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.
"I'm probably the only coach that speaks the truth about that," Freeze said. "I don't know if our fans like it or not, but there are times you feel like it's insurmountable. The confidence you have is that you know in your heart that you've closed the gap from what it was, and that on a given day, you're good enough to beat them."
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."