After a year when the SEC revolved around LSU and Alabama , it looks like we're going to get another year that revolves around LSU and Alabama. Every other school in the conference has gotten its own introductory post for our preview series, but it feels impossible to really separate these two this year.
The SEC Media anointed the Tigers and Tide the overwhelming favorites at media days last week, with no other team getting a significant number of votes in either the West or for the overall crown. In the current preliminary preseason consensus, LSU is basically in a dead heat with USC for national favorite, but Bama is a very close third. As with the SEC media predictions, LSU holds a noticeable lead over Bama for the West title, but third place Arkansas is far behind those two.
When you look at the various preseason All-SEC teams, you find both of these teams near the top. Alabama is virtually tied with Arkansas when it comes to top-end offensive talent, while LSU is slightly ahead when it comes to top-end defensive talent. The defenses are about even, so let's look at the other side of the ball for a bit.
There are three main reasons why the Tide has been ahead of the Tigers on offense. The largest reason is that Alabama has more and more highly rated linemen. LSU's only consensus All-SEC selections there are first teamer Alex Hurst and second teamer Chris Faulk. Alabama's Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker made all three first teams I linked to above, while Chance Warmack was first team on two of them and second team on the other.
The second reason is a fairly simple and minor one. Bama's Eddie Lacy is one team ahead of his counterpart Spencer Ware on each set of teams. Ultimately that doesn't matter a whole lot given that LSU will use a four-man rotation at running back. The third is a more major one than what the All-SEC assessing point systems bear out. A.J. McCarron is the consensus third-team All-SEC quarterback behind Tyler Wilson and Aaron Murray, while LSU's Zach Mettenberger doesn't rate on any of them.
I am surprised at the unanimity of McCarron being the third-best guy at the position in the conference. I think cases could be made for rating Tyler Bray and James Franklin ahead of him because they are fairly close statistically (Franklin is by far the best runner, though) and will do more as a result of being asked to do more. Mettenberger, of course, had no chance to rate because all we have on him is a year of junior college and some spring practice reports from Georgia in 2010 that say he had a strong arm but was falling behind Murray before he ever got into legal trouble.
At the same time, Mettenberger is often cited as the reason why LSU will be ahead of Alabama. The theory goes that he has to be better than what LSU had last year, right? Well, yes and no. The running game was the strength last year and will be again this year. If you look at the list of quarterbacks from last year against all opponents, Jarrett Lee actually had the highest passing efficiency in the conference despite his miserable November game against the Tide. If Mettenberger is to really be a difference maker, it will have to be against the Tide. The quarterback position wasn't really a detriment against any other opponent last year, and the Tigers went 1-1 against Bama anyway.
For the sake of the league's status as the undisputed best, someone is going to need to knock these two out of the catbird seat. The first step to being seen as a weak conference is to have one or two teams dominate it consistently. Remember USC and the Nine Dwarves, or when the Big Ten was the Big Two? One reason why the Big 12 never passed up the SEC in esteem (besides all the national titles) despite being almost even over the last decade is that the SEC's had a revolving door at the top while the Big 12 was Oklahoma, Texas, and the rest. Seeing LSU and Alabama fall doesn't appear to be in the cards soon, as Nick Saban and especially Les Miles have plenty of good years left in them and are entrenched in their jobs. Someone really will need to knock them off.
For now, though, it's looking like the league is LSU's and Alabama's to run with 12 other tenants paying rent.