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July 19, 2011

Media Days preview: SEC West



We're less than one day away from the start of Southeastern Conference Football Media Days in Birmingham. As always, there are dozens of storylines heading into the heavily attended event. Almost 1,000 media members are expected to be credentialed for the three-day affair at the upscale Wynfrey Hotel in suburban Hoover when each of the 12 head coaches are paraded in front of the media to answer all sorts of questions. Here are the main storylines for the six schools in the SEC West:

ALABAMA: It's become an annual tradition at SEC Football Media Days for Alabama head coach Nick Saban to engage in a testy back-and-forth exchange with the media throughout his time on the podium, and this year promises more of the same with the Crimson Tide ranked among the top teams in the nation.

Even though the Tide still have Heisman Trophy contender Trent Richardson for one more season, Alabama's depth at running back took a hit when highly touted freshman Dee Hart suffered a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL) two weeks ago during informal 7-on-7 drills.

"They have Trent Richardson at No. 1 and he's as good as anybody," CBS Sports college football analysts Tony Barnhart said. "Eddie Lacy is No. 2. Dee Hart was probably going to be the change of pace, fast guy, scatback type coming out of the backfield. Hart was a special talent and losing him takes one weapon out of their arsenal."

AUBURN: The investigation surrounding the eligibility of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton is far from over, chafing head Gene Chizik. Recently, an apparent confrontation between Chizik and a NCAA enforcement representative during the SEC's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., in early June came to light and the third-year coach for the defending champions is sure to face plenty of questioning in Hoover about the incident as many people still doubt the legitimacy of Auburn's national championship.

"I feel very comfortable and very great about where we are with Auburn football," Chizik insisted in a recent radio interview. "I can put my head on my pillow every night and feel very good that we're moving in the right direction. I'm very comfortable about the way the program is being run. I sleep well at night."

As far as the 2011 Auburn team is concerned, the biggest question is who will replace Newton and four starters along the offensive line. Exciting freshman running back Michael Dyer is still around, though. Defensively, Nick Fairley anchored one of the top defensive lines in the country, but he's gone to the NFL as well.

ARKANSAS: Even though Ryan Mallett (third-round pick by New England) has moved on to the NFL following two seasons playing for his home-state university, expectations are sky high in Fayetteville because of the abundance of offensive talent surrounding the new quarterback and an improved defense.

Most analysts have picked the Razorbacks to finish third in the division behind Alabama and LSU, but Arkansas could challenge for the top spot before the season is over, especially if Mallett's successor at quarterback plays well. If so, the annual season-ending border rivalry game with LSU could determine the SEC West winner.

"You're always different when you're starting a new quarterback," Petrino said recently. "The personality of the offense changes. That's why you hear, 'We'll do what the quarterback does well.'"

Arkansas has a SEC-high 14 Razorbacks named Preseason All-SEC last week in the annual coaches vote. Petrino told reporters a few days ago that the poll showed the Hogs have a lot of experience and talent returning. But he wasn't concerned about the number compared to the rest of the SEC, saying it justified his high expectations for the 2011 campaign.

"I don't sit there and count how many All-SEC players each team had," Petrino said.

Petrino faces a potential distraction on the eve of SEC Media Days: his 23-year-old son Dominic was arrested early Monday morning in Indiana on drug-related charges, including driving while intoxicated, possession of marijuana, illegal possession of prescription drugs and possession of paraphernalia. He was released on $1,000 cash bond.

LSU: If you haven't yet heard the name 'Willie Lyles,' you will soon. The notorious 'street agent' (the more formal description is 'prospect scout') is being investigated by the NCAA for his close connections to Oregon and their recruitment of a pair of running backs - LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk. Recently, it was revealed Lyles has been involved with LSU as well.

As a result, Tigers head coach Les Miles will face tough questioning in Hoover regarding the NCAA investigation relating to his program's relationship with Lyles. LSU reportedly paid Lyles $6,000 in 2010 and $26,000 since 2008 ostensibly for supposedly the same services Oregon received.

"I think it's fundamental. I think it's necessary. We're going to comply. We're going to be very cooperative," Miles told USA Today. "That's really all I can say."

But Miles now has additional questions to answer about questionable recruiting tactics by the Tigers. Early Tuesday afternoon, the NCAA ruled LSU committed major violations when a former assistant coach gave impermissible benefits (unauthorized transportation, free and discounted lodging) and made improper phone calls to a recruit.

The recruit signed with LSU but left after the 2009 season when the school discovered the infractions. The assistant coach departed LSU shortly thereafter, as well. Because the LSU compliance office was proactive in quickly self-reporting the violations, self-imposed a reduction of two scholarships and unilaterally placed restrictions on telephone calls to prospects, the NCAA simply placed the school on one-year probation, reduced the number of official visits for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years and issued a one-year show cause order for the assistant coach.

But while that case has been resolved, the Willie Lyles situation is not. Miles will face the scrutiny on Friday.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: After a nine-win campaign in 2010 that ended with a drubbing of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, Bulldog Nation is looking for head coach Dan Mullen to keep the train speeding along on the tracks for 2011 despite the demands of a brutal schedule that includes matchups with Auburn, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and the late November Egg Bowl against Ole Miss.

"We're a very talented football team, but a lot of this year's success is going to depend on maturity more than talent," Mullen told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger recently. "You have a small senior class. A lot of the junior class is made up of true juniors and not redshirt juniors. A lot of guys who are going to play are major leaders but they're just starting their third year of college. That's pretty young."

How excited are MSU fans? Season tickets sold out more than two months before the start of the season, the earliest date in which every football season ticket has been sold in school history. But, clearly, matching last season's win total will require an upset or two.

"It's hard taking the next step," Mullen said. "The most difficult part for people is that they work really hard to get success and as soon as you get it, you can kind of plateau or level off and sit back for a couple of minutes and try to enjoy that success. But, like anything, if you work as hard as you did last year, you can't expect to do any better."

OLE MISS: The Rebels are coming off a bitterly disappointing 4-8 campaign in Houston Nutt's third year as head coach in Oxford. Ole Miss started the year with brutal home losses to Division I-AA Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt and never fully recovered, finishing 1-7 in the SEC. Nutt realizes his team must bounce back in 2011 or the fallout could be severe.

With a quality running back like Branden Bolden already in tow, Nutt hopes to find additional playmakers at quarterback and wide receiver to keep the Ole Miss offense productive and help out a beleaguered defense that performed poorly in 2010.

"We didn't have a wide receiver last year that was a playmaker for us like when we had Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace," Nutt said in a recent radio interview. "We're hoping one of our guys comes to the forefront. We signed three excellent wide receivers. Hopefully, teams won't make us play left-handed and we'll keep them honest."

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