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The SEC West is as good as the SEC always tells you it is

We were already figuring out what the opponent-adjusted statistics declare: The SEC West is ridiculously loaded this year.

You could sense the conventional wisdom changing a bit as the game approached: "Are we sure Texas Tech is going to beat Arkansas?"

We spend so much time in in the preseason looking at schedules and assuming certain results -- it's a long time without football, and what the hell else are we going to do? -- but we had at least a little bit of warning that this wasn't going to go as we assumed. Texas Tech has looked lackluster in creeping by Central Arkansas and UTEP, and Arkansas had stayed step-for-step with Auburn for a half and thoroughly eliminated Nicholls State, treating a bad FCS team like few actually treat bad FCS teams.

The game played out as suggested. Texas Tech came out, guns blazing, but got shot down about 25 minutes in. Texas Tech scored to tie the game at 21-21 midway through the second quarter, but Arkansas scored 28 of the game's final 35 points, rushing for 438 yards (two different running backs had at least 145), scoring on seven of eight possessions, then playing keep-away for the game's final nine minutes.

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This wasn't an upset, not even close. The team that was clearly better won. Arkansas still can't pass, and we don't know yet if the Hogs can stop the run (Tech didn't really try), but the Hogs are running the ball like Bret Bielema's old Wisconsin teams did. And that alone makes them good.

The game in Lubbock crystallized something else that we were also starting to figure out: this year's SEC, particularly the SEC West, is as good as SEC fans always try to tell you it is.

It is still early in the season, and the numbers are rather unstable (and will be for a few more weeks), but this week's opponent-adjusted S&P+ rankings are incredibly SEC-heavy, with six members of the seven-team SEC West ranking in the nation's top 14 (No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 11 Mississippi State, No. 14 LSU). And the seventh (No. 30 Arkansas) is rising like a rocket.

There are six SEC West teams that rank ahead of the highest SEC East team. And with four top-30 teams (No. 16 Georgia, No. 18 Missouri, No. 20 South Carolina, No. 28 Florida) and two others improving quickly, the SEC East really isn't bad.

The West is living up to the hype it always receives. So what does that actually mean moving forward? Who has staying power? Who has the best/worst conference schedule (since, when they play each other, someone will indeed receive a loss)?


Brett Davis, USA Today

S&P+ rank: second overall, fourth on offense, fourth on defense

Biggest strength: You can't run on the Tide. Even removing sacks from the equation, opponents are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry against the Alabama defense. Meanwhile, no matter the quarterback, the passing game has been devastatingly efficient (yes, against lesser teams), and the run game has been good enough. There aren't as many big plays as there probably should be, but the Tide stay ahead of schedule and make sure you don't. That's not a bad combination.

Biggest weakness: You can still pass on them a bit. The one competent passing team Alabama has faced was able to, anyway. West Virginia completed 64 percent of its passes and averaged 7.1 yards per pass attempt (including sacks). FAU completed 63 percent of its passes, even if they didn't actually go anywhere. Alabama's pass defense is only a "problem" when compared to the rest of the team, but it's still lagging a little bit behind.

Schedule: Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn at home; Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU on the road. East: Florida, at Tennessee. Assuming Arkansas is still a couple of steps behind the rest of the division, having the Hogs (and Tennessee) as a road team is probably a good thing. Getting Ole Miss and LSU away from home isn't good, but all things considered, this is a manageable schedule. It could be worse, anyway. Just ask Auburn.


John Reed, USA Today

S&P+ rank: fifth overall, seventh on offense, 29th on defense

Biggest strength: You've seen them run the ball, right? Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are averaging 7.5 yards per carry, and quarterback Nick Marshall hasn't actually been asked to do much yet.

Biggest weakness: The pass defense might have some glitches. The secondary had to be retooled a bit this offseason, and it showed a bit against San Jose State. The Tigers did pick off SJSU quarterbacks three times and sack them four times, but they also allowed a 75-yard touchdown strike and a 42-yard pass as well. Eight of SJSU's 19 completions gained at least 15 yards, and five gained at least 20. If Auburn has a big-play problem, we'll likely find out against Kansas State this Thursday night.

Schedule: Arkansas (already won), LSU, Texas A&M at home; Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama on the road. East: South Carolina, at Georgia. Three of the West's top five on the road, plus two of the East's three best in inter-division play? Still the West's toughest conference schedule.

Ole Miss

Jason Getz, Getty

S&P+ rank: ninth overall, 24th on offense, sixth on defense

Biggest strength: No big plays allowed. If you're patient, you may be able to find areas ripe for pecking and poking within the Ole Miss defense. The Rebels' 33.3 percent success rate allowed is good, but still only 40th overall. But if you get impatient and aim for bigger shots, you're either about to turn the ball over or get a receiver of yours decapitated. Corners Senquez Golson and Mike Hilton already have four picks and six breakups, and safeties Cody Prewitt and Trae Elston are among the best in college football. And that line is still mean as hell.

Biggest weakness: The run game is lagging behind (maybe). Jaylen Walton and I'tavius Mathers went nuts during their short day of work against Louisiana-Lafayette, carrying 10 times for 146 yards, then having a seat on the bench. But against Boise State and Vanderbilt, more formidable fronts, they gained 69 yards in 26 carries.

Schedule: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State at home; Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas on the road. East: at Vanderbilt (already won), Tennessee. There's no question that there's opportunity here, with a rather easy East slate and the division's top two teams visiting Oxford. Is the offense good enough to take advantage of that?

Texas A&M

Jeff Blake, USA Today

S&P+ rank: 10th overall, fifth on offense, 46th on defense

Biggest strength: The Aggies eat you alive with the pass. A team with A&M's offense and Ole Miss' defense would be in the top three overall. Kenny Hill has thrown 117 passes this season, and his next interception will be his first. He's hitting his target nearly 70 percent of the time, and five players have at least 10 catches. This machine is humming.

Biggest weakness: We still don't know if the secondary will hold up. And hell, if linemen keep dropping like flies, we don't know if the defensive front will hold up either. Rice gained nearly 500 yards, rushing and passing for at least 240 each, and there's just as much reason to doubt this defense as there was in the preseason.

Schedule: Arkansas (in Arlington), Ole Miss, LSU at home; Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn on the road. East: at South Carolina (already won), Missouri. Obviously, the Arkansas game looks trickier than it did before, especially since it's played away from College Station, and going to both Alabama and Auburn probably precludes any serious division title run.

Mississippi State

Glenn Andrews, USA Today

S&P+ rank: 11th overall, 14th on offense, 13th on defense

Biggest strength: They're getting into the backfield, and you're not. MSU is on pace for 120+ tackles for loss this year; that pace should slow down when the opposition improves, but the Bulldogs are getting after you on defense. Meanwhile, they're not allowing you to get after them. They're running efficiently, and they're doing some pretty devastating things, all-in-all, around the line of scrimmage.

Biggest weakness: Pass defense is a bit loose. MSU does have 11 sacks and 23 passes defensed in 142 opponent pass attempts, but the passes opponents are completing are going quite a long way (14.6 yards per completion). That could be an issue against an LSU offense that seems to only complete 80-yard bombs to Travin Dural.

Schedule: Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas at home; LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss on the road. East: at Kentucky, Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs face a nice wheat-vs.-chaff game this weekend in heading down to Baton Rouge. If they are to be taken seriously as a true top-15 team (and not an early-season mirage), they'll be pretty competitive in this one. And while traveling to Lexington could be much tricker this year, it's still better than traveling to other East locales.


Troy Taormina, USA Today

S&P+ rank: 14th overall, 56th on offense, second on defense

Biggest strength: Opponents might never score again. In the opening game of the season, Wisconsin scored 2:36 into the third quarter to go up 24-7 on Les Miles' Tigers. In the ensuing 147:24 of game time, LSU has outscored opponents, 108-0. If you don't allow any points, you're probably going to do pretty well.

Biggest weakness: Efficiency? What's that? In Travin Dural and John Diarse, LSU has one of the most explosive (and young) one-two receiving punches in the country. The two have combined to catch 18 passes for 536 yards and five touchdowns so far. But the Tigers have only a 38.3 percent success rate for the season, 76th in the country. The run game wasn't exactly dominant against ULM, and even with the most explosive receivers in the world, it's hard to thrive if you're constantly facing second-and-8.

Schedule: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama at home; Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M on the road. East: at Florida, Kentucky. Eight games are winnable, seven are losable. I just have no idea what to make of LSU this year. But again, if every game's a shutout ...


John Weast, Getty

S&P+ rank: 30th overall, sixth on offense, 103rd on defense

Biggest strength: Pound, pound, pound, pounce. Projected over 13 games, Alex Collins is on pace for nearly 1,800 rushing yards; backup Jonathan Williams is on pace for nearly 1,400. And Arkansas is on pace for over 80 tackles for loss and passes defensed. They grind away on offense and take advantage of impatience on defense.

Biggest weakness: Efficiency? What's that? If you don't get impatient, you'll move the ball just fine on Arkansas. Granted, the Hogs have already faced Auburn and Texas Tech, but their 43.1 percent success rate allowed ranks 109th in the country. If or when they face another efficient running team, there might be 10 total possessions, and the game might last barely two hours. These are only slight exaggerations.

Schedule: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss at home; Auburn (already lost), Texas A&M (in Arlington), Mississippi State on the road. East: Georgia, at Missouri. If Arkansas really is a top-40 team, a) that's a significant improvement, and b) that's probably good enough to claim a scalp this year -- probably either LSU's or Ole Miss'. The Hogs aren't contenders, but they should be good enough to reach a bowl and score at least one awesome win.