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SEC Week: Binding Picks, West Division

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The process is important, but for the benefit of returning readers, the explanation of the methodology that’s preceded the picks the last couple weeks is below the fold. So if you find yourself confused by the numbers in the boxes, or just need a refresher, click ’Read More’ at the bottom. As always, feedback and criticism is encouraged.
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1. LSU
There are three caveats to LSU’s entry into that rare echelon of perceived invincibility, the kind of championship aura only USC is emitting as the season begins, and there’s high, reasonable optimism for at least two of them.

Les Miles keeps an eye on his expectations.
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One, where the Tigers are closer overall to SC on their bodily-kinesthetic merits and both teams rotated an endless string of young running backs in search of a bellwether last year, LSU lacks the Trojans’ staggering athleticism and depth in the backfield, especially in light of Alley Broussard’s departure last month. The committee was an asset in the wins over Tennessee (231 yards), Alabama (211) and Notre Dame (245), but a liability in the early losses to Auburn (42 yards on 1.8 per carry) and Florida (90 yards) and late to-the-wire wins against Ole Miss (2.7 per carry) and Arkansas (3.3). Optimism: the numbers improved as the year went on, even as defenses got tougher, and the offensive line is a huge, experienced group that ought to rival Florida’s as the best in the conference. But an effective running game includes grinding out first downs when everything is not necessarily clicking, and if Keiland Williams is not that guy – he and garbage-time-only blue chip Charles Scott are both in the 220-pound range and combined to average 5.8 per carry as true freshmen, and it’s significant that neither played against Ole Miss – then quasi-fullback Jacob Hester is an uninspiring stopgap.

Second – and the questions in the running game make this an essential element – is tempering the drop-off from JaMarcus Russell to Matt Flynn, who is a different kind of quarterback working under a new coordinator. I know through the grapevine there are people (including players) at LSU who think the best quarterback in the SEC wasn’t even the best quarterback on his own team last year, but (Notre Dame secondary notwithstanding) Russell finished on an incredibly high plane it will take Matt Flynn time to reach, if it’s in him to begin with. There’s no question LSU can win with Flynn (bumper sticker!), based on his only start, a two-touchdown, zero-INT gem in the 40-3 win over Miami back in the ‘05 Peach Bowl, but the majority of the damage against the ‘Canes was on the ground (season-high 272 yards) and we haven’t seen Flynn against adversity.

By Game
9 at Miss. State
7 South Carolina
6 Florida
8 at Kentucky
6 Auburn
6 at Alabama
8 at Ole Miss
6 Arkansas
Relative to the rest of the presumptive mythical title field, those are minor questions with pretty satisfactory answers. If the defense is anywhere near as good as it looks – that is, the most dominant unit in the country – this is the other half of the final BCS equation. That brings us to the third question about LSU, and by far the most difficult to address: does it have the consistency to run the table, or to put itself in position to be among the top two if it does drop a game? Thus we’re thrust deep into the treacherous Land of Intangibles, but only one SEC team this decade (Auburn in 2004) has managed to survive an entire regular season intact, and besides still being snubbed for the mythical championship game, it required the fortune of a dubious PAT do-over to turn the trick in the first place. In LSU’s case, for all the recruiting accolades, the Tigers have averaged just over three losses in the Saban-Miles era, and the one truly revered team, in 2003, had to have all the pieces fall into place following a 12-point home loss to struggling, Zook-led Florida. In other words, this team has struggled to maintain a championship level over an entire season.

Now, that may not be entirely fair, because no other team in the SEC and very few nationally will hold up against that standard, and I wouldn’t bring it up at all if I didn’t have such reservations about the tao of Les Miles in charge of overcoming it. As I said Tuesday, Miles is a hothead, the anti-Bill Walsh, impulsive, emotional and over-excited under pressure. I’m not the only one who thinks so:

I get something of a Bob Davie/Ron Zook vibe from Miles. Can he isolate his poor judgment re: public speaking from the split-second coaching decisions he must make?

EDSBS gets the same vibe, refusing to put LSU at two in its top 25:

Placing them at two requires taking certain factors as givens we’re not willing to grant, namely:
Lester the Unready. Les Miles’ teams, fiery as they are, just have a tendency to commit crippling mistakes at crippling junctures in games. Last year LSU pulled off some dramatic wins fueled by the Dancing Ent, Jamarcus Russell, who often committed the turnovers to put the Tigers there in the first place. He wasn’t alone, however–the precision of, hmm, say, an Urban Meyer or Frank Beamer team in execution and preparation simply isn’t as obvious from the performance on the field. He’s a player’s coach, and like many player’s coaches, he relies on players to occasionally pull victories directly from their very talented asses rather than game planning the bejeezus out of the opponent. On this spectrum, Les is obviously over on the emotional, loosey-goosey side, a side with a loss margin of around two a year in our estimation.

Every winning coach has to face this sort of criticism in the interim between "close" and "cigar"; see Mack Brown and Bobby Bowden and Tom Osborne before him. The knocks on Miles are borne in part of his demeanor but mainly of the fact that LSU is such a talented, capable team that will be favored in every game through the conference championship (see my estimations in the "By Game" box above), yet two equally talented and capable teams have failed to take the league in either of his first two seasons. The only way to explain four mistake-filled losses by such athletes is to fault their preparation, execution, creativity, mental sharpness and in-the-moment decision-making. They have not been pushed around, and won’t be any time soon; last year’s losses were marred by missed opportunities and mistakes – four drives ending with no points in Auburn territory, and three more of the same variety at Florida, along with a minus-three turnover margin in the latter, despite a significant yardage edge in both games – which can be corrected, and have to be to get over the hump.

2. Arkansas

By Game
4 at Alabama
7 Kentucky
5 Auburn
7 at Ole Miss
5 South Carolina
5 at Tennessee
8 Miss. State
3 at LSU
The more I look at Arkansas, the harder pressed I am to find a reason not to ride Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to pronosticative glory. It’s not only that McFadden is the most dangerous single threat in the country, the first player I’d pick anywhere to start a team from scratch, and that Jones is probably in the top dozen if he can get the ball in his hands often enough. If it was just those two trying to figure out how to get past ten-man fronts, it would be much easier to dismiss the offense as too borderline and one-dimensional to seriously contend for the division again, especially with three all-league caliber linemen moving on.

But then there’s Marcus Monk sitting on the outside, and his downfield presence changes everything. Casey Dick can’t do much as a passer, but if all he’s figured out in roughly a year and a half as a starter is how to avoid short-to-intermediate interceptions and to loft the ball as high and deep down the sideline as possible, Monk is enough of a threat to keep at least one safety away from the line. And McFadden and Jones, through their tremendous speed or the knee-locking possibilities of the Wildcat set, don’t need much more than that.

Not that it matters much what the defense is doing most of the time:

McFadden and Jones vs. Top 50 Run Defenses
Runs Yards Per Carry Long
at USC 16 90 5.6 24
Alabama 29 177 6.1 29
at Auburn 31 249 8.0 63
at Miss. State 36 122 3.4 17
LSU 37 319 8.6 80
vs. Florida 34 130 3.8 31
vs. Wisconsin 33 239 7.2 76

Not represented there are the thoroughly dominant games the duo had against Tennessee and South Carolina (neither in the top 50 against the run), kick returns for touchdowns by McFadden against Mississippi State and Jones against LSU, McFadden’s gimpy limitations against USC and Florida and the price paid by the teams that look sorta good – Florida and Miss. State – both burned on man-to-man touchdown passes to Monk for their efforts up front. With McFadden at three-quarters speed, maybe, Arkansas was the only offense that scored 21 against the Gators (Auburn scored 27 on UF, but only 12 by virtue of the Tiger offense). They’re only a quarterback away from the offense of nightmares, West Virginia level dominance against tougher competition, and with the Monk element to drive defensive coordinators to hurl themselves to sweet, Wildcat-free oblivion from the back of the press box.

I do think the departed linemen are going to make a dramatic difference, as good as holdovers Jonathan Luigs and Robert Felton are, and missing Monk against Alabama and perhaps longer might turn that game in the Tide’s favor. The defense has its own issues with two of its front line enforcers (Jamaal Anderson and Keith Jackson, and maybe Marcus Harrison), its aggressive blanket corner (Chirs Houston) and its scrappy, productive heart (Sam Olajabutu), which shouldn’t be underestimated. The team psyche, for whatever its worth, is in an undetermined state at the end of a ridiculous offseason.

Whatever. I’ll take a healthy McFadden all the way into the finale with LSU for the division, as long as either Jones and Monk are doing their parts. All of the above is null and void in any case "healthy" does not apply in the preceding sentence.

3. Alabama

By Game
6 at Vanderbilt
5 Arkansas
5 Georgia
6 at Ole Miss
5 Tennessee
7 at Miss. State
5 at Auburn
5.25 TOTAL
’Bama’s shot at a New Year’s Day Bowl – it’s been to exactly two in the decade since the glory days of Freddie Kitchens in 1996 – hinges on a couple possibilities becoming realities for the offense. One, because the Tide doesn’t appear to have its proverbial Back of Destruction for a change, is Major Applewhite bringing his pass-first philosophy from Rice to the SEC. The running game has suffered here the last couple years (3.5 yards per carry against SEC defenses in ‘05, just 3.3 in ‘06), and the personnel frankly is oriented towards throwing more than Alabama has ever thrown before. John Parker Wilson was okay as a sophomore – his numbers are comparable to Brodie Croyle’s as a senior, which weren’t bad enough to scare off the NFL – and should be comfortable enough in his second year to fling it around a little, while even without Tyrone Prothro, underrated D.J. Hall, Keith Brown, Matt Caddell and Nikita Stover are probably the best set of receivers here since Freddie Milons et al. Second, the wholly intact offensive line has to be better, whether opening holes for the no-name running backs or protecting Wilson – he and Croyle have been sacked almost three times per game the last two years – which it figures to achieve out of experience, a revamped philosophy and selective demotion. The Tide were slightly better on offense while winning six last year than it was winning ten the year before (22.9 ppg vs. 21.9 in ‘05, not accounting for clock rule depression) and on paper will be better than any of the largely impotent units of the Shula era. That’s mostly up to Applewhite’s influence.

There’s a disturbing level of youth to dislike on the defense, but Nick Saban’s track record at LSU was so solid: always tough against the run, always aggressive in the pass rush. It will be tough to hold down a 3-4 with a 270-pound nose tackle, if Lorenzo Washington is going to hang on to the position, but in all, Alabama only generated 13 sacks last year, three of them against Hawaii, and Saban’s blitz-happy background suggests that must improve.

The other, more crucial improvement: for a losing team (6-7), ‘Bama was in every game it lost right down to the closing minutes last year, sometimes against teams it statistically waxed (Arkansas, Auburn) or should have (Miss. State) and sometimes against teams that largely did the waxing (Tennessee, Oklahoma State). The team wouldn’t have to be much better – or any better, really, if it’s more opportunistic and demonstrates the slightest bit of consistency in the red zone – to turn two or three of those games and finish with a very respectable-looking eight or nine-win debut for Saban.

4. Auburn
I understand Auburn is going to be good at the things Auburn is always good at: running straight ahead with an improbably deep stable of backs, mixing in a little lethal play-action, moving sideline-to-sideline on defense, getting after the quarterback. From a program teetering on the brink in the late nineties, Tommy Tuberville’s built one of the league’s truly consistent, predictably successful outfits, and deserves the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. It’s just that I have so, so much doubt about this offense.

By Game
8 Miss. State
4 at Florida
6 Vanderbilt
4 at Arkansas
3 at LSU
7 Ole Miss
5 at Georgia
4 Alabama
5.13 TOTAL
Al Borges typically does a good job, but the entire operation broke down with Kenny Irons’ ankle injury early in the year, and Brandon Cox never found a rhythm. God, he never had time – against decent defenses, Washington State sacked Cox four times, LSU four times, South Carolina three, Arkansas six, Florida five, Georgia four, Alabama two and Nebraska five in the bowl game; that’s four sacks a game against everybody’s who’s not Arkansas State, Tulane and Buffalo. And on top of that debacle of protection, four members of this year’s line will be new. These are dark times. Leon Hart and Jason Bosley have played some on the interior, but they’re shuffling in freshmen and can only hope to prevent Cox from being pounded into the bloody, staggering pulp of a human being he became by the end of last season, at which point he just wanted to make it on and off the field again intact.

Welcome to the Brandon Cox experience.
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In the final three games against Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, for example, Cox failed to complete half of his passes in any of them – he was infamously more productive throwing to UGA corner Paul Oliver than he was to his own receivers combined – and the offense averaged a measley 203 yards in those games. And yet the Tigers won two of them, by scoring on two drives that began inside the Alabama 30 and two drives that began inside the Nebraska 15. Auburn only averaged about 254 yards against LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas and Florida earlier in the year, and never came close to four yards per carry, yet won three of them by virtue of its defense and, against Florida, special teams.

For all that, the offensive looks less threatening now than it did because of the line and the underwhelming set of receivers. There is a healthier, more mature Cox and a virtual certainty that somewhere among Brad Lester, Ben Tate and Carl Stewart there is an all-league caliber bruiser behind him, but they’re really coming back from rock bottom at the end of last year. As much respect as the defense deserves for completely carrying the team to eleven wins, it’s still faster than it is strong, and the safety-sized linebackers (average weight of starters minus ineligible Patrick Trahan: 209 pounds) are likely to continue to struggle with the straight-ahead power of LSU, Arkansas and Georgia; Florida also ran for six yards a pop on them last year. This team was very close to the edge last year, and fell off in a couple games, both at home, against true freshman quarterbacks. Relatively, though, it probably got off easier than it’s likely to with the same kind of problems on offense.

5. Ole Miss

By Game
4 at Vanderbilt
1 Florida
2 at Georgia
3 Alabama
2 Arkansas
2 at Auburn
4 Miss. State
2.38 TOTAL
Ole Miss is another team that was respectable defensively, but again struggled dramatically on offense and isn’t likely to be much better with Seth Adams runnng the show that it was with Brent Schaeffer; Rebel fans are optimistic about the largely unseen skills of Seth Adams, I’m sure, as all fans are with a new quarterback entering the lineup on the heels of a sub-50 percent passer. Ex-Delta State transfers tend to find the going pretty tough in the Bowl Subdivision, though, especially here, where the offense is built to run first but has consistently struggled to, you know, run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis hit 1,000 yards on the button by carrying the ball way, way more than any back in the league save McFadden, but he’s valuable mainly as a clock-grinder to eat up as much time as possible before the quarterback has a chance to do anything too damaging. There is a surprising and promising amount of young talent coming up in the offense – Cordera Eason and Bruce Hall behind Green-Ellis, and Dexter McCluster, Marshay Green and Mike Wallace at receiver – but it’s been the SEC’s most pathetic effort since Eli Manning graduated and David Cutcliffe was fired. If that changes, it will probably only be by a small degree.

I do think the Rebels deserve some credit for hanging tough with Georgia, Alabama, Auburn and LSU, fourgames they lost by a combined 17 points last year despite winding up on the wrong end of some heavy yardage margins. It’s tempting to suggest Ole Miss might surprise people, as when it jumped out in front of Auburn and LSU and led virtually the whole way in both, and also took Alabama into overtime after leading at the half. But then, the fact that Auburn and LSU came storming back to win in the clutch – especially when paired with the evidence of one of the year’s sketchiest wins, a 17-10 squeaker against Vanderbilt in which Ole Miss was outgained by 220 yards, and nailbiters against Memphis and Mississippi State, all at home – tells me the Rebs are still a couple steps behind the rest of the division; as close as they were to being 7-5, they were perhaps closer to being 1-11. There’s a frustrating lack of consistency here, and I don’t see any reason for a breakthrough.

6. Mississippi State

By Game
1 at Auburn
2 at S. Carolina
2 Tennessee
3 at Kentucky
2 Alabama
1 at Arkansas
5 Ole Miss
One thing that might doom Sly Croom in the end: his team’s occasional, random competence. As inescapably atrocious as Mississippi State has been in his three-year tenure, Croom has managed to lead one shocking win every year: the same team that lost 9-7 to Maine stunned Florida 38-31 in 2004; a limping bunch with no league wins rocked Ole Miss 35-14 to close 2005; and the team’s only SEC win was 24-16 at Alabama last year, in a season that also included solid but doomed efforts against South Carolina and Georgia. The Bulldogs apparently can compete with the league’s middle of the pack. They just don’t do it often enough to warrant much attention – this is the losingest team in the conference under Croom, and any significant turnaround into something approximating a bowl-worthy outfit amidst the kind of competition chronciled above would be the shock of the season.

I don’t know if another season of woe would be the end of Croom, given the race-based considerations the university desperately (really desperately) would like to avoid, but the talk of "inevitable improvement" that was oddly prevalent when Croom took over barely qualifies as a pipe dream at this point, when games with Tulane and UAB are generally (and correctly) considered toss-ups. The Bulldogs still have a reasonably fesity defense going for them on a pretty regular basis, at least when they’re playing someone other than LSU, yet Starkville remains one of the country’s blackest holes for quarterbacks, sucking every promising arm into its vortex and spitting it out in another dimension, mangled and confused. Let’s be brutally honest: Wayne Madkin inches ahead of Derrick Taite and Sleepy Floyd as the ideal MSU signal-caller of the last 25 years. Certainly he was the most successful, for all his many shortcomings, and if the popular but star-crossed Michael Henig is going to approach Madkin’s, um, legacy, it will only be by the lumbering efforts of huge sophomore back Anthony Dixon, the key to a running game opponents haven’t respected for years (MSU averaged an embrrassing 2.9 per carry in ‘06, though Dixon fought through injuries for 4.0). Tony Burks (35 catches for SEC-best 24.3 per) and another JUCO transfer, Co-Eric Riley, are legit deep threats, but the offense at its best is hit and miss (mostly miss), same as it ever was. The best that can happen is the ‘Dogs beats the Conference USA fare, pull an upset somewhere along the way and go into the Egg Bowl hoping to graduate from three wins, where they’ve been stuck the last three years, to four. If Croom needs to demonstrate a step forward, that’s his ticket.

Welcome, critics and brave truth-seekers. Here's what's up with the numbers, which take Athlon's classification of wins, losses and toss-ups to its extreme:

9: Likely blowout win; no conceivable defeat
8: Comfortable win; chance of competitive game
7: Competitive win; minor upset threat
6: Close win; major upset threat
5: Toss-up win (likely, but not specifically, awarded to the home team)
4: Toss-up loss
3: Close loss; major upset threat
2: Competitive loss; minor upset threat
1: Big loss; chance of competitive game
0: Blowout loss; no conceivable victory
At the conference level, there's no need to inject strength of schedule measures, though you'll see this later when we get into the top 25, etc. Each number is completely arbitrary based on my reading of that specific game, and inevitably more thought was put into, say, Cal-Oregon than into Washington-Stanford, but hopefully this idea injects an adequate level of nuance into the process, rather than just assigning 'win' or 'loss' with no regard to the widley varying degrees or probabilities.