look, I'm not saying the SEC West will be bad in 2011. Scroll back up and you'll see in this very article where I say it will be the best in the country. And certainly, I focused on the weaknesses of each team while only mentioning or ignoring the strengths.
But my point is this: to say the SEC West will be the best division ever in 2011 is premature. It will be good, maybe even great, but perhaps we ought to temper our expectations for the division and just enjoy it for what is - fun, entertaining football.