Winning the Southeastern Conference Western Division seems to put teams in position to win BCS championships. Auburn did it last year, and Alabama the year before. The Crimson Tide was in position to do it after winning the West three years ago before losing to Florida in the SEC title game. LSU pulled off the parlay four years ago.
The Tigers (16 returning starters from an 11-2 team) and Alabama (16 returning starters from a 10-3 team and seven preseason all-league selections) are considered by most to be the teams most likely to pull off another SEC West/BCS double championship in 2011.
Their meeting Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., could settle a whole bunch of stuff.
Predicted order of finish
Last season: 11-2, 6-2
Returning starters: 9 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key games: vs. Oregon (Sept. 3), at Alabama (Nov. 5), at Arkansas (Nov. 25).
Offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa and new quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe will try to stimulate the Tigers’ lethargic passing game, which could be the final piece to a championship run.
Senior Jordan Jefferson has a chance to become the first LSU quarterback to start four bowl games, but if he starts off as erratically as he played last season, senior Jarrett Lee or heralded sophomore Zach Mettenberger could get a shot. Cotton Bowl hero Spencer Ware has a chance to be the featured back behind a veteran line.
The defense must replace three standouts in cornerback Patrick Peterson, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and tackle Drake Nevis, but there’s plenty of talent led by defensive backs Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, linebacker Ryan Baker, end Sam Montgomery and freshman tackle Anthony “Freak” Johnson.
The Tigers hope kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing can match the outstanding production of All-American kicker Josh Jasper and punter Derek Helton.
Last season: 10-3, 5-3
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 9 on defense.
Key games: at Penn State (Sept. 10), vs. LSU (Nov. 5), at Auburn (Nov. 26)
The Crimson Tide has to replace four players who were selected in the first round of the NFL draft in running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, tackle James Carpenter and defensive lineman Marcell Dareus.
They are expected to have another elite defense, though it will be more back-loaded.
“We do not have the dominating down guys that we’ve had in the past,” coach Nick Saban said. “But we do have talented secondary and linebacker people. We’ll be a little bit different style because of that.”
Junior Trent Richardson takes over as the featured running back, and Alabama has talent but little experience at quarterback as A.J. McCarron and Phillips Sims vie for the job.
Last season: 10-3, 6-2
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key games: at Alabama (Sept. 24), vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 1), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 5), at LSU (Nov. 25)
The Razorbacks had a breakout season in 2010, going 10-3 and playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but they were dealt a severe blow when running back Knile Davis suffered an ankle injury during preseason practice, which is expected to sideline him for the entire season. Davis was the leading rusher in the SEC as a sophomore last season (1,322 yards, 13 touchdowns). The running game problems are compounded by the fact that the second-leading rusher last season - Broderick Green (356-3) - tore an ACL in the spring and also will miss the season. Redshirt junior Dennis Johnson likely will the top back and be backed by Ronnie Wingo (253-1) and freshman Kody Walker.
Arkansas is still talented at the skill positions, but might have to rely more on the passing game. Gone is standout quarterback Ryan Mallett, but back is Tyler Wilson, who replaced an injured Mallett and passed for 323 yards in less than three quarters against Auburn last season. Wilson has a deep group of talented receivers, led by Joe Adams (50 receptions, 813 yards, 16.3 yards per catch, 6 touchdowns), Greg Childs (46-659-14.3-6), Jarius Wright (42-788-18.8, 5), and Cobi Hamilton (32-630-19.7, 6).
Coach Bobby Petrino said his fourth Arkansas team has caught up with the rest of the SEC with its physicality on the defensive front.
Last season: 14-0, 8-0
Returning starters: 3 on offense, 3 on defense.
Key games: at South Carolina (Oct. 1), at Georgia (Nov. 12), vs. Alabama (Nov. 26)
The Tigers had a historic undefeated BCS Championship season a year ago, but most of the principal players are gone, most notably Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
“We are a little bit light on experience,” coach Gene Chizik understated. “I don’t know who will be the next Cam Newton or Nick Fairley.”
5. Mississippi State
Last season: 9-4, 4-4
Returning starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key games: vs. South Carolina (Oct. 15), vs. Alabama (Nov. 12), vs. Ole Miss (Nov. 26)
The Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC West and still played in - and won - a New Year’s Day bowl game. Such is life in this conference and division.
6. Ole Miss
Last season: 4-8, 1-7
Returning starters: 9 on offense, 5 on defense.
Key games: vs. BYU (Sept. 3), vs. LSU (Nov. 19), at Mississippi State (Nov. 26)
The Rebels averaged 30.6 points per game last season and won one SEC game. They hope to keep up the offensive success behind a big experienced line, but the quarterback position features a three-way competition to replace Jeremiah Masoli.