Commentary

Who's best in the West? Tough to say

Originally Published: November 21, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt and Tennessee's Derek Dooley are the only coaches in America whose teams have faced the SEC West's version of Murderers' Row.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireDan Mullen's Bulldogs had the misfortune of having to play all three of the SEC West's powers.

It's not a surprise to them that No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Arkansas are the top three teams in the latest BCS standings -- the first time in the BCS era that one conference has produced the top three contenders in college football's national championship race.

"I'm sure there are a group of teams out there that can play with them and potentially beat those teams, but for the seasons they've had those teams are 1, 2 and 3," Mullen said. "It shows where this league is right now and the dominance it has."

Thanks to a trio of unexpected results this past weekend, there's a good chance that two of the SEC West teams will meet in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Iowa State upset then-No. 2 Oklahoma State 37-31 in double overtime Friday night. Then on Saturday night, USC beat then-No. 4 Oregon 38-35 and Baylor upset then-No. 5 Oklahoma 45-38.

Now the SEC, which has produced the past five BCS national champions, seems assured of winning its sixth in a row. The next two weeks will decide whether the Tigers, Crimson Tide or Razorbacks will play for the national title.

"It's a tribute to the quality of play in this league," SEC commissioner Michael Slive said. "I've often said historians will look back on this time and will no doubt consider this one of the SEC's golden ages."

Alabama, which lost to LSU 9-6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 5, might actually be in the best position among the SEC West teams. As long as the Crimson Tide defeats rival Auburn in Saturday's Iron Bowl game, there is a good chance they'll end up playing in the BCS title game -- even if they don't win an SEC championship.

LSU has a more difficult road, starting with Friday's game against the Razorbacks at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. If the Tigers defeat the Hogs, they'll then have to play No. 13 Georgia in the Dec. 3 SEC championship game.

But if Arkansas upsets LSU on the road, a three-way tie for the SEC West title would be settled by tiebreakers. The highest-rated team in the BCS standings released Sunday would be declared the SEC West champion, unless the second-highest rated team is within five spots of the first. Then the head-to-head result between the first two teams would determine the champion.

Alabama defeated Arkansas 38-14 in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 24.

Even if Georgia were to upset LSU in the SEC championship game, ESPN's BCS guru, Brad Edwards, said there's still a good possibility that Alabama and LSU would finish 1-2 in the final BCS standings. Under that scenario, three SEC teams would play in BCS bowl games, which is actually allowed under BCS rules. LSU and Alabama would play in the BCS title game, and the Bulldogs would go to the Sugar Bowl as SEC champion.

"It's still a long way from being over," Slive said. "Obviously, it's up to the voters and computers. Like everyone else, I just watch and see and hope for the best for each and every one of our teams. It's clear we're playing at the top of our game and it's gratifying to have that recognized."

Which SEC West team is the best? Which one is No. 2? Mullen and Nutt wouldn't say.

The Bulldogs were more competitive against the trio, losing to LSU 19-6, to Alabama 24-7 and to Arkansas 44-17. The Rebels lost to Alabama 52-7, to Arkansas 29-24 and LSU 52-3. Tennessee lost to LSU 38-7, to Alabama 37-6 and to Arkansas 49-7.

Mullen said each of the SEC West heavyweights is different.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireArkansas QB Tyler Wilson became an attractive NFL prospect after his strong junior season.

"I think they're very unique in their own way," Mullen said. "Alabama plays a big, physical, smashmouth style of offense and a big, smothering defense. They're just about being big and physical. LSU has a very steady offense that doesn't make mistakes. They have speed and depth on defense and come at you in all directions.

"Arkansas comes at you and can put up a lot of points in a hurry. Arkansas has a quarterback who understands the system and is the best quarterback in the league. Arkansas has the best special teams of the three. They have dynamic returners and great kickers."

Nutt said Alabama's and LSU's defenses are as good as he's seen.

"Until you've tried to go up against their defenses, you don't really appreciate it," Nutt said. "First downs are hard to come by. They're so physical and they don't miss tackles. They're going to rush you. They're going to sack you. They're going to tip a ball. It's just really hard to move the ball against them."

Mullen said he wasn't too surprised that LSU and Alabama didn't score a touchdown against each other when they played the first time.

"They cause you problems [with their defense], and it's not just schemes but talent," Mullen said. "They cause problems. They get you out of rhythm, and they've done it to everybody. They've done it to good offenses and not-so-good offenses. They just smother you."

Arkansas has the more dynamic offense, ranking No. 10 nationally in passing (316.9 yards per game) and No. 13 in scoring (39.2 points).

"Arkansas is rolling now and their wide receivers are so good," Nutt said. "They've got a great quarterback and their defense is improving. The truth is all three of them are strong teams."

Which team is the best? Mullen doesn't even know -- or at least he won't say.

"I think on any given day, each one of those teams could be the best," Mullen said. "If they all played over and over again, you might get different results and a completely different style of game."

Bowl math

With 35 bowl games this season, there are 70 available slots for teams to play in the postseason. With two weeks to go in the regular season, there are 65 teams that are bowl-eligible and 18 other teams that are still alive to play in the postseason. Here's a league-by-league breakdown:

ACC
Bowl-eligible teams: 7
Still alive: 1
Eliminated: 2
Bowl slots: 8
Miami announced Sunday that it will not play in a bowl game this season as self-imposed punishment as part of an ongoing NCAA investigation into Hurricanes players receiver improper benefits. NC State (6-5), which has two victories over FCS opponents, must defeat Maryland at home on Saturday and finish 7-5 to go bowling.

Big 12
Bowl-eligible teams: 8
Still alive: 1
Eliminated: 1
Bowl slots: 7
Texas Tech (5-6), which has lost four games in a row since upsetting Oklahoma 41-38 on Oct. 22, must beat Baylor at home Saturday to finish 6-6.

Big East
Bowl-eligible teams: 4
Still alive: 4
Eliminated: 0
Bowl slots: 7
There are still four Big East teams alive for a bowl slot: Pittsburgh (5-5); Connecticut (4-6), South Florida (5-5) and Syracuse (5-5). The Panthers must beat either West Virginia (road) on Friday or Syracuse (home) on Dec. 3. The Huskies must defeat both Rutgers (home) on Saturday and Cincinnati (road) on Dec. 3. The Bulls must defeat either Louisville (home) on Friday or West Virginia (home) on Dec. 1. The Orange must beat either Cincinnati (home) on Saturday or Pitt (road) on Dec. 3.

Big Ten
Bowl-eligible teams: 9
Still alive: 1
Eliminated: 2
Bowl slots: 8
Purdue (5-6) must win at Indiana on Saturday to possibly go bowling.

Conference USA
Bowl-eligible teams: 4
Still alive: 3
Eliminated: 5
Bowl slots: 6
Three Conference USA teams are still eligible to possibly go bowling, but only two can reach 6-6. The winner of Saturday's game between East Carolina (5-6) and Marshall (5-6) in Huntington, W.Va., will be eligible for a bowl game. UTEP (5-6) must defeat Central Florida on the road Friday to finish 6-6.

Independents
Bowl-eligible teams: 2
Still alive: 0
Eliminated: 2
Notre Dame (8-3) will probably be invited to play in the Champs Sports Bowl against an ACC team. BYU (8-3) has accepted an invitation to play in the Armed Forces Bowl against a Conference USA squad. Army and Navy have been eliminated from bowl games, leaving open spots in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (an ACC team might fill it) and the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C.

MAC
Bowl-eligible teams: 6
Still alive: 2
Eliminated: 5
Bowl slots: 3
Eastern Michigan (6-5), which has two victories over FCS opponents, must beat Northern Illinois (road) on Friday to finish 7-5 to be eligible for the postseason. Kent State (5-6) must win at Temple on Friday to finish 6-6.

Mountain West
Bowl-eligible teams: 4
Still alive: 1
Eliminated: 3
Bowl slots: 4
Air Force (6-5), which has two victories over FCS foes, must defeat Colorado State (road) on Saturday to finish 7-5 to be eligible for the postseason.

Pac-12
Bowl-eligible teams: 7
Still alive: 0
Eliminated: 5
Bowl slots: 7
USC (9-2) is ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA probation.

SEC
Bowl-eligible teams: 7
Still alive: 3
Eliminated: 2
Bowl slots: 9
Vanderbilt (5-6) must beat Wake Forest (road) on Saturday; Tennessee (5-6) must defeat Kentucky (road) on Saturday; and Mississippi State (5-6) must beat Ole Miss (home) in Saturday's Egg Bowl to be eligible for the postseason.

Sun Belt
Bowl-eligible teams: 4
Still alive: 0
Eliminated: 5
Bowl slots: 2
Only two Sun Belt teams are guaranteed spots in bowl games. Arkansas State (9-2, 7-0) and Western Kentucky (6-5, 6-1) are the top two teams in the league standings. The Hilltoppers play Troy (home) in their regular-season finale Saturday; the Red Wolves play Troy (home) on Dec. 3.

WAC
Bowl-eligible teams: 2
Still alive: 2
Eliminated: 4
Bowl slots: 3
Utah State (5-5) has two more chances to become eligible for the postseason, finishing the regular season with Nevada (home) on Saturday and New Mexico State (road) on Dec. 3. Hawaii (5-6) -- which must finish 7-6 because it plays 13 regular-season games -- will have to win its last two regular-season games: home against Tulane on Saturday and BYU on Dec. 3.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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