Will The West Be Won?

FAYETTEVILLE -- They've stepped over one another en route to Southeastern Conference Western Division championships, dealt title-smashing blows with stunning upsets and redefined seasons with big wins in this annual clash.

The Arkansas-Auburn series has been engulfed by enormous implications and interesting results the past four seasons. The winner claimed two SEC Western Division championships (2000 and 2002), the road team has two straight victories and the unranked team is 3-1.

"(Arkansas-Auburn) has meant everything to the SEC West. Everything," said Arkansas defensive end Jeb Huckeba. "When you look back two years ago, we went down there and killed them (38-17). Last year, we were the ones 4-0 and they beat us (10-3).

"This game has really been a defining game for both teams. But that's the kind of game you want to play in."

Arkansas (3-2, 1-1 in SEC) and No. 4 Auburn (6-0, 3-0) butt helmets this afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium for another pivotal game that, if history stands, will have a lasting effect on the Western Division race.

The Tigers have cleared two major hurdles with victories against LSU and Tennessee and can tighten their stranglehold on the division with another today. The Hogs, disappointed after a 45-30 loss at then-No. 16 Florida on Oct. 2, are hoping to bounce back and step into the title chase with a victory.

"Our season is always defined around this time of year," said Arkansas tailback DeCori Birmingham. "The success we have from here on out determines what we do as far as bowl games and the SEC championship. Right now, the West is wide-open."

There's no doubt both sides are aware of the implications of today's game.

Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown said the Tigers have been well versed in the past few years.

Take their 10-3 upset win last year, when seventh-ranked and undefeated Arkansas' dream season crumbled during a rugged defensive struggle that started its three-game losing skid. Auburn was in the same boat in 2001 when it had a 6-1 record and its championship hopes were destroyed by a 42-17 loss to unranked Arkansas, led by true freshman quarterback Matt Jones.

"Everybody kind of knows the situation and knows what's going on with the situation," said Brown of Auburn's hot start. "And we know the Arkansas game, how it is every game.

"I think it's in everybody's mind that we don't want (a letdown) to happen."

Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville doesn't believe that'll happen because of his largest senior class at Auburn (18) and its experiences last season.

The Tigers didn't live up to preseason national title talk in 2003, but hold their highest ranking since 1994 and have the nation's fifth-longest win streak (8). Auburn is off to its best start under Tuberville with an offense ranked second in the SEC in total yards (435.2 per game) and the nation's fourth-best scoring defense (7.2 points per game).

"I think we're playing above and beyond a lot of people's expectations," Tuberville said. "The biggest difference in this team is we've been a lot more consistent on both sides of the ball -throwing, running, tackling, not losing our focus; all the little things that change an average year into a good year.

"And, right now, we've got a good year going because we've done the little things a lot better."

Of course, last week's conference games prove that can change quickly.

During its bye-week Arkansas watched visiting teams go 4-0 in SEC games, including Tennessee's 19-14 win at then-No. 3 Georgia. LSU won at Florida, Ole Miss stunned South Carolina in Columbia and Alabama knocked off Kentucky in Lexington. Auburn delivered a road upset of its own two weeks ago, shocking Tennessee 34-10 at Neyland Stadium.

"That's the one thing about our league that we talk about every year," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday. There are a lot of teams in the Top 25 that don't want to play in the SEC."

The Hogs are 2-1 at Auburn under Nutt, including the convincing 38-17 win in 2002 that kicked off Arkansas' push for the SEC Western Division championship. Tailback Fred Talley erupted for a career-high 241 yards to help Arkansas wipe away back-to-back losses against Alabama (30-12) and Tennessee (41-38 in six overtimes).

Auburn hasn't forgotten that game.

That's why the Tigers refuse to underestimate unranked Arkansas.

"I know they're going to come in here ready," said Auburn senior tailback Carnell Williams. "They're a good team. They always play us tough no matter what they're ranked or what we're ranked. It's always going to be a good game."

The Razorbacks had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers, something that has produced mixed results in the past.

Arkansas' used its first off weekend to patch holes in a leaky defense that has surrendered big plays and is ninth in the SEC in yards allowed (357.8). An error-prone offense replaced three key contributors that quit (receiver Carlos Ousley) or sustained injuries (starting right tackle Zac Tubbs and fullback Peyton Hillis).

Arkansas knows it needs a win to stay alive in the divisional championship race despite the defensive problems and offensive changes. In fact, Arkansas linebacker Clarke Moore said the Hogs must win "(to) have any shot of the West title."

The rest of the SEC West will be interested in the results, too. Auburn would grab a two-game lead on everyone in the division but Ole Miss (2-1) with a win.

Once again, Arkansas-Auburn means "everything." But that's not really unusual.

"This is what it's coming down to," said Arkansas receiver Steven Harris. "This game is going to decide the pack leader. Auburn is the only undefeated team in the West.

"If you win this game, you're ahead of the pack. This is a pivotal game for us."

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