Looking back on historic SEC season

Looking back on historic SEC season

December 7th, 2011 by David Paschall and Jay Greeson in Sports

LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson (9) and safety Brandon Taylor (18) carry the trophy after their 42-10 win over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011, in Atlanta.

Photo by (AP Photo by Dave Martin)

Staff writers David Paschall and Jay Greeson take a look back on a historic SEC football season that has generated five 10-win teams before the bowls and produced two for the BCS title game, assuring a sixth consecutive SEC team as the national champion. It also provided the first Vanderbilt team to outscore its opposition over the course of a season since 1982, which is assuming the Commodores don't lose the Liberty Bowl by 74 points.

Here are some of the highlights and the forgettable moments:

Biggest breakthroughs

1. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson -- Wilson gave a glimpse of his ability in a loss at Auburn last year, and he built on that by completing 257 of 407 passes for 3,422 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. With a win in the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State, Wilson could guide the Razorbacks to their third 11-win season in program history.

2. Georgia TB Isaiah Crowell -- There were certainly peaks and valleys for the top-rated tailback in the 2011 signing class. Crowell rushed for 147 yards against Ole Miss, 132 against Auburn and 118 against South Carolina, but he was booed at last week's SEC title game by Bulldogs fans who have questioned the severity of his ankle injury.

3. South Carolina QB Connor Shaw -- In the opener against East Carolina, Shaw was benched with the Gamecocks trailing 17-0. In the finale against Clemson, he threw for 210 yards, rushed for 107 and totaled four touchdowns in a 34-13 surprise rout of Clemson. As the only choice once Stephen Garcia was dismissed, Shaw came up big.

Biggest disappointment areas

1. Florida receivers -- How can the Gators be so bad at this position two straight years? Deonte Thompson, Andre Debose and Frankie Hammond have combined on just 48 catches this season, and Debose's 65-yard scoring grab to open the Alabama game will go down as the biggest one-hit wonder since Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy."

2. Tennessee running game -- Much like Florida's aerial attack, Tennessee had its primary rushing components returning from last season. The Vols were last in the SEC in rushing last year with 109.2 yards a game and 3.5 yards per carry, and they were worse this season with 90.1 yards a game and 2.8 yards a carry.

3. Ole Miss quarterbacks -- The Rebels under now-departed coach Houston Nutt quickly went down in flames behind the trio of Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt. The early clue in this absolute fiasco was Stoudt's five-interception performance on Sept. 15, when the Rebels lost 30-7 at Vanderbilt.

Biggest team surprises

1. Vanderbilt -- This was a program that went 2-10 in 2009 under Bobby Johnson and 2-10 last year with Robbie Caldwell. Even the optimists had a ceiling of five wins, but new coach James Franklin went 6-6 with routs of Ole Miss, Kentucky and Wake Forest. The Commodores lost four games by six or fewer points, so they could have been 10-2.

2. South Carolina -- The Gamecocks are 10-2 and can set a school record for single-season victories by winning the Capital One Bowl. Steve Spurrier dismissed Garcia, who messed up one too many times, and lost tailback Marcus Lattimore midway through the season with a torn ACL, but he had a lot of talent on defense and got the most from it.

3. LSU -- The Tigers had ample preseason hype but were dealt two blows in August -- the announcement of offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe having Parkinson's and the arrest and ensuing four-game suspension of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Yet from the opening 40-27 whipping of Oregon, the Tigers were not bothered by anything.

Biggest team disappointments

1. Florida -- The Gators had to integrate players who were recruited to Urban Meyer's spread system into a pro-style offense under the direction of Charlie Weis. It never got going. John Brantley's high-ankle sprain didn't help, but the most disappointing aspect to Florida's 6-6 regular season may be that the worst was saved for last against Florida State.

2. Ole Miss -- Did you know that Brigham Young is 9-3 entering the Armed Forces Bowl? Did you also know that Ole Miss led BYU 13-0 on Sept. 3 before losing 14-13? The Rebels seemed to spiral downward from that point forward, the only exceptions being wins over Southern Illinois and Fresno State and the fleeting 17-0 lead they enjoyed over Arkansas.

3. Tennessee -- The Vols went 6-7 last season but could easily have been 8-5 were it not for those gut-wrenching losses to LSU and North Carolina. The only gut-wrenching loss this season was to Matt Roark and the Kentucky Wildcats. Optimism for 2012 begins with Justin Hunter and continues with Da'Rick Rogers, provided he's still around.

Three players who were missed

1. Auburn QB Cam Newton -- The Tigers averaged 61 fewer passing yards this season in addition to the precipitous drop in effective quarterback runs. During their 17-6 win over Florida, Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier played quarterback for the Tigers, as did tailback Michael Dyer on direct snaps. It was an area that never really progressed.

2. Kentucky WR Randall Cobb -- Cobb did a little bit of everything during three seasons with the Wildcats and has showcased his share of big plays with the Green Bay Packers. Kentucky averaged 427.8 yards a game last season, but that plummeted to 259.8 this year, which ranked ahead of only Kent State and Florida Atlantic among FBS teams.

3. Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod -- The Bulldogs rushed for 214.8 yards a game last season but are at 168.8 this season entering the Music City Bowl. Losing Sherrod, who was Green Bay's first-round pick, was compounded by a couple of injuries at the start of this season, when it quickly became clear that MSU wasn't about to win nine games again.

Three players who were not

1. Alabama RB Mark Ingram -- This was expected, since Trent Richardson and Ingram split a lot of carries in 2009 and '10. Richardson has rushed 263 times for 1,583 yards (6.02 a carry) and 20 touchdowns. He is among the five players who have been invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony and could emerge with that award, as Ingram did in '09.

2. Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett -- Wilson may not have the massive cannon possessed by Mallett, but he has the same 10-2 record through the regular season. A huge reason both quarterbacks were successful was the play of Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs, a trio of receivers who must be replaced next season for the Hogs to keep thriving.

3. (tie) Georgia WR A.J. Green and LSU CB Patrick Peterson -- Green and Peterson are tearing things up in the NFL, yet the position groups they left behind strengthened in 2011. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell aided the Bulldogs, whose only receiving struggles came inside the Georgia Dome, while the Tigers are NFL-ready at every secondary spot.

Best outlooks for 2012

1. LSU -- Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Sam Montgomery, Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid are just a handful of superb sophomores on the LSU roster, and the Tigers will get to face Alabama in Baton Rouge. The obvious key to next year's team is former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who has the arm but will reduce LSU's ability to run the option.

2. Alabama -- The Crimson Tide stand to lose more talent compared to LSU, but they are 47-6 the past four years and won't just go away. Quarterback AJ McCarron could give them an edge in Baton Rouge should he continue to develop, and there are players such as tailback Eddie Lacy, tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and linebacker C.J. Mosley who are ready to shine.

3. (tie) Georgia and South Carolina -- The Bulldogs won the East this season and return quarterback Aaron Murray, Crowell, Mitchell and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. The Gamecocks are hoping Lattimore will not miss a beat when he returns from his injury, and they do get Georgia in Columbia in what should be the biggest game in that division again.

Worst outlooks for 2012

1. Kentucky -- The Wildcats have declined since going 8-5 during the 2006-07 seasons, going 6-7 twice and then 5-7 this year. Kentucky failed to replace the offensive firepower it lost from last year's team and now must bid farewell to underrated defensive studs such as linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety/linebacker Winston Guy.

2. Mississippi State -- This was not the follow-up season desired by Dan Mullen, who has won three Egg Bowl trophies in three seasons but is 0-12 against the rest of the SEC West. Rival Ole Miss had a decent recruiting class last winter, and will new Rebels coach Hugh Freeze be the thorn to Mullen that Mullen was to Nutt?

3. Texas A&M -- Losing four of the last five regular-season games is not exactly the momentum the Aggies wanted to take into the SEC. The disappointing 6-6 year cost Mike Sherman his job, so it will be up to somebody else to make that maiden voyage into the SEC West, which the past couple of years has been better than the NFC West.