- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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The bowls are set, so let's see where SEC finished at the end of the regular season:
1. LSU (13-0, 9-0): There were some nerve-racking moments along the way, but no matter what obstacles the Tigers faced this season, they overcame them in a big way. In the SEC championship, LSU found its offense going backward and its defense getting tested early against Georgia, but once again, a punter made a grave mistake when he punted to the Honey Badger. Tyrann Mathieu's 62-yard touchdown return started yet another impressive run. The Tigers' running game wore down the Bulldogs and went on to score 42 unanswered points in a blowout win. LSU hasn't relinquished its No. 1 ranking since it shot up the rankings and it's easy to see why. LSU might not have the most exciting offense, but its second-half pushes have just been too powerful for opposing teams. It starts with a true downhill running game that punishes defenses and ends with high-scoring runs. LSU's depth and second-half will have this team headed to the national championship game to face a very familiar foe.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1): The Crimson Tide anxiously sat at home while the SEC decided its conference champion and Oklahoma State made one last push for a national championship game bid. As tense as those last few moments in Tuscaloosa, Ala., were, nothing could compare to feeling this team had when it found out it was heading to the national championship game to face the team that almost ruined everything. There has been a lot of talk about whether Alabama deserves a shot at the national championship, but when it comes to the eyeball test, the Tide passes with flying colors. Alabama's defense ended No. 1 in the country and teams couldn't even get 4 yards per play on this stingy defense. Oklahoma State might have one of the most exciting offenses around, but the defense the Cowboys have faced don't come close to comparing to Alabama's. The goal of the BCS is to get to the best, and while it was very controversial, the system got it right.
3. Arkansas (10-2, 6-2): The Razorbacks were in play for a BCS bowl berth up until the very end of the regular season, and it's a shame that the Hogs won't be playing in some sort of BCS game. Arkansas wasn't perfect this year, but the offense played as close to it as possible during the first three games of November. Arkansas outscored opponents 137-52 during those games and even grabbed an early two-score lead on No. 1 LSU. This might have been the most complete team coach Bobby Petrino has had during his Arkansas tenure, and it will end the year in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Considering the injuries this team had to deal with, getting back to double-digit wins was a big accomplishment for the Hogs.
4. Georgia (10-3, 7-2): For 30 minutes Saturday, the Bulldogs were staring down No. 1 LSU and actually looked stronger and better. If not for some very costly drops from Georgia receivers, the Dawgs might have had a three-score lead early in the Georgia Dome, and who knows what would have happened after that? But those drops happened and slowly the Tigers crushed the will of the Bulldogs in the second half. Just getting to SEC championship game was a big accomplishment for Georgia. The Bulldogs were counted out after their 0-2 start, but reeled off 10 straight wins before meeting the juggernaut that is LSU. We saw this team improve each week and owned one of the most underrated defenses in the entire country.
5. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2): Make sure when you look back at South Carolina's season you realize that the Gamecocks were most certainly not Clemson. They weren't the team that had its defense ranked 59th nationally. All South Carolina could muster was ranking fourth. South Carolina also wasn't the team that was able to keep its starting quarterback and its starting running back all year (that running back being one of the best in the country when he's healthy). It wasn't the team that lost three games. And it wasn't the team that got blown out to its arch-rival at the end of the regular season. Coach Steve Spurrier has to be commended for the job he did to keep this team together and pull off a 10-win season.
6. Auburn (7-5, 4-4): The youth of this team finally crept up as the season continued. The team we were fascinated by during the first part of the season was long gone once the youngsters hit the wall. But there is a lot of talent on the Plains, and there's no doubt that it learned a lot after being thrown into the fire. Figuring out how to get the most of the quarterback position will be key during the layoff before the Tigers' bowl game. Once Barrett Trotter was benched, the offense just didn't click like it did at the beginning of the season. It didn't help that the opposing defensive talent vastly increased. Still, the Tigers put up more fight early than most expected and the future certainly looks bright.
7. Florida (6-6, 3-5): The Gators have to be happy that the regular season is finally over. Will Muschamp's first year was nothing but downhill after the 4-0 start, and it's time for his squad to get tougher. Muschamp called his team out for being "soft" after an ugly loss to Florida State and now is the time to start working toward Year 2 of the Muschamp era. This bowl preparation will be key to developing a spark for the spring. It's time to find out who is all in and who isn't inside this program. Muschamp promises to beat his team up from here on out, and it's not like this team doesn't need it. The Gators were outplayed for most of the year and saw a lot of those highly touted recruits stumble around the field. Like last year, the Gators' attitudes need major adjustments.
8. Vanderbilt (6-6, 2-6): Things certainly have changed around the Vanderbilt program. The attitude is new and fierce, while the defense is just mean. The Commodores were in play to win eight or nine games this season, but had some of the old mistakes that plagued this program creep up. Now, Vandy is headed back to a bowl game for the first time since 2008. A win will really generate even more momentum for next year. First-year coach James Franklin has been a motivating and recruiting machine this year and a bowl victory could send his recruiting efforts over the top with a lot of prospects. Franklin and his team proved that you can't sleep on the Dores anymore.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6): This wasn't the season that the Bulldogs expected, but they are in the postseason for back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Coach Dan Mullen still hasn't gotten a win against any other West team besides Ole Miss, but his team did just enough to make it to a bowl game. Injuries on the offensive line really hurt this team early in the year, but there were offensive playmakers that just didn't step up and be consistent enough for the Bulldogs this season.
10. Kentucky (5-7, 2-6): Wildcat players were saying after the Tennessee win that even though a bowl game was out of reach, beating the Vols made everything better. That feeling might leave once the bowls are played and they realize they aren't a part of the postseason, but stopping that losing streak to Tennessee will help fuel this team in the spring and beyond. The focus for this program should now be totally on recruiting, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 1-7): If you didn't think things could get any worse for Tennessee, they certainly did when star receiver Da'Rick Rogers was put into the doghouse to end the season. You have to wonder what is going through the minds of a lot of these players. One week they are celebrating a Vandy win like they won the Super Bowl, and the next, they are watching as Kentucky gets a win against Tennessee for the first time since the 1980s. It was a rough year for Tennessee with all of those injuries, but the fight in this team is gone. It's time to find that while the Vols sit and watch the postseason.
12. Ole Miss (2-10, 0-8): Houston Nutt's time at Ole Miss was very up and down, but he insists he didn't leave the cupboard empty for the next head coach. Ole Miss is fresh off its worst season in school history and is currently on a 14-game losing streak against SEC teams. A lot needs to be done within this program, but it's going to take time. Patience will be key to helping get the Rebels back to being competitive in the SEC.
13hDavid M. Hale