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Mike Leach, Sam Pittman and the NCAA Transfer Portal

Leach's Mississippi State Bulldogs and Pittman's Arkansas Razorbacks play a key SEC game with rosters dotted by transfer players

A quartet of Southeastern Conference Western Division teams – Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi and Mississippi State – have a combined nine losses through the first two months of the 2021 college football seasons.

And yet all four programs landed in the initial College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings released Tuesday night – and occupied four of the five slots between the Nos. 13-17 in the poll.

Not in those rankings and yet already 5-3 with two wins against ranked opponents and one-point loss to Ole Miss is Arkansas.

The Razorbacks are a win away from bowl eligibility; four SEC West teams already have clinched the opportunity for postseason play, and only LSU – at 4-4 – is more than a win away from ensuring the entire division is qualified for the postseason.

Arkansas and Mississippi State – each with second-year head coaches – might be the biggest surprises in college football's most rugged division and therefore perhaps among the bigger surprises nationally in the sport.

Hogs coach Sam Pittman, already this season with wins against long-time rival Texas as well as Texas A&M, points to a recent change in college football rules as key for both programs.

“The West is a beast, you know. All the SEC is; but the West is what it has been for years,” Pittman said. “You know, I think the (NCAA Transfer) Portal is changing football a little bit. You can add some guys to your team that can help you significantly. Like Mississippi State has done, and like we've done.

“Which gives a little bit more parity to the league, I think.”

The Razorbacks have double-digit transfers on their roster from other four-year institutions, including such programs as Colorado, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Missouri and Oklahoma, among others.

Similarly, Mississippi State has transfers from Arizona State, Texas, California, Air Force and Southern Miss as part of its roster.

Though Bulldogs coach Mike Leach doesn't specifically point to the Transfer Portal, he does single out another element to emerge in college athletics in the past 18 months.

“I think the conference is deep, I think that's pretty accurate,” Leach said. “I would say it's more so than usual for sure as far as in particular it seems to me that the offensive lines and especially the defensive lines are good in this conference.

“I think the other thing, we've struggled with the youth on our team, but some of these teams with the Covid (protocols and rules changes), everybody got an extra year. Some guys are getting to 90 scholarships or so. I think that, I think some of that has made the league tougher. Guys that stayed over on some tams have provided depth and leadership and that type of thing. I think it's done that to a point a little bit around the country.”

Pittman, in his slow, Southern drawl, isn't ready to proclaim his Arkansas team is quite on the Bulldogs' level – even though both the Razorbacks and the Bulldogs own wins against Texas A&M, the team that is responsible for second-ranked Alabama's only loss this season.

“Because we've only won one SEC game, we're still not there with Mississippi State,” said Pittman, whose team lost three-straight conference games after starting the season 4-0 and crashing into the top 10 of the national rankings. “They've won several. I think they're one of the few teams that have beaten three top 25 teams in the country.

“That's a pretty darn good resume. I think that's why they're ranked 17th in the latest poll that came out (Tuesday) night and they're well-deserving.”