Mon Nov 29 11:56am EST
A single division is home to the nation's No. 1 team, the preseason No. 1 team, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, the most interesting coach of the year, the most bizarre finish of the year, the most astonishing comeback of the year, the most sought-after target in this winter's coaching carousel, one of the most gripping scandals in the history of the sport and, as of Sunday, five of the top 22 teams in all of the mainstream polls, more than any other conference as a whole. As of Saturday, it's also home to the best – and probably the most overlooked – edition of Arkansas since the Hogs came aboard the newly expanded SEC 18 years ago.
With their 31-23 win over streaking LSU, the Razorbacks joined the 2006 division champs as the only Arkansas outfit since '92 with ten wins, or to be taking up residence in the top 10 as the calendar turns to December. That's mostly thanks to a six-game winning streak, where the victories have come by an average of 20 points per game, including a 41-20 trouncing of East Division champ South Carolina in Columbia. They've also gone on the road to beat upstart Mississippi State in Starkville, after dispatching Georgia in Athens and Texas A&M in Dallas earlier in the year.
They're going to start and finish in the polls for the first time since 1999, and spend the entire season there without dropping out – only once even falling outside of the top 20, immediately following the loss to Auburn – for the first time since '89, their last Southwest Conference championship. Barring a minor earthquake in Saturday's SEC Championship Game, they're going to their first Sugar Bowl since Lou Holtz took them to New Orleans in '79, and their first BCS bowl of the big-money era.
In short, the acquisitions of passing guru Bobby Petrino on the sideline and golden-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett in the pocket in late 2007 have paid off exactly as intended: Arkansas is an undeniably elite offense, and on the verge of closing out the year as an undeniably elite team for the first time in at least 20 years.
And still, there's the lingering sense of what could have been. If the Razorbacks hadn't blown a 13-point second half lead to Alabama, or set the Tide up for the game-winning touchdown on a late interception? If Mallett hadn't been knocked out of the 65-43 loss at Auburn, where another late lead bit the dust behind three straight turnovers – two of them interceptions by backup QB Tyler Wilson – in the fourth quarter of the highest scoring game in SEC history? A bowl win will leave the Hogs with 11 wins and most likely a top-five finish for the first time since 1977, a banner year by any standard.
But if Mallett opts to forego the massive hype of a senior season with all of his primary targets, emerging backfield star Knile Davis and eight defensive starters en tow for a $20 million payday in the draft, the Razorbacks can only wonder if the chance for a banner that finally reads "SEC champions" is going along with him. It might be a long, long time before it comes around again.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.