Commentary by HottyToddy.com contributor Seph Anderson
Which SEC West club will earn a trip to Atlanta to play for an SEC Championship?
At 2-0 in conference play and sitting atop the division with Auburn and Mississippi State, the No. 3 Ole Miss Rebels are legitimate contenders in the SEC West this year. But in a Western Division as strong from top to bottom as anyone can remember, just who ends up wearing the SEC West crown at the end of the season is anyone’s best guess right now.
In an effort to try and clear the murky waters of the West, I’ve broken down each clubs chance of ending up in Atlanta by analyzing both their current conference records and their remaining conference slates. After doing so, some teams have risen to the top, while other have sunk to the bottom. Having said that, let me explain why Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are on a collision course for three-way tie for the SEC West crown at the end of the season.
Ole Miss (2-0)
@ Texas A&M Oct. 11
Tennessee Oct. 18
@ LSU Oct. 25
Auburn Nov. 1
@ Arkansas Nov. 22
Miss. State Nov. 29
Off to their best start in over 50 years, the Rebels sit atop the SEC West standings with Auburn and Mississippi State, as they head to Texas for a battle with Texas A&M.
The good news for Ole Miss, Johnny Football won’t be under center. The bad news, Kenny Hill has proven to be just as dynamic and capable of being a game changer. But after the thumping Hill and Co. took in Starkville last weekend, the Aggies are faced with having to run the table against Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State to even have a chance at winning the West.
So Ole Miss best be ready, because the Aggies know their backs are up against the wall. Bottom line: the Texas A&M game is paramount to Ole Miss’ SEC West title hopes in 2014. If the Rebs can halt the losing skid to A&M and leave College Station at 3-0 in the SEC, the Rebels, along with Mississippi State if it beats Auburn, will be in the SEC West driver’s seat.
Despite games against a young, dangerous Tennessee team, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State, picking up the road win in a boisterous, hostile environment against arguably one of the most talented quarterbacks in the nation would give Ole Miss (and the nation) added validation of the Rebels’ place among the nation’s elite.
Before we go any further, let me explain why a road win at Kyle Field would mean so much. At 3-0 in the SEC, with divisional matchups at home against Auburn and Mississippi State looming large (to say the least), the Rebels would set themselves up in quite the favorable position as we think ahead to ponder who might represent the West in the SEC Championship.
No. 1: Assuming no SEC West clubs finish at 7-1 or 8-0 in the conference (my strong feeling), if Ole Miss “were” to lose to only Auburn and State, the Rebels would hold the first divisional tie-breaker (head-to-head records) over both clubs. As for Alabama, the Rebels already hold that head-to-head tie-breaker should the Tide end in an SEC West tiebreak situation.
No. 2: By dealing A&M its second SEC loss this early in the season, the Aggies would be faced with running the SEC table to fight for a shot at the West crown.
No. 3: Should the Rebels fall victim in a trap game against Tennessee (yet still finish in an SEC West tie-break situation), the non-divisional loss would not hurt the Rebels should need be to move to the SEC’s second tie-break rule (divisional record of tied teams).
No. 4: Validation. Taking to the road on the heels of an emotional, physical win over the nation’s former No. 1 (Alabama) and winning against a solid team in a hostile environment would be just what the doctor ordered for the Rebels as they prepare to head down the SEC stretch.
No. 5: Ole Miss would remain atop the SEC West, as either Auburn or Mississippi State picks up its first conference loss on Saturday, as opposed to a) watching its in-state rival claim the divisional lead alone or b) feel a bit behind the eight ball and under more pressure if Auburn sits atop the division by itself after Saturday should the Rebels lose to the Aggies.
In conclusion, a loss at A&M certainly wouldn’t quash SEC West and national championship hopes, but it would make both dreams that much harder to accomplish heading into a meaty conference slate.
Mississippi State (2-0)
Auburn Oct. 11
@ Kentucky Oct. 18
Arkansas Nov. 1
@ Alabama Nov. 15
Vandy Nov. 22
@ Ole Miss Nov. 29
ESPN College GameDay. CBS national television. A No. 3 national ranking. No. 2 Auburn coming to town. A legitimate Heisman candidate in QB Dak Prescott. A chance to move to No. 1 in the polls.
That’s enough pressure to eat at even the most experienced and talented team, and it’s exactly what the Bulldogs will be dealing with as they prepare to take on Auburn Saturday afternoon. It’s a game of epic proportions and the pressure will squarely be on State. Not Auburn.
Auburn has been there, done that so to speak, and Mississippi State hasn’t. Sure, the Bulldogs took down both LSU and Texas A&M. However, this Auburn bunch is head and shoulders above them both. The country will learn just how legitimate an SEC and national championship contender Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs are come early Saturday evening. Win, and State should jump Florida State to lay claim to the No. 1 ranking. However, even should they lose, the maroon and white still figure to play a prominent role in the SEC West race the rest of the way.
After Auburn, the Bulldogs take to the road against an up-and-coming Kentucky team, host Arkansas, travel to Tuscaloosa and host Vandy before making the trip north for what will likely be a gargantuan Egg Bowl on November 29.
With a win Saturday, State will control its own destiny (similar to Ole Miss with a win over Texas A&M), both in the hunt for a spot in the SEC Championship Game and the college football playoff. However, a loss would be costly, especially considering the SEC West may well come down to a head-to-head tie-break scenario with the likes of Auburn and Ole Miss.
And that very well may be the case come late November in determining which team heads to Atlanta. The winner of this weekend’s contest in Starkville takes a clear advantage over the other in the West.
@ Miss. State Oct. 11
South Carolina Oct. 25
@ Ole Miss Nov. 1
Texas A&M Nov. 8
@ UGA Nov. 15
@ Alabama Nov. 29
As epic as the Rebels’ showdown with Alabama was in Oxford this past weekend, the same will be true in Starkville this weekend when No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Mississippi State square off. Epic for both Auburn and Mississippi State, not to mention SEC West hopes.
After dismantling a shaky LSU club 41-7, Auburn’s road to Atlanta truly begins on Saturday afternoon. Over four weeks, the Tigers will host South Carolina, travel to Ole Miss, host Texas A&M and play at Georgia. That’s before traveling to Bryant-Denny for a date with the Crimson Tide in late November. It’s quite the gauntlet, even for a club that found itself in the National Championship Game last year.
At 2-0 in SEC play and looking at what lies ahead for the Tigers, I see the Tigers likely dropping two to three conference games between Mississippi State and the season-ending Iron Bowl. Fall at State and I see Malzahn’s club finishing with a 5-3 conference mark. Knock off Mississippi State and I have the Tigers finishing at 6-2 in the SEC. And 6-2 should be good enough to get into a tie-break scenario to determine which SEC West team plays for an SEC championship. We’ll know a whole lot more about Auburn, as well as State, come Saturday evening.
Texas A&M (2-1)
Ole Miss Oct. 11
@ Alabama Oct. 18
@ Auburn Nov. 8
Mizzou Nov. 15
LSU Nov. 27
Will the real Aggies please stand up?
Texas A&M has proven to be a difficult read nearly half-way into the 2014 season. After a season-opening road win at Williams-Bryce Stadium over the Gamecocks, the Aggies were suddenly the talk of college football. But between a near loss to Arkansas and a crushing defeat in Starkville, nobody is quite sure where the Aggies will go from here.
Kenny Hill is Kenny Hill. Make no mistake about it, the kid is a stud. So how will the Aggies bounce back this weekend with a big game against Ole Miss? It’s Kenny Hill versus the dominant Ole Miss defense. Something has to give. However, No. 3 Ole Miss is far from the last of Texas A&M’s worries this season.
After taking on the Rebels, the Aggies play at Alabama and Auburn, before wrapping up the conference schedule at home against Mizzou and LSU. Even if A&M manages to go 4-1 down the stretch against SEC opponents, again, three conference losses will be too much to still contend for the West.
@ Arkansas Oct. 11
Texas A&M Oct. 18
@ Tennessee Oct. 25
@ LSU Nov. 8
Miss. State Nov. 15
Auburn Nov. 29
Assuming the Tide bounce back at Arkansas this weekend, they’ll move to 2-1 in the SEC. And I think that’s a safe assumption, because Nick Saban simply won’t drop two in a row.
The Crimson Tide certainly didn’t do themselves any favors by falling in Oxford, as they might have the toughest remaining conference schedule of any of their fellow SEC West colleagues. After traveling to take on a pesky Arkansas bunch this weekend, Alabama has A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn at home and Tennessee and LSU on the road.
As up and down as the Tigers and Vols have looked so far this season, they’re only going to gain more experience and confidence with each passing week. You think Butch Jones won’t be putting all the chips in when the Tide come to town on October 25? Proving to be a recruiting mastermind on Rocky Top, a signature win over rival Alabama would put the Vols that much more ahead of schedule in the rebuild. I see the Tide dropping one on the road to either Tennessee or LSU and at least one at home to Texas A&M, Mississippi State or Auburn. Couple those two losses with the Ole Miss loss, and Nick Saban and Co. will be watching the SEC Championship Game from Tuscaloosa.
@ Florida Oct. 11
Kentucky Oct. 18
Ole Miss Oct. 25
Alabama Nov. 8
@ Arkansas Nov. 15
@ Texas A&M Nov. 27
While LSU has looked less than impressive in losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, it’s worth noting both that this team is less experienced than previous Tiger squads and that those two losses came against the current No. 2 and No.3-ranked teams in the nation. That being said, already burdened with two SEC losses, Les Miles’ club won’t be able to run the conference table the rest of the way out to finish the SEC slate with less than two losses. Granted the SEC West is brutal this year, a three-loss team isn’t going to be crowned division champ.
Alabama Oct. 11
UGA Oct. 18
@ Miss. State Nov. 1
LSU Nov. 15
Ole Miss Nov. 22
@ Mizzou Nov. 28
Having nearly pulled off a win over Texas A&M in Dallas, the Razorbacks have much more pep in their step than many figured they would after last year’s dismal record. One of those “in the weeds” clubs, capable of pulling off a big upset at any time, the Hogs will likely knock of an SEC big boy at some point over the final two months of the season. However, even if they managed to go 3-3 the rest of the way in conference play (which would be very good), a 3-5 SEC record would obviously leave the Hogs out of contention in the West.
Putting It All Together
After all is said and done, I like Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State to end up in a three-way tie for the SEC West. You heard it here first. Each of the three teams is solid on both sides of the ball and should be viewed as serious contenders to not only fight for a trip to Atlanta, but also be in the mix for a berth in the college football playoff field.
Ultimately, a head-to-head tie-breaker among the three teams will determine who gets a shot to play for an SEC championship. With that in mind, grab your favorite cocktail Saturday afternoon and tune in to see what happens in Starkville with Auburn and State before watching the Rebels and Aggies.
Seph Anderson, Ole Miss alum, staff member and fervent Rebel, covers timely Ole Miss & SEC news.
He resides with his wife and their two young girls in Oxford, MS and serves at the Academic Advisor for the Early Entry Pharmacy Program.