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October 9, 2006

Arkansas proves SEC races wide open

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ATHENS, Ga. The Southeastern Conference's sequel to Separation Saturday didn't quite live up to its name.

Florida certainly did its part, beating Louisiana State 23-10 to break away from the rest of the Eastern Division. In the process, the Gators solidified their status as one of the nation's elite teams.

But the road to the Western Division appears more circuitous than ever with a surprising team in the driver's seat.

All year long, the West looked like a two-team race between Auburn and LSU. Those teams have won five of the last six division titles and had spent the entire season in the top 10 before this weekend.

When Auburn beat LSU 7-3 last month, it supposedly made Auburn the Western Division favorite and a legitimate national title contender.

Somebody forgot to give Arkansas the memo.

Arkansas yes, Arkansas owns sole possession of first place in the West after a stunningly decisive 27-10 victory at Auburn.

"It's your goal every year to be SEC West champions," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said Saturday. "We have a real chance now."

The Razorbacks not only have a real chance, they have the best chance.

Arkansas (4-1, 3-0 SEC) is two games ahead of LSU (4-2, 1-2) in the loss column. The Razorbacks essentially own a two-game edge over once-beaten Auburn (5-1, 3-1) because of their head-to-head victory over the Tigers.

Arkansas proved this weekend how far it has progressed since that humiliating 50-14 home loss to Southern California in its season opener. The Razorbacks are an entirely different team now that star tailback Darren McFadden has returned to full strength and true freshman Mitch Mustain has taken over as the starting quarterback.

Mustain made no critical mistakes Saturday and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Monk that helped stake Arkansas to an early 10-0 lead.

But he threw only 10 passes all day as the Razorbacks relied on their usual formula for success. Run the ball and dare the opponent to stop you.

Arkansas dominated the trenches so thoroughly that McFadden and Felix Jones each rushed for more than 100 yards against an Auburn defense that hadn't allowed any running back to reach the century mark all season. The Hogs gained 6.2 yards per carry while holding Auburn to 1.9 yards per rush.

"They came out and beat us at what we do best, which is lining up and running," Auburn defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said.

Auburn's disappointment is bad news for Florida, which continues its rugged midseason schedule by traveling to the Plains next weekend. The Tigers will try to erase the memories of the Arkansas game by devastating the Gators' hopes of winning a national title.

Florida certainly looked like a national title contender Saturday.

Star quarterback Chris Leak failed to throw a touchdown pass, yet the Gators still breezed past LSU by forcing five turnovers and harassing JaMarcus Russell into numerous mistakes. The best quarterback on the field Saturday actually was Florida backup Tim Tebow, the freshman phenom who threw two touchdown passes and rushed for a third score.

"This was a very special and emotional moment for us seniors," Leak said afterward. "We are going to remember this for the rest of our lives.''

The rest of Florida's season could prove even more memorable.

Even if Florida loses at Auburn next week, the Gators still should win their first Eastern Division title since 2000.

Because they won 21-20 at Tennessee last month, the Gators (6-0, 4-0) own a potential tiebreaker advantage over the Volunteers (5-1, 1-1). The one scenario that could cause the most damage to Florida's conference title hopes is a loss Oct. 28 against Georgia (5-1, 2-1), which has dropped seven of its last eight meetings with the Gators.

Georgia's 51-33 loss to Tennessee this weekend certainly didn't offer any indication that it could compete with the Gators, though the Bulldogs and Volunteers aren't ready to concede the division title just yet.

"It's early in the season," Georgia quarterback Joe Tereshinski said. "There's still a lot to play for. The SEC championship game - it's still there. Some things might have to happen later on, but it's early.''

Although Florida looks like an overwhelming favorite to win the Eastern Division title, the Bulldogs cited Arkansas' upset of Auburn as proof that anything can happen in this conference.

If Florida loses a game it was supposed to win, Georgia and Tennessee could get right back in the mix. On the other hand, one more conference loss by Georgia or Tennessee would virtually eliminate either team from contention.

"You can't ever look more than one game ahead in the SEC because you never know," Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge said. "Anybody can beat anybody."

Arkansas will try to heed that warning as it attempts to complete its own improbable journey to the SEC championship game.

The 17th-ranked Razorbacks still must prove they can handle their newfound prosperity. They shouldn't have trouble feasting on Southeast Missouri State, Ole Miss and Louisiana-Monroe the next three weeks.

Then the schedule gets much trickier.

Arkansas begins November with a trip to South Carolina before playing host to Tennessee the following week. The Razorbacks close the regular season by facing LSU at Little Rock, Ark.

Is the Hogs' pass defense good enough to slow down Ainge or South Carolina quarterback Syvelle Newton? Will the Razorbacks continue to find running room against LSU's powerful defense?

Those answers should determine whether Arkansas wins the West, but the Razorbacks undoubtedly just took a giant step in the right direction.

"This was a motivational win for us," Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajubutu said. "We have several tough games coming up, but we knew if we won this one, we have the ability to beat anybody."

Do they have the ability to beat Florida? We may find out the first weekend of December.

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