John Adams: Loaded SEC West should dominate again in 2011

John Adams

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:

West

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.

East

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.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns

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Comments » 17

KJVol writes:

The Vols above the Dawgs? Adams has turned into a homer.

Mule_Days_King writes:

in response to shen24:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Unfortunately for you, you can count on Alabubba getting at least 20 victories vacated this decade for cheating. It's happened for the last two decades so, the more things change......

osbymartin#581730 writes:

in response to shen24:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

It is on everyone's schedule...I know you like to stir the pot. It was even on Alabama's schedule this year..did they play in it? So by your statement even Bama was dreaming just like the other 9 teams that weren't there.

osbymartin#581730 writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Hmmm..good question. Garcia, Jefferson, Relf, Murray, are the only other returning QBs for the preseason honor. All others have QB issues.

memphis_vol_fan writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree concerning Auburn's QB situation. The other two will be alot easier. Like Adams mentioned, Wilson will be throwing to the best WR corp in the conference. Bama will be good regardless.
Tyler Bray for first team All-SEC? Maybe. He is, IMO, one of the top 3 QB's going into next year by default.

SEAL_9821 writes:

I'm not buying into this preseason rankings anymore. Granted...Bama will be good because of Saban. LSU will have talent, but Miles doesn't give them much shot at a title. The bottom line is which team wants it more in the offseason and gels together the best. College football is to much like the NFL these days. ANY GIVEN SATURDAY!!!

osbymartin#581730 writes:

in response to memphis_vol_fan:

I agree concerning Auburn's QB situation. The other two will be alot easier. Like Adams mentioned, Wilson will be throwing to the best WR corp in the conference. Bama will be good regardless.
Tyler Bray for first team All-SEC? Maybe. He is, IMO, one of the top 3 QB's going into next year by default.

The biggest issue with Wilson is will he have time to find those WRs..They lose 3 OL and TE. If the line holds up he will be fine.

VolinCalif writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

No I Think UM coaching skills just started showing. But their QB is very good he was just in the wrong system last year.I have to admit if W. can coach the pro style at all then fl could have a pretty good Off. Last year wasn't the QB it was Fl coming back to reality.

tennezz writes:

in response to Claudettevol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Joke of the month!

1965Vol writes:

in response to Claudettevol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Same ol' drivel.

But it really doesn't matter, lil' Urbie isn't coaching anymore ... or did you miss the announcement?

How about this, I'll pay UM a complement. Just like JohnnyB3 ain't no Timbow, lil' Willy ain't no lil' Urbie. In '11 you'll be happy to match even the meager success of your '10 Swamp Lizards. Check back in in 2 or 3 years when lil' Willy has some head coach experience.

murrayvol writes:

in response to VolinCalif:

No I Think UM coaching skills just started showing. But their QB is very good he was just in the wrong system last year.I have to admit if W. can coach the pro style at all then fl could have a pretty good Off. Last year wasn't the QB it was Fl coming back to reality.

FU struggled at all skill posistions last year including center, HC, and OC.

No doubt they will flourish under Will & Weis in 2011.

The_Real_Orange writes:

While the QB position is very important, starting the season with a new qb, especially if he has experience in the system, doesn't relate to struggles necessarily. I can think of three teams off the top of my head that had undefeated seasons starting new QBs .....vols in 98(following the best qb ever), Bama in 09, and Auburn just did it.

osbymartin#581730 writes:

in response to The_Real_Orange:

While the QB position is very important, starting the season with a new qb, especially if he has experience in the system, doesn't relate to struggles necessarily. I can think of three teams off the top of my head that had undefeated seasons starting new QBs .....vols in 98(following the best qb ever), Bama in 09, and Auburn just did it.

It helps if he has a ton of talent around him too though. In all of those cases you listed that was the case.

oskie_score writes:

As one affable ESPN commentator likes to say, "Not so fast my friend..."
Two thing's I'm certain of in 2011;
The SEC East and West will (in most cases) dismantle non-Conference foes and then decimate and wreak havoc amongst ourselves when Conference play begins.
AND
The SEC will become BCS Champions for a sixth consecutive year! In the 13 yrs (1998-2011) of the BCS the SEC is 7-0! PRIDE! SEC PRIDE!!
Like a family...we love, hate, support and beat on one another but you outsiders beware, cross one (of us) and ALL will ponce...after all, blood is thicker than water.

Long live the SEC! Long live the TENNESSEE VOLS!

The_Real_Orange writes:

in response to oskie_score:

As one affable ESPN commentator likes to say, "Not so fast my friend..."
Two thing's I'm certain of in 2011;
The SEC East and West will (in most cases) dismantle non-Conference foes and then decimate and wreak havoc amongst ourselves when Conference play begins.
AND
The SEC will become BCS Champions for a sixth consecutive year! In the 13 yrs (1998-2011) of the BCS the SEC is 7-0! PRIDE! SEC PRIDE!!
Like a family...we love, hate, support and beat on one another but you outsiders beware, cross one (of us) and ALL will ponce...after all, blood is thicker than water.

Long live the SEC! Long live the TENNESSEE VOLS!

I like the way you think oskie. Its seems funny now that when the conference expanded in the early 90s there was a lot of discussions about how it was going to be too hard to get thru the regular season and then a championship game. The SEC was going to cost their teams national titles....hasn't really worked out too bad though.

DannyVol writes:

Loaded head writer should fail again in 2011.

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

in response to Claudettevol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

That joke of a mudhole, swamp wannabe stadium in Gainesville wasn't named BennyHill-Griffin for nothin.

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