While the East was easy to pick, the West is a jumbled mess of football from the Plains to the Ozarks. Prognosticators make it seem easy, as almost everyone has Ole Miss running the table all the way to ATL. Well, it's not that easy for me, so let's walk through this together, shall we?
The West Champion will be...LSU. I just feel it. Sure, they have the toughest conference schedule and draw a brutal b2b swing with Florida and Georgia, but the rebuild/reboot was last season and the Tigers are ready. Now that the Ivy League experiment is over, the Bayou Bengals have a solid QB who will only get better as the season progresses and a VERY good LB corp heads up a very strong D. There's enough talent on this team (and parity across the board) for LSU to clinch the West and make it to ATL. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that LSU is a national title contender by any means, I'm just saying that they'll edge out the other 2-3 loss teams around them. It's more a matter of Ole Miss being overrated than great faith in the Tigers.
2. Alabama - I think it's finally time for 'Bama to again be successful in back-to-back seasons, and they've been waiting a long time for that. Saban is a great coach and is building a program that will be contending year-in and year-out...as long as he stays in T-town. The Tide's D returns 9 and will be among the nation's best, more than making up for some transitions in the offensive backfield. The schedule sets up nicely as well, as the challenging games are scattered around easier contests throughout the season and they have the oh so crucial bye-week before LSU.
3. Ole Miss - I'm just not sold on the hype. Their regular season record should look great, but that's mainly due to their cake walk non-conf games and a mere one or two losses in league play could throw them out of title contention. They do host both of the teams I've picked ahead of them, but I just don't believe it will matter. I've been around the Nutt-Bubble before at Arkansas and all the Sneads in the world won't change the mediocrity they're bound for in Oxford. Once again, don't get me wrong. I'm not pegging the Rebs for a losing season or even a drop off from last year, I just don't see them running to 10 wins. Sorry. As much as their gelling late last year and winning the Cotton Bowl was great, they still lost to Wake and Vandy and Texas Tech was mighty overrated. It just feels unrealistic to expect a championship run from this team.
4. Auburn - This was a tough call. Going into '09, Auburn and Arkansas are very even in expectations. I honestly see them finishing with identical conference marks (somewhere in that 3-5 range) and earning similar post season spots. So, it will all come down to the head-to-head on 10/10. As you can guess from the pick, I'm taking the Tigers. While the Hawgs are hosting, the game falls in a very odd stretch for Arkansas that includes UGA, a neutral TA&MU game, Florida and Ole Miss. Auburn, on the other hand, will be coming off a more even, and easier, run, which sets up nicely for them.
Even with Malzahn, the offense will be sloppy and stagnant early with a confusing QB/RB situation to figure out. It should norm out late, though, taking some pressure off of the D, which with Chizik at the helm, should be good as ever. It might not be enough to win the Iron Bowl, but it's enough for the Tigers to surprise some people on their way to an X-mas Bowl.
5. Arkansas - Read the Auburn entry before moving on.
OK, good. Now, Arkansas was much better than they were supposed to be (or deserved to be actually) last season. Petrino, the douche that he is, actually got a lot out of these Hawgs and should be poised, at least offensively, to really make some noise. Defensively, they only have to replace one player (S), but have a long way to go from finishing as the league's worst D in '08. Like Auburn, I see Arkansas finishing up with 6 or 7 overall wins and going bowling.
6. Mississippi State - Where to start? MSU returns the fewest starters in the league (10) and are coming off a year in which they had a bottom 2 offense AND defense. Ouch. Twice they failed to put up 100 total yards in games and finished with the worst ypg differential in the conference. They need an offensive mind to rebuild them, and Dan Mullen might be the man to do it, but it won't be done (or even started) any time soon. The Bulldogs will struggle to get to even 3 or 4 wins this season.
LSU at Alabama - The Saban soap opera aside, this game could be for the Wes title.
Alabama at Ole Miss - The Rebs want to prove they're for real and this will be the stage for it.
LSU at Ole Miss - A Rebs win might not send them to ATL, but it might be enough to punch Bama's ticket with LSU out of the way.
Alabama at Auburn - The Iron Bowl's always big, but the Tigers could be clicking enough late to REALLY ruin Bama's season.
Auburn at Arkansas - see the team picks above. This is a key game to decide pecking order, or maybe even bowl eligibility.