NCAA SEC West team to beat in college football

Jul 5, 2011 3:00 AM

Last week, I took a first look at the undisputed No. 1 conference in all of college football, breaking down the six teams from the SEC East. This week it’s the SEC West, which has produced three national champions in the last four seasons.

Alabama:Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa is not the success that the Crimson Tide have enjoyed on the field. Given Saban’s track record in previous stops at Michigan State and LSU, as well as the history of the Alabama program; a national title, three 10+ win seasons and three bowl wins in four years cannot be considered a shocker.

However, the Crimson Tide’s success on the field has been matched by their ATS success here in Las Vegas. This is an ultra hyped team – a team that plays on national TV week after week, gets SportsCenter highlights night after night, and is mentioned prominently in every ‘what’s the best team in college football’ discussion. Their head coach makes as much money as any coach in the sport, and they’ve enjoyed a Heisman Trophy from running back Mark Ingram.

Teams like Alabama are not perpetual money-makers. So to see the Crimson Tide with 9-5, 9-4 and 8-5 ATS marks over the past three years is truly remarkable. 26-14 (65%) three year point spread runs are not a normal, natural occurrence for programs of this magnitude.

Alabama’s defense gave up less than 14 points per game and fewer than 290 yards per game for the second consecutive season last year. The Tide return just about everybody on that side of the football, losing just a single starter to the NFL while returning the nation’s best secondary intact.

Even as the Tide break in a new quarterback, if the defense can approach last year’s production – eight different opponents held to 10 points or less – they’ll be a profit producer for their supporters once again in 2011.

LSU: It’s easy to contrast Alabama’s point spread success in the Nick Saban era with Les Miles repeated ATS failures during his tenure at LSU. Both Miles and Saban have garnered a national championship with their current school. But Saban, as described above, has consistently overachieved against the point spread while Miles has consistently underachieved.

The results don’t lie. LSU’s only winning ATS season during the Miles era came in his first year on the job (2005) when the Tigers went 6-5-1 ATS. Since that time, LSU has been a money-loser in every season.

Even in their 2007 national championship season, the Tigers cashed winning bets only five times in 14 games, and three of those bets came in their first three weeks of the season. Incredibly, in a national championship year, LSU cashed only two winning bets after their 3-0 ATS start in early September!

The biggest problem for LSU supporters has been the Tigers inability to cash at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Again, the numbers don’t lie. LSU is just 13-23-1 ATS as home chalk in the Les Miles era. They’re likely to be favored in all six of their home games again this year.

Personnel-wise, LSU has as much talent as any program in the nation. Miles has been able to recruit with the big boys, landing one top prospect after the next. The Tigers have a senior quarterback, nine of their top 10 back on the offensive line, extraordinary skill position talent and speed and a defense with only a few graduation holes to fill (most notably on the defensive line).

 It’s easy to understand why the Tigers have enjoyed some national championship talk this offseason, but it’s just as easy to understand why I’m not in any rush to find spots to lay points with LSU against some of their lesser tier foes.

Auburn:Many sharp bettors here in Las Vegas faded Auburn repeatedly down the stretch last year. That strategy lost money as the Tigers just got better and better. Gene Chizik’s squad cashed seven times in their last eight ballgames, the lone non-cover coming against 1-AA Chattanooga in a game they won by 38 points as 41 point chalk.

And yet we saw wiseguy money pouring in against the Tigers in their regular season finale against Alabama, in the SEC championship game against South Carolina and in the national championship game against Oregon.

Based on the earliest line moves from the ‘Golden Nugget Games of the Year’ here in Las Vegas, those anti-Auburn bettors are fully focused on getting their money back in 2011. No team on the betting board got bet down as hard and fast as the Tigers. It’s easy to understand why.

Auburn has the fewest returning starters in all of college football. They lost their Heisman winning quarterback Cam Newton to the NFL, as the top overall pick in the draft without a surefire candidate to replace him effectively.

The Tigers have only 15 career starts returning on the offensive line, a dramatic dropoff from the 111 game starts from last year.

Auburn went 7-0 in games decided by a single score last year, best in all of college football. This year, they are projected to be a last place squad in some circles.

The big question is whether the betting markets will over-react to their expected failures and give Auburn backers another chance to cash tickets with an undervalued squad, or whether Auburn will be a ‘safe’ fade throughout the course of the campaign.

Arkansas: Bobby Petrino’s track record at Louisville was truly remarkable. Louisville was a middling program at best when Petrino arrived, yet he managed to go 41-9 SU, 31-19 ATS during his four seasons with the Cardinals. After he left for an ill-fated stint with Atlanta Falcons, the Louisville program declined rather dramatically.

The SEC is much, much tougher than the Big East that Petrino dominated during his tenure in Louisville. That being said, the Arkansas program is moving in the same direction as Louisville did in the Petrino era – towards the top.

In an SEC conference that has seen LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Florida (twice) win national titles in the last five years, it’s reasonable to think that Arkansas could be the next school to flourish.

The Razorbacks have improved from five wins to eight to 10 in the last three years; cashing ATS at a 67% clip in 2009 and 2010 combined.

Even with the loss of top flight QB Ryan Mallett to the NFL draft, this under-the-radar, under-hyped team has legitimate ‘breakout’ potential for the 2011 campaign if they can get solid play from their rebuilt offensive and defensive lines.

Mississippi St: If we look back at the last decade of Mississippi State football, there’s one problem that stands out like a sore thumb dating back to the Jackie Sherrill era in Starkville – inferior quarterback play. The Bulldogs enjoyed a resurgent season last year, winning nine games and reaching only their second bowl in the last ten campaigns.

They enjoyed that success despite, not because of, QB Chris Relf. All of Mississippi State’s success in 2010 can be traced to their strong offensive line, a powerful running game and an overachieving defense that held opponents under 20 points per game for the first time since Sherrill got run out of town.

Most of those pieces return for the 2011 campaign. That being said, there are some significant holes. The Bulldogs have to replace a three year starter at center and a first round draft choice at left tackle on the offensive line. They also lost a pair of linebackers to the NFL draft, needing to rebuild the entire unit.

But for Mississippi State to continue their rise in the standings and enjoy more SU and ATS success; more than anything else, they’ll need strong quarterback play from senior Relf after an uninspiring 1800 yard, 13 touchdown season in full time starting duty as a junior last year.

Ole Miss: In general, Houston Nutt has been a moneymaker in years where expectations are low. Last year, expectations were sky high for the Jeremiah Masoli era in Oxford, but things went south early –SU home losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt as double digit chalk in September.

Then, they got worse as the Rebels lost six of their final seven; missing out on a bowl for the first time in the Nutt era. Ole Miss doesn’t have to worry about sky high expectations this year. Ole Miss is widely expected to compete for last place, not first, in the SEC West.

With QB concerns heading into the campaign, a defensive line and a linebacking corps that need to be completely rebuilt and a skill position talent base that is inferior to most other SEC programs, the betting markets aren’t going to respect this team until proven otherwise.