The Numbers Game In The West

FAYETTEVILLE - As Arkansas prepares to kick off its Southeastern Conference schedule against Alabama here Saturday, let's take a look at the Western Division, where LSU was a solid favorite before this all began.

As usual, the West is wild. No team - especially defending national champion (sort of) LSU - seems invincible, and only two SEC West teams (Arkansas and Auburn) are sold on their quarterbacks.

More this season than ever because of such a young team, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is game-planning week-by-week, focusing on the task at hand. But he tries to keep up the best he can with what's happening in his division (he has the most SEC West wins in his seventh-year tenure).

"Oh, yeah. You get all the games, you know," Nutt said. "It's one game at a time, though. It's not like, 'OK, we're watching Alabama tape last week.' We've done that in years past and it doesn't work that way. One game at a time.

"You listen to the scores on the radio, watch them across the TV screens, look at the stats each Sunday, see who's doing what. That about wraps it up."

What does he see so far?

"I think it's real tough, close," Nutt said. "I don't think anybody's just head and shoulders above."

No. 9 Auburn comes closest, thanks to its two dandy running backs (Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown) and the 10-9 home win against No. 13 LSU last weekend.

"Auburn has two great running backs," Nutt said. "The highlights I've seen, they look pretty good."

Those still-vanilla Tigers are 3-0 (2-0 in the SEC) with home wins against Mississippi State (43-14) and Louisiana-Monroe (31-0) to go with last weekend's win. Williams leads the SEC with a 100-yard per game average while Brown is fourth (89.7). But quarterback Jason Campbell still is hardly impressive, completing 56.5 percent of his passes for 6 touchdowns with an interception and 139.9-yard average, ninth-best in the SEC. No Auburn receiver averages 50 yards and the Tigers have outgained their foes just 382.0 yards to 272.7.

Alabama (3-0, 1-0) is second in the West and has outscored its foes (Western Carolina, Ole Miss and Utah State) 128-24. Mike Shula has the SEC's top-ranked defense and two strong running backs - Ray Hudson (98.3 ypg, second in SEC) and Kenneth Darby (86.7). But the Tide no longer has quarterback Brodie Croyle, who tore an ACL last weekend after being second in the SEC in passing efficiency (164.6). Now the Tide hopes to roll with Marc Guillon, who has thrown all of seven passes for 'Bama.

"Great defense," Nutt said.

Struggling Ole Miss (1-2, 1-1) is in third-place, thanks to its 26-23 overtime home win against Vanderbilt last weekend. Besides the loss to 'Bama, the Rebels fell to Memphis 20-13 in their opener. This is the only SEC West team that gives up more yards (365.3) than it makes (265.7). Micheal Spurlock was to take Eli Manning's place, but he has struggled mightily, completing just 36.7 percent of his passes for no TDs and an 81.3-yard average. The Rebs also have tossed out Ethan Flatt, who has managed to complete 59.1 percent of his passes with a touchdown for a 125-yard average. No receiver averages even 40 yards per game and Vashon Pearson is the feature back with a 71-yard average.

"Ole Miss ... it's hard when you lose the No. 1 draft pick in the world (Manning) and you're trying to get somebody else ready," Nutt said.

Arkansas is in fourth-place. More on that later.

LSU (2-1, 0-1) has been the surprise of the SEC, struggling to luck by Oregon State 22-21 in overtime at home in the season opener and losing at Auburn. In between, the Tigers beat up pitiful Arkansas State 53-3. Nick Saban has been furious with the media and fans for focusing on the quarterback situation, but it's fair game. Marcus Randall has been horrible, completing just 47.1 percent of attempts for a paltry 56.7-yard average. So Saban has turned more to JaMarcus Russell, who completes only 42.9 percent of his passes, but at least leads the Tigers to 139.7 yards per game. Justin Vincent is the workhorse, but the 61.3-yard average isn't cutting it.

Still, Nutt deeply respects the Tigers: "LSU's defending world champions."

Nutt didn't talk about Mississippi State (1-2, 0-1), which everyone knew would struggle with the bare cupboard left for first-year coach Sylvester Croom. There's not much to say. Omarr Conner (59.7 percent, 155-yard average) has been thrown into on-the-job-training in playing quarterback in Croom's system and Kyle York (69.2 percent, 43 ypg) has been used some. Jerious Norwood (65.7 ypg) leads the rushing attack, such as it is.

But Nutt cautions against taking the Mississippi teams for granted.

"What scares me about those Mississippi teams is they've got seven more weeks on you," he said. "So you can't worry about it."

Quick hitters on where West teams rank in the SEC before we move on to Arkansas:

• Scoring offense: 1) Arkansas (44.0), 2) Alabama (42.7), 5) LSU (28.0), 5) tie Auburn (28.0), 10) MSU (16.3) and 11) Ole Miss (15.3).

• Scoring defense: 1) Auburn (7.7), 2) Alabama (8.0), 4) LSU (11.3), 6) Arkansas (18.3), 7) MSU (19.7) and 10) Ole Miss (23.7).

• Passing offense: 1) Arkansas (297.3), 6) Alabama (201.7), 8) LSU (196.3), 10) MSU (183.7), 11) Auburn (179.3) and 12) Ole Miss (164.7).

• Rushing offense: 1) Alabama (241.0), 2) Arkansas (228.3), 5) Auburn (202.7), 8) LSU (160.7), 10) MSU (134.7) and 12) Ole Miss (101.0).

Total offense: 1) Arkansas (525.7), 3) Alabama (442.7), 8) Auburn (382.0), 9) LSU (357.0), 10) MSU (318.3) and 12) Ole Miss (265.7).

Total defense: 1) Alabama (216.3), 3) LSU (272.3), 4) Auburn (272.7), 6) MSU (298.7), 7) Arkansas (340.3) and 9) Ole Miss (365.3).

That brings us to Arkansas (2-1, 0-0), the most un-Westlike team thus far. Largely because of versatile quarterback Matt Jones, the Hogs boast the top-ranked passing and total offenses in the SEC.

Before the season, Nutt had no idea what to expect with a new offensive line, mostly new secondary and just four returning starters.

And now, after walloping New Mexico State (63-13), playing tit-for-tat with then-No. 7 Texas (a 22-20 loss) and mashing Louisiana-Monroe (49-20)?

"After going through the three-game preseason, I feel like if we don't have turnovers, stop the run, don't give up the big play, I think we can be in every game and have a chance to win," Nutt said.

So do the early numbers.

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