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SEC's West division has nation's (and pollsters') undivided attention

SEC's West division has nation's (and pollsters') undivided attention
Arkansas tight end AJ Derby runs for a touchdown during the Razorbacks' 14-13 loss to Alabama on Saturday. (Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)

The SEC West is truly remarkable. It is 90% dominance, which is to be admired, and 10% snake charmer.

No man behind a curtain has worked levers more deftly.

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The Southeastern Conference's glamour division not only has five or six (or seven?) of the country's best football teams, it also employs the best advertising team since Dos Equis.

It is "the most interesting division in the world."

Arkansas, the worst team, if there is such a thing, received 75,000 free SEC credit-card bonus points just for joining in 1992.

Forget that Arkansas has never won the SEC, or that Monday marks the two-year anniversary of the Razorbacks' last conference victory: Oct. 13, 2012. The Hogs defeated Kentucky that day and have since lost 15 consecutive league games through Saturday's 14-13 almost-win against Alabama.

Yet, Arkansas received 10 points in Sunday's Associated Press poll, which extrapolates nationally to No. 34.

Such is the power of the SEC West.

Arkansas (3-3) is an improving team and played well against Alabama. The school this weekend celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1964 national-championship team.

Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema has his team marching in the right direction, but even he admits, "They don't celebrate legacies of losing teams."

One of Arkansas' three defeats was in overtime to Texas A&M, which has just been blown out in consecutive SEC West defeats.

To keep everything neat and tidy, Texas A&M dropped only to No. 21 in both polls on Sunday.

Such is the power of the SEC West.

Texas A&M (5-2) lost games by 32 total points and is ranked two AP spots ahead of Stanford, the defending Pac-12 champion. Stanford has lost two heartbreakers, by six total points, at home to USC and on the road at Notre Dame.

Such is the power of the SEC West.

No one would dispute the SEC's divisional dominance. Its shell game is to allow you to make comparisons only against other teams within the conference.

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It's a solid, brilliant strategy that also happens to tick some people off.

The SEC West has four teams ranked in the AP top 10.

The only "true" quality nonconference road victory among those four schools was Auburn's win at Kansas State.

Last year, Auburn started the season unranked, escaped a close call at home against Washington State (with no return game at Washington State) and rode last-second wins all the way to a last-seconds BCS title-game loss.

Mississippi State is this year's faster-rising version of Auburn. The Bulldogs have rocketed from unranked to No. 1 in the country (Auburn was No. 24 at this point last year) after Saturday's pounding of Auburn.

Mississippi State is on a beeline to the four-team playoff with a no-questions-asked non-conference schedule of Southern Mississippi, South Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham and Tennessee-Martin.

That is truly laughable.

And the other truth is, you look at Mississippi State (6-0) with no outside context and see a pretty darn good team.

"Right now we haven't even guaranteed ourselves a winning season," Coach Dan Mullen, obviously not looking past Tennessee-Martin on Nov. 8, cautioned.

Mississippi is right on its rival's tail, ranked third in the polls after an impressive win at Texas A&M.

Ole Miss might actually boast a better overall resume since the Rebels at least defeated a quality nonconference opponent, Boise State, at a neutral site.

The thought of national supremacy being decided in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29, in Oxford, is exciting.

Yet, of course, one-loss Auburn is still in the thick of it.

"We're still one of the better teams, I think," Coach Gus Malzahn said after his team got clocked in Starkville.

Alabama needed a blocked extra point to fend off Arkansas but suffered no collateral poll damage; the Crimson Tide remained No. 7.

Meanwhile, out west, USC defeated Arizona (No. 10 AP, No. 13 USA Today) on the road in a harrowing finish and rose, wow, all the way to No. 25 in the latest USA Today coaches' poll. (The Trojans are No. 22 in the AP media poll.)

Arizona lost in harrowing fashion and dropped to No. 17.

Three Pac-12 teams in this week's top 25 — Stanford, USC and Arizona State — play nonconference games against Notre Dame.

A good question to be asked is: why?

Another Pac-12 team, Utah, has already won at Michigan this year, while Oregon played defending Big Ten champion Michigan State.

Oregon won the game, in Eugene, by 19 points.

Oregon and Michigan State are 5-1 and ranked in the top 10.

In the coaches' poll, however, No. 6 Michigan State is three spots higher than Oregon. Michigan State, in the AP poll, is one spot ahead of No. 9 Oregon.

Alabama, citing concerns about future SEC scheduling, canceled a home-and-home series with Michigan State.

The Crimson Tide didn't want to take the game if the SEC decided to go to a nine-game schedule. The SEC decided to stay at eight.

Oregon, not Alabama, plays at Michigan State next season.

Alabama's last nonconference road game at an opposing team's stadium was . . . Penn State in 2011.

It seems too late for the Pac-12 to alter its ideology. It seems stubbornly set with playing nine league games and a challenging out-of-conference schedule.

Stanford and USC will continue to play at Notre Dame every other year.

As in the SEC West, Pac-12 teams will continue to beat each other up in league play. It will just take place a few corporate levels down in the rented space at SEC Rankings Tower.

The SEC West has four teams bunched between No. 1 and No. 7 in the polls, while the Pac-12 has six bunched between 16 and 26.

That doesn't seem like a good formula for competing annually in the four-team playoff race, unless the new selection committee is serious about rewarding champions from the best conferences.

The SEC West, though, would be foolish to mess with its winning formula.

Why risk it?

The division isn't just better than the rest — it's also smarter.

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