|Tuesday, December 10
Updated: December 11, 11:37 AM ET
Georgia dominates in down year for SEC
By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com
If you want to know what a general tossup the Southeastern Conference was this year, the proof is in the home field. And the losses there.
Tennessee lost at home to Florida and Alabama. Florida lost at home to LSU. LSU lost at home to Alabama. Auburn lost at home to Arkansas. Arkansas lost at home to Alabama and Kentucky. Alabama lost at home to Georgia and Auburn. Kentucky lost at home to LSU and South Carolina.
The league this year was pretty much Georgia followed by a muddled pack.
The Dogs were in the national title conversation all year long, but had precious little company. In a true rarity, the SEC failed to produce a second top-shelf team -- or a single viable Heisman Trophy candidate.
In a league that began the season as the epicenter of the Year of the Quarterback, nobody could keep a starting QB healthy or productive long enough to make a serious run at the thing. Rex Grossman was done by mid-October, and Casey Clausen before that. Eli Manning never really got it going to begin with.
The league's profile took a hit off the field as well. It barely produced enough bowl-eligible teams, thanks to the postseason probations slapped on Alabama and Kentucky, and there is trouble to come at a couple other league schools (Mississippi State and Arkansas first and foremost).
MVP: Georgia QB David Greene started the season as the No. 4 quarterback in the league. After two shaky weeks he was nearly the No. 2 quarterback on his team, in danger of being surpassed by freshman D.J. Shockley. But by the time it was all over, he was the leader of the league's best team, and the guy who threw the late touchdown pass that beat Auburn and clinched the conference crown. The sophomore has now started 20 wins in two seasons.
Coach of the Year: Kentucky's Guy Morriss figured to be fired by now. Instead, he did so well he got another job at reportedly over $1 million a year, or nearly two and a half times what he was making this season. Not bad considering he entered the season with a 2-9 career record, his team on probation, lacking a buyout in his contract and trying to win over a change-oriented new athletic director. He left it having gone a surprising 7-5 agreeing to take over at Baylor.
Newcomer of the Year: Arkansas freshman running back D'Arrius Howard made room for himself in an incredibly crowded backfield, rushing for 588 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Not bad when you're sharing carries with Fred Talley, Cedric Cobbs, Mark Pierce and quarterback Matt Jones. Howard was at his most valuable during the Razorbacks' six-game winning streak to close the regular season, especially with 125 yards in a seven-point win at Mississippi State.
Biggest Surprise: Kentucky knocked off Louisville and Arkansas on the road, ran the ball better than it has in years, killed people with special teams and came within an utter fluke-miracle play of beating LSU to finish with eight wins for the first time in 18 years. This with a team that was expected to win half that many games, at best.
Biggest Disappointment: Florida took the biggest public flogging for its 8-4 season, but Tennessee deserved it more. True, the preseason top-five Volunteers were racked by injuries to key players -- but still, their 8-4 record is almost devoid of great moments. A lucky six-overtime escape against Arkansas pretty well begins and ends the highlight reel. Tennessee wasn't terribly competitive in its losses to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Miami.
MVP: The offensive line probably deserves it en masse, but give it to quarterback Tyler Watts, who shook off injuries to finish second to Greene in the league in passing efficiency and account for 1,770 yards of total offense.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing the coach who was going to guide the program through purgatory and back to the Promised Land would pretty easily qualify.
Did You Know: Alabama ran the ball precisely twice as often as it threw, and dominated the clock as a result. The Tide led the league in time of possession and rattled off 165 more plays than opponents.
MVP: Quarterback Matt Jones still needs some polish on his passing, but he is a spectacular athlete. He accounted for 2,073 yards total offense and 20 touchdowns this season, and at 6-foot-5, the part-time basketball player might be the tallest option-running quarterback ever.
Biggest Disappointment: Brendan O'Donohoe's crooked field goal attempt in overtime cost the Razorbacks a huge overtime win at Tennessee. The Razorbacks bounced back just fine, but that 36-yard kick would have given the Hogs a huge victory and a 10-win season.
Did You Know: Only Alabama ran the ball more often than Arkansas' 577 times. But nobody in the league lost fewer fumbles (five). No wonder Nutt's bunch did so well in turnover margin.
MVP: Whoever was taking handoffs. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was on his way to All-America consideration (745 yards and 10 TDs) before breaking his ankle. Then it was backup Ronnie Brown stepping in and taking off, rushing for 824 yards and 11 scores before he got hurt. Fourth-teamer Tre Smith, a pint-sized freshman, then got galloping for 126 yards in the big win over 'Bama.
Biggest Disappointment: After so many clutch kicks as a junior, Damon Duval's senior season was a crashing anticlimax. He hit a chip shot that could have beaten Florida too low and got it blocked, and missed eight of 14 on the season -- five of them from less than 40 yards. At one point coach Tommy Tuberville yanked his placement duties and turned them over to backup Phillip Yost.
Did You Know: Auburn lost to BCS schools Southern Cal and Georgia by a combined 10 points, and to Florida by seven in overtime. The only team all year that the Tigers couldn't handle was Arkansas.
MVP: Rex Grossman's junior year didn't bear much resemblance to his sophomore year, but he competed magnificently in the big games Florida won over Tennessee and Georgia. You know you've raised the bar pretty high when you throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns and it's an off year.
Biggest Disappointment: After losing by 25 to Miami and 17 to Florida State, Gators fans will get an earful all offseason from their neighbors. They're the state punching bag until next September.
Did You Know: Florida hasn't scored 30 points in a regulation game since September. Last time the Gators went all of October and November without scoring at least that much: 1960.
MVP: If Greene is the MVP of the league, it stands to reason that he's MVP of the team. But sophomore defensive end David Pollack was probably the Revelation of the Year in the SEC, leading the league in sacks (12) and quarterback pressures (30), and throwing in 20 tackles for loss for good measure.
Biggest Disappointment: Had the Dogs converted just one third down all night long against Florida, they might be playing in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State. The BCS thanks them for sparing it the agony and anarchy of dealing with three undefeated teams.
Did You Know: Mark Richt is known for offense, but in two years between the hedges his defense has yet to give up 30 points in a game. Last time Georgia went an entire season without surrendering 30 was 1987. Last time it went two straight was 1982-83.
MVP: Tough call here between the SEC's leading rusher (Artose Pinner) and the nation's most dangerous kick returner (Derek Abney). Might as well let them split it, though Abney's NCAA-record six returns for a touchdown is fairly spectacular.
Biggest Disappointment: The sight of the South goal post, leaning noticeably to the right an hour after the Cats' inconceivable loss to LSU, pretty well sums it up.
Did You Know: Jared Lorenzen threw for less than 200 yards per game this year, but his 24 touchdowns to five interceptions was the finest ratio in school history. Tim Couch in his best year was less than 3-to-1 TDs to interceptions. Lorenzen's season comes 30 years after the school was quarterbacked by an unfortunate fellow named Dinky McKay, who threw a single touchdown pass amid 15 interceptions.
MVP: Bradie James decided against the NFL draft last spring and came back to lead the league's best defense in tackles. The linebacker also had 7.5 tackles for loss.
Biggest Disappointment: The miraculous victory over Kentucky did not carry over. Given a chance to control its own destiny in the West, LSU lost two of its last three. The Cotton Bowl isn't a bad consolation prize, but the Tigers were hoping for a return trip to Atlanta for the league title game.
Did You Know: Nick Saban completed his ninth consecutive non-losing season as a head coach, in stops at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU. He's also never had a losing season in conference play in the Mid-American, Big Ten and SEC.
MVP: Eli Manning is still the guy, even if his junior year didn't measure up statistically to his sophomore year. Manning produced one more yard of total offense than Rex Grossman to lead the league, throwing for 3,088 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: If Manning comes out after this season, Ole Miss' dreams of returning to glory on the shoulders of Archie's boy will have evaporated without much significant to show for it. And it is possible that he will go pro, since the prime carrot that kept big brother Peyton in college -- a shot at a national title -- cannot realistically be dangled from any stick in Oxford.
Did You Know: This was Ole Miss' sixth straight season with at least six victories, the longest active streak in the SEC West. While the Rebels would love to break through and win nine for the first time since 1992, they've at least avoided slipping down to also-ran territory.
MVP: Linebacker/end Mario Haggan led the Bulldogs in tackles by so far it wasn't even close. Mr. Reliable was 32 ahead of State's No. 2 tackler.
Biggest Disappointment: Running back Dontae Walker arrived in Starkville with stellar prep credentials, and had some big games early in his career. He left with just 148 yards in his senior season, injury prone and badly out of shape. In a system that cherishes the running game, Walker's disappearance hurt.
Did You Know: State hasn't beaten much of anyone in the league the last two years, but by golly it absolutely owns rival Memphis. The Dogs have now beaten the Tigers nine straight times. Maybe it's time to petition for a move to Conference USA.
MVP: Jenkins was shuffled to defensive back for the final couple of games, but he still merits the MVP nod after taking a fearsome beating every game. Jenkins finished with 656 yards rushing and 1,334 yards throwing.
Biggest Disappointment: A season-ending five-game losing streak was heartbreaking not only to the Gamecocks, but to bowls with SEC tie-ins as well. It kept some of the nation's most supportive and mobile fans at home.
Did You Know: This marked the first time in 31 years that Holtz had a losing season in something other than his first year at a school. It never happened at Notre Dame, Minnesota, Arkansas or North Carolina State -- but it did happen at William & Mary, where Holtz went 3-7, 5-7 and 5-6.
MVP: We saw how valuable Clausen was when he got hurt. He "only" threw for 2,055 yards, with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions, enough to reinforce his potential to be a difference-making QB.
Biggest Disappointment: Backup quarterbacks James Banks and C.J. Leak struggled to move Tennessee through the air when Clausen was out. Neither threw an interception all year, but not much productive happened, either. That led to some wimpy showings against some good opponents, and raises serious questions about who will take over when Clausen is done.
Did You Know: The Vols have won at least eight games for the past 14 seasons and will be making their 14th consecutive bowl appearance. It's not quite on autopilot in Knoxville, but it's close.
MVP: Receiver Dan Stricker didn't get the ball as much in Johnson's option-oriented offense, but he finished a distinguished career at Vandy. Stricker leaves as the league's No. 7 career yardage leader.
Biggest Disappointment: Johnson cleaned up the cussing and the penalties (Vandy led the league in fewest penalty yards) but made no progress in the win column. Close calls against Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida are nothing but an extension of an already-extended trend. Vanderbilt leads all of college football in moral victories.
Did You Know: When viewed with the wide-angle lens of history, some programs still have to look up to Vanderbilt. The Commodores actually lead the all-time series with Auburn (19-18-1) and Kentucky (36-35-4).
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.