We’re breaking down the SEC as we count the days to kickoff. Today, I’ll look at three of the SEC West contenders: Arkansas, Auburn, and Mississippi State
Arkansas – Can you believe that these Razorbacks are now playing good on defense? Well they are, and if that trend continues I don’t see why Arkansas can’t compete for the SEC title again this season. Arkansas was an impressive 10-3 last season, including a 6-2 mark in SEC play with losses to Alabama and Auburn.
The Hogs did lose quarterback Ryan Mallet, and running back Knile Davis is lost for the season to injury, but with an improving defense Arkansas may not need as much on offense as they have in the past. With that said, you can expect Coach Bobby Petrino to have another solid offense this season.
The Hogs averaged 36.5 points per game last season and rolled up over 480 yards of total offense per game, to boot. Quarterback Tyler Wilson looks to be more than an adequate replacement for Mallet. Wilson completed 34 of 51 pass attempts last season with 4 TD’s.
Wilson has some serious wide receiver weapons he can throw to this season. Joe Adams is back after hauling in 50 grabs for 813 yards last season, and Adams is expected to have an even better year in 2011. But with just four returning starters on offense, experience is a question mark entering the season.
Now back to the defense. Just two years ago the Hogs had the 89th ranked defense in the nation, allowing more than 400 yards per game. But last season, the Razor backs clamped down on defense and became one of the best units in the SEC.
Arkansas finished the 2010 season with the 36th-best defensive unit. That defense has seven starters back this season, including their leading sack master in Jake Bequette. The Hogs had 37 sacks total last season, and they have their best players back again in 2011.
Linebacker Jericho Nelson returns, as do safety Tramain Thomas and linebacker Jerry Franklin. Franklin has led the Hogs in tackles in each of the last three seasons, with 100 stops in 2010. Thomas was an SEC 2nd-teamer in 2010 with 83 stops.
Bottom line with Arkansas is that they will compete for the West. I know that Davis is a huge blow but when it comes down to it the Hogs will still be able to move the ball. Their defense looks to be the best under Coach Petrino and possibly be one of the top 20 units in the nation this season.
The loss of Davis hurts, but I think the Hogs will have a big say in who gets to Atlanta this season.
Auburn – The Tigers begin a new era “PC” on the Plains. “PC” meaning, “post-Cam.” What an incredible season the Tigers offense had last year, racking up nearly 500 yards per game of total offense. But that was then and this is 2011.
Many are thinking that the Auburn Tigers will fall off the face of the earth. I am not one of those people. Other than LSU and Alabama, I think Auburn has a chance to be ahead of the rest of the pack of teams in the SEC West.
There are only five players back this season, but there is a lot of talent. I think two players on offense in particular are going to light it up for the Tigers.
We all know what rreshman running back Michael Dyer meant to the Tigers in 2010. Dyer rushed for over one thousand yards, and now he will be given the ball even more this season. And you can expect to see a breakout year from wide receiver Trovon Reed. The former Louisiana standout was injured last season as he was beginning to start to make plays for the Tigers offense.
Wide receivers Coach Trooper Taylor likes his young play-maker. Look for the Tigers to get the ball into the hands of Reed early and often this season. Running back Onterio McCalebb is very good and has breakaway speed, and incoming freshman quarterback Kiehl Frazier could be the Tigers’ next great one behind center!
The Tigers’ defense was not expected to be any good last season and no one (I mean NO ONE) knew who Nick Fairley was a year ago at this time. Perhaps sophomore defensive tackle Nosa Eguae can be that player that holds things down for the Tigers in 2011?
Eguae started eleven games as a freshman in 2010, and he had a monster game versus South Carolina in the SEC Championship in recording two and half sacks. Neiko Thorpe has moved from cornerack to safety, leading the team in pass break-ups in 2010.
Ok, there is no pressure on Auburn to win, other than maybe from their fan base. But realistically, even fans know the Tigers lost the majority of their 2010 title team. If the Tigers can find some replacements on defense and the quarterback comes around, this team could be dangerous down the stretch of the season. Hey everyone else: Y’all better beat these Tigers NOW, because 17 of their 22 projected starters are underclassmen!
Mississippi State – When you go from five wins to nine wins, excitement and expectations quickly get even bigger. The 2011 Mississippi State Bulldogs could be the dark horse in the SEC West this season.
First of all, the Bulldogs have become a relevant program in the nation’s toughest conference, with a head coach is as hot as anyone in the country. Coach Dan Mullen has folks in Stark Vegas ringing Cow Bells loud and proud as Mississippi State looks ready to be a legit challenge to both LSU and Alabama this year in the SEC West.
After a 52-14 rout over Michigan, the Bulldogs are fired up with fifteen starters back this season. Mississippi State now has two full years under Coach Dan Mullen and their offense could explode this season.
Last year, the Bulldogs’ offense had twelve plays that netted fifty yards or more, which was tops in the SEC along with Auburn and Arkansas. And in 2011 quarterback Chris Relf could be the best-kept secret in the nation.
Mullen will give his signal-caller the chance to become one of the best in the country. At the end of last season, Relf began to mature. He was 51-73 for 793 yards and six touchdowns in his final three games of last season. He also rushed for nearly 70 yards per game in the final three games last year, and had a quarterback rating of 188.8.
You can count on the Bulldogs to rush the football. A year ago, the Bulldogs out-rushed their foes by an average of 96 yards per game. And with the return of running back Vick Ballard, MSU will churn up the yards on the ground again this season. MSU will also look to get the ball to wide receiver Chad Bumphis more this season as well.
Over on defense the Bulldogs will be salty, with the return of seven veteran players. The strength of the defense will be up front, where three of four D-Lineman are back.
The interior D-Line features two solid defensive tackles in John Boyd and Fletcher Cox, while in the defensive secondary Bulldogs fans are hyped to see strong safety Charles Mitchell back in the fold. Mitchell was the Bulldogs’ leading tackler last season, and he has become a ball-hawking defender for the Dogs.
Mississippi State needs to get off to a good start. After back-to-back road games at Memphis and Auburn, the Bulldogs return home to face LSU and La. Tech. Many think these Bulldogs can play with their first four, and maybe even win all four. If that happens, look out for the rest of the SEC!