early season ratings have proven more accurate than the Vegas odds makers and last year I pegged Stanford as the 9th best team heading into the season (they were unranked), Oklahoma State rated 19th (also unranked) and had Texas (#5 ranked in the polls) as my 34th rated team. I've used my early season ratings to give me an edge over Las Vegas over the years and this year I want to share some conference previews with you. I will also have free analysis of almost every College game in the free analysis section at drbobsports.com.
(projected SEC record: 7.0 - 1.0, 1st Place West)
If the new quarterback plays even close to as well as former starter Greg McElroy played in his first season as the starter in 2009 then the Crimson Tide will have their best team yet under coach Nick Saban. The 2009 team won the National Championship and last year's team was actually just as good despite having just 2 returning starters on defense. The Crimson Tide out-gained their opponents 7.0 yards per play to 4.8 yppl despite facing a tough schedule of teams that would combine to out-gain an average team by 0.7 yppl. Alabama's offense probably won't be as good without McElroy, who completed 71% of his passes in 2010, but the rushing attack should be just as potent even without former Heisman winner Mark Ingram. Ingram's 875 yards at 5.5 ypr should be more than adequately replaced by Trent Richardson, who ran for 700 yards at 6.2 ypr last season. Backup Eddie Lacy may miss the early part of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, so depth could be a problem early in the season, but the Tide should still be very good offensively and I rate them a bit better than the 2009 attack. What makes Alabama my favorite to win the National Championship is a defense that I rated as 4th best in the nation last season despite having very little experience (just 2 returning starters). This year's Crimson Tide stop unit is loaded with experience (9 returning starters) and talent and clearly has the nation's best secondary. Alabama should have the best defense in the nation to go along with a great offense and good special teams. The rest of the SEC is better this season, but getting Arkansas and LSU at home will help the cause and the Tide have the best shot of any SEC team to find themselves in the National Championship game at the end of the season.
(projected SEC record: 6.1 - 1.9, 2nd Place West)
Bobby Petrino enters his 4th season as Arkansas' head coach and his team should continue to improve despite the loss of star quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL. Mallett posted ridiculous numbers last season (8.4 yards per pass play against FBS teams that would combine to allow 5.6 yppp to an average quarterback), but that's become the norm for Petrino's offenses. Excluding his first year at Louisville and his first year at Arkansas, Petrino's pass attack has an average rating of 2.6 yppp better than average after accounting for opposing pass defenses faced (+2.6 yppp at Louisville and +2.6 yppp the last two years here). The offensive line isn't nearly as experienced as it was last year but the receiving corps is loaded with weapons, as the top 4 in receiving yards all return while star TE DJ Williams (the only loss) is being replaced by perhaps a better pass catcher (Chris Gragg). New quarterback Tyler Wilson played spectacularly off the bench against Auburn last season (322 yards on 36 pass plays) and he averaged 8.3 yppp on 51 pass plays against FBS foes that would combine to allow 5.5 yppp to an average QB. Wilson probably won't be as good as Mallett was last season with a less experienced offensive line, but the Arkansas pass attack will once again be among the best in the nation. Petrino's offense also has a great running tradition and the Hogs still have plenty of talent in the backfield despite the recent season ending injury to leading rusher Knile Davis (1322 at 6.5 ypr last year). Taking Davis' spot as the main ball carrier will likely be Ronnie Wingo, who has rushed for 572 yards at 6.4 ypr the last two seasons, and reports are that Dennis Johnson (609 yards at 6.0 ypr in his career) is in the best shape of his career after missing most of last season with an injury. Arkansas was a good running team last season (5.3 yards per rushing play against teams that would allow 4.5 yprp to an average team) despite being dragged down early in the season by the ineffectiveness of Broderick Green's 3.5 ypr average (on 104 carries). It won't be easy replacing Davis' 6.5 ypr, but Arkansas also won't have Green averaging a pathetic 3.5 ypr either. Those two backs combined for 5.5 ypr, which should be at least matched by the new main ball carriers despite the less experienced offensive line. My ratings had Arkansas as the second best offense in the nation last season on a compensated yards per play basis and this year's attack, while probably not quite as good, should still be among the top 5 nationally.
If Arkansas wants to compete for a national championship it will have to be the defense that steps up. Arkansas wasn't bad defensively last season, allowing 5.5 yards per play to FBS teams that would average 5.9 yppl against an average team, but those numbers were not good by SEC standards. The Razorbacks return most of their top defenders from 2010 and the talent level is getting better through good recruiting. I expect continued improvement from the defense, which I rate at 0.7 yppl better than average to start the season - with potential to be even better. Arkansas is a legitimate top-10 team heading into this season (I have the Hogs rated 8th) but playing their game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa is a tough obstacle and will probably keep the Hogs out of the SEC Championship game.
(projected SEC record: 4.8 - 3.2, 3rd Place West)
LSU was 11-2 last season, but the Tigers weren't as good as their record, as they benefitted from a 6-1 record on games decided by 7 points or less (they probably should have been 9-4). This year's team should be better on both sides of the ball but they probably won't have as good of a record as last year's fortunate squad did. The Tigers' fate rests with the quarterback position, which has to improve and may face the suspension of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson. LSU is going to have another strong defense despite losing stars DT Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard, and CB Patrick Peterson, last year's top collegiate defensive back. The Tigers will also have a strong rushing attack with plenty of talented running backs and an experienced offensive line paving the way. The key to LSU's season will be the quarterback. Jordan Jefferson is slated as the starter once again, but his production has been mediocre at best in two seasons as the starter (5.8 yards per pass play against teams that would allow 5.6 yppp to an average QB) despite having extremely talented receivers. Jefferson may be suspended for a few games to start the season due to some off field troubles but backup Jarrett Lee may actually be a better option throwing the ball and Jefferson's running ability (568 yards on 105 runs for 5.4 yards per rushing play) isn't going to be missed too much with such a good group of running backs to hand the ball off to. New offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe had to take a more limited role as quarterbacks coach due to being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and Kragthorpe has a history of developing quarterbacks (but so did former OC Gary Crowton) and it's certainly possible that Jefferson and/or Lee puts it all together in his senior season to produce good numbers. My models project a slight 0.2 yppp improvement in the passing numbers with potential for a 1.0 yppp gain and the latter would make LSU a very good team. The Tigers will still be very good even if the quarterbacking remains average and they would be a Top-10 team if the pass attack shows top end improvement. However, the top-5 ranking that the Tigers enter the season with is ridiculous and is a function of last year's lucky 11-2 record and the expected improvement. However, matching last year's 11-2 record will be tough given the difficult schedule that starts with a neutral game against Oregon, includes a game at West Virginia, and then the tough SEC West. LSU is better this season but that isn't likely to show up in their win-loss record.
(projected SEC record: 3.8 - 4.2, 4th Place West)
Auburn won the National Championship last season despite being the 4th best team in the nation. But, combining the 4th best team with 1st best luck is enough to go undefeated and winning 5 games by 3 points or less is pretty lucky. Auburn will probably not be so lucky this season and they won't have Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton or most of their key defensive players from last season. The Tigers also have to deal with a brutal schedule, so this will be a very different season than last year. Auburn will certainly be worse offensively without Newton, who averaged an astounding 8.9 yards per pass play (against teams that would allow 5.8 yppp to an average quarterback) while also running for 1625 yards on 241 runs. There has never been a quarterback that had a better combination of passing and running than Cam Newton had last season and the offense will digress in 2011. However, Auburn was very good offensively in 2009 without Newton (0.9 yards per play better than average and 33.3 points per game) and this year's attack should be better than the '09 version, which was the first under offensive guru Gus Malzahn. The new quarterback should post good numbers and the rushing attack, while not as good without Newton's contributions, will still be among the best in the nation with running backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who combined for 1903 yards at 6.9 ypr last season. Auburn may not have the best offense in the nation this season (as I rated them last season) but they should still have about the 10th best attack regardless of who wins the quarterback job (I rate their attack 12th heading into the season).
Auburn's defense allowed a mediocre 5.5 yards per play last season against FBS teams, but that's not bad considering that they faced teams that would combine to average 6.0 yppl against an average stop unit. The defense was better than people thought last year, but it won't be as good this season with just 3 returning starters and the loss of Lombardi Award DT Nick Fairley, who registered 11.5 sacks and 12.5 additional tackles for loss. There is a lot of young talent on this edition of the Tigers' defense but there is also a lot of inexperienced players and I rate Auburn's defense at just 0.3 yppl better than average.
Auburn won't win the National Championship again but the Tigers are still be a Top-20 team in talent. However, playing in the tough SEC West and drawing the 3 best teams from the East (at South Carolina, at Georgia and home against Florida) could result in a 5 or 6 loss season if the Tigers start losing close games instead of winning those tossups.
(projected SEC record: 2.6 - 5.4, 5th Place West)
Mississippi State went from 5-7 in 2009 to 9-4 last season in coach Dan Mullen's 2nd year at the helm and now they find themselves as the 20th ranked team in the polls heading into this season. The Bulldogs should continue to improve and I project them to be a better team than they were last season, but I just don't think they're a top-25 team and they'll have a disappointing season trying to navigate through an improves SEC conference. Mississippi State actually finished last season ranked 20th in a model based on compensated point differential but the Bulldogs were 32nd in my ratings from the line of scrimmage and had worse than average special teams, so finishing 20th in points was mostly good fortune (allowing 19.8 points per game on 5.3 yards per play is an aberration).
Miss State's offense was better than average last season (5.6 yards per play against FBS teams that would allow 5.4 yppl to an average attack), but that's not very good by SEC standards. The rushing attack should be better than last year's slightly better than average production (4.9 yards per rushing play against teams that would allow 4.7 yprp to an average team) with all the backs returning to run behind a solid offensive line and quarterback Chris Relf should continue to improve after being just 0.4 yards per pass play better than average last season (6.5 yppp against teams that would allow 6.1 yppp). Backup quarterback Tyler Russell is actually a more dynamic quarterback and he averaged an incredible 9.3 yppp on 68 pass plays against FBS foes, but Russell also threw 6 interceptions on just 67 pass attempts. But, it's still nice to have a quarterback than can spark the offense if Relf continues to be inconsistent (he was relatively worse against better defensive teams).
The Bulldogs' defense was good last season, allowing 5.3 yards per play against FBS teams that would combine to average 6.1 yppl against an average stop unit, and I expect similar numbers this season on a compensated yards per play basis. However, Miss State isn't likely to give up just 20 points per game again based on that defensive rating. An average team uses 14.1 yards per point but Mississippi State made their opponents use 17.8 yards for each point last season, which is mostly just random luck. If the Bulldogs would have averaged 14.1 yards per point allowed they would have been about 5 points per game worse last season and it's unrealistic to expect Miss State to be so fortunate again this year. That's the reason why Mississippi State is likely to be a better team this season but not as good on the scoreboard as they were last season.
(projected SEC record: 2.6 - 5.4, 6th Place West)
Mississippi was great in coach Houston Nutt's first season, taking a 3-9 team and turning the Rebels into a surprising 9-4 squad in 2008. Nutt repeated that 9-4 record in 2009 while once against putting a team on the field that was good on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Last season was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year, but nobody expected the Rebels to fall apart defensively the way they did. Ole' Miss started the season with a shocking 48-49 home loss to Jacksonville State and the defense continued to struggle. Mississippi went from being 1.0 yards per play better than average defensively in 2009 (13th best in my ratings) to ranking 93rd in my defensive ratings at 0.7 yppl worse than average (6.4 yppl allowed to teams that would combine to average 5.7 yppl against an average team). Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix should be able to oversee significant improvement even with just 4 returning starters but the Rebels simply don't have the defensive talent that they had in Nutt's first two seasons (when he used former coach Ed Orgeron's talent to win). I project Mississippi to be just average (on a national scale) defensively, which is not good by SEC standards. However, the Rebels should be even better offensively than they were last season (5.8 yards per play against teams that would allow 5.3 yppl to an average team). Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was not the savior that some expected when he transferred from Oregon, where he ran a superior system, so his numbers won't be hard to replace, and the rushing attack should be very good again this season with top backs Brandon Bolden (976 yards at 6.0 ypr) and Jeff Scott (429 yards at 6.5 ypr) returning to run behind an offensive line that returns all 5 of last year's starters. I rate Ole' Miss as being 9 points better than they were last season (when they were 1-7 in SEC play), but they should still be the worst team in the very tough SEC West and will only win 2 or 3 games in conference because they are fortunate enough to draw the SEC East's two worst teams (Kentucky and Vanderbilt).
Check back this weekend for more conference previews from Drbobsports.
Follow Bob Stoll on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drbobsports