This the “Topp Rope,” a biweekly SEC football column from the USA TODAY Network’s Blake Toppmeyer.
The SEC West functioning at its toughest caliber usually requires Alabama, Auburn and LSU to play at a robust level.
Take 2013. The SEC grew to 14 teams the previous season, and 2013 remains the West’s stoutest year since that conference expansion. Division stalwarts led the effort. Auburn finished 12-2 and was the national runner-up. Alabama went 11-2 and played in the Sugar Bowl. LSU went 10-3, including an Outback Bowl victory.
The division was a gantlet. Six of the seven teams finished with a winning record.
A case also could be made for 2014 as the West’s strongest year, when all seven teams had a winning record, although no SEC team reached the national championship.
The SEC West’s 2021 rendition stacks up with 2013 and ’14, but this season isn’t a case of Alabama, Auburn and LSU ruling its subjects. The SEC’s West strength is thanks in no small part to the surge of Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas under second-year coaches Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Sam Pittman.
LSU (4-6, 2-5 SEC) faces the possibility of its first losing season since 1999. It is the West’s only team that isn’t bowl eligible. The Tigers must beat Louisiana-Monroe and Texas A&M these next two weeks to secure a bowl bid after losing 16-13 to Arkansas in overtime Saturday. The Razorbacks (7-3, 3-3) claimed the Golden Boot for the first time since 2015.
Auburn (6-4, 3-3) became a hot item in October before fizzling. Mississippi State (6-4, 4-3) rallied with 40 consecutive points to beat the Tigers 43-34 on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2) positioned itself as a Sugar Bowl favorite with a 29-19 victory over Texas A&M. Ole Miss showed it boasts more than star quarterback Matt Corral. The Rebels’ defense supplied two fourth-quarter interceptions, including A.J. Finley’s touchdown return to secure victory.
If you’re an athletics director waffling on whether to make a coaching change (see Florida AD Scott Stricklin), the work of Kiffin, Leach and Pittman is an argument for testing the coaching carousel rather than staying the course.
Arkansas and Mississippi State each fired a coach after two seasons. For Arkansas, the choice seemed obvious, considering Chad Morris was 4-20. That Pittman has the Razorbacks positioned for eight-plus victories in his second season is remarkable.
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Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead after back-to-back bowl bids, citing a bad fit. After a shaky September, the Bulldogs’ surge under Leach these past two months vindicates that coaching change. Mississippi State has defeated four ranked opponents.
Ole Miss had a modest ceiling under Kiffin’s predecessor, Matt Luke. The Rebels gambled by hiring Kiffin, and the risk paid off.
With Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas playing like this, the West is thriving even during lackluster seasons from Auburn and LSU.
Two-loss Alabama for the CFP?
When Alabama debuted at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings earlier this month, I wrote that the Crimson Tide (9-1, 5-1) could make the playoff as a two-loss team if it plays No. 1 Georgia close in the SEC Championship.
I believe that more strongly after previously undefeated Oklahoma lost to Baylor on Saturday. Neither the ACC nor the Big 12 has a surefire playoff candidate, which further opens the door for a potentially two-loss Alabama.
Barring something unforeseen, Georgia and a Big Ten East team will make the playoff. If Oregon (No. 3 CFP) runs the table, the Ducks are in, too. Then if Georgia beats Alabama in a close game, the committee likely would choose an undefeated Cincinnati over a two-loss Tide, if in part to prevent a Georgia-Alabama rematch in the CFP semifinals.
But what if Oregon or Cincinnati loses? In that case, Alabama’s playoff path widens, as long as it is competitive for four quarters against Georgia in Atlanta.
Sharks circle Dan Mullen
Embattled Florida coach Dan Mullen can’t shake the negative headlines, and the latest round of criticism comes the Gators’ 70-52 victory over Samford, a sub-.500 FCS opponent. Samford led at halftime.
When a reporter suggested the game could be seen as a bad Florida performance, Mullen interjected a quip comparing the reporter to Trent Crimm, a cynical journalist from the TV show “Ted Lasso.”
“Calling a win disappointing is disrespectful to the game and the players,” said Mullen, adding that this was “a big win.”
I didn’t find Mullen’s comments particularly cringeworthy, especially not when compared to some of his previous gaffes. His remarks would pass unnoticed if the good times were rolling. But with Mullen fighting for his job, sharks are in the water, and his quotes are attracting outsized attention.
He said it
“We go in every week and not think that we’re God’s favorite team. We know that nobody’s going to give us anything, so we’ve got to earn it.” – Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, after the Bulldogs defeated Tennessee 41-17 to improve to 10-0
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach, Sam Pittman form the case to fire Dan Mullen