Top surprises in the Western Division

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
2:21
PM ET
No college football season ever turns out exactly the way you thought it would.

There are always surprises -- good and bad.

I’ll tackle my biggest surprises in the SEC’s Western Division this season, and Edward will unveil his biggest surprises in the Eastern Division later today.

We’ll do it by teams:

ALABAMA

Struggles in the kicking game: It wasn’t all bad. Marquis Maze was one of the top kickoff and punt returners in the SEC, but Alabama was ninth in the SEC in net punting and 11th in kickoff coverage. What’s more, the Crimson Tide missed 11 field goals this season. And while nobody in Tuscaloosa needs to be reminded, four of those misses came in the LSU game.

Anthony Steen: The 6-foot-3, 303-pound sophomore was one of the Crimson Tide’s most pleasant surprises in the preseason, and he wound up starting nine games at right guard. He was a big part of Alabama’s bruising running game, which topped the SEC with an average of 219.8 yards per game.

ARKANSAS

Defensive turnover: This was supposed to be Arkansas’ best defense under Bobby Petrino. The Hogs had depth and experience, but wound up ninth in the SEC in total defense and gave up 28 or more points in six games. Petrino fired defensive coordinator Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes from Ohio State as the Hogs’ new defensive coordinator.

Greg Childs: After tearing the patella tendon in his right knee during the 2010 season, Childs never returned to his All-SEC form. He just wasn’t the same physically this season and finished with 16 catches in 10 games and no touchdowns.

AUBURN

Defensive decline: Everybody on the Plains expected some drop-off on defense after losing so many veteran players from the national championship team. But the Tigers were torched for more than 1,600 total yards in their first three games in a sign of things to come. They wound up giving up 29.3 points per game and 405.8 yards per game, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the UCF defensive coordinator’s job when the regular season ended.

Gus Malzahn leaving for Arkansas State: Most in and around the Auburn program had a feeling that Malzahn was poised to leave for a head job. After all, he turned down $3 million per year at Vanderbilt last year. But nobody would have guessed that he would leave for the Arkansas State head job.

LSU

No quarterback controversy: With the way LSU’s quarterback situation has played out, it’s a minor miracle there hasn’t been a quarterback controversy. But, then, it’s been that kind of season for the Tigers. Still, you can’t help but wonder what Jarrett Lee’s true thoughts are right now.

The Honey Badger: It was obvious from Tyrann Mathieu’s freshman season that he was a very good football player. But who knew he would blossom into one of the best all-around players in the country this season? He scored four touchdowns and didn’t play a snap on offense.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

No signature wins: After the Bulldogs racked up nine wins in 2010, the expectations in Starkville were off the charts. In retrospect, maybe too much was expected. Either way, Mississippi State lost all five of its games to nationally ranked foes and only beat one Western Division opponent (Ole Miss).

Cameron Lawrence: In his first season as a starter, Lawrence collected 114 total tackles to rank third in the SEC. Everybody was wondering coming into the season what the Bulldogs were going to do at linebacker after losing all three starters. Lawrence, who played quarterback in high school, stepped right in and anchored a unit that was solid all season.

OLE MISS

Houston Nutt’s ouster: Nutt had been the ultimate survivor in the SEC, and when his back was to the wall, he usually produced some of his best results. It wasn’t to be this season, though, as the Rebels saw their SEC losing streak reach 14 straight games. Following the loss to Kentucky on Nov. 5, the university announced that Nutt wouldn’t be back next season.

Quick trigger for Brunetti: One of the more puzzling things about the season for Ole Miss was how Barry Brunetti could win the starting quarterback job during the preseason, then get benched in the opener and never really be heard from again until the very end of the season.

Chris Low | email

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