STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The two coaches met at midfield prior to kickoff and shook hands. Chatting for a few minutes, they shared a similar frustration: They both have to lead teams in a gantlet called the SEC West.
Dan Mullen knew Bret Bielema’s pain. Every week had been a struggle. Every conference game had been a grind. The chips had fallen the right way for Mullen’s Mississippi State squad, but he knew the margin between their No. 1 ranking and Bielema’s .500 record at Arkansas was razor-thin.
“Both of us were just amazed at how strong our league is,” Bielema said.
Then Bielema gave Mullen a scare that sent shockwaves out from Starkville and across the entire college football landscape. For what seems like the umpteenth time this season, lowly, unranked Arkansas nearly beat an SEC power.
By taking No. 1 Mississippi State down to the wire, the Razorbacks once again served as Exhibit A in the never-ending argument for and against the existence of SEC bias.
Either Arkansas is that good or the SEC is only average. It can’t be both. Bielema’s squad either proves the league’s incredible strength top to bottom or it shows that the top just isn’t as good as some believe.
How else could No. 3 Auburn be tied at halftime with a team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years?
How else could No. 6 Alabama trail a team in the fourth quarter that it had beaten 52-0 in each of the previous two seasons?
How else could No. 1 Mississippi State need a fourth-and-two stop and a red-zone interception to survive a .500 team at home?
Either Arkansas is a wolf in sheep's clothing or those teams don't deserve their high rankings.
The big question on both sides of the argument is how the College Football Playoff selection committee views the Razorbacks. And judging by the first round of rankings, there’s a ton of respect for Bielema’s squad and the SEC West in general.
If you think Auburn is overrated, what does it say about No. 9 Kansas State? If you believe Alabama’s top-10 ranking isn’t justified, then how about No. 20 West Virginia? Don’t think Mississippi State should be No. 1? Then how do you explain its three wins over top-10 teams, including Auburn?
If you think Arkansas isn’t underrated, consider this: The Razorbacks are ranked No. 20 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team’s strength and predicts its performance moving forward based on results to date and remaining opponents. That comes despite a remaining strength of schedule that ranks third nationally. At 4-5, Arkansas is the only sub-.500 team in the top 30 of the FPI.
If statistics don’t interest you then look at Arkansas’ roster, which is better than you might expect. Though the Razorbacks don’t have a game-changer at QB, they have one of the best tandem of running backs in the country in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Their offensive line is massive. Hunter Henry might be the SEC’s best tight end, and Trey Flowers has to be one of the most unheralded defensive ends in all of college football.
Every coach who has gone up against Arkansas has walked away saying the same thing: Those guys are going to beat somebody soon and we’re glad it wasn’t us.
“At this point it’s almost numbing to be so close and not be able to come out on top with one of these opportunities,” Bielema said following Saturday’s close loss at Mississippi State. “But I can promise we’ll take a bye week and get a little bit better, get healthy, and nobody will attack these last three games like the Arkansas Razorbacks.”
That should be a scary thought for No. 19 LSU, which travels to Fayetteville on Nov. 15.
No. 4 Ole Miss probably isn't looking forward to visiting Arkansas the following week.
If Arkansas pulls off the upset either of those games, don’t be surprised. Mullen won’t be. His team is ranked No. 1 in the country and he couldn’t have been more pleased to beat those lowly, unranked Razorbacks. Some might have called it an ugly win, but he was happy to have survived.
As Mullen was leaving his postgame television show late Saturday night, he breathed one last sigh of relief. He knew Arkansas’ record didn’t indicate it, but he said that was a top-25 caliber team he just faced.
“If they weren’t in the SEC West ...” he began.
He didn’t have to finish the argument. We know where it goes.