The preseason magazines hit the shelves nearly two months ago. Single game tickets are about to go on sale. And at SEC media days, Nick Saban is bellowing from his Birmingham pulpit about pimps and agents and other assorted scum.
Ahh, football season. It’s closing in on us quickly, so in another annual passage, it’s time to make predictions.
The top seems like a good place to start. In the college game, that means the SEC, Western Division, Alabama.
We’ll get to the East next week, followed by the ACC.
No surprise to start...
1. Alabama: Even with nine new starters on defense, the Tide are a no-brainer to repeat as champs in the West, if not the entire conference.
DE Marcel Dareus (if he survives AgentGate) is one of those new starters and he was the Defensive MVP of the BCS title game. Along with LB Donta Hightower and S Mark Barron, Alabama’s rebuilt defense boasts one of the SEC’s best at every level.
That the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is among the eight returning starters on offense is almost unfair.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the trendy pick to push Alabama. It’s easy to see why, with the conference’s best quarterback in Ryan Mallett and one of the nation’s best receiving units back from an offense that led the SEC with 36 points per game last year.
Unfortunately for the Hogs, they’re still saddled with a defense was ninth in the conference in points allowed and dead last in yards allowed last year.
With eight starters back and one returning after missing last season with an injury, the unit should be improved, but not enough to topple the SEC’s elite.
3. LSU: For all the talk about temperature under Mark Richt’s posterior, Tigers coach Les Miles could be in more danger than any SEC coach.
Not yet three years removed from the 2007 National Championship, the belief in Bayou Country is that Miles needs at least nine wins to keep his job. Seems a little harsh, unless you’ve watched the Tigers take one of the nation’s most talented rosters and richest recruiting bases and veer toward mediocrity under Miles’ watch.
Getting to nine wins won’t be easy this year, as only five starters are back from one of the league’s worst offenses.
4. Auburn: Like Arkansas, the War Tigers (Tiger Eagles?) scored in bunches last year — especially against the weaker 1/3 of the conference — but didn’t show much interest in tackling people. Auburn ranked last in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed per game.
With eight returning starters, the defense should be improved. The offense returns a ton, too. Former Gator QB Cameron Newton takes over at quarterback and should be an improvement over Chris Todd.
5. Ole Miss: When people say the SEC West will be better than the East this year, they’re talking about the top four teams.
Rebel fans are about to get to know the real Houston Nutt: 9 wins, 9 wins, 5 wins, 6 wins, 8 wins, 5 wins, repeat.
6. Mississippi State: There’s a little to get excited about in Starkville: four starters are back on the offensive line, Dan Mullen looks like a legitimate SEC coach. However, there’s a lot to temper that excitement: no proven quarterback or running back, and only one winning season since 2000.
Maybe what they need is a little more cowbell.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.