SEC: 2009 West preview keys
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We took a closer look at the SEC East race last Friday, although it's hard to find anybody who thinks it will be much of a race.
Today, we turn our attention to the West race, which is just the opposite. Throw Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss into a sack and pick out a winner. It's that close, and don't be surprised if Arkansas has some say in who wins it.
Here are five things to watch in the West:
1. Jevan Snead's blind side: For all that Ole Miss has going for it, there is the left side of the offensive line, specifically left tackle. Michael Oher was Snead's bodyguard a year ago, but is now counting his money in the NFL. Sophomore Bradley Sowell will enter the season as Oher's replacement. He's plenty athletic enough and actually played some tight end last season, but hasn't been as consistent as the coaches would like. They demoted him at one point in the spring to send a message, but he's had a better preseason camp and is coming off his best week. Freshman Bobby Massie isn't ready yet to step in at left tackle, so the Rebels really need Sowell to take this job and run with it.
2. Running to glory: The running games in the West should all be potent. Everybody has at least one big-time running back, and there's also quality depth. LSU's Charles Scott, Arkansas' Michael Smith and Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon are the top three backs in the league, but they will have company. Ben Tate figures to be the workhorse in Auburn's new offense. Ole Miss goes about four deep at tailback, and Alabama can't wait to unveil freshman Trent Richardson in a backfield that already includes Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch. If you like to watch teams run the football, keep an eye on the West this season.
3. Julio's high-wire act: Tim Tebow is a lock to be a College Football Hall of Famer, and Eric Berry is the best defensive player in the league. But the guy I'd pay the most money to watch play is Alabama's Julio Jones. Watching him break tackles, stiff-arm defenders and go up and take the ball away from cornerbacks with his rare blend of strength, great hands and uncanny body control never gets old. I keep waiting for the first person who hits Jones to bring him down. He never quits competing and is as tough as they come. The guy played through a hernia, cracked wrist and bum shoulder and was still one of the best receivers in the league as a freshman. What's in store for his sophomore season?
4. Hail to the Chief: After 14 years at Tennessee, John Chavis is now barking orders to the LSU defense, which might have been the most underachieving unit in the league a year ago. Chavis, a.k.a. "Chief" to those who've coached with him and played under him, hopes to incorporate the same kind of attacking defense at LSU that was the backbone of some of Tennessee's best teams under Phillip Fulmer. In nine of Chavis' 14 seasons at Tennessee, the Vols ranked in the top three in the SEC in total defense. He's already said that talent won't be a problem at LSU, and the players love his style. We'll see if it all translates into the Tigers getting back to playing championship defense this season.
5. High on the Hogs: The folks in the Ozarks might want to have their calculators ready. Arkansas in Year No. 2 under Bobby Petrino has the pieces in place offensively to do some serious damage to scoreboards. Quarterback Ryan Mallett, a transfer from Michigan, is a perfect fit for this offense, and the collection of talent around him is equally impressive. The Hogs are deep enough at the running back and receiver positions that it may be somebody different every week making the big plays. The two things working against the Hogs are a defense that still has to prove it can keep every game from being a shootout and a killer schedule that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.