What we know: Alabama is a hungry football team. After losing three games last season, including a 28-27 home loss to Auburn (where the Tide led 24-0), the Crimson Tide is refreshed, reloaded, and ready to make another run at the SEC championship—and perhaps more. Despite the loss of three projected first-round draft choices (Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, Heisman winner Mark Ingram), this is a talented, veteran team that is refocused after watching rival Auburn win the national championship.
What we don’t know: Who will play quarterback? AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims both have the ability to be very good SEC quarterbacks and it is very likely a starter won’t be named until August. Will LB Dont’a Hightower make it all the way back? Hightower returned in 2010 after major knee surgery but still was not at full speed. If he does return to his 2009 form (before he got hurt), the Alabama defense will be very good.
The X-factor: Trent Richardson now becomes the featured tailback replacing Ingram. If the offensive line is as good as we think it will be he could be in the Heisman Trophy mix come November.
What we know: Tyler Wilson is going to be just fine at quarterback. The SEC got a taste of what to expect from Wilson, who will replace Ryan Mallett, when he came off the bench and lit up the Auburn secondary last season (332 yards, 4 TD). I’ve spoken to a couple of coaches in this league who don’t think Arkansas is going to miss a beat after averaging 482.5 yards of total offense last season. The receiving corps was the best in the SEC in 2010. If Greg Childs is full speed after recovering from a knee injury, the same will be true in 2011.
What we don’t know: Will the Arkansas defense continue to get better? They simplified things on that side of the ball last season and as a result the Hogs went from 89th in the nation to 36th (No. 5 in the SEC). The defense wasn’t great but it gave Arkansas a chance in every game because the offense was so good. Seven starters return.
The X-Factor: Arkansas has improved in each of Bobby Petrino’s three seasons in Fayetteville (5-7, 8-5, 10-3). I don’t see his program going backwards.
What we know: Auburn lost a ton of talent and a ton of experience. A total of 23 seniors are gone from the national championship team, including four starters on the offensive line who combined for 165 career starts. When spring practice began the Tigers only had 49 players on scholarship. As a result, Auburn is going to have a lot of freshmen on the two-deep when the 2011 season starts. With Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton gone, OC Gus Malzahn will ask Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb to be more complete backs and become more efficient in catching the ball.
What we don’t know: Who is going to play quarterback? Junior Barrett Trotter was in the race for the starting job with Cameron Newton until the very end of spring practice last season. Trotter will compete with Clint Moseley, who has the “it” factor, according to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. True freshman Kiehl Frazier of Springdale, Ark., who ran Malzahn’s system in high school (Malzahn is the former high coach at Springdale High School), will get a look this summer.
The X-factor: Auburn is going to take a step back. You don’t lose the Heisman Trophy winner (QB Cam Newton), the Lombardi Award winner (Nick Fairley) plus 23 seniors and expect to be as good. But will it be a big step back? It depends on how may of the freshmen can make a contribution and how the offensive line looks after a major rebuilding process.
What we know: The LSU offense will be better under Steve Kragthorpe. The Tigers went 11-2 last season despite having the No. 9 scoring offense (29.7 ppg) in the conference. If they had had anything resembling a vertical passing game (LSU was dead last in the league in passing at 155.7 ypg) they might have won the national championship. Embattled OC Gary Crowton left for Maryland and was replaced by former Tulsa/Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe will maximize the skills of quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who will be pushed by JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia. Whoever plays the position will operate behind a very good—potentially great—offensive line.
What we don’t know: Can LSU replace three difference makers on defense? Few teams in the country had three defensive studs like tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, and cornerback Patrick Peterson, who will all be playing on Sundays this fall.
The X-factor: Two years ago Russell Shepard was the No. 1 high school recruit in America. Despite Shepard’s obvious talent, LSU just could not get him the ball enough in space. That has to change under Kragthorpe. With the exit of No. 1 receiver Terrence Toliver, the time has also come for Reuben Randle to step up and become a star in this league.
What we know: Houston Nutt is starting over. After going 9-4 in Nutt’s first two seasons, the Rebels were picked last in the SEC West in 2010. That’s exactly where the Rebels finished (4-8). While the focus of the fans’ ire was on the offense and transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the real problems were with a defense that really underachieved, finishing 11th in the SEC and dead last in the league in scoring defense (35.6 ppg). Only three starters return on that defense.
What we don’t know: Can David Lee/Gunter Brewer spice up the offense? Lee, who had been on Nutt’s staff at Arkansas a couple of times, comes in as offensive coordinator and will call the plays. Brewer, son of Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer, comes back to Oxford from Oklahoma State where he worked with Dana Holgerson and that high-flying Cowboys’ offense. First they have to find a quarterback and it looks like the battled will be between Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey. Stanley was No. 1 before Masoli transferred last September. Mackey is a redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring from junior college. Nutt has been raving about him during spring practice. West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti (a native of Memphis) is seeking a waiver (mother’s health issues) that would allow him to play immediately. He could be in the mix.
The X-factor: Defensive end Kentrell Lockett was supposed to have a big season but then tore up his knee in the fourth game against Fresno State. On April 1 the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. He is sitting out the spring but could have a big impact in the fall if he returns to full speed.
What we know: The offense has a chance to be better because quarterback Chris Relf is a gamer. Last season I kept waiting on Relf to get beat out by Tyler Russell, the former Mississippi high school player of the year. But Relf just makes plays and gets the ball to the right people. By the end of last season he had improved significantly as a passer (281 yards, 3 TD against Michigan in the Gator Bowl.) If he takes the next step in his development, the Bulldogs can improve on an offense that was 10th in SEC scoring (29 points per game last season). That group returns eight starters, including RB Vick Ballard, who was just 32 yards short of 1,000 last season.
What we don’t know: Will the departure of DC Manny Diaz to Texas be noticeable? Diaz made an impact in 2010 in his first and only season as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator. A big reason the Bulldogs went 9-4 was a defense that gave up a lot of yards (eighth in the SEC at 354.4 ypg) but was fourth in the SEC in turnover margin (plus 7). Chris Wilson served as the co-defensive coordinator with Diaz last season so the hope is that the transition will be seamless. Wilson has a new c0-coordinator Geoff Collins.
The X-Factor: Mississippi State exceeded expectations in 2010 at 9-4, which included wins over Georgia and Florida plus very close losses to Auburn (17-14) and Arkansas (38-31 OT). Dan Mullen has raised the energy level and the expectation level in Starkville. With LSU, South Carolina, and Alabama at home, do the Bulldogs become and even greater force in the SEC West in 2011?