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SEC West burning questions: Is another BCS title a certainty?

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The SEC West is the toughest division in the toughest college football conference in America. This is not debatable.

The SEC has won seven straight national championships with teams from the West claiming five of those crystal footballs: Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012), Auburn (2010) and LSU (2007).

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Can the SEC West do it again? Alabama will be your preseason No. 1 with Texas A&M not far behind. LSU is rebuilding but won't be out of the discussion long. Ole Miss made huge strides on the field and in recruiting in just one year under Hugh Freeze. Auburn is starting over as is Arkansas. But they'll be back. Mississippi State has become a consistent winner under Dan Mullen but is still trying to take the next step.

As the MrCFB Spring Tour continues, here are our Five Burning Questions about the SEC West:

How long will it take for the new Bama line to jell?

Alabama isn't just rebuilding a very good offensive line because it lost three big-time players (Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker). The Crimson Tide said goodbye to the guts of what may go down as the best offensive line in school history (all due respect to John Hannah and company). Left tackle Cyrus Kouandijio and right guard Anthony Steen (two year starter) are back.

New offensive line coach Mario Cristobal (former head coach at FIU) has a lot of work to do, but he has some very talented pieces to play with as he begins to put together the puzzle.

Ryan Kelly, an All-SEC freshman pick, should slide into the center position to replace the irreplaceable Jones, an Outland and Rimington Award winner. After that look for Cristobal to do some experimenting to get the best five guys on the field.

Arie Kouandijio, older brother of Cyrus, now gets into the mix at guard after battling injuries during a good portion of his career. Quite honestly, if the offensive line jells sooner rather than later, there is no reason Alabama cannot win its third straight national championship because the Tide is in great shape everywhere else.

Name to remember: Leon Brown. Nick Saban believes that you bring in junior college players to fill an immediate need and if he can't start, you should not sign him. Brown, from ASA College in New York City, should plug right in to Fluker's right tackle spot.

Can Aggies count on same kind of production from Johnny Football?

Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, was a shooting star in his redshirt freshman season with 3,706 yards passing and another 1,410 rushing. Those numbers are just mind boggling.

I don't think he can do it again, and I don't think the Aggies and Kevin Sumlin are counting on it in order to challenge Alabama in the SEC West.

Two reasons:

  The defensive coaches in the SEC are very, very good. With a year's worth of video in hand they have had time in the offseason to come up with something in order to keep Manziel from dominating the way he did a year ago. He'll still put up great numbers, mind you, just not otherworldly numbers.

  Don't underestimate the impact of the departure of OC Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech. Yes, this is Kevin Sumlin's offense, but Kingsbury had a knack for putting Manziel in position to succeed. I could be wrong here. West Virginia quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital comes in to take that spot on the staff.

We'll learn a lot when Alabama goes to Kyle Field on Sept. 14.

Name to remember: Incoming freshman Ricky Seals-Jones is listed as 6-5, 230 and was considered by some recruiting services to be the No. 1 prospect in the state of Texas. He is listed as a receiver but can play a lot of different positions.

Among four new SEC head coaches, who will have most success?

I think it's going to be Gus Malzahn at Auburn for several reasons.

With the return of Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator on Auburn's national championship team of 2010, the Tigers once again have a clear offensive identity. The players in this program were recruited to run Malzahn's offense, particularly quarterback Kiehl Frazier. Because Malzahn has only been gone for one year (while he was head coach at Arkansas State), the learning curve for the players will not be all that steep.

The Auburn defense will be better because it cannot possibly be worse than the train wreck the Tigers put on the field last season. Brian Van Gorder is a very good defensive coordinator. But whatever he was selling the Auburn players weren't buying last season when the Tigers finished No. 13 in total defense and gave up more than 28 points per game. Auburn has good athletes and there was no excuse for the defense to be that bad.

Things will get fixed under Ellis Johnson, who turned South Carolina into a consistent top five defense before an ill-fated year as the head coach at Southern Mississippi in 2012.

Name to remember: Cameron Artis-Payne ran for more than 2,000 yards for Allan Hancock Community College in California. He is a big, strong running back who will be a good complement to Tre Mason, who had 1,002 yards as a sophomore.

Can LSU find offensive identity under Cam Cameron?

Since Les Miles has been head coach, LSU has had as much talent as anyone in the country. When Miles hired John Chavis as his defensive coordinator, that side of the ball was solidified. Everybody understands that the Chief is in charge and LSU has been a fixture among Top 10 defenses in the country.

But the offense at LSU has been in the wilderness for a long time. It started sadly when OC Steve Kragthorpe was reassigned to quarterbacks coach after the onset of Parkinson's Disease. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa took over the OC duties. It just didn't work. LSU was 10th in the SEC in total offense and eighth in scoring offense last season. The year before LSU was held to just more than 200 yards of offense in the BCS title game against Alabama.

And what drove LSU fans crazy was that with all that talent there seemed to be no coherent strategy on offense.

So Miles turned to an old friend in Cam Cameron, the former head coach at Indiana and the Miami Dolphins and the former offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. Studwarwa moves back to OL coach. Kragthorpe takes an administrative role in the program.

It should be noted that Cameron was fired during the Ravens' Super Bowl season because the offense was struggling. But with Zach Mettenberger returning as quarterback and with the ever-present stable of running backs and receivers, things have to get better, don't they?

Just one word of advice to the head coach: The LSU defense became really good when you hired John Chavis and let him run that side of the ball. You need to do the same with Cam Cameron.

Name to remember: John Diarse. LSU is deep in wide receivers and has a couple of big-time players in Jarvis Landry (56 catches) and Odell Beckham, Jr. (47 catches, he should have more). But they are going to get some competition from a group of incoming players led by Diarse, who was a successful high school quarterback in Monroe, La.

Will Bret Beliema change the playing culture at Arkansas?

There is no mystery about Beliema, the coach who took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls but bolted for Arkansas in the offseason. He runs the ball with huge backs and a powerful offensive line. He plays great defense. His quarterbacks don't blow you away with stats (except for Russell Wilson) but they manage the game.

That is certainly a far departure from the flying circus that existed under Bobby Petrino. But note that under Petrino, Arkansas won a bunch of games and gained a bunch of yards but won no division championships.

Beliema certainly has his work cut out for him this spring at Arkansas. He has to find a quarterback to replace Tyler Wilson, the school's all-time passer. The running back position has been depleted with the exits of Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo, and Knile Davis. Cobi Hamilton was second in the SEC with 90 receptions.

And the best running back in the state, Altee Tenpenny, signed with Alabama. The Hogs did get Alex Collins of Ft. Lauderdale, one of the best in the country. More on him later.

Three quarterbacks -- senior Brandon Mitchell and sophomore Brandon Allen along with transfer A.J. Derby -- are getting snaps in the spring. Two new quarterbacks, including home town hero Austin Allen, were signed in February.

Jim Chaney, the veteran offensive coordinator whose Tennessee offense was No. 2 in the SEC last season (behind Texas A&M), has the task of finding the pieces and putting them together.

Name to remember: Alex Collins, RB, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Collins' mother did not want him to go so far from home, to the point to taking the letter of intent out of the school fax machine on signing day. But he did sign and has already visited the campus this spring and will be in Fayetteville this summer. He is expected to play extensively as a freshman. Arkansas had the worst rushing attack in the SEC last season. (118.7 ypg).

Bonus questions

How long before Rebels' recruiting success translates onto the field?

At 7-6, the Rebels exceeded all expectations in the first year under Freeze. They sold over 20,000 tickets to the bowl game and then followed it up with a top five recruiting class. Freeze, who was previously an assistant at Ole Miss, knows you have to put together at least three such classes in order to think about a championship of any kind. But as long as Ole Miss has Bo Wallace at quarterback, it has a chance. Wallace is sitting out this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Can Mississippi State take the next step?

The Bulldogs and their fans got excited with a 7-0 start and a No. 11 national ranking last season. But then the reality of the schedule kicked in with Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M on consecutive weeks. Mississippi State lost five of its last six to finish 8-5.

Several things have to happen this fall: Senior quarterback Tyler Russell, who had good numbers last season (school-record 2,897 yards passing, 24 TD), needs to bounce back from a bad performance against Northwestern in the bowl game. Running back LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards) needs to stay healthy and have another 1,000-yard season. The Bulldogs had two pros at cornerback in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. They are gone. Mississippi State was No. 8 in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense. It needs to get better.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and the CBS Sports Network. He is the host of 'The Tony Barnhart Show' on the CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS, he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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