The SEC begins its quest for six in a row

When the start of spring practice arrived a year ago in the SEC, we’d barely even heard of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley.

And as for Auburn winning the national championship, the bigger debate was whether the Tigers could finish in the top three of the SEC’s Western Division.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you get a group of people together who genuinely believe in what you’re doing and are willing to work as one for the same goal,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said as the Tigers were putting the finishing touches on their first national championship in 53 years.

Well, here we are again, and with Newton and Fairley now the envy of every NFL team in the upcoming draft, a familiar question is being asked about Auburn heading into spring practice.

Can the Tigers make it out of the Western Division alive?

For that matter, can anybody make it out alive and still be in position to extend the SEC’s national championship streak to six consecutive years.

“The thing that’s so hard is how competitive [the Western Division] is and how tough it is with Alabama, Auburn and LSU year in and year out,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “It’s going to be real competitive.

“You have to be able to have great chemistry within your team and do something special to win all those big games.”

Adding the eventual Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback from the junior college ranks and having the Lombardi Award winner emerge from the shadows to become the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football also does wonders for a team’s chances.

For both Newton and Fairley, the spring was their coming-out party a year ago.

They made a veteran, very good Auburn team a championship team, and it didn’t take the Auburn brain trust of Chizik, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof long to realize what they had.

The Tigers hit it just right last season and demonstrated an uncanny knack for delivering in the fourth quarter.

Who will that team be next season in the SEC, and does such a team exist?

You start right back in the West, where three teams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15 nationally. Alabama and LSU will both be top-5 teams, and Arkansas could flirt with the top 10.

Nobody expects Auburn to disappear, especially with the way the Tigers have recruited the past two years, and Mississippi State is poised to take another step in 2011 after winning nine games in 2010 and capping its season with a 52-14 rout of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

And while Mississippi State took a backseat to archrival Ole Miss in terms of where their recruiting classes were ranked earlier this month, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen wasn’t backing down on his assertion of which of the two programs is headed in the right direction.

“I thought we did pretty well,” Mullen said. “I guess we’ll find out next Thanksgiving, just like the last two Thanksgivings.”

To translate, Mullen is 2-0 against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, a rivalry that is played Thanksgiving week every year.

With all this talk about the West and how loaded it will be again next season, there’s no truth to the rumor that the SEC has become a one-division league.

Granted, it sure felt that way a year ago.

Four of the teams in the East suffered through losing seasons, and for the first time ever, the East champion (South Carolina) had three conference losses.

The Gamecocks are the team to beat again in 2011, but Florida and Georgia are both talented enough to make a run. Tennessee has stacked two solid recruiting classes on top of each other, but is still probably a year away from making a serious bid to get to Atlanta.

The real question in the East is whether anybody is equipped to take down the West champion in the title game.

There are a ton of unknowns at Florida with Will Muschamp taking over for Urban Meyer, and Mark Richt has never gone into a season at Georgia with his back this close to the wall.

Still, something says one of those programs may rise up and be the surprise team in the SEC next season.

As last season proved emphatically, two or three players can indeed make a world of difference in this league.

Who are those players in 2011?

A few to keep an eye on this spring are LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Alabama offensive tackle Aaron Douglas, Florida linebacker Chris Martin, Auburn receiver Trovon Reed, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Arkansas offensive tackle Jason Peacock.

Assuming the Eastern Division does get over its hangover from a year ago, the league has a chance to be even more balanced than it was last season.

In theory, beating up on each other isn’t ideal when it comes to producing a national champion.

But after five in a row, how do you pick against the SEC?