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Tuesday, December 10
Updated: December 11, 11:37 AM ET
Georgia dominates in down year for SEC

By Pat Forde
Special to

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.

David Greene
QB David Greene led the Dawgs to the Sugar Bowl.
And Georgia was the lone team that lost at home to nobody, tasting defeat only on a neutral field in Jacksonville. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs won their first league title in two decades, breaking through in Year One After Spurrier.

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.

Everything was proceeding so splendidly for the Crimson Tide, right up until season's end. A difficult probation year had turned into a Top 10 season, and Dennis Franchione had just about catapulted to hero status. Then came a jarring upset loss to Auburn. And then Franchione was bailing on the program for Texas A&M in near-record time. Talk about zapping the good feeling out of everyone.

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.

Every preseason, the Razorbacks are picked low in the Western Division. Every season, they finish better than expected -- including this one, when the Hogs closed the regular season with six straight wins to overtake LSU and win the West. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to give Houston Nutt and his program some August props.

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.

Last year the Tigers went 7-4 in the regular season and felt lousy about it after being drilled by Alabama. This year they went 8-4 and felt great about it after upsetting the Crimson Tide. Funny how that game tends to color the outlook on a season. The fact that Auburn did it in Tuscaloosa on the legs of a third-team tailback made it that much sweeter, as the Tigers repeatedly regrouped after injuries at running back.

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.

The Gators accomplished the near-impossible: Beat two top five teams in the same year, and still have your season roundly appraised as a disappointment. Florida's whipping of Tennessee in the rain and upset of unbeaten Georgia showed how good it could be -- and the loss at Mississippi and stomp in The Swamp from LSU showed how far below potential they often played. Bottom line: Ron Zook didn't buy himself a whole lot of breathing room in Year One.

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.

From the minute arch-nemesis Spurrier left for the NFL, the pressure was on the Bulldogs -- and it only increased as the season went on and the victories built up. Mark Richt's team was never better in the clutch than in huge road wins across the state line in neighboring Alabama, beating the Crimson Tide and Auburn in dramatic fashion.

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.

How much more competitive were the Wildcats this year than the past two, when they won a total of four games? They led in the second half of every game but the finale, a 24-0 dud at Tennessee. This turnaround season gave long-suffering Kentucky fans reason to hope that probation might not be that bad -- but the scholarship cuts won't hurt until next year.

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.

After a 6-1 start, the Tigers slid to an 8-4 finish -- and the two wins in that time came by a total of four points, including the Bluegrass Bomb to beat Kentucky. Matt Mauck might not have lit the world on fire as the starting quarterback -- in fact, his numbers are indistinguishable from backup Marcus Randall's -- but the season splintered after he went down with a foot injury. This team was utterly handcuffed in the passing game, and it showed in routs by Auburn and Alabama in Baton Rouge.

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.

Last year the Rebels started 6-1 and faded to 7-4, whiffing on a bowl bid. This year they started 5-1 and wound up 6-6 -- but, hey, they got the bid this time around. The late-season fade is as much a product of scheduling as anything -- Ole Miss annually plays a pud non-conference schedule, then meets up with the likes of Auburn, Georgia and LSU late -- but it's still dispiriting for fans who get their hopes up early. And it's added to the ripples of discontent with coach David Cutcliffe, who still can't locate a defense capable to standing up to physical SEC opponents.

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.

Mississippi State
The Bulldogs had their first winless SEC season since 1988, and rarely came close to a league win. Embattled Jackie Sherrill responded by pink-slipping most of the staff, including heralded defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn -- but Dunn's defense certainly wasn't the biggest problem. State was abysmal offensively for the second year in a row, finishing as the only SEC team to average less than 5 yards per play and ranking last in passing efficiency.

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.

South Carolina
After two years of bliss, the Gamecocks backslid this year with an offense that just about ground to a halt late in the season (51 points scored the final five games). Quarterbacks Corey Jenkins and Dondrial Pinkins produced no passing game, and coach Lou Holtz's emergency gambit to take over the offense himself proved futile. But Holtz ended speculation that he's ready for retirement, announcing late in the season that he would be back next year to get Carolina back where he had it in 2000 and '01.

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.

The injuries started with the defensive line. Then wide receiver Kelley Washington hurt a knee. Pretty soon, it was an epidemic. Running backs, linemen, Washington again. . .and of course, Casey Clausen, too. This team never looked overpowering, but it was seriously vulnerable when the talent went to the sidelines.

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.

New coach, same results in Nashville. Northwestern, Stanford and even Duke have proven that egghead schools can have their gridiron moments in major conferences, but the last such moment for Vandy is now 20 years old. Losing to Middle Tennessee State for the second straight year is not exactly what football-friendly president Gordon Gee had in mind when he plucked Bobby Johnson from the I-AA ranks.

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.

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