When you try to envision SEC football in 2011, it doesn't look much different from SEC football in 2010. The conference will be tilted westward just as it was this past season, which ended with Auburn No. 1 and four other West teams ranked in the top 15.
The West again could have five top-25 teams. The East might not have more than one. The West should be so strong that national champion Auburn should finish closer to last than first.
The Tigers are losing too many experienced, talented players. Look for LSU and Alabama to fill the void at the top, and Arkansas shouldn't be far behind.
The East can't compete with that. Tennessee remains in a rebuilding mode, Florida is going through a coaching transition, and Georgia is floundering.
That puts South Carolina back on top by elimination.
Here's an early, early look at SEC football in 2011:
1. LSU-Despite prevailing opinion, Les Miles isn't so goofy that he would leave LSU for Michigan. The Tigers, who will return 16 of 22 starters from a two-loss team, should be ready to contend for a national championship.
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson's late-season improvement was significant, and the Tigers will return four starters in the offensive line. A group of promising young running backs - most notably Spencer Ware, who had an outstanding Cotton Bowl - will make up for the loss of leading rusher Stevan Ridley.
The defense will be as fast as anyone's and feature another standout secondary, led by emerging star Tyrann Mathieu.
2. Alabama - Coach Nick Saban has proven he can build a program. He hasn't proven he can maintain one.
For about $4 million a year, that's the least he can do.
Despite the early losses to the NFL, Alabama still should field one of the most talented teams in college football. But with a new quarterback and no receiver comparable to the departed Julio Jones, you have to wonder if the passing game can properly complement another potent ground game.
The schedule is more accommodating with both Arkansas and LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
3. Arkansas - Don't be misled by the Razorbacks' dreadful showing in the first half of the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. They never looked so frazzled during the regular season.
Despite the loss of junior quarterback Ryan Mallett, Arkansas still looks capable of challenging LSU and Alabama with Tyler Wilson throwing to the best set of wide receivers in the league.
Running back Knile Davis returns. So do seven starters on a defense that improved drastically over 2009 to rank fifth in the SEC.
4. Auburn - Of the SEC's five consecutive national champions, none lost as many prominent players as the Tigers will. The Tigers must replace the nation's best offensive player (Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton), the best defensive player (All-America tackle Nick Fairley) and four starters from the SEC's best offensive line.
And check out the heart of Auburn's schedule: South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and LSU in succession with only the Florida game at home.
As well as the Tigers have recruited, there should be enough young talent on hand to keep them in the top 25. You know offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will find a way to score, probably by giving the ball to running backs Onterio McCalebb and Michael Dyer.
5. Mississippi State - When Dan Mullen was hired as the Bulldogs' coach two years ago, he was expected to upgrade a lackluster offense. He has done that and more.
The Bulldogs now have a toughness and confidence about them. There's also enough returning talent to keep them in the top 25.
If quarterback Chris Relf can build on his Gator Bowl performance, the offense should be even better.
6. Ole Miss - The Rebels picked the wrong time to suffer a drop-off in talent.
With most of the division near the top of its game, there's nowhere for the last-place Rebels to go.
1. South Carolina - The defense will miss end Cliff Matthews, but the Gamecocks have more proven returning players than any other team in the division.
You might not know what to expect from quarterback Stephen Garcia. But you do know what to expect from wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Marcus Lattimore.
2. Florida - Maybe new head coach Will Muschamp can reenergize a defense that has too many five-star recruits who haven't played up to their billing.
But offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will face a bigger challenge with an offense that loses the majority of its starters in the line and is distinguished by question marks at the skill positions.
The Gators must play consecutive games against Alabama, LSU and Auburn the first three weeks of October.
3. Tennessee - Even in a division as depleted as this one, the Vols aren't capable of winning a championship. They should improve, though.
For the first time since 2008, they aren't beginning the season with a new coach. Their fans are understandably excited about the passing potential of quarterback Tyler Bray, the offensive line returns all but one starter, and 1,000-yard rusher Tauren Poole returns as well.
The Vols have the disadvantage of playing the three best teams in the West - LSU, Alabama and Arkansas.
4. Georgia - I really like quarterback Aaron Murray. But I can't say the same for his supporting cast, now minus wide receiver A.J. Green.
The Bulldogs had more downs than ups in 2010. They dispatched UT with ease, yet lost to Colorado, and then embarrassed themselves by losing to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.
Is there any reason not to expect more of the same in 2011?
5. Kentucky - Speaking of more of the same: The Wildcats will win six games, beat Vanderbilt, lose to Tennessee and spend part of their January in Birmingham.
6. Vanderbilt - The first year of the James Franklin era should look a lot like the last year of the Robbie Caldwell and Bobby Johnson eras.
On an encouraging note: The Commodores again will play Ole Miss from the West.