The SEC West teams are lined up in almost perfect marching order. No. 7 Auburn, No. 8 Alabama, No. 9 LSU and then only slightly out of step, No. 12 Arkansas.
A picture of symmetry and stability, right? Not even close.
The first half of the season has produced upsets, fantastic finishes and some downright bizarre endings in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division. If the bunched-up rankings are any predictor, there’s plenty more drama to come.
Three story lines to keep an eye on:
— Pretenders or contenders. The league’s only remaining unbeaten teams, Auburn and LSU, have been about survival not muscle-flexing dominance. And Mississippi’s season didn’t end with an opening double-overtime loss to lower-division Jacksonville State.
— Win, you’re in. It’s early, but four of the six teams control their own destiny in the West race. Only Arkansas (4-1, 1-1) and Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2) need help to win it.
— Roll Tide? Alabama (5-1, 2-1) isn’t on top, but the defending national champions are still squarely in the division mix.
There’s not a clear-cut favorite in the West after No. 10 South Carolina toppled the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide to end a 19-game winning streak. Now the West is anything but a one-team race.
“It is all jammed up,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “There are a lot of good football teams. Anybody can win. It’s tough. This Western side is very, very difficult. We’re right in the middle of it. Usually, Alabama has been so far ahead of everybody, but now it’s different. LSU and Auburn are undefeated, but there is still a lot of football left.”
Nutt and the Rebels get a shot at staking their claim to the title Saturday when they play at Alabama. The picture could clear up some with Auburn hosting Arkansas this weekend.
But Alabama’s loss didn’t exactly lead to dancing in the streets around the SEC West— four teams in the division still have to play the Tide.
“We can’t put too much into Alabama losing,” Arkansas cornerback Ramon Broadway said. “You can’t put too much in Auburn’s being ranked and undefeated.
“The thing is, you’ve just got to go in there and you can control what you can control. I mean, if you don’t, somebody else will. You try to stay as far away from that as you can.”
The Razorbacks (4-1, 1-1) are a wildcard. They lost the head-to-head meeting with the Tide 24-20, leaving them hoping for another Bama loss.
Mississippi State is the outsider. Only three SEC West matchups have been played so far, and the Bulldogs are 0-2.
Then, there’s the survivors — LSU (6-0, 4-0) and Auburn (6-0, 3-0). They’re the only two unbeatens in the SEC but it hasn’t come without a heaping helping of Southern fried drama.
Auburn has won three times by three points and needed four fourth-quarter turnovers to secure an eight-point win over South Carolina. The team set up the winning field goal as time expired against Kentucky with a 19-play, 86-yard drive.
That is humdrum compared to what LSU has overcome. In back-to-back last-play victories, coach Les Miles & Co. have used a nearly botched fake field goal to get past Florida and a penalty helped to propel the Tigers past Tennessee.
“The SEC West is really tough year in and year out,” Auburn receiver Kodi Burns said. “You’ve got all these really good teams in the league. I wouldn’t expect anything different. I think that’s what everybody expects.
“You can’t take a game off, you can’t relax.”
LSU left tackle Joseph Barksdale has soaked in the SEC atmosphere during it all. He’s not from around these parts, after all.
“I’m from Michigan. I didn’t know anything about the SEC when I came down here,” Barksdale said. “I’m not surprised about how things are going in the SEC West. Everybody is good. That’s why we all came to LSU. We look forward to playing this type of competition.
“The best football in the country is in the SEC.”
And reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram says don’t be confused by the Tide’s lost.
“We’re not chasing anybody,” the tailback Mark said. “We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on ourselves and that’s it, nobody else.”
AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Miss.; Brett Martel in New Orleans and AP Free Lance Writer Kurt Voight in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this report.
John Zenor/The Associated Press