The preseason SEC media poll came out in July and stratified the West. Alabama was the clear favorite with over 2,200 points, while LSU was No. 2 by a wide margin with 1,984 points. Ole Miss also got five votes to win the division and ended up with 1,479 points.
Keep scrolling down the list and eventually Texas A&M (1,130) and Arkansas (1,047) appear at No. 4 and 5. Neither was expected to be among the nation’s elite and both were on the outside of the preseason AP Top 25 poll.
Perhaps that is what makes their meteoric rise through the first three games so impressive.
Texas A&M beat UCLA, Prairie View A&M and Auburn in its first three games as Trevor Knight settled into his job as the starting quarterback. Arkansas struggled in the opener against Louisiana Tech, but were re-inspired after a double overtime win over TCU in Fort Worth.
Now, Texas A&M ranks No. 10 in the nation and Arkansas ranks No. 17. The pair have quietly become the second and third highest ranked teams in the SEC West, trailing just No. 1 Alabama.
When the two teams meet this weekend, SEC West supremacy will be on the line. Alabama obviously remains the class of the division and conference. But whoever wins this game will have the clearest path to competing with the Crimson Tide.
Since joining the SEC, the Aggies are a perfect 4-0 against Arkansas, with three of the wins coming since Bret Bielema took over the program in 2013. However, games have gotten progressively closer. Texas A&M, led by Johnny Manziel, dominated Arkansas by 48 points the first year. That went down to 12 points the next year. The Aggies have topped Arkansas by a touchdown in overtime each of the last two seasons. Both teams could be close to their peak under their respective coaches, making this perhaps the best matchup of the series.
Texas A&M boasted a pair of five-star quarterbacks last season, but neither was able to gain a foothold in the lineup. Eventually, both chose to transfer. Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight arrived in the stead. Although he can’t pass like Kyle Allen or run like Kyler Murray, he provides balance. Despite some struggles against Auburn, he leads an Aggie attack the ranks No. 14 with 530.7 yards per game, up nearly 100 yards a game from last season, which is impressive even in limited sample size.
While Texas A&M’s offense has gotten markedly better, Arkansas’ defense has made incredible strides. Even though the secondary remains suspect, senior linebacker Brooks Ellis leads a front seven that is holding teams to just 322.7 yards per game, down from allowing 391 yards per game last year.
Seeing these two teams try and establish their identities on the other should lead to a highly competitive game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. More importantly, the winner will separate itself from the pack in the SEC West.
LSU expected to be a major contender for the conference, but things fell apart quickly in a season-opening loss to Wisconsin. Ole Miss has experienced similar, as the Rebels became the first team in the last decade to blow a pair of 21-point leads in losses to No. 4 Florida State and No. 1 Alabama. Auburn is in desperate need of offense, while Mississippi State lacks enough consistency to pick up victories.
It’s not too late for any of those teams to get back into the mix, but the division currently looks like a three-team race between Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Even if the winner of this game loses to Alabama, the rest of the schedule still opens up. Getting second place in the division is prestigious enough that it should lead to a New Year’s Six bowl.
There will be plenty on the line on Saturday night in Arlington and seeing how these two teams respond should lead to one of the best games of the weekend.