- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Picking a favorite this season in the SEC’s Western Division race isn’t the hard part.
Defending national champion Alabama has the rightful claim to that distinction until proven otherwise.
The hard part is figuring out who will be No. 2. Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and even Ole Miss (now that the Rebels have Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback) could make claims, while Mississippi State has a chance to be one of the most improved teams in the league.
Here are five things to watch this season in the SEC West:
1. Turning the Tide on defense: It’s difficult to imagine an Alabama defense that struggles with Nick Saban running the show, not to mention knowing how well the Crimson Tide have recruited on that side of the ball. But the first scrimmage of the preseason would seem to suggest that Alabama has a ways to go on defense, part of which was expected when you lose nine starters. The secondary remains the biggest concern, especially with a couple guys back there battling injuries right now. The good thing for Alabama is that it's not a talent issue. The issue is an overall lack of experience. The threesome of defensive end Marcell Dareus, middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron is as good as it gets, but guys like cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback DeMarcus Milliner, safety Robert Lester, nose guard Kerry Murphy and linebacker Chris Jordan will end up determining how good this defense will be in 2010. Obviously, if Dareus is suspended for any length of time because of agent-related issues, that would be a huge blow to the Tide.
2. Auburn’s reinforcements: This signing class could be what puts Auburn over the top this season. The Tigers lacked the depth to make a serious run a year ago and wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But already, it’s obvious that several first-year players are going to play key roles for the Tigers, starting with quarterback Cameron Newton. Freshman running back Michael Dyer, freshman fullback Ladarious Phllips, freshman receiver Trovon Reed and freshman receiver Antonio Goodwin should add firepower to the offense, and a number of newcomers are pushing to play on defense. Among them: Corey Lemonier at end, Jeffrey Whitaker at tackle, Jonathan Mincy at cornerback and LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland at linebacker. As senior linebacker Josh Bynes noted recently, the gap between the Tigers’ first- and second-team players shouldn’t be nearly as wide this season.
3. September to remember: LSU hopes it’s a September to remember, but that’s going to entail knocking off North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to open the season. It’s easily the most critical opener Les Miles has faced since taking the LSU job in 2005, and it will go a long way toward answering the question that has reverberated all offseason: Is Miles really on the hot seat? In particular, the Tigers need to build some momentum and establish some early confidence on offense. Junior quarterback Jordan Jefferson needs to play better, but he also needs the guys protecting him to play better. The Tigers revamped their offensive line, moved some guys around, and Miles is confident it will be a more physical unit. LSU finished 11th in the SEC in rushing offense last season, and that’s tough on any quarterback. The best thing Jefferson has going for him is the collection of guys he’ll be throwing to -- Terrence Toliver, Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle. West Virginia comes to Baton Rouge to close out the month of September, meaning we’ll know plenty about these Tigers by the time we get to October.
4. Star power in the West: No disrespect to the East, but most of the star power in the league this season is concentrated in the West. You’ve got the Heisman Trophy winner returning in Alabama running back Mark Ingram, one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and perhaps the best cornerback in college football in LSU’s Patrick Peterson. On top of it all, several of the analysts have Dareus as one of the hottest NFL draft prospects in the country. ESPN’s Todd McShay had Dareus No. 5 on his most recent list. Alabama receiver Julio Jones, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Ole Miss nose tackle Jerrell Powe and Mississippi State defensive end Pernell McPhee were other players from the West who cracked the top 10 earlier this year in our countdown of the Top 25 players in the SEC. In fact, the only two players in our top 10 not from the West were Georgia receiver A.J. Green and Florida center Mike Pouncey.
5. Masoli’s impact: Without a doubt, the most noteworthy addition in the SEC this offseason was Masoli latching on with Ole Miss for his senior season. He’s already made a difference for the Rebels this preseason with the way he’s been able to scramble around and make plays. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt still has an interesting decision to make on who he’s going to start in the opener, but it’s difficult to imagine Masoli not being the guy the Rebels go with for most of the season. You don’t take a chance on a guy with a troubled past to sit him on the bench. Plus, Masoli has already proven that he can lead a team to the Rose Bowl when he quarterbacked Oregon to a Pac-10 title last season. This is not an Ole Miss offense that’s laden with proven playmakers, either, so having a veteran guy at quarterback who can make things happen when things break down would be even more valuable for the Rebels. One thing’s for certain: Everybody will be watching Masoli’s every move … both on and off the field.