The SEC West is going to be hell—again. Last season a very good 9-4 Mississippi State team finished second to last in the division. The top four finishers in the six-team SEC West—Auburn, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas—finished with a combined six losses.
The top four finishers in the twelve-team ACC finished with a combined 15 losses, while the top four in the eight-team Big East combined for 19 losses. The top four in the Pac-10 finished with a combined 15 losses despite two teams with just one loss apiece. Suffice it to say, the SEC West has been the deepest division in college football.
Expect more of the same this season. Alabama and LSU have been considered early contenders for the national title, while Auburn and Arkansas are considered preseason top 15 teams by many. Mississippi State is again the darkhorse to grab the SEC West title and could even be ranked somewhere in the preseason top 25. Throw in three probable preseason top 25 teams from the East—South Carolina, Georgia and Florida—and the SEC is again a hellish road to bowl eligibility, let alone a conference title or national championship.
Arkansas will be left to weather the road without quarterback Ryan Mallett as he shifts his attention to learning at the feet of Tom Brady in New England. That leaves Tyler Wilson, who some believe could be better than Mallett, likely to take the reins of the Razorbacks offense. Wilson saw the bulk of his playing time last year after Mallett went down with what turned out to be a concussion in the game against Auburn. Wilson stepped up, passing for 332 yards on 25/34 passing with four touchdowns and had Arkansas leading early in the fourth quarter. A couple of interceptions on successive drives, however, led to Auburn touchdowns as the Tigers pulled off the 65-43 win.
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Coach Bobby Petrino was not quite ready to name Wilson the starter after the spring and the competition with Brandon Mitchell will continue, but if Wilson isn’t named the starter in the fall, there are going to be a lot of surprised Hogs fans around Fayetteville. Wilson had a very good spring game, tossing three touchdowns and putting up 242 yards in leading the White to a 45-14 victory over the Red. Mitchell struggled, throwing three interceptions with only 85 yards. Even before the spring game, there was a strong sense that Wilson will eventually emerge as the starter.
Assuming Wilson will be under center, he’ll find plenty of help from an uber-talented receiving corps, considered by some the best the game has to offer, led by Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Coby Hamilton. One of the question marks entering the offseason has been whether the offensive line can replace DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez at tackle. If they’re able to do that and give Wilson time to work, this offense is going to be scary.
The running game was a perfect complement to the passing game last year. Led by Knile Davis, the backfield will also see the return of Dennis Johnson who went down with an injury last year. On that front, however, Broderick Green tore his ACL and will miss the season. One of the keys to the Razorbacks’ success last year was an effective running game. To contend for an SEC crown, the running game has to be able to carry its share of the load once again.
Defensively, the Razorbacks will have their hands full with some talented SEC offenses on the schedule. The run defense is one area that needs to shore up with Trent Richardson, Michael Dyer, Marcus Lattimore and others on the conference slate. The good news is that eight starters return and the spring showed that there’s very good depth along the defensive front.
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Schedule-wise, the Razorbacks get a break in that they do not play either Florida or Georgia this season, but they do take on Texas A&M in Arlington in what should be a very telling non-conference game the week following their trip to Tuscaloosa on September 24. That date with the Tide could ultimately make or break the Razorbacks’ SEC hopes this season considering the last two SEC Champions finished with an unblemished conference and overall record. More than one conference loss could doom any SEC West team’s hopes of even playing in the SEC Championship Game.
If asked to name my favorites for the SEC West at this point, I’d say LSU and Alabama; but Arkansas isn’t too far behind. Despite several reasons to believe the Razorbacks could take the SEC this year and even considering they’ve been given a lot of love from writers around the country, there are many who still view Arkansas as having only an outside shot at the SEC West title, similar to how many view Mississippi State. A lot will depend on Wilson and replacing the offensive tackles, but they could be singing a very different tune once the season gets underway.