Thrill of Victory

Seven storylines to watch in the SEC West

Southeastern Conference schools start football practice this week, and the start of the season is just one month away. Last week, we looked at big storylines for each Eastern Division team. This week, we take a look at the SEC West.

1. Alabama: Can Eddie Lacy become the Crimson Tide’s next great back?
Alabama’s had quite a stable of backs since coach Nick Saban got to Tuscaloosa. In 2008, Glen Coffee was a second-team All-SEC running back. The next year, Mark Ingram won the Heisman, with Trent Richardson putting up great numbers in part-time duty behind him. The next year, both split time with each performing at a high level and earning second-team All-SEC. With Ingram gone last year, Richardson amassed nearly 2,000 combined yards on his own before becoming the third pick of the NFL Draft this spring.

But Richardson, even at 5.9 yards per carry, wasn’t even the most efficient back on his own team. That was sophomore Eddie Lacy, who ran 95 times for 674 yards, an average of 7.1 per carry. That was actually down from his 7.3-yard average in spot duty the year before.

Nobody is arguing that Lacy was a better back than the other two given the number of carries he had, but it will be interesting to see what he can do now that he’s The Man. With a loaded offensive line to run behind, Lacy should put up good numbers – but can he take the next step up to become elite?

2. Arkansas: How significant is the drop-off from Bobby Petrino to John L. Smith?
Earlier this summer, the newspapers in Fayetteville must have looked as if they’d been taken over by TMZ after former coach Bobby Petrino’s scandal involving a mistress whom he’d put on the athletics payroll. I won’t re-hash all that here, but the upshot for Arkansas football is that it lost one of the foremost offensive minds in college football, and that’s going to hurt.

Smith left Weber State to come back to Arkansas (he’d been an assistant from 2009 to 2011) once the university made the decision to cut ties with Petrino. The last time Smith was in the limelight was 2006 after Michigan State fired him. His 132-86 career record as a head coach was respectable, but he crashed and burned in his last three years in charge at MSU, going 14-21.

Smith has plenty of offensive talent with quarterback Tyler Wilson and tailback Knile Davis, but the Razorback defense sprung some leaks last year. UA made it clear that it is not committed to Smith beyond this year, and Smith also filed for bankruptcy in the off-season. With all the distractions, does Smith still have what it takes to coach at a high level?

3. Auburn: How much will the Tigers miss Gus Malzahn?
In Malzahn’s three years as AU’s offensive coordinator, he became known as perhaps the foremost offensive mind in the college game. The Tigers’ offense went from bad in 2008 to good in Malzahn’s 2009 debut year, and of course everyone remembers Cam Newton and the 2010 national title team. Malzahn’s stock fell a bit when production fell off a cliff last year (hey, even an offensive genius needs players) but not enough to keep him from becoming Arkansas State’s head coach.
Auburn made a good move in hiring Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who was also Tim Tebow’s position coach at Florida. So Loeffler knows how to develop quarterbacks, a good thing since Auburn didn’t get much production there a year ago and has no slam-dunk favorite to win the position this fall.

But can he do what Malzahn did? Not everyone can, which is why Malzahn is now making the big bucks as a head coach in the Sun Belt. In addition, Loeffler has his work cut out for him now that talented tailback Michael Dyer was kicked off the team.

4. LSU: Can the Tigers find linebackers?
Coach Les Miles has made LSU into perennial national title contenders, and one reason is that the Tigers have been loaded on defense since Miles got to Baton Rouge in 2005. The Tigers have everyone’s favorite Honey Badger back in the secondary, and future NFL first-rounders Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo leading a group of talented linemen.

But at linebacker, Kevin Minter is the only returning name of much stature. That’s why Miles signed five at the position in the spring, including a pair of four-star recruits in Kwon Alexander and Lorenzo Phillips.

However, the ditches along the road to greatness are littered with bodies of talented players who didn’t live up to promise. Someone needs to step up fast, or else the Tigers’ national title hopes could fade.

5. Ole Miss: Can anyone play quarterback?
It’s unfair to single out any one player for the offensive disaster in Oxford last year, but problems seemed to start at quarterback. Coach Houston Nutt got next-to-nothing from Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt, and Barry Brunetti a year ago, and now he’s out of a job.

In comes Nutt’s replacement, Huge Freeze of The Blind Side fame. Freeze has done wonders with offenses in his brief career, but this is the SEC and the Rebels have nobody who’s proven anything at this level behind center. Brunetti can run (14 carries for 136 yards in the spring game) but his accuracy is quite suspect. Mackey showed so much promise behind center that Freeze moved him to receiver.

That leaves JUCO transfer Bo Wallace as the best hope for production. Wallace set national JUCO records for yards (4,475) and touchdowns (53) at East Mississippi Community College last season.

However, the Ole Miss media guide describes the competition as a “dead heat” between Wallace and Brunetti as fall drills start. The longer one fails to separate from the pack, the more likely it becomes that the Rebel offense stalls again in 2012.

6. Mississippi State: Can the Bulldogs beat someone of significance in their division?
Coach Dan Mullen has proven to be a good hire for MSU. In three years, he improved offensive production an average of 89 yards per game over what the previous coach, Sylvester Croom, did. That’s more impressive considering he inherited most of the same players whom Croom utilized. Mullen’s first four recruiting classes have been ranked 25th, 38th, 44th and 30th by, which isn’t bad considering Starkville is a difficult place to sell to recruits.

Mullen opened eyes and raised expectations with a 9-4 season in 2010 that included a No. 21 finish. But it bears wondering if that wasn’t the high-water mark for MSU given that it plays in the brutal SEC West, where it’s 0-12 under Mulllen against teams besides Ole Miss.

Some think MSU has its best talent in years. But to break through, Mullen needs to get a win against one or two of the bigger names in the division.

7. Texas A&M: Is the offensive line elite?
The Aggies have a pair of tackles in Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews who project as NFL first-rounders, and the three guys between them aren’t bad, either. In fact, Athon’s rated A&M’s unit third-best in the SEC behind Alabama and LSU.
What attracts fans to the SEC is the opportunity to see the best play against the best each week. The Aggies will face five outstanding defensive fronts in Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and South Carolina. Those who love old-fashioned, smash-mouth football will enjoy seeing, as college football announcing legend Keith Jackson described them, “the big uglies” face off when the Aggies play those teams this fall.