article Wednesday, August 7 LSU is favorite in SEC West By Mel Kiper Jr. After a 2-2 start last season, with losses to Tennessee and Florida, LSU won eight of its last nine games, extracting revenge against the Vols in the SEC championship game and capping the season with a decisive 47-34 victory over Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. But several key ingredients from that 10-3 team have moved on to the NFL -- most notably QB Rohan Davey, WR Josh Reed, DE Jarvis Green and MLB Trev Faulk. OFFENSE Sophomore Matt Mauck takes the reigns at QB, while super blue-chip sophomore Michael Clayton (6-3½, 188) becomes the go-to receiver. Reed leaves some big shoes to fill. Last year, he was virtually unstoppable, hauling in a school-record 94 receptions for an 18.5-yard average and seven TDs. Against Alabama, he had 19 receptions. In the Sugar Bowl, he had 14 catches for 239 yards. That is amazing productivity. Clayton, though, is blessed with incredible skills and figures to make his mark this season as one of the most feared wideouts in college football. As a freshman, he had 47 receptions for a 16-yard average and six TDs. There are a number of possibilities opposite Clayton. Experienced seniors Jerel Myers and Reggie Robinson are in the mix, and sophomore Shyrone Carey (5-7, 183) will be in the rotation. But keep an eye on redshirt freshman Bennie Brazell (6-1, 170). The electrifying Brazell can flat-out fly, yet is reported to have good hands and natural pass-receiving skills. Brazell has already made his mark on LSU's national championship track team. He anchored the Bayou Bengals' 4x100 meter relay team that won the national title. He also placed second in the 400-meter hurdles, setting a new school record. After working behind Robert Royal the last two years, junior TE Eric Edwards becomes the starter for the first time in his college career. He has game experience, though (seven career receptions, including four TDs). Up front, the Bayou Bengals return four starters, highlighted by outstanding sophomore center Ben Wilkerson and tough-as-nails junior OG Stephen Peterman. The only change will be at RT, where sophomore Kade Comeaux steps into a front-line role. In the backfield, Mauck is being called on to direct the LSU attack. Last year, he saw action against Florida and Mississippi State and turned in a noteworthy performance against Tennessee in the SEC championship game. A 23-year-old sophomore who spent three years in the Chicago Cubs organization, Mauck has maturity, quick feet and improvisational ability (but without the arm strength of former starters Davey and Josh Booty). With Mauck's hard-nosed approach and instinct to tuck it away and run, head coach Nick Saban has to hope that his QB remains at full strength. Backup QB Marcus Randall is coming off a knee injury (torn ACL). Randall hurt the knee in the spring game while competing with Mauck for the starting job. He's expected to be ready sometime in September. Meanwhile, blue-chip junior RB LaBrandon Toefield is reported to be 100 percent following the knee injury (also a torn ACL) he sustained against Tennessee in the SEC championship game. Versatile senior Domanick Davis might line up in the same backfield with Toefield on occasion. DEFENSE On defense, the Bayou Bengals are led by outstanding senior MLB Bradie James, and he is complemented by a number of budding stars (junior DT Chad Lavalais and sophomore DEs Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill). Lavalais is the big-time anchor up front, figuring to be in line for All-American recognition if he dominates as expected. Spears, who has also seen action at TE, is now a starter at DE after senior Kendrick Allen suffered an injured patella tendon during offseason workouts and reportedly won't be ready to go until late September. And the potential of Hill (6-7, 300) has Saban and the defensive staff excited. James is the true ringleader of the Bayou Bengals' D (113 tackles last season, 110 in 2000). This year, though, James will be at MLB, filling the void left by Trev Faulk's early departure for the NFL. Jeremy Lawrence enters his fourth year as a starter at OLB, but on the other side sophomore Lionel Turner will start for the first time after working primarily on special teams. With LSU thin at linebacker, freshmen such as Cameron Vaughn and Alonzo Manuel could have a sooner-than-expected impact. The secondary returns seniors Norman LeJeune and Damien James at safety and Demetrius Hookfin at one CB. Junior Randall Gay, who was the nickel back last season, is battling sophomore Travis Daniels for the starting job at the other CB. OVERVIEW Saban not only is an exceptional football coach but also has fortified LSU's talent base, adding star power to go with the existing talent on hand from the previous staff. But for this LSU squad to duplicate the results of last season, QB Mauck must provide a solid performance and remain at full strength, given the injury situation of backup Randall. While RB Toefield is a proven performer, he's coming off a knee injury that occurred late last season. At WR, Reed's loss won't be as severe a blow if Clayton performs to the All-American level he's capable of. Also, keep an eye on exciting young WR Brazell. On the O-line, four starters return, led by super blue-chip pivot man Wilkerson. With Jarvis Green taking his 25 QB hurries and four sacks to the NFL, Saban is counting on the talented young sophomore DE tandem of Hill and Spears to provide a steady outside pass rush. On the interior, Lavalais should be ready to establish himself as one of the country's top DTs. MLB James should do a great job, while OLB Lawrence has lots of experience. A key will be whether Turner is up to the task as a first-time starter at the other OLB slot -- or whether freshmen Vaughn or Manuel is forced into action. The secondary lacks an elite performer but is battle-tested with solid depth. There's no question that LSU is the preseason favorite to capture the SEC West title. But with uncertainty at several spots, there could be a few bumps in the road along the way.