Big Picture: SEC West easily No. 1 in ranking of nation’s best divisions

The best division in all of sports has only gotten better this season. How? For starters, the arrival of Bret Bielema at Arkansas has cranked it all up that much more. The 44-year-old Bielema, who won or shared three Big Ten titles and led Wisconsin to six Top 25 finishes in his seven seasons in Madison, has re-energized what had been a reeling Razorbacks program.

On Saturday, the Hogs had No. 6 Texas A&M on the ropes before the Aggies won in OT. The loss dropped Arkansas to 3-2, but both of those losses have come against teams in the top six (Texas A&M and Auburn in the opener).

Bielema’s team is determined to overwhelm opponents with its power running game, and now Arkansas is succeeding quite nicely at it after last season’s 3-9 start. Against the young A&M defense, the Hogs rolled up 285 yards rushing, making it four straight games eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the first time since the 2007 season. They rely on the nation’s heftiest O-line and a fierce 1-2 running back tandem of sophomore Alex Collins and junior Jonathan Williams. Collins ran for 131 yards Saturday while Williams got 85. 

If you think the Hogs just plow ahead and try to maul, that’d be oversimplifying it. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin called Arkansas’s scheme a "nightmare" after facing the Hogs. 

"They just don’t just line up and run over you," Sumlin said. "They formation you, unbalance, tight ends, motion. And all that time, when you’re doing that, you know, you have to fit the gaps properly. And all it takes is one guy to be out of one gap, and ‑‑ those backs are good."

WEEK 7 WINNERS AND LOSERS

Defending the Arkansas run game requires a lot of discipline. Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, an old Big Ten guy himself, was well-versed in the bread-and-butter of what Bielema and the Badgers love to do. Snyder had also seen on film from studying earlier Arkansas opponents how their D-linemen would end up getting out of their gaps because the Hogs’ draw takes so long to happen and the D-linemen are prone to cross face.

"It’s scary," said Snyder. "It is Wisconsin."

Snyder came away impressed with the Hogs personnel. The O-line is huge and tough. Both backs are studs. Collins, who Snyder knew had some good straight-line speed for a big back, also had a lot better moves than he thought, while QB Brandon Allen hit some clutch throws connecting into tight windows to receivers who were pretty well covered.

In Bielema’s debut season at Arkansas, the Hogs ranked No. 100 in offense at 357 yards per game. This season, they’re all the way up to No. 33 at 484 yards a game, and they’re No. 9 in the nation at 7.21 yards per play. What’s behind such a big improvement?

"It’s pretty much the same people, but they’ve been in the system for a year," Snyder says. As evidence of how that experience translates into product, Snyder offered this: Early in the game, he got Arkansas when he brought a corner crash blitz. He ran the same thing in the third quarter and it also worked for A&M. Then, he tried it a third time and the Hogs’ O-line read it, adjusted and gashed the Aggies on it. Lesson learned: Stay the (bleep) out of that.

BEST PHOTOS FROM WEEK 5

In all, it was also evidence of how A&M has improved from 2013 as well. With the arrival of a few freshman difference-makers (DE Myles Garrett and safety Armani Watts) and much more depth, the Aggies were able to hold the Hogs’ potent attack to just 92 yards and zero points on their final six drives of the game. "We were really fresh," Snyder told FOX Sports Sunday morning. "We have people to rotate in now."

And who they rotate in now are better athletes.

A defense that ranked just 111th in the country is up to 55th in total defense and is allowing just 4.98 yards per play, which is 40th best in the country (up from 109th last season).

Two other SEC West programs, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, which host A&M and Alabama, respectively, this weekend, are also improved, and we’ll get to find out just how much improved in a few days. In all, five of the seven SEC West teams are undefeated. The SEC West has been clearly the toughest division in football for years, but the gap has widened.

Here’s a look at how we’d size up the rest of the divisions in major college football (the Big 12 isn’t included because it doesn’t have divisions, but I’d rate the league on average fourth after the Pac-12 divisions).

2. Pac-12 North: Undefeated Oregon, led by Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota, has one of the best wins of this season in handling Michigan State and looks to be the class of the West Coast. Behind them is a good Stanford team, although the Cardinal are a bit down from last season due to some key losses on the O-line. Washington has some eye-catching talent and is probably the next-best team, while Oregon State, an improving Cal team and streaky Washington State, which almost beat the Ducks and just did knock off unbeaten Utah on the road Saturday night, make up the second half of the division.

3. Pac-12 South: I give the North the edge over the Pac-12 South due to the strength of the Ducks and because the second half of the division is tougher. (See: WSU’s win at Utah). The strength of this division also took a big hit when USC got mauled at BC last week. That looked really, really bad.

4. ACC Atlantic: Granted, defending national champion FSU hasn’t been as dominant as many expected, but the Noles still are loaded and I wouldn’t pick against them on a neutral field against anyone with the possible exception of Oregon. Clemson, with freshman QB Deshaun Watson, has promise, but the Tigers are a big step back from where they were in 2013. After those two, though, it gets real bleak. BC, which got the country’s attention with that inspired win over USC, turned around and lost to Colorado State. North Carolina State is on the rise, and QB Jacoby Brissett is a budding star, but it’s probably not near Top 25 caliber for another season. Louisville, in Bobby Petrino’s return, has been unimpressive by losing to UVa and struggling with a dreadful Wake Forest team in Week 5.

5. Big Ten East: Newbie Maryland, whose lone loss is to West Virginia, is atop the division, but the feeling here is that Michigan State is the class of this group. The Spartans have throttled three opponents and lost at Oregon, in a game they were controlling for much of it. Ohio State, which lost to Va. Tech, probably is the second-best team in the East. The biggest disappointment is Michigan, which has been in a free fall and thumped three times already by Notre Dame, Utah and now Minnesota. Penn State’s coming off a dismal showing against Northwestern. Some positives: Rutgers, at 4-1, won in Seattle against Washington State, which now looks like a decent W for the division. Indiana, 2-2, also has a nice win (over Mizzou on the road), although IU also did get beat by Bowling Green. If Michigan hadn’t been struggling like this, I’d be tempted to rank this group above the ACC Atlantic, but won’t do it now.

6. SEC East: SEC fans will hate this, but anyone who has paid much attention to the first month of this season has had to grow skeptical with how good this side of Big Boy Football really is in 2014. Georgia is 3-1 with a nice win over Clemson but lost to South Carolina, which is 3-2 with two home losses — one of which was a blowout loss by 24 points. On Saturday, the Dawgs barely escaped at home against a very, very inexperienced Tennessee team. The next-best team in the East seems to be Mizzou, which a week ago lost to Indiana. After that, it’s that shaky Gamecocks bunch, the rebuilding Vols and the underwhelming Florida Gators. Then you have Kentucky and a Vandy squad that has imploded this season. Arkansas would probably be the second-best team in the SEC East and would give the Bulldogs all they could handle right now for the top spot.

7. Big Ten West: This group has four teams that are 1-0 in league play as opposed to the East, which has only one 1-0 team, but the bottom of this division (Illinois and Purdue) feels much worse than the East, and neither Nebraska nor Wisconsin seems as tough as Michigan State. And I think I’d pick OSU over either Nebraska or Wisconsin on a neutral site right now. But resounding wins by Northwestern (over PSU) and Minnesota (over Michigan) narrowed the margin between the two sides. Iowa is 4-1, but that loss was against Iowa State, probably the second-worst team in the Big 12.

8. ACC Coastal: Oy. Well, at least Georgia Tech is undefeated still, but the Yellow Jackets’ lone win over an opponent that’s probably a Top 75 team was over Va. Tech. Everyone else has looked really, really shaky.

WEIS FIRED AT KANSAS

The inevitable became reality Sunday morning. Hours after Kansas was shut out at home 23-0 by Texas, Charlie Weis was canned after going 6-22 with the Jayhawks. I’m told several of the "rising star" coordinator types who often are on the radar for head coaching vacancies will steer clear of KU because they don’t want to risk their big shot at a job as tough as this one. I addressed the Jayhawks vacancy and some possible replacements on Sunday morning. From the piece:

Some candidates I expect to get consideration: Texas A&M WR coach David Beaty, a former KU assistant who is a top recruiter in Texas; Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, a Kansas native, although he did play at rival K-State; former USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron; Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck; another former KU assistant, Ed Warriner, now the O-line coach at Ohio State; and don’t be surprised if 63-year-old Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione, a Kansas native, tries to get in on it.

A wild-card name to keep in mind: former USF coach Jim Leavitt, now a 49ers assistant. The 57-year-old Leavitt played at Mizzou and coached at K-State, but he did turn the USF program into a consistent winner. However, he also got forced out in a similar manner to the way Mark Mangino did at Kansas. That said, I’m told Leavitt is close to Sheahon Zenger, the KU AD.

In Beaty, Venables and Orgeron, you have three guys regarded as among the best recruiters in football, and all are high-energy coaches, which would be a radical difference from Weis. And oftentimes with coaching transitions, schools end up going for the opposite of what they just had.

MY HEISMAN TOP 6

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: If he keeps this pace up, he’ll be tough to overtake.

2. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: Huge opportunity this weekend at Michigan State. Probably needs to get at least 150 yards in a victory for a good shot to win the trophy.

3. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: No player has more of a wow factor, but just wonder if he’ll get enough carries.

4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Has been superb, but pure wideouts don’t win Heismans. 

5. Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Will have the stats. Will need the wins, but will be on the radar as long as A&M is.

6. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU: A beast of a dual threat QB, but has no more games this year that’ll get much of a spotlight.

DON’T GIVE UP ON FLORIDA STATE

Lots of folks are bailing off the FSU bandwagon after seeing how much the Noles have struggled with Oklahoma State, Clemson and now N.C. State in the first month of the season, but after chatting with one of the coaches who faced Florida State, I wouldn’t abandon ship just yet.

His take: The Noles’ O-line is still as good as anyone’s, and wide receiver Rashad Greene may be the most underrated star player in the country. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior is averaging 136 receiving yards a game. 

FRIDGE TALK

Last year, Rutgers’ Gary Nova completed less than 55 percent of his passes with a pedestrian passer rating of 124.7.

This year, with the arrival of new OC Ralph Friedgen, Nova is up to 64 percent, is averaging an eye-catching 10.7 yards per attempt and his rating is up to 171.7

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NICE WIN FOR THE CANES

It won’t resonate with the vocal former Miami players, but Al Golden’s team got a nice win Saturday night over Duke, holding David Cutcliffe’s team to 10 points. Embattled DC Mark D’Onofrio’s defense held Duke to just 260 yards.

It was a big change from last year’s meeting, where the Blue Devils whipped the Canes 48-30, and Cutcliffe told his players at halftime, “Enjoy this because you are physically dominating Miami.”

COULD MACK COME BACK?

A wild-card name to keep an eye on with the SMU vacancy is former Texas coach Mack Brown, now an ESPN broadcaster. Word is, some well-connected SMU brass are intrigued by Brown and think he might be tempted by the chance to coach again.

Brown is 63 and it’s not common to follow one 60-plus year-old with another, but as one source pointed out, the Mustangs basketball coach (Larry Brown) is also in his 70s (74). 

THE KING OF LIBERTY CITY

One of the more amazing stories in college football this season is the maturation of Marshall star Rakeem Cato. To say the Thundering Herd QB has a rough background would be quite an understatement. This summer, I went back to South Florida when he visited his family for a feature that we ran on FOX Sports. You can see that story as well as the written version of why Cato is the pride of Liberty City here. Cato’s story that I wrote also examines the role top recruiter Luther Campbell has played in changing the lives of many players a lot of other coaches wouldn’t give a chance.

MANNION’S MATCH

In recent years, many mobile QBs have eaten up the USC defense. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, a pure pocket guy, has had his hands full throwing just one TD against five INTs in a couple of blowout losses. On Saturday against the Trojans, Mannion completed only 15 of 32 passes for 123 yards, zero TDs and two picks in a 35-10 loss.

NEW QB COMING FOR LSU?

I’ll admit I expected true freshman Brandon Harris to have overtaken Anthony Jennings as LSU’s starting QB by now. But after Saturday’s game, where Jennings completed two passes and threw two picks while the 6-3, 190-pound rookie went 11 of 14 for 178 yards and three TDs and ran for two more touchdowns, I’m thinking Les Miles is getting closer to shaking up his lineup. The tricky part is this week the Tigers have to visit No. 5 Auburn, and that would be a tough spot for a true freshman to make his first start.

A COACH ON THE RISE

With hot-seat chatter heating up and some plum jobs potentially coming open this winter, 52-year-old Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain is a name to remember, especially after the Rams went to Boston and beat a Boston College team coming off its mauling off USC. McElwain’s squad, which has shown a knack for come-from-behind wins, again rallied, this time from a 14-0 deficit. CSU is now 3-1 and should be favored in the rest of its regular season games.

EASTERN MICHIGAN WOES

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How dismal has the Eastern Michigan offense been?

EMU has managed only four plays all season of 20 yards or longer. That’s half as many as the next-worst team in the country, SMU, has made. 

JUCO CHECK-IN

I’d expected former TCU standout Devonte Fields to dominate in JC ball at Trinity Valley CC, but through five games, he has just 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Another JC name of note: Former Clemson QB Chad Kelly has thrown 19 TDs and just three INTs for an East Mississippi CC team averaging 59.7 ppg.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

Hats off to Terry Bowden. His Akron Zips beat Pitt 21-10 in one of the shockers of Week 5 and held Panthers workhorse RB James Conner to 92 yards. It was also the first time in six years that the Zips had beaten any FBS opponent by double digits.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

After rallying to defeat Arkansas in Arlington Saturday, Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M program moves to 13-2 in its last 15 games away from Kyle Field. In the previous 15 games away from A&M before Sumlin showed up, the Aggies were 6-9.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

Jameis Winston had an impressive 40-10 TD-INT ratio last season. This year that stat is way down, to just 7-4, and he threw his fourth pick of the season on his 105th attempt. Last year, he didn’t throw his fourth INT until late October, and it came on his 182nd pass of the season.

GO DEEPER

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

When Louisville hired Bobby Petrino, it signed on for his gambling nature. Last season, no program converted on fourth downs less than Charlie Strong’s team, converting on just two of six attempts the entire season. This season, Petrino has already gone for it on fourth down 13 times and made it 10 times.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE V

Even though David Shaw has told folks he thinks his O-line has three future first-rounders and two other future NFL players, Stanford’s offense doesn’t look as crisp or as physical this season, and the best barometer of the team’s struggles has been in the red zone, where the Cardinal are scoring just 63 percent of the time — 101st in the country. Worse still, this is the fourth season in a row where Stanford is on the decline in red zone TD percentage. In 2011 (Andrew Luck’s last season), the Cardinal scored TDs on 77 percent of trips into the red zone. The next season, it was 61 percent. In 2013, it was 58 percent. This season, it’s way down to 42 percent — 113th in the nation.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.