Razorbacks, Gators lead in volatile SEC race
It's no surprise that Florida is on top in the SEC East, but Arkansas' rise in the West is a shocker.
In a span of about three weeks, Arkansas' Houston Nutt has gone from the hot seat to the driver's seat.
Who says the winds of college football don't change direction as swiftly as politicians flip-flop on issues come election time?
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All those people who expected the Razorbacks to be firmly in control of their own destiny in the Western Division heading into the second half of the season, please stand up.
That's what we thought.
Mr. Broyles, you can sit down now. And Mrs. Nutt, you can, too.
The Razorbacks (4-1, 3-0) appeared to be on shaky ground four Saturdays ago in Nashville as Bryant Hahnfeldt's 48-yard field goal attempt sailed dead center toward the goal posts at Vanderbilt Stadium. But a gust of wind knocked it down about 2 yards short, and Arkansas avoided its second straight loss to Vanderbilt with a 21-19 win that did little to excite Hog Nation.
Remember, two weeks earlier, Southern California had come into Fayetteville and cruised to a 50-14 rout.
It wasn't the kind of splash Nutt was hoping for to start the season, not after consecutive losing seasons.
The Hogs, as Auburn's Tommy Tuberville himself said, beat the No. 2-ranked Tigers at their own game. They punished them physically in piling up 279 rushing yards and running away with a 27-10 win, the highest-ranked opponent Arkansas has beaten on the road since a 14-13 win over No. 1 Texas in the old Southwest Conference days in 1964.
Arkansas, with the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over Auburn, would have to lose twice not to make it to Atlanta.
Nutt's message to his team has been simple: Stay grounded.
"Anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday," said Nutt, whose Razorbacks will be heavy favorites the next three weeks against Southeast Missouri State, Mississippi and Louisiana-Monroe. "If you look at things that happen, this is a crazy game. This ball doesn't bounce up and down like a basketball. It's different. So, you have to come out just like you're playing Auburn. You have to, and that's the message we're trying to send."
The other side of the SEC has gone exactly as expected. Florida was the team to beat coming into the season, and the Gators (6-0, 4-0) already have beaten three top-20 teams in rising to No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The 21-20 win at Tennessee was huge because it means Florida almost certainly will have to lose twice to keep from making its first SEC Championship Game appearance since the 2000 season.
The Gators, though, have positioned themselves for a run at an even bigger prize. The BCS national championship game looms a little larger every week, although the next couple of weeks probably will make or break their chances. They play at Auburn this Saturday and, after a week off, face Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 28.
Junior linebacker Brandon Siler said there's a reason the Gators are unbeaten at the midway point, and it starts with their focus.
"All season, we've been looking at the opponent we play that week and concentrating on just them," Siler said. "That is what has gotten us here, and we're aren't changing that and thinking ahead now. I'd be disappointed if I had to talk to guys on the team about looking ahead, but I don't have to. I think that's a sign of a mature team."
Most people thought Arkansas would be improved, and the Razorbacks had some returning talent. Tailback Darren McFadden is the best running back in the SEC right now, and Mustain is 4-0 as a starter. Still, nobody expected the Razorbacks to go into Auburn and rip the Tigers the way they did, and even fewer people expected Arkansas to be the team everybody else was chasing heading into the second half of the season. They're calling the hogs as we speak in Fayetteville ... Wooooooooo, Pig! Sooie!
Yes, both losses were on the road. But in its two games against top-10 teams, LSU scored a grand total of 13 points. The Tigers (4-2, 1-2) have weapons all over the field on offense but have come up empty in their two biggest games. That doesn't bode well for second-year coach Les Miles, who's starting to hear it from disenchanted fans in the Bayou. LSU is still one of the most talented teams in the league, but there's no getting around the ultraconservative play calling in the Auburn loss. Then against Florida, the Tigers turned it over five times and had a complete meltdown on special teams.
How's this for a cop-out? The pick here goes to whoever's playing quarterback at Florida. Senior Chris Leak is completing 64.7 percent of his passes and has 14 touchdowns. He threw two touchdown passes in the second half against Tennessee to rally the Gators from a 10-point deficit. Freshman Tim Tebow has done Leak's dirty work and done it well. Tebow, a 230-pounder, is a conversion machine on third down and a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare near the goal line. The Leak-Bow combo at quarterback has worked perfectly, and kudos to Florida coach Urban Meyer for making it work. Honorable mention goes to Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge and Arkansas' McFadden.
Midseason Coach of the Year
A close call here between Arkansas' Nutt and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer. But the nod goes to Fulmer because the Vols are the only team in the country with two wins over top-10 teams and have overcome the loss of two of their best defensive players, defensive tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Inky Johnson. Fulmer, though, probably needs to share the award with offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe for coming in and rejuvenating an offense that hit rock bottom last season. Tennessee fans might want to enjoy Cutcliffe this year because he's going to be a hot head coaching commodity after the season.
Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.