In three of the past four seasons, the SEC West champion has gone on to become the national champion. That's quite a statement for any conference, much less a single division of a conference.
It wasn't that long ago that the West looked like it might be losing some momentum in the battle with the East for SEC supremacy. Then over the course of 2007-09, the division traded Mike Shula, Ed Orgeron, and Sylvester Croom for Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, and Dan Mullen. That is how you revitalize a division.
So in 2011, the West's hold over the conference is unquestioned. Its hold on the nation is pretty strong too. The division has three teams in the top 15 of the preseason consensus as it stands today, matched only by the Big 12 and surpassed only by the overall SEC's four teams. Alabama stands at No. 1, while LSU is in the hunt at No. 5.
As of right now, this year is not the closest that Nick Saban's School and Nick Saban's Former School (as all sportswriters are obligated to mention) have been in the consensus. That honor still goes to 2009, when they were just three spots apart in the poll and there was more disagreement over who would win the division. Of course, it only takes a glance at 2008's prediction of an Auburn-Georgia SEC title game to remind that only so much faith should be put in the consensus.
Alabama is getting the nod nationally primarily due to it having more continuity. The Tide famously has lost starting QB Greg McElroy, leading rusher Mark Ingram, one of its best receivers ever in Julio Jones, and monster DE Marcell Dareus. That's about it though.
LSU is replacing the best player at each level of its defense, having lost DT Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard, and CB Patrick Peterson. Peterson's loss is doubly strong given his aptitude as a return man. The Tigers also lost leading rusher by a mile Stevan Ridley and leading receiver Terrence Tolliver. There are talented guys taking their places, but the team is still replacing a big part of last year's core. The loss of the excellent K Josh Jasper shouldn't be overlooked either, given Les Miles' penchant to end up in (and win) close games.
Of course, Miles took a stab at fixing his program's weakness by, ahem, graciously allowing OC Gary Crowton to take a job at Maryland and replacing him with Steve Kragthorpe. Sometimes hiring failed head coaches as coordinators works out, though LSU had better hope he's not the offensive equivalent of Greg Robinson at Michigan. His biggest job is trying to help Jordan Jefferson find some consistency. Jefferson's passing efficiency regressed from 2009-2010, and he couldn't keep Jarrett Lee on the sideline once again.
Alabama has quarterback concerns of its own. Last year's backup A.J. McCarron hasn't been able to beat out Phillip Sims for the starting role, and Saban has said he's not afraid to play both guys. Those around the program explain that both are too good to beat each other out rather than too mediocre, and Saban has compared the situation to playing both Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell at LSU in 2004. Only time will tell if they're right or if it's just another "if you've got two quarterbacks, you've got no quarterbacks" situation.
So that's how the West is setting up in 2011. Alabama is the leader, but LSU is right behind. Both are projected to be better than they were last year, and, given their preseason rankings, it appears that whoever wins the division will be expected to go on to play for the national title.
No pressure, guys.