Can you believe that?
Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.
1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.
3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.
4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.
5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In all honesty, Texas A&M probably shouldn't have won Saturday.
The Aggies' offense spent the better part of three quarters out-of-sync. Texas A&M's drive chart in that span looked foreign to those who know them best: Touchdown, punt, punt, punt, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs, punt.
Defensively, they weren't much better: 395 yards yielded in those first three stanzas and 214 on the ground (though 51 should be counted against the special teams for a fake punt). Those special teams had forgettable moments as well, with a missed field goal on top of everything else.
But as Kevin Sumlin-coached teams are wont to do, the No. 6 Aggies found a way to swipe a victory from Arkansas and remain undefeated by climbing out of a two-touchdown hole at AT&T Stadium for a thrilling 35-28 overtime win.
The win provided both cause for concern and signs of encouragement. For starters, the Aggies didn't play to their lofty ranking and often showed why this young team gave so many pause prior to the season.
The Aggies (5-0, 2-0 SEC) knew their run defense would get their first true test of the year from the SEC's top rushing attack. It did (Arkansas ran for 285 yards), and it often left Texas A&M frustrated and chasing Arkansas running backs Alex Collins (131 yards) and Jonathan Williams (95 yards). When the Aggies weren't failing to fill their gaps, play-action passing from Brandon Allen and Co. gave them several headaches.
But when Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) smelled blood and tried to put the Aggies away, the Aggies' defense found its backbone (and the Razorbacks shot themselves in the foot a few times, too). The Razorbacks' final five drives went as such: punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs. The final stop, which came on fourth-and-1 in Arkansas' overtime possession and secured the win, might prove to be a seminal moment for an A&M defense still trying to shake off its 2013 reputation -- last in the SEC in every statistical category that mattered.
Defensively, are the Aggies more what we saw in the first three quarters or the unit seen in the fourth quarter and overtime? That remains to be seen.
Similarly, Texas A&M sophomore sensation Kenny Hill and the Aggies' offense were off, as Sumlin admitted. Starting only his fifth game, Hill showed some of the ills that come with a young quarterback -- forced throws, inaccuracy, inconsistent play -- and his receivers and offensive line contributed at times with dropped passes or by allowing Hill to get pressured.
Conversely, when the Aggies needed a spark, Hill was on the money. He hit Edward Pope and Joshua Reynolds for two huge, fourth-quarter touchdown passes to pull even with the Hogs. He threw a dart to Malcome Kennedy for the game-winning, 25-yard score. It was fitting, considering Hill threw one behind Kennedy in the first half that -- had it been thrown perfectly -- would have likely resulted in a touchdown.
"I just saw him run wide open and said, ‘I need to put it on him,'" Hill said. "They had the defender getting there late, and I had to fit it in to him, and he took care of the rest."
Let's make one thing clear: The Aggies are a good football team. Exactly how good is the question and one that won't be answered for a few weeks.
This improved Arkansas team gave Texas A&M everything it could handle, and though the Hogs are winless in two SEC games (and in 14 straight conference games dating back to 2012), they came away from home against highly-ranked foes (Auburn being the other), and both were contests in which the Razorbacks competed well. The Razorbacks no longer look like pushovers in Bret Bielema's second year, and they have made significant progress from a year ago.
Meanwhile, A&M's season-opening shocker at South Carolina and the Aggies' subsequent dominance of three cupcake opponents has sparked talk of the Aggies being perhaps the best in the SEC and a serious contender for the College Football Playoff. Those goals remain attainable, but those discussions should perhaps pause as this team navigates a gauntlet of a schedule that starts a week from now with a showdown against rising Mississippi State in Starkville. That will be followed by a home date with Ole Miss and a trip to Tuscaloosa for a clash with Alabama.
If the Aggies emerge from that stretch unscathed, they truly do deserve to be mentioned in the top-four discussion.
How the game was won: The Aggies stopped Arkansas running back Alex Collins on a fourth-and-1 in the first overtime, getting a stop when they had to have it. Texas A&M had to scratch and claw after being harassed by Arkansas’ defense all day, but it was able to escape by the skin of its teeth thanks to huge fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Kenny Hill (an 86-yarder to Edward Pope and a 59-yarder to Joshua Reynolds) that turned a 14-point deficit to a tie ballgame and eventually set up overtime. Hill threw a 25-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy to start overtime, and the defense did the rest to secure the win in OT, piggybacking a strong fourth-quarter effort the Aggies gave to keep the Razorbacks from extending the lead.
Gameball goes to: Hill. He had his struggles, from errant throws, including an interception and had to weather the storm as the Aggies looked out of sorts offensively for much of the day. But he made the big throws when the Aggies had to have them late in the game and led the come-from-behind victory. He finished with 386 passing yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-41 passing.
What it means: Texas A&M’s playoff hopes and high ranking are safe for now, but it has a lot of work to do. Arkansas exploited many of the Aggies’ flaws today. The Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC), meanwhile, are as improved as advertised. Bret Bielema’s bunch has to feel sick after this one, leading by two scores (and having a chance to go up three when a penalty nullified the score). They had control of the game but let it slip away. The SEC West is on alert though, as Arkansas is a pushover no longer.
Playoff implication: The Aggies’ hopes remain alive as they move to 5-0 (2-0 in the SEC).
What's next: Another huge test for Texas A&M at No. 14 Mississippi State in Starkville a week from today. Dak Prescott and Co. are coming off an open date following their landmark win at LSU on Sept. 20.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kenny Hill threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns, with a 25-yarder to Malcome Kennedy on the first play of overtime, and sixth-ranked Texas A&M rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Arkansas 35-28 on Saturday.
The Aggies (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) trailed 28-14 going into the fourth quarter before Hill threw two long scoring passes -- 86 yards to Edward Pope and 59 yards to Josh Reynolds, the later with 2:08 left only two plays after Arkansas missed a field goal.
After Hill's quick strike in overtime, Arkansas faced fourth-and-1 when a handoff went to Alex Collins, who finished with 131 yards rushing. But Collins was stuffed at the line by defensive end Julien Obioha to end the game.
Hill completed 21 of 41 passes.
Texas A&M is 5-0 for the first time since 2001. Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) has lost 14 consecutive SEC games.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.
Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.
Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.
Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.
Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?
New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.
Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- As if Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones weren't tortured enough about not drafting Johnny Manziel, the Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback will be in Jones' building Saturday -- and rooting against Jones' alma mater.
Manziel's Browns are off this week.
In addition to Manziel being on hand, sources close to the team said the Aggies are expected to have freshman receiver Speedy Noil against the 3-1 Razorbacks.
Noil injured his left knee during the Sept. 13 win over Rice. Those close to the team said Noil required minor surgery but has made a "miraculous" recovery. He returned to practice this week and was "making cuts" a little more than a week after surgery, one source said.
Asked earlier in the week about Noil's availability, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said simply, "We'll see."
Hill, Texas A&M’s sophomore sensation, has both boxes checked off his résumé. The first one -- a state title -- he checked off on Dec. 17, 2011 at then-Dallas Cowboys Stadium (now called AT&T Stadium), the same place he and the No. 6 Aggies (4-0) will meet a rising Arkansas (3-1) team on Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
For obvious reasons, it’s one of Hill’s favorite venues to play.
“I love playing there,” Hill said.
It’s Hill’s second time in the Metroplex in as many weeks. Last week the Aggies traveled to SMU for a 58-6 win at Ford Stadium. But the venue often dubbed “Jerry World” holds special meaning after Hill guided the Dragons to a 36-29 title-game win over Hightower High School (Missouri City, Texas) in his junior season.
Hill was named the offensive most valuable player of that game, accounting for 345 combined rushing and passing yards and four total touchdowns. His Texas A&M teammate, Sabian Holmes (then a senior for the Dragons), also turned in a shining performance for Carroll, catching 11 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Kevin Sumlin, who had officially accepted the Texas A&M head coaching job just the week before, was well aware of Hill’s exploits and a state championship only added to his appeal as a recruit.
“A lot of people argue that being a quarterback at Southlake is as [pressurized] a deal as there is because of the expectation to not only be successful as a quarterback, but to win and win it all,” Sumlin said. “To watch him win it all as a junior, it was a big deal in our eyes.”
Sumlin remembered something Joe Tiller, the longtime Purdue coaching great who Sumlin played for and coached under, once told him about recruiting quarterbacks.
“’Always recruit a guy who wins in high school,’” Sumlin recalls. “’Because when he doesn’t, it becomes somebody else’s fault. If he’s that talented, why aren’t they winning?’ I kind of listened to that.”
Hill eventually committed to Texas A&M in April 2012 and signed with the Aggies in February 2013.
Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson said he has never compared his quarterbacks to their predecessors (the Dragons sent a succession of six quarterbacks to Division I schools prior to Hill taking the reins) and has always tried to instill confidence in them by telling them to “Go be a baller.” Hill did just that.
"There is pressure, no doubt about it,” Wasson said. “But pressure is a good thing. We always say pressure is a good thing, stress is a bad thing. Knowing how to cope with it and handle it is important.”
Hill, who carries a cool, calm demeanor (Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital called his relaxed demeanor “creepy” before the season-opening win at South Carolina) handled that pressure just fine, performing exceptionally in the biggest of moments for a prep quarterback, doing so in an NFL stadium in front of a crowd of 42,822.
"I remember a few specific plays, but mostly it was the atmosphere,” Hill said this week, recalling the title game. “There were 43,000 or something like that there. To play in that kind of environment was pretty cool. And after we won, I just remember we went pretty crazy. We were so happy."
And as someone who grew up in the Dallas area, the chance to play in the Cowboys’ state-of-the-art home was a memorable one.
“I used to watch the Cowboys all the time growing up in Dallas,” Hill said. “To play on the same field as them is sick.”
The Aggies are hopeful Hill can create more positive memories on Saturday vs. the Razorbacks.
After inheriting an Ole Miss program that won two games in 2011 and had suffered 14 consecutive losses against SEC opponents, coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a 7-6 record in his first season in 2012.
In February 2013, Ole Miss signed the country's No. 5-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, and landed several blue-chip prospects, including defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner.
With those freshmen playing significant roles, the Rebels went 8-5 in 2013, upsetting then-No. 6 LSU 27-24 along the way, and won a bowl game for the second season in a row.
Yet, as Ole Miss entered Freeze's third season in August, it was still staring up at Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Such is life in the rugged SEC West.
We're about to find out how much the upstarts have closed the gap on the recent heavyweights in college football's best division. Heading into this weekend's games, six of the seven SEC West teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll: No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 17 LSU.
The other team, Arkansas, lost to defending SEC champion Auburn 45-21 in its opener, but then won its next three games by an average of 42 points.
"I can't remember a time when there were that many good teams in one division," said former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who guided the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship. "Texas A&M probably wishes it was on the other side. It's a really strong division right now."
Consider the strength of the SEC West through the first month of the 2014 season:
• SEC West teams are 22-0 against teams not in the division and are winning those games by an average margin of 34 points. SEC West teams are a combined 24-2, with the only losses coming against each other. Along with Auburn's victory over Arkansas, Mississippi State upset LSU 34-29 on the road last week.
• The SEC West has a 99.3 rating on a 0-100 scale in ESPN's division power rankings, which is 33 points higher than any other division in college football.
• Each of the SEC West teams rank in the top 20 of ESPN's Football Power Index, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC have combined. The top three teams in the FPI are from the SEC West: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 Auburn.
• Five SEC West teams (Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M) rank in the Top 25 among FBS teams in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Texas A&M is No. 2 in scoring offense (55.3 points per game) and No. 8 in scoring defense (11.8 points). Arkansas is No. 3 in scoring offense (48.8 points), and the Razorbacks and Aggies are on pace to break the SEC scoring record set by Florida (46.6 points) in 1996.
A month into the season, the weight of the SEC seems to have shifted dramatically back to the West. Every SEC East team has already suffered at least one loss, including defending division champion Missouri and preseason favorites Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. SEC East teams are 0-3 against SEC West foes.
"I think these things kind of run in cycles," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They run in cycles from team to team and they run in cycles from division to division. I just think this happens to be one of those years where it seems like the West has a lot of really good teams. I think our league is just really, really strong from top to bottom. There's a lot of balance, and I just think our side of it seems to be especially strong this year."
Starting this weekend, the SEC West teams will start to cannibalize themselves. Texas A&M plays Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, and then plays three consecutive games against ranked opponents from the SEC West. After hosting Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss plays four ranked SEC West foes in its next five games, and the Razorbacks will face ranked opponents in six of their next seven games.
Auburn might play the most arduous schedule of anyone, with six consecutive games against ranked SEC opponents after Saturday's home game against Louisiana Tech. After playing that murderer's row, the Tigers close the regular season with a home game against FCS foe Samford on Nov. 22 before a road trip to Alabama for the Iron Bowl the next week.
How difficult will the stretch run be in the SEC West? ESPN Insider's Brian Fremeau, who created the Fremeau Efficiency Index, gives each of the five remaining undefeated SEC West teams less than a 5 percent chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. Fremeau predicts defending national champion Florida State has a 41.8 percent chance of finishing undefeated, with Oregon (18.2 percent) and Oklahoma (13.2 percent) having the best opportunities to go unbeaten among the other Power 5 conference teams.
According to FPI projections, there's a 56 percent chance the SEC champion will have at least two losses. The Big 12 and ACC champions are each projected to have one or fewer losses.
"If you're going to win and be in the playoff, you've got to be a good football team anyway," Stallings said. "The bad thing is they're going to knock each other off. I don't know who's choosing the teams for the playoff, but the [SEC West] teams could lose two games by a couple of points and still be a better team than an undefeated or one-loss team from another league."
Over the next 10 weeks, the SEC West will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Over the next few weeks, we'll start to learn whether an upstart like Arkansas, Ole Miss or Mississippi State is ready to take a stand against Alabama and Auburn.
"We've made progress," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "We've done certain things better. I think, without a doubt, our guys have a lot more confidence than they maybe had a year ago. But until you've done it on a big stage and against a quality opponent like we're going to see Saturday, it's really just talk."
SEC: Most To Gain, Lose
12:00 PM ET Florida Tennessee 12:00 PM ET 6 Texas A&M 12 Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET 3 Alabama 11 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt 13 Georgia 7:00 PM ET 15 LSU 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET South Carolina Kentucky