Commentary

Breaking down the SEC West

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

How will Bobby Petrino fare in his first year in Arkansas? Will Auburn's new offense take off? Can Sylvester Croom build off his first winning season at Mississippi State? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Alabama Crimson Tide

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Clemson
Sept. 6 Tulane
Sept. 13 Western Kentucky
Sept. 20 @ Arkansas
Sept. 27 @ Georgia
Oct. 4 Kentucky
Oct. 18 Mississippi
Oct. 25 @ Tennessee
Nov. 1 Arkansas State
Nov. 8 @ LSU
Nov. 15 Mississippi State
Nov. 29 Auburn

2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB John Parker Wilson, RB Terry Grant, C Antoine Caldwell, OT Andre Smith, LB Rolando McClain, SS Rashad Johnson, KR/PR Javier Arenas
Key losses
WR DJ Hall, WR Matt Caddell, WR Keith Brown, OG Justin Britt, DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Darren Mustin, CB Simeon Castille
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Terry Grant* (891 yds)
Passing: John Parker Wilson* (2,846 yds)
Receiving: DJ Hall (1,005 yds)
Tackles: Rashad Johnson* (94)
Sacks: Wallace Gilberry (10)
Interceptions: Rashad Johnson* (6)

Spring answers

1. Grant-in-Aid: Despite offseason hernia surgery, sophomore running back Terry Grant was a blur during the spring. He solidified himself as Alabama 's most consistent playmaker with 108 all-purpose yards in the A-Day spring game, including a 75-yard touchdown reception. Look for the Crimson Tide to use Grant in a number of different ways. He's especially effective catching the ball out of the backfield.

2. McElwain digs in: New offensive coordinator Jim McElwain spent the spring installing his offense after coming over from Fresno State. The tight ends figure to play a larger role in McElwain's offense, and quarterback John Parker Wilson thinks the Crimson Tide will be able to better spread the ball around among the receivers.

3. The Saban touch: Now that Nick Saban has been in charge for two entire spring practices, look for the 2008 team to take on his personality and look more like a Nick Saban team. Saban said he could see a big difference this spring in terms of everybody doing things the way he wants them done. Clearly, that cohesion was missing a year ago when the Tide collapsed down the stretch.

Fall questions

1. In Wilson we trust: It will be interesting to see how much McElwain places on the shoulders of senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, who needs to play well and within himself if Alabama is going to contend this season. His finish to last season mirrored that of the team's, so consistency will be a key.

2. Freshmen to the rescue: All eyes will be on a top-rated recruiting class and how many of those guys can help this fall. Saban is urging as many as possible to be on campus by June, and it's no secret that the Alabama staff is counting on immediate help from the freshmen. Wide receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Jerrell Harris are the crown jewels of the class, and both play positions where Alabama could use some help.

3. Depth at linebacker: Sophomore Rolando McClain is a star in the making after earning freshman All-America honors last season. But his supporting cast at linebacker could be shaky. It's a position that will be brimming with inexperience. Prince Hall was suspended for the spring for behavior issues, and it's unknown when or if Ezekial Knight will be able to return because of a heart condition.

Arkansas Razorbacks

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Western Illinois
Sept. 6 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 13 @ Texas
Sept. 20 Alabama
Oct. 4 Florida
Oct. 11 @ Auburn
Oct. 18 @ Kentucky
Oct. 25 Mississippi
Nov. 1 Tulsa
Nov. 8 @ South Carolina
Nov. 22 @ Mississippi State
Nov. 28 LSU

2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Casey Dick, OG Mitch Petrus, C Jonathan Luigs, TE Andrew Davie, DT Ernest Mitchell, LB Freddie Fairchild, LB Elston Forte
Key losses
TB Darren McFadden, TB Felix Jones, FB Peyton Hillis, SE Marcus Monk, OT Nate Garner, DT Marcus Harrison, SS Matt Hewitt
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darren McFadden (1,830 yds)
Passing: Casey Dick* (1,695 yds)
Receiving: Peyton Hillis (537 yds)
Tackles: Matt Hewitt (118)
Sacks: Freddie Fairchild* (4.5)
Interceptions: Jerell Norton* (5)

Spring answers

1. Mallett to sit: Pencil Casey Dick in as the Razorbacks' starting quarterback. Ryan Mallett applied for a hardship waiver from the NCAA which would have allowed him to play right away after transferring from Michigan. But as expected, that request was denied, and Mallett will have to sit out this season under normal transfer rules. 2. From the shadows: Darrell Glasper made his presence felt this spring, and in the process, made a strong bid for one of Arkansas' starting cornerback jobs. The sophomore transfer from LSU was in the middle of just about every big play on defense. He's not very big (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) and came to Arkansas as a walk-on, but he's demonstrated a knack for coming up with game-changing plays. The Razorbacks are replacing all four starters in the secondary.

3. Throw to the tight end: The old "Why don't we throw to the tight end?" plea probably won't be heard too often this fall in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks, under first-year coach Bobby Petrino, plan to use their tight ends extensively and have some good ones to throw to, namely D.J. Williams and Andrew Davie.

Fall questions

1. Gone with the wind: When you lose running back talent like Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis all in the same draft, the drop-off can be steep the following season. Michael Smith showed flashes this spring, but he's got some mighty big shoes to fill. The lingering question: Will he have to fill them alone?

2. Petrino's pupil: Casey Dick was asked to throw the ball only as a last resort in the old system. He finished with just 1,695 passing yards in 2007. He might reach that total halfway through this coming season now that Petrino and his pass-happy offense have returned to the college game. Dick had 404 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, but the jury is out on whether or not he'll be able to beat SEC defenses throwing the football.

3. Killer schedule: With this being Petrino's first season at Arkansas, it's naturally going to take some time for everybody to adapt to him and to the new offensive system. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, they don't have much time. The early part of the schedule is brutal, which includes a trip to Texas on Sept. 13 and three straight SEC dates against Alabama, Florida and Auburn.

Auburn Tigers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 6 Southern Miss
Sept. 13 @ Mississippi State
Sept. 20 LSU
Sept. 27 Tennessee
Oct. 4 @ Vanderbilt
Oct. 11 Arkansas
Oct. 23 @ West Virginia
Nov. 1 at Mississippi
Nov. 8 Tennessee-Martin
Nov. 15 Georgia
Nov. 29 @ Alabama

2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Ben Tate, RB Brad Lester, WR Rod Smith, OG Tyronne Green, DE Antonio Coleman, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, SS Zac Etheridge
Key losses
QB Brandon Cox, TE Cole Bennett, OT King Dunlap, DE Quentin Groves, DT Pat Sims, NG Josh Thompson, CB Patrick Lee
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Ben Tate* (903 yds)
Passing: Brandon Cox (2,080 yds)
Receiving: Rod Smith* (705 yds)
Tackles: Josh Thompson (67)
Sacks: Antonio Coleman* (8.5)
Interceptions: Patrick Lee/Jerraud Powers* (4)

Spring answers

1. Spreading it out: New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin installed his spread offense this spring, giving Auburn a new look from its traditional run-heavy offense. The Tigers won't completely abandon the run, particularly given their deep stable of running backs, but Franklin's offenses at Troy were renowned for their ability to spread people out and get the ball to a variety of different playmakers in the passing game. Keep an eye on versatile running back Mario Fannin.

2. Defensive muscle: Auburn lost marquee defensive linemen Quentin Groves and Pat Sims to the NFL draft, but don't feel sorry for the Tigers. Juniors Sen'Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman both have star potential, and Marks can play both end and tackle. Coleman didn't start until the sixth game last season, but still finished with 8.5 sacks. Junior college transfer Raven Gray will also be heard from in the defensive line. Coach Tommy Tuberville said Gray might be as good a defensive lineman as he's signed at Auburn, which is saying something.

3. Paving the way: If it's true that you win up front offensively, Auburn should be in great shape this fall. All five starters return on the offensive line, and it's always nice to have that kind of experience when you're putting in a new offense. The same goes for breaking in a new quarterback. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have the luxury of playing behind a line that's been through its share of SEC battles.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback derby: The battle for the starting job between Kodi Burns and junior college transfer Chris Todd will extend into preseason practice. Franklin said it was too close to call in the spring and held off naming a starter. Burns adds the dimension of being able to scramble and make plays and played well in the spring game, but Todd played in Franklin's offense when he was in high school. Although Todd was slowed some in the spring by a sore throwing shoulder, he was the more consistent of the two throwing the ball.

2. Getting defensive: Franklin isn't the only new coordinator on the Auburn staff. Paul Rhoads takes over on defense after coming over from Pittsburgh, where he was the Panthers' defensive coordinator for the previous eight seasons. Speed has typically been the name of the game for the Tigers defensively on Tuberville's watch, but this is a group that will have to establish its own identity under Rhoads.

3. Staying healthy: The Tigers struggled to keep their running backs healthy in the spring. Fannin battled an injured shoulder, and Ben Tate was also banged up. Brad Lester was the only one of the three to make it through unscathed. Whoever adapts best to what Franklin wants to do will play the biggest role this fall. All three do different things well.

LSU Tigers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Appalachian State
Sept. 6 Troy
Sept. 13 North Texas
Sept. 20 @ Auburn
Sept. 27 Mississippi State
Oct. 11 @ Florida
Oct. 18 @ South Carolina
Oct. 25 Georgia
Nov. 1 Tulane
Nov. 8 Alabama
Nov. 22 Mississippi
Nov. 28 @ Arkansas

2007 overall record:
12-2

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB/KR Trindon Holliday, WR Demetrius Byrd, OG Herman Johnson, DE Tyson Jackson, DE Kirston Pittman, DT Ricky Jean-Francois, LB Darry Beckwith
Key losses
QB Matt Flynn, RB Jacob Hester, WR Early Doucet, DT Glenn Dorsey, LB Ali Highsmith, CB Chevis Jackson, SS Craig Steltz
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jacob Hester (1,103 yds)
Passing: Matt Flynn (2,407 yds)
Receiving: Brandon LaFell* (656 yds)
Tackles: Craig Steltz/Ali Highsmith (101)
Sacks: Kirston Pittman* (8)
Interceptions: Craig Steltz (6)

Spring answers

1. Perrilloux sent packing: The Tigers won't have to wait until August to find out what Ryan Perrilloux's status will be. He finally ran out of chances and was dismissed from the team in early May. It had to be a distraction for the rest of the players as Perrilloux continued to find trouble off the field. Now that he's gone, everybody can focus on those who will be there when preseason practice begins.

2. Simply the best: Sure, Glenn Dorsey is gone, and so is Ali Highsmith. But the Tigers still have the best front seven in the SEC. Coach Les Miles said coming out of the spring that his belief that the defensive line would be dominant was just reinforced by what he saw on the practice field. Ricky Jean-Francois, who split time with the track team in the spring, is the next great defensive lineman at LSU.

3. Running to glory: Jacob Hester was such a complete football player that it would be next to impossible for one player to replace everything he did. Still, the Tigers aren't hurting at running back. Redshirt freshman tailback Richard Murphy was the star of the spring game with 145 yards on 11 carries. He had a 70-yard touchdown run and caught a 53-yard touchdown pass. Junior Keiland Williams is also in that mix, but fumbling problems have plagued him.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback decision: The Tigers will have to make a decision pretty quickly on their starting quarterback. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee is the favorite. He and Andrew Hatch, a transfer from Harvard, split the reps in the spring. Neither player has taken a meaningful snap at LSU in a game.

2. Replenishing the secondary: The jockeying continues for three starting secondary spots. Cornerbacks Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon are gone, as is safety Craig Steltz. Safety Chad Jones showed flashes of brilliance last season, as did Harry Coleman, who replaced injured Steltz in the BCS National Championship Game and played lights out.

3. Keeping the edge: Defending any championship isn't easy. The Tigers have to recapture the edge that allowed them to win so many close games a year ago, and the SEC schedule only gets more difficult. This is an even year, which means LSU has to play at Auburn and at Florida.

Mississippi Rebels

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Memphis
Sept. 6 @ Wake Forest
Sept. 13 Samford
Sept. 20 Vanderbilt
Sept. 27 @ Florida
Oct. 4 South Carolina
Oct. 18 @ Alabama
Oct. 25 @ Arkansas
Nov. 1 Auburn
Nov. 15 Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 22 @ LSU
Nov. 28 Mississippi State

2007 overall record:
3-9

2007 conference record:
0-8

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jevan Snead, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, WR Mike Wallace, OT Michael Oher, DE Greg Hardy, DT Peria Jerry, LB Ashlee Palmer
Key losses
QB Seth Adams, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Bruce Hall, TE Robert Lane, C Corey Actis, DT Jeremy Garrett, CB Nate Banks
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,137 yds)
Passing: Seth Adams (1,979 yds)
Receiving: Mike Wallace* (716 yds)
Tackles: Ashlee Palmer* (89)
Sacks: Greg Hardy* (10)
Interceptions: Ashlee Palmer* (3)

Spring answers

1. Snead arrives: It's finally Jevan Snead's time. After sitting out last season, the transfer from Texas stepped in as Ole Miss' starting quarterback this spring and looked firmly in control. He showed pocket presence as well as the guts to stand in there long enough to allow receivers to get open. Ole Miss fans are going to like his quick release. He has a chance to be one of the country's biggest impact newcomers.

2. Going Nutt(s): Houston Nutt changed address from Fayetteville, Ark., to Oxford, Miss., and he looks and sounds refreshed. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about the SEC's Western Division, which could help the Rebels break through and win some of those close games they haven't been able to the past few seasons.

3. Backfield in motion: One of the most pleasant surprises of the spring was the play of junior running back Cordera Eason, who's determined to keep the starting job despite all the accolades of incoming freshman running back Enrique Davis. Eason had touchdown runs of 46 and 44 yards in the spring game, and Nutt also liked what he saw from junior Dexter McCluster, who might play just about everywhere this fall.

Fall questions

1. Passing fancy: Nutt made a living at Arkansas running the football, but he also had Darren McFadden the past couple of years. For the Rebels to string together a winning season and go to a bowl game, they're going to need a better passing game than either Ole Miss or Arkansas possessed last season.

2. Powe's status: The Rebels continue to wait on the status of Jerrell Powe, the highly rated defensive tackle who signed with Ole Miss in 2005 and has been working toward eligibility ever since. If he gets eligible, he's the kind of difference-maker up front who could give the defense an immediate jolt.

3. Unveiling of Davis: Is Davis the real thing? Ole Miss fans sure hope so, and they shouldn't have to wait long to find out. Even with Eason's big spring, the Rebels want to get Davis on the field early. Davis originally signed with Auburn in 2007 but didn't qualify academically. He went to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and settled on Ole Miss in large part because of Nutt.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Louisiana Tech
Sept. 6 Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 13 Auburn
Sept. 20 @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 27 @ LSU
Oct. 11 Vanderbilt
Oct. 18 @ Tennessee
Oct. 25 Middle Tennessee
Nov. 1 Kentucky
Nov. 15 @ Alabama
Nov. 22 Arkansas
Nov. 28 @ Mississippi

2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Wesley Carroll, RB Anthony Dixon, WR Jamayel Smith, LB Jamar Chaney, LB Dominic Douglas, CB Anthony Johnson, FS Derek Pegues
Key losses
WR Tony Burks, TE Jason Husband, OT Michael Brown, C Royce Blackledge, DE Titus Brown, DE Avery Hannibal, LB Gabe O'Neal
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Anthony Dixon* (1,066 yds)
Passing: Wesley Carroll* (1,392 yds)
Receiving: Jamayel Smith* (510 yds)
Tackles: Jamar Chaney* (89)
Sacks: Titus Brown (8)
Interceptions: Derek Pegues* (5)

Spring answers

1. Loaded at linebacker: Seniors Jamar Chaney and Dominic Douglas, a pair of returning starters, headline a corps of linebackers that should be among the best in the SEC. Sophomore K.J. Wright has star potential, and redshirt freshmen Terrell Johnson and Jamie Jones also are pushing hard for playing time. Chasing the football won't be a problem for the Bulldogs in 2008.

2. Quarterback stability: After being thrown into the fire last season as a true freshman, Wesley Carroll refined his game in a number of areas this spring. His overall strength and durability are better, and his arm strength also is increasing. He probably will be asked to do a little more in the coming season. The Bulldogs also found another option at quarterback: walk-on junior college transfer Tyson Lee, who was a midterm enrollee.

3. More options: Junior running back Anthony Dixon was the heart of the Bulldogs' offense last season with 1,066 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He figures to get more help next season. Christian Ducre will factor into the rotation, and Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom also likes the speed to the outside that redshirt freshmen Robert Elliott and Wade Bonner provide. The Bulldogs moved Bonner from safety.

Fall questions

1. Brown is out: The biggest blow of the spring came when All-SEC left offensive tackle Michael Brown was booted from the team. Brown was arrested on gun charges along with teammate and defensive tackle Quinton Wesley. They're accused of firing a gun on campus, and neither player will be back. Sophomore Derek Sherrod moved from right tackle to left tackle, and Mark Melichar and Quinton Saulsberry will compete for the right tackle spot.

2. Tight quarters: The tight end position was hit the hardest by departures, with Dezmond Sherrod and Jason Husband both finishing their eligibility. The Bulldogs hope they found some answers this spring. Brandon Henderson, Marcus Green and Nelson Hurst all showed promise. Hurst, a true freshman who enrolled early to be able to go through spring practice, really turned some heads.

3. Need for speed: It still remains to be seen whether this team has the kind of speed at the offensive skill positions that it takes to win consistently in the SEC. That speed is definitely in place on defense, and Croom promised to upgrade the speed on offense. The Bulldogs need to find a way to make more big plays on that side of the ball next season.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

Chris Low | email

College Football