Forward Pass: Why 2014 SEC West is the most dominant division ever

When the College Football Playoff selection committee unveiled its first rankings Oct. 28, SEC West teams accounted for three of the top four, four of the top six and five of the top 20 spots.

When the group releases its new rankings Tuesday, current No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Mississippi State will likely be the sole remaining top-10 teams from the division. Auburn and Ole Miss will be somewhere in the 11-20 range, ensuring that this week’s long-anticipated Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl will both be clashes of ranked teams. But nor are they mega-showdowns of No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 3 vs. No. 6 as would have been the case in late October.

But while some individual teams did not live up to their initial inflated perceptions, it’s more clear today than at any point this season that as a whole, the 2014 SEC West is the most dominant division since conferences first started dividing themselves 22 years ago.

When Auburn handled Samford 31-7 last Saturday night, the SEC West completed a 28-0 non-conference schedule that included victories over current first-place teams in five of the nine FBS conferences — the Big 12 (8-3 Auburn at 8-2 Kansas State), the Big Ten West (7-4 LSU over 9-2 Wisconsin), the MWC Mountain Division (8-3 Ole Miss over 9-2 Boise State), the American (Ole Miss over 8-3 Memphis) and the MAC West (6-5 Arkansas over 9-2 NIU). Yes, it’s a small sample size, one with lots of FCS and Sun Belt foes, too, but no other conference, much less one division, can claim anything comparable.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate this year’s West gauntlet is to view the division through the prism of its “worst” team — Arkansas.

On Saturday, the 6-5 Razorbacks became the division’s seventh bowl-eligible team by drubbing then-No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0. On the heels of a 17-0 win over No. 17 LSU, Arkansas became the first school ever to shut out consecutive ranked opponents. And yet Bret Bielema’s team is still just 2-5 in league play and can do no better than tie for sixth in the West heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at 9-2 Missouri.

“I’d love to go play this whole schedule over again because now our guys really know what they’re supposed to do,” Bielema told FOX Sports on Sunday.

Arkansas, 6-5, was the first team left out of this week’s AP Top 25, which may seem absurd to anyone outside of SEC country but not to anyone who’s watched the Razorbacks play this season. Remember when Alabama coach Nick Saban got ticked off at fans for complaining the Tide beat Arkansas by only one point (14-13)? Maybe he had a point. Arkansas also lost narrowly to 10-1 Mississippi State, 17-10. Yet by week’s end both those playoff contenders will have faced at least five other teams as good if not better than the Razorbacks.

“This has been as good of football week-in, week-out I’ve ever been around, without a doubt,” the former Wisconsin head coach told FOX Sports. “It’s like a bowl game every week.”

THE FOX FOUR

Still not believing the hype? Maybe you’d prefer some less subjective metrics.

All seven SEC West teams fall in the top 18 of Jeff Sagarin’s latest ratings. In the Massey composite rankings, which aggregates virtually every known computer rating in the land, Texas A&M is the lone team outside the top 25 — at 26th. And according to one Vegas oddsmaker, Arkansas would be less than a two-point underdog against 11-0 Florida State if the two played on a neutral field today.

(Told about that last nugget, Bielema chuckled and said he wouldn’t mind facing the ‘Noles in a bowl game “because we have a lot of kids from Florida.”)

I bring all this up not as a love letter to the SEC West but because the division’s historic strength could become a very important storyline soon.

If Alabama and Mississippi State both prevail against their respective rivals this week, the 11-1 Tide will advance to Atlanta but the 11-1 Bulldogs will not. If so, expect Mississippi State to become the single most polarizing debate topic heading into the final weekend. The Bulldogs were the one team that did not contribute a noteworthy non-conference win to the division’s collection, but going 5-1 against its West peers is no small feat. Arkansas’ beatdown of Ole Miss probably didn’t help Dan Mullen’s team, though. The injury-depleted Rebels aren’t the same team that beat Alabama on Oct. 4.

On the other hand, if either the Rebels or Auburn pull an upset, the whole topic becomes moot. The only question then would be what happens if the East representative — either Missouri if it beats Arkansas or 9-2 Georgia if the Tigers lose — wins the SEC title game. Just because the West is the best collection of teams in college football this year does not guarantee that one of them is among the nation’s four best.

Someone’s still got to put a bow on a season’s worth of grinding.

HUSKERS, ‘CANES ABOUT TO LOOK FOR NEW COACHES?

How quickly can a head coach’s fortunes change? Consider that just more than two weeks ago, Bielema was an 0-13 SEC coach whose fans were growing increasingly frustrated with him. Conversely, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini was the coach of an 8-1 team contending for its division title. The hot seat speculation that hovered over him all offseason had completely dissipated, replaced instead by appreciation of the new warm and fuzzy Bo with a cat-carrying sense of humor.

But then the Huskers embarrassed themselves in a 59-24 loss at Wisconsin, which they followed up Saturday with a 28-24 home loss to Minnesota to officially eliminate themselves from Big Ten championship contention. And now, just as quickly as Bielema has gone from sucker to savior, Pelini, while still a respectable 8-3, seems like he’s down to his last days in Lincoln. As Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel wrote after the game: “The writing’s on the wall and in the Big Ten West standings. Nebraska is the third-best team in this less-than-stellar division.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

So much of the rumor mill this season has centered around two schools, Florida (whose job is now officially open) and Michigan (whose job will be officially open after Ohio State drops Brady Hoke’s Wolverines to 5-7.) Both are prestigious programs with national championship trophies on their mantles.

But could two more powerhouses join them on the coaching market by this time next week?

Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst will face a potentially tricky situation if Nebraska beats Iowa on Friday to finish 9-3. That’s the same record Frank Solich held when then-AD Steve Pederson unceremoniously canned him in 2003, spawning years of subsequent damage and second-guessing when successor Bill Callahan blowtorched the place to the ground. But Solich had at least played in a BCS championship game two years earlier. Pelini has yet to produce a team with fewer than four losses or a final top-10 ranking and both streaks appear likely to continue.

Nebraska fans deserve better than another trip to Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, the Huskers’ lone win of note this season was a 41-31 victory on Sept. 20 against Miami — and now ‘Canes coach Al Golden finds himself in dangerous territory. A brutal 30-13 loss at Virginia on Saturday dropped the U to 3-4 in the ACC and 6-5 overall. Miami’s four road losses this season have all been by double-digits, three to unranked foes. The ‘Canes close out against 5-6 Pittsburgh. A loss would drop Golden to 16-16 in league play over four seasons.

Miami president Donna Shalala, who’s retiring next year, has long been an ardent supporter of Golden, especially given the bomb dropped on him shortly before his first season when the Nevin Shapiro scandal broke. But Golden has long since worn out his welcome among the U’s notoriously fickle faithful, who recently flew a “Fire Al Golden” banner over Sun Life Stadium. The once-dominant program — which has yet to reach the 10-year old ACC championship game — simply isn’t getting better.

Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and Miami combined to win seven national championships from 1991-2001. None are remotely close to that perch now, but they could all soon be prowling for the next great hope to return them to glory.

2014 IS OFFICIALLY YEAR OF THE RUNNING BACK

Prior to Nov. 15 only one player in FBS history, TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson, had run for 400 yards in a single game. In the span of eight days that number grew to three.

On Saturday, Oklahoma true freshman Samaje Perine broke Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon’s week-old NCAA record by carrying 34 times for 427 yards against Kansas (with five TDs), notching the final total on a 42-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a guy who did not officially start Saturday (Keith Ford did) but has now notched three 200-plus yard games and 1,428 yards on the season.

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

But all around the country, it’s been the Year of the Running Back, with 200-yard rushing performances suddenly as commonplace as 400-yard passing days. On Saturday alone, nine different players hit that mark, including Gordon (31 carries for 200 yards vs. Iowa) for the fifth time this season. Indiana star Tevin Coleman (27 carries for 228 yards vs. Ohio State) turned in his fourth such performance. A hip injury slowed down Pitt workhorse James Conner against Syracuse, but he went for 263 and 220 yards, respectively, in his previous two games.

The larger offensive explosion in college football over the past 15 years is most closely associated with ever-more prolific quarterbacks, but rushing production is on the rise as well. Since 2008, teams’ average rushing yards per game across FBS has increased every year, from 155.0 then to 178.0 this season. Save for a one-year dip, yards per attempt have risen from 4.22 to this season’s 4.5.

But just how special are this year’s individual tailbacks compared to recent history?

Well, think back to how electrifying Oregon star LaMichael James seemed during the Chip Kelly-era Ducks’ run to the 2010 BCS championship game. James, a Heisman finalist that season, averaged 144.3 yards per game. This year, Gordon (191.7) Coleman (173.3), Marshall’s Devon Johnson (157.3) and Conner (145.5) are all performing at a higher clip. Meanwhile, those four and Perine are among 10 players currently averaging more yards per game than 2013 Auburn star and Heisman finalist Tre Mason (129.7).

The end result is that running backs should have no shortage of seats in the front row at this year’s Heisman festivities (though Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota remains the favorite to win it). Gordon and Coleman are virtual shoe-ins at this point. Perine, whose usage has been all over the map (he got just five carries against Baylor on Nov. 8), may have to wait until 2015, but the freshman will at least end 2014 atop a notable section of the NCAA record book.

That is, unless someone else turns around and runs for 447 next weekend.

THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST

Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.

Peach: Michigan State (at-large) vs. Marshall (Group of 5)

Fiesta: Ohio State (Big Ten champ) vs. Arizona (at-large)

Orange: Georgia Tech (ACC) vs. Mississippi State (B1G/SEC/ND)

Cotton: TCU (at-large) vs. UCLA (at-large)

Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Alabama (SEC champ) vs. No. 4 Baylor (Big 12 champ)

Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Oregon (Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 3 Florida St. (ACC champ)

You would think these projections were getting easier, but one thing I’m struggling to account for: How will the committee treat conference championship game losers? For example, if Georgia beats Georgia Tech this week, and Arkansas beats Mizzou, UGA will take a 10-2 record and top-10 ranking into the SEC title game. A loss was guaranteed to knock them out of a BCS bowl in favor of a team that sat home that weekend. But the committee could opt not to penalize the Dawgs for playing an extra game and keep them in the top 10. If so, they’d remain high enough to garner an at-large berth to one of these bowls.

If not, and if Alabama and Mississippi State both win this week, the SEC could wind up with only those two teams in one of the New Year’s Six games. Conversely, I now have three Pac-12 teams in the mix — Oregon, UCLA (which seems more likely to remain in the top 10 with a third loss) and Arizona. Friday’s game between two-loss rivals Arizona and Arizona State is shaping up as a play-in game to the Fiesta Bowl. The whole lineup might change considerably, though, if one of those three South teams beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. UCLA, for one, may well sneak into the playoff.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

* Louisville. While I kept No. 18 Georgia Tech as my projected ACC Orange Bowl participant above the 8-3 Cardinals (No. 24 last week), they are suddenly a possibility themselves following a dramatic 31-28 win at Notre Dame.

* Missouri. The Tigers went on the road and won again, 29-21, at Tennessee. If Gary Pinkel’s overlooked team can handle Arkansas at home, it will win consecutive division titles for the second time since 2008.

* Dalvin Cook. Florida State’s specimen of a freshman bulldozed the ‘Noles into position for their game-winning field goal against Boston College. His 14 carries on the day were Cook’s second-highest total this season.

* Mason Rudolph. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy burned his freshman quarterback’s redshirt against Baylor and in turn left fans wondering what took so long. Rudolph threw for 281 yards on 13 completions in a 49-28 loss.

* Group of 5 Watch. Will this be the week a Group of 5 team finally cracks the committee’s top 25? I believe so. But whether that’s Marshall, Boise State, Colorado State or Memphis is anyone’s guess given the secrecy to this point.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE

Utah State’s Matt Wells. The Aggies are 9-3 and tied for first in their Mountain West division despite the fact Wells not only lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton for a second straight season but Keeton’s top two backups. Fourth-string freshman Kent Meyers notched four touchdowns in Saturday’s 41-7 rout of San Jose State.

THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT

Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. Nobody’s going to fire the Hokies’ coach of 28 years, but his program hit its lowest point in two decades with Saturday’s mortifying 6-3 double-overtime loss to Wake Forest. Beamer’s team is now 5-6 and must beat Virginia to extend a streak of 21 straight bowl appearances.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

* Auburn at Alabama (Saturday, 7:45 ET). How crazy is it that the past five winners of this game played for the national championship? ‘Bama will need to avenge last year’s Kick Six if that streak is going to continue.

* Mississippi State at Ole Miss (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The injury-ravaged Rebels are a shell of the team that rose as high as No. 3 in the country in October, but don’t let that rain on the Egg Bowl’s rare moment in the sun.

* Arizona State at Arizona (Friday, 3:30 ET). The most important Territorial Cup in years will be a chess match between hurry-up guru Rich Rodriguez and self-proclaimed hurry-up busting guru Todd Graham.

Five games you shouldn’t miss:

* Florida at Florida State (Saturday, 3:30 ET). Trivia time: Who was the last coach to beat Florida State 27 games ago? Will Muschamp. The Gators’ lame duck leader goes for an improbable bookend in his UF finale.

* Georgia Tech at Georgia (Saturday, Noon ET). The ACC Coastal champion Jackets are the nation’s least-talked about 9-2 team. They’ll face back-to-back top-10 foes Georgia and FSU the next two weeks.

* Minnesota at Wisconsin (Saturday, 3:30 ET). A winner-takes-all clash for a spot in the Big Ten championship game will double as a Melvin Gordon Heisman audition and Jerry Kill coach-of-the-year submission.

* Notre Dame at USC (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The intersectional rivals carry zero momentum into their annual duel, but since it’s two programs people love to hate, don’t you want to find out which will be more miserable?

* Michigan at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET). It’s Michigan-Ohio State.

One under-the-radar gem:

* South Carolina at Clemson (Saturday, Noon ET). If Steve Spurrier’s woeful Gamecocks team extends its rivalry streak to six, we’ll never hear the end of it. Same from Dabo Swinney if the Tigers finally pull it off.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.