After a month of evidence, the records posted by football teams in the SEC West Division have baffled experts, impressed pollsters and triggered searches for historical precedents.
Six of the division’s seven teams are ranked, from No. 3 (Alabama) through No. 17 (LSU) in The Associated Press’ Top 25 rankings. The only unranked team, Arkansas (3-1, 0-1 SEC), is receiving votes heading into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. matchup against No. 6 Texas A&M (4-0, 1-0 SEC) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
As a group, teams from the SEC West have posted a 24-2 record. The only losses have come against division rivals, meaning SEC West schools are 22-0 against outside competition this season. Included is a 3-0 mark against opponents from the SEC East.
That success rate elevates the importance of Saturday’s game and all others that follow, A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
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“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every single week on our side. The team that does that is going to win it,” Snyder said. “It’s going to be a one-week playoff, every week, in the West.”
Asked if he was surprised that all seven teams in the SEC West remain unscathed against outside opponents, Snyder said: “Maybe a little bit. I’d like to know what side of any conference was ever this deep.”
A close facsimile would be the Big 12 South Division, A&M’s former home, in 2008. The top four finishers in that division (Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State) were a combined 30-0 before each suffered its first loss of the season. All four of those initial losses came to a division rival.
The SEC West, where the five remaining undefeated teams are a combined 18-0, has yet to duplicate or exceed that mark. But the opportunity exists for a division with a 19-0 mark in nonconference play. The across-the-board dominance of outsiders is something unmatched in recent Septembers by any league.
“We’re going to have to be at our best Saturday to win,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “In the SEC West, I don’t think that will change the rest of the year. It’s a privilege to be playing at the highest level, where there is something at stake every week.”
The downside, of course, is that an ill-timed injury, turnover or cold streak could skew a team’s season in the wrong direction at any time.
“If you take a day off or a play off, that could be the difference between winning and losing,” said A&M quarterback Kenny Hill, a Southlake Carroll graduate who has thrown for 1,359 yards in the first four starts of his college career. “That’s how it is in a tough conference like the SEC.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, whose team will drag a 13-game losing streak in SEC play into JerryWorld, understands. Bielema’s team fell to No. 5 Auburn 45-21 in its season opener, extending a streak of SEC futility since a 49-7 victory over Kentucky on Oct. 13, 2012.
But the Razorbacks have rebounded to thrash their last three opponents (Nicholls State, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois) by a combined 174-49 behind a dominant ground game. Arkansas ranks sixth among FBS teams in rushing (324.5 yards per game) and features an offensive line that is larger, tackle-to-tackle, than any starting unit in the NFL.
Arkansas’ offensive linemen average 328.4 pounds per man, topping the NFL’s burliest bunch, the San Diego Chargers (325 pounds per man). Bielema hopes to continue building on recent momentum against an A&M defense that lists 10 incoming freshmen on its depth chart, including six newcomers in the front seven.
“We will earn what we get this Saturday,” Bielema said. “It is, to me, very disturbing that we are not ranked. I don’t like being the one that is not. I am not a big rankings guy. But I kind of want our place in that history.”
In all likelihood, a victory by Arkansas would propel all seven teams from the SEC West into next week’s college football polls. Although the Razorbacks have struggled in recent SEC matchups, they have thrived in Arlington. Arkansas is 4-0 in games at AT&T Stadium, including a 3-0 mark against A&M.
Snyder, for one, expressed concern about his undersized defensive line matching up against the Hogs. A&M has only two linemen that top the 300-pound mark. Its 10-player defensive-line rotation averages 277.2 pounds per man, 51.2 fewer than Arkansas’ starters in the offensive trenches.
“Our young guys have to step up. It’s going to be interesting,” said Snyder, who admitted he will “need to be careful” about situational matchups to maximize A&M’s success in the defensive trenches.
Regardless of the outcome in Arlington, the reputation of the SEC West as college football’s toughest division will not be diminished because the winner will come from within. There is no chance to lose to an outsider, a legacy of divisional success that resonates with Bielema, who led Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls before taking the Arkansas job last season.
“It might blow someone’s minds that aren’t invoved in it. But for those that see it on a daily basis, it is not amazing,” Bielema said. “There is a respect in this league that you don’t really understand until you are involved in it. I truly understand it a lot more this year than I did last year.”
So, too, do his counterparts at Texas A&M.