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Mallett, Razorbacks have Lived Up to Lofty Hype

COLUMBIA, SC - NOVEMBER 06: Ryan Mallett  of the Arkansas Razorbacks during warm ups before the start of their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 6, 2010 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Expecting Arkansas to have actually competed in the brutal SEC West this year given the stature of that program and the type of competition they faced on a week-in, week-out basis was predictive folly at the beginning of this season.  It wasn’t smart.  Alabama, Auburn, LSU: these are all stronger programs than Arkansas, and while Ryan Mallett was expected to earn his high first round NFL draft projection over the course of these four games, there wasn’t great evidence that he could be a great college quarterback in the SEC.

So perhaps the biggest surprise of the SEC West this season isn’t that Cam Newton is superman, or that Alabama’s defense struggled at times, or that Mississippi tanked and lost to a Jacksonville State team that isn’t among the ten best teams in it’s own subdivision.  The biggest surprise of all may be…that Arkansas was as good or better than they were expected to be.

In fact, the Razorbacks are just a Cam Newton ineligibility ruling from being the best team in the SEC this season.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment against the schedule they played, and you could make the argument that Arkansas’ 10-2 record is more impressive than Auburn’s 12-0.  The Auburn-Arkansas game was both the most impressive win that Auburn had this season and the most deflating loss that Arkansas took, but it’s college football and the way the scoring was run up at the end of that game, Auburn might have come up on the short end had they not knocked Mallett from the game.

And if that result was different, Arkansas is potentially knocking on the door of a national championship where at one loss, they are dangerously close to overtaking TCU in the BCS standings and probably would with a victory in the SEC title game.  Arkansas couldn’t stop Auburn’s ground attack in that game, so who knows if a healthy Mallett would have made any difference?  My points are that: it was a close outcome game until the very end, and in hindsight, that was the biggest college football game of the year.

How easy would it have been at 4-2, and no chance to play for the SEC title because of head to head losses to the two frontrunners for Arkansas to fold at that point and limp to 7-5 and a forgettable bowl bid?  Really easy, I imagine.  Instead, they will wait on Auburn to go in and beat South Carolina, and then, just maybe, Arkansas will be heading to the Sugar Bowl as an at large team in the BCS.

I think it will be very well deserved.  They clearly aren’t ahead in the at large pecking order of undefeated TCU (automatic), and one-losses Stanford or Ohio State, but the BCS is ten teams.  The Big Ten can’t send it’s third one loss team as another at large, per BCS mandate.  That means, competing with Arkansas for that last at large bid are: Boise State, Oklahoma State, Nevada, and Missouri.  Anyone else who could possibly attain that at large bid is going to be playing this week in a conference championship match, where a loss would send them to three losses (out of the BCS running), and a win sends them to the BCS.

The ONLY team playing a conference championship this week that could lose the game and still make the BCS is the Auburn Tigers.  An Auburn loss to South Carolina puts the Gamecocks in, and drops the Razorbacks out of the BCS.  But when you look at the competition: Boise, Nevada, OSU, Missouri, consider that by-and-large voters are a “what have you done for me lately” group.  All Arkansas has done lately is win their last six games putting up 30 or more points in each game, and by an average margin of about 3 TDs per game.

I think that feat alone makes them more BCS-deserving than every available option this side of Boise State, and Boise cannot overcome the financial discrepancy between having two SEC teams and one SEC team in the BCS.  Pending the South Carolina-Auburn outcome, Bobby Petrino’s team is headed for the Sugar Bowl because they’ve been college football’s best team since the middle of October.  TCU and Arkansas would be a Sugar Bowl dream match-up.

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