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Georgia's defense has to toughen up

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
4:00
PM ET
To say that there’s some frustration on Georgia’s defense is quite the understatement.

Senior safety Shawn Williams made that abundantly clear while speaking with the media Monday night when he called the play of the defense “soft.”

[+] EnlargeShawn Williams
AP Photo/Don KellySafety Shawn Williams had some strong words for his defensive teammates.
“We’re playing too soft as a defense,” Williams said. “That goes for the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. We’re just not playing with the same attitude we were last year. I don’t know what it is.”

In Georgia's 29-24 win over Kentucky on Saturday, the Bulldogs surrendered 206 yards rushing yards and allowed two scoring drives of 75 yards or more. However, Georgia surrendered just 329 total yards of offense, the second-lowest total by an offense this season against Georgia.

Senior linebacker Christian Robinson told ESPN.com on Tuesday that he agreed Georgia’s defense has to be more physical, but he also said the defense has to stay together, not take shots.

“I’m sticking to what I’ve been taught since I’ve been growing up -- everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger,” Robinson said. “At this point, we’re a team and we have to stick together, and as a team, I’m not going to call anybody out. We’re just going to try and fix the issues that we have.

“Yes, we need to be more physical -- that’s anytime you play any opponent. We always have room to improve.”

Williams also suggested on Monday that certain players should see the field more than others.

“Personally, if I was the coaches, I can’t tell them what to do, but I’d have Amarlo Herrera in the game more,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t bring him out. ... I want to see Amarlo and [Alec] Ogletree in the game at linebacker; I don’t want to see anybody else at linebacker. I feel like they’re two guys that are going to go out and give you all they got, no matter if they mess up or do right. I feel like they’re going to get to the ball and tackle. That’s what we need.”

Herrera and Ogletree both start inside for the Bulldogs. Herrera registered three tackles Saturday and is second behind only Williams in tackles this season with 50. Williams has 51. Ogletree finished Saturday’s game with a team-high 11 tackles and has 33 total tackles on the year.

It's probably not a good thing that the defensive captain is calling players out like that. Is he wrong in his assessment? Maybe not, but this isn't the time to create any sort of rift within a unit, especially one that has struggled to this point. And definitely not before such an important game like this weekend's bout with No. 2 Florida.

“I know the coaches put the players on the field that they think can get the job done, and until that changes, we’re going to continue to play the guys we have and put our best foot out there to beat teams,” said Robinson, who was left off of Williams' list of players who should play more.

Clearly, this defense hasn't been as good as it was last year, even with basically the same lineup. Brandon Boykin is gone, but the issues we’ve seen can’t be placed on one player being out of the lineup.

Georgia is ninth in the SEC in total defense (367.4 yards per game) and is giving up nearly 170 rushing yards a contest. Last year, the Bulldogs surrendered more than 360 yards of offense four times. This year, that’s happened three times already.

Mark Richt said last week that communication issues in the secondary have helped generate big plays for opposing offenses. That happens when the core of your secondary misses multiple games. But it's halfway through the season. Communication issues should be almost nonexistent, and so should the big plays.

“Once you do close that loophole of a big play, then you have a chance to really play some good defense,” Richt said.
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.

SportsNation

Who will have the best defense in 2012?

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Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Malcolm MitchellGreg McWilliams/Icon SMIMalcolm Mitchell played receiver as a freshman, but this season he plans on playing corner, too.
ATHENS, Ga. -- In order for Malcolm Mitchell to pull off his quest of playing double duty for Georgia this fall, a major change must occur.

It won’t be so much changing his workout habits. Sure, he’ll work more on quick burst drills and sprints with little time for breaks, but Mitchell’s change will be much more significant to his realm of comfort.

Mitchell must significantly alter his diet if he wants to have the stamina to play both cornerback and wide receiver in the SEC this fall. He’ll have to trash the sweets.

“I always had a problem eating candy,” said Mitchell, who moved to cornerback this spring after catching 45 passes for 665 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman last fall.

Mitchell said that since he was a kid, his diet has mainly consisted of fruit-flavored candy, preferably Starburst jelly beans, and Sprite -- a catastrophic combination of sugar and carbonation.

The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder is used to consuming at least five bags of jelly beans and who knows how much Sprite a week. That’s approximately 1,160 grams of sugar and 6,000 unnecessary calories from jelly beans alone.

“I know that’s going to have to change,” Mitchell said with a laugh.

“I’m going to work for that stamina because I know I want to play both ways.”

Mitchell plans to replace some of that candy with fruits and veggies and will add more water to replace his Sprite intake. He refuses to go cold turkey, but hopes to get down to one bag of candy a week. Maybe.

If Mitchell can get his diet on track, it will make life much easier. He started the spring working primarily at corner, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and quarterback Aaron Murray have tried to steal him away as much as they can.

Murray still throws with him and he’ll run the occasional route here and there, but his main focus this spring is to own the cornerback spot. The Bulldogs are dealing with depth issues at corner and the suspensions of two starters -- Sanders Commings and Branden Smith -- for the beginning of the season, so Mitchell’s training has accelerated.

While Mitchell played both receiver and corner at Valdosta High in southern Georgia, he admits it took him some time to get his defensive legs back. The first practice at corner was filled with slipping and sliding and poor technique.

Mitchell only decided to play wide receiver after he saw that A.J. Green was going pro. However, he quickly realized that his heart was still on defense and after talking with his mother just before Georgia’s bowl game last season, he approached coach Mark Richt about the idea of playing some defense in 2012.

“I was never going to be satisfied with myself if I let the opportunity pass,” Mitchell said.

One thing he’ll have to do is brush up on his two-way player history. Mitchell admits he didn’t grow up watching football and has never seen film of past two-way stars, such as Deion Sanders or Georgia great Champ Bailey.

Mitchell got into football later in his younger life, after seeing all the attention his brother received from playing. Jealous of that attention, Mitchell suited up and looked to steal the limelight.

Mitchell is looking to steal it once again and is taking full advantage of his time on defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has been more than impressed with Mitchell, especially his increased knowledge of the defense.

Grantham said Mitchell can play inside and outside, has premier speed, showcases excellent ball skills and has the instincts to excel at corner.

“He’s a dynamic corner,” Grantham said. “He’s a guy that has the total skill set to be a dominant corner at this level and the next.

“He’s an NFL corner.”

Grantham said that after only a few spring practices, Mitchell is ahead of where past Georgia corners were at the same point.

Murray isn’t thrilled with facing Mitchell in practice and has already been the victim of a few “freakish” plays by the youngster.

“He’s a special athlete,” Murray said.

“He could easily be one of our best corners if he wanted to do that full time and one of our best receivers if he wanted to do that full time. It’s great to see how spectacular of an athlete he really is.”

Richt sees it too. More importantly, he sees a player who doesn’t have to worry about his knowledge of the game. Unlike Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith, who both pulled a little double duty for the Dawgs, Mitchell understands the entire offense. Plugging him in with few offensive reps won’t be an issue from a mental standpoint; so getting him more time on defense shouldn’t drastically hinder his offensive ability.

But can he hold up physically?

“He’s very capable of playing both ways,” Richt said.

“The question isn’t going to be if he knows enough of the system, it’s going to be his stamina and how much is too much.”

The new diet should help.

Mitchell understands that less sugar and more water is just the start. He’s expecting practices and film sessions to intensify and his performances will be scrutinized more.

But it’s worth it. Mitchell wants it and he wants to prove himself because he’s honored to be a member of Georgia’s defense.

“This defense is the best defense I’ve been a part of or even played against,” he said. “Me being over there to help that makes me feel like a better player. To feel like I can help something that’s already great makes me feel better than anything I did last year because how good the players are.

“Just to be a part of it and help out means a lot to me.”
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”

SEC postseason position rankings: ST

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
4:42
PM ET
We've come to the end of our postseason position rankings. Special teams don't get a ton of credit when things go right, but we all know how much grief they get when things go wrong. Just look at all those shanks we saw from kickers last season.

Fortunately, there are other aspects of special teams that involve more exciting plays, like returns that can change the dynamic of a game or are just really easy on the eyes (just take a look at what Joe Adams did to Tennessee last fall).

You can see how we ranked the SEC's special teams units before the season here.

Here are our final rankings:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/John BazemoreTyrann Mathieu's punt return for a touchdown against Georgia turned the momentum in the game.
1. LSU: All-American punter Brad Wing averaged 44.4 yards per kick, had 20 punts of 50-plus yards and pinned 27 kicks inside the opposing 20-yard line. His long of 73 yards completely changed LSU's first game with Alabama. Tyrann Mathieu had two clutch punt returns for touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia at the end of the season and was fifth nationally averaging 15.6 yards per return. Morris Claiborne also returned a kickoff for a touchdown and averaged 25.1 yards per return. Opponents averaged 3.7 yards per punt return and just 20 yards per kickoff against LSU. Drew Alleman led the SEC in field goal percentage (88.9), hitting 16-of-18 kicks.

2. Arkansas: Adams was one of the best punt returners in the country, averaging 16.9 yards per return and taking four to the house for scores. The Hogs were just as dangerous on kickoffs, as Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade both returned kicks for touchdowns and ranked in the top five in the SEC in return average. Zach Hocker hit 21-of-27 kicks and led all kickers by averaging 9.1 points per game. Dylan Breeding led the SEC in punting (45.3) and downed 16 inside the 20. Arkansas was one of the best in the SEC in kickoff coverage, but did allow two punt returns to go for scores in the two biggest games of the season.

3. Auburn: Auburn had Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason take kickoffs back for touchdowns, as the Tigers led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.7) and also in kickoff coverage. Auburn wasn't great returning punts, but punter Steven Clark was a Ray Guy Award finalist and pinned 33 punts inside the 20. Cody Parkey ranked sixth in the league in field-goal kicking, connecting on 13-of-18 kicks (72.2).

4. Florida: Even without Urban Meyer running the show, the Gators were still pretty successful in this department. Florida was first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally with six blocked kicks. Two punt blocks went for touchdowns. Caleb Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist, hitting 22-of-26 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards. Florida was also solid in kickoff coverage and got kickoff touchdowns of their own from Andre Debose, who was third in the league in return average, and Jeff Demps. Florida averaged 7.2 yards per punt return and averaged 39.8 yards per punt.

5. Ole Miss: If not for special teams, Ole Miss would have been even worse in 2011. Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt on his 72 attempts and pinned 28 inside the 20. The Rebels also had two different players -- Nickolas Brassell and Jeff Scott -- return punts for touchdowns and Ole Miss was near the top of the league in kickoff coverage and had a net punting average of 38 yards. Bryson Rose also hit nine of his 11 field-goal attempts.

6. Vanderbilt: It was a mixed bag for the Commodores when it came to special teams. Vanderbilt was second in the league in opponent punt return average (3.9), but allowed a touchdown, and gave up another touchdown on kickoff coverage. Vanderbilt also blocked two kicks. Missed field goals haunted Vanderbilt, as the Commodores missed two in the six-point loss to Tennessee and one at the end of regulation in a three-point loss to Arkansas. Andre Hal logged a kickoff touchdown, but Vandy was 11th in the league in punt return average.

7. Alabama: Before the national championship game, Alabama's field-goal kicking game received a ton of criticism, especially for the four misses in the 9-6 loss to LSU. But Jeremy Shelley redeemed the unit by hitting 5-of-7 in the rematch. Alabama's kickers missed 13 kicks. Marquis Maze only had 12 kickoff returns, but averaged 28.5 yards per return, was third in the SEC in punt return average (13.2) and had that nifty touchdown against Arkansas. However, Alabama was 11th in the league in kickoff coverage and 10th in punt average.

8. Kentucky: Punter Ryan Tydlacka was fourth in the league in punting (43.6), had 20 punts of 50-plus yards and had 19 of his punts downed inside the 20. Craig McIntosh connected on 12-of-14 field-goal attempts (.857). Kentucky was in the middle of the pack in kickoff coverage. The Wildcats weren't so good at returning kicks, ranking 11th in the SEC in kickoff returns and last in punt returns, averaging 1.8 yards per return.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were last in the league in kickoff returns and were the only team to average fewer than 20 yards a return. The Bulldogs were better on punts, getting touchdowns from Chad Bumphis and Johnthan Banks, and ranked fifth in the league in punt return average. Punter Baker Swedenburg ranked seventh in punting and pinned 19 punts inside the 20. Derek DePasquale hit 12-of-18 field goals.

10. Tennessee: The Vols didn't record any special teams touchdowns, but were fifth in the league in kickoff returns and seventh in punt returns. As far as defending returns, Tennessee allowed just 18.1 yards per return, but was 10th in punt return coverage and gave up a touchdown. Michael Palardy hit of nine of his 14 field-goal attempts and punter Matt Darr was 10th in the SEC in punt average (38.1).

11. South Carolina: The Gamecocks struggled in the kicking game, but did have a bright spot in Ace Sanders recording a touchdown on a punt return and South Carolina blocked two kicks. However, South Carolina was seventh and eighth in the SEC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. South Carolina was last in kickoff coverage and gave up a touchdown. Jay Wooten missed four field goals and three extra points, while punter Joey Scribner-Howard was ninth in the SEC in punting, averaging 38.9 yards per punt.

12. Georgia: Outside of Brandon Boykin's 92-yard touchdown return in the Outback Bowl, his 22.4-yard average on kick returns and Drew Butler's 44.2 yards per punt, Georgia didn't do much at all on special teams. The group that was supposed to be first in the league allowed two kickoffs and punts to go for touchdowns and allowed a fake punt for a touchdown against South Carolina. Blair Walsh entered the season as one of the nation's top kickers, but hit just 21-of-35 kicks, including missing two in overtime in the bowl loss to Michigan State.

SEC postseason position rankings: DB

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
5:30
PM ET
Just like there was no shortage of defenses in the SEC this season, there was no shortage of defensive backfields.

Here’s the way we would rank them.

1. LSU: Where do you start? The Tigers had a Heisman Trophy finalist in their secondary (Tyrann Mathieu). They also had the Thorpe Award winner as the best defensive back in college football (Morris Claiborne) and a pair of safeties (Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor) who were both outstanding. They were as deep as they were talented in the secondary and allowed just four touchdown passes and intercepted 13 passes in 10 games against SEC foes.

2. Alabama: In any other league, Alabama would be at the top, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that LSU would get the No. 1 spot. Mark Barron was the best safety in America. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is poised to be a first-round draft choice, while the Tide’s other cornerback, DeQuan Menzie, was one of the more underrated players in the country. Alabama’s defense was menacing this season, and a big reason why goes back to how much they improved from 2010 to 2011 in the secondary.

[+] EnlargeBacarri Rambo
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia safety Bacarri Rambo led the SEC in interceptions last season with eight.
3. Georgia: Imagine being as good as Georgia was in the secondary this season, but only third in your conference. Welcome to the SEC. Safety Bacarri Rambo led the league with eight interceptions, while cornerback Brandon Boykin did a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs and was named the winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. In league play, Georgia finished second in pass efficiency defense and tied for second with 12 interceptions.

4. South Carolina: Nobody in the league made more improvement than South Carolina from last season to this season when it came to defending the pass. A big part of that was the Gamecocks’ pass rush, but they also intercepted an SEC-high 15 passes in league games and ranked atop the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore led the team with four interceptions. Safety D.J. Swearinger was second on the team with 80 tackles, and linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, who played the hybrid Spur position for the Gamecocks, turned in an All-SEC season.

5. Vanderbilt: It seems like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson have been playing for six seasons in the Vanderbilt secondary. It always seems that way when two players step in and play the way Hayward and Richardson have since their freshman seasons. Hayward had seven interceptions this season and led the SEC with 17 passes defended. The emergence of Trey Wilson at the other cornerback spot was also a big factor in the way Vanderbilt played defense this season.

6. Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks developed into one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks and had a big year with five interceptions and 14 passes defended. Safety Nickoe Whitley also was a big part of the Bulldogs’ secondary. He was one of the enforcers back there with his customary big hits and four picks, but missed the final four games with a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s a secondary that’s been together for a while, but the Bulldogs were still ninth in the league in passing defense against SEC competition.

7. Arkansas: There were a lot of bright spots in the Hogs' secondary despite disappointing overall defensive numbers. Freshman cornerback Tevin Mitchel wound up starting and showing a lot of promise. Sophomore Eric Bennett moved from cornerback to safety and wound up fourth on the team with 74 tackles. He also had three interceptions. Senior safety Tramain Thomas was the anchor back there with five interceptions and 91 total tackles, ranking him among the leading tacklers in the league.

8. Florida: Will Muschamp is excited about the young talent in his secondary. Freshman cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy both have a chance to be stars, although both endured their share of growing pains this season. Safety Matt Elam was one of the veterans of the unit, and he was only a sophomore. He played beyond his years with 11.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. This biggest thing working against the Gators this season was youth, and that cost them in some games.

9. Tennessee: Losing safety Janzen Jackson prior to the season was a big blow for the Vols. They finished next to last in the league in interceptions with nine and struggled all season at the cornerback position. The good news for them is that it looks like freshman safety Brian Randolph is a keeper. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and junior college newcomer Izauea Lanier was the Vols’ top cornerback. Tennessee finished the season by giving up 11 touchdown passes and intercepting just six passes in SEC play.

10. Kentucky: The Wildcats didn’t have a lot of depth in the secondary, and it didn’t help any when safety Martavius Neloms hurt his ankle late in the season. Neloms still wound up third on the team with 71 total tackles. Winston Guy played a linebacker/safety hybrid role and had a huge season with 120 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He was a second-team All-SEC selection. Big plays hurt the Wildcats. They gave up 19 touchdown passes, which was next to last in the league.

11. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ defense spent the entire 2011 season on the field, which meant the secondary gave up its share of big plays. In SEC play, Ole Miss finished last in pass defense efficiency. The Rebels gave up 12 touchdown passes and intercepted only three passes. Freshman Nickolas Brassell wound up playing both offense and defense and has a bright future, and sophomore Charles Sawyer led the team with four interceptions and was second on the team with 70 total tackles. It simply wasn’t a season to remember all the way around for the Rebels.

12. Auburn: There wasn’t a lot that went right for Auburn on defense this season, but the Tigers’ struggles in the secondary were particularly glaring. They gave up an SEC-high 21 touchdown passes and finished last in the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Chris Davis has a ton of potential, but was limited early in the season by injuries. Safety Neiko Thorpe finished with 102 total tackles and three interceptions, but the bottom line is that it’s hard to see past nearly 3,000 passing yards allowed.

Poll: SEC's top individual performance

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
1:00
PM ET
You've seen my list, and you've seen Edward's list.

We both took our shots at ranking the top 10 individual performances in the SEC this season.

Now it's your turn in our SportsNation poll.

We've selected four choices for you, but we also included an "other" category.

This should be interesting because everybody has his or her own idea of what constitutes a great performance.

Maybe it has to come on a big stage similar to what we saw from LSU's Tyrann Mathieu in the Arkansas game and SEC championship game. Maybe it's one play similar to what we saw from LSU's Eric Reid in the first Alabama game.

Some are hung up on gaudy stats. Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and Jarius Wright both put up big numbers in that comeback win over Texas A&M, and there's also something to be said for versatility. Georgia's Brandon Boykin, South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Florida's Chris Rainey and Mathieu were all Renaissance Men at different points this season.

Does a great performance have to come in a win?

How do you pick when somebody like Alabama's Trent Richardson stacks up the great performances?

Don't forget about the defensive players, either. Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Kentucky's Danny Trevathan both had monster games this season.

Good luck and vote your conscience. This is your chance to be heard. Maybe there's a worthy performance out there that we both forgot about or we didn't include on our lists.

Looking forward to seeing your responses.

SEC's top individual performances, Part I

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
11:12
AM ET
Tyrann MathieuChris Graythen/Getty ImagesTyrann Mathieu had a knack for the big play all season for LSU.
We’re already looking ahead some to the 2012 season in the SEC, but we haven’t completely forgotten about 2011.

We’re finishing up our postseason position rankings and taking another look at the top 25 players in the league based on what they did during the 2011 season.

Today, we’ll rank the top 10 individual performances from this past season. I’ll go first (That’s what happens when you dominate the picks contest), and Edward will follow.

We’ll also have a poll for the fans later today, so you guys will get your chance to weigh in as well and tell us how right or wrong we were.

Please don’t hold back, although you never do.

Here goes:

1. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu vs. Arkansas: Moving over to safety for the injured Eric Reid, the Honey Badger put on a show for all shows. The only thing he didn’t do was clean up Tiger Stadium afterward in the 41-17 win over the No. 3-ranked Hogs. Mathieu had eight tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered a fumble and returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown. His punt return tied the game at 14-14, and the Hogs were toast from there.

2. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC championship game: Yep, it’s the Honey Badger again. The Tigers were dead in the water in the first half against Georgia, but Mathieu returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to get LSU on the board. Mathieu followed that up by recovering a fumble at the Bulldogs’ 27 to set up the Tigers’ second touchdown. He then returned another punt 47 yards, this one even more spectacular than the first, to set up LSU’s third touchdown, and a close game suddenly became a 42-10 rout.

3. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones vs. Florida: It was a case of Jones simply not allowing his team to lose. He racked up four sacks in the 24-20 win over the Gators and forced a fumble at the Florida 18-yard line in the third quarter that led to the game-tying touchdown. His fourth and final sack came on fourth down late in the game and all but finished the Gators, lifting Georgia to just its fourth win over Florida in the last 22 meetings.

4. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson vs. Texas A&M: With the Hogs trailing 35-17 at the half, Wilson brought them back with a school-record 510 yards passing in a 42-38 victory over the Aggies. Wilson finished 30-of-51 with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also had the 2-point conversion run that tied the game at 35-35.

5. Georgia’s Brandon Boykin in the Outback Bowl: The Bulldogs fell to Michigan State 33-30 in three overtimes, but don’t blame Boykin. The senior cornerback scored three different ways. He recorded a safety to open the game, also had a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown and scored on a 13-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to give the Bulldogs a 27-20 lead. He finished with seven tackles, including two for loss.

6. Arkansas’ Jarius Wright vs. Texas A&M: Don’t forget about Wright in the Hogs’ dramatic comeback win over the Aggies. He tied a school record with 13 catches and set a school record with 281 receiving yards. The old record was 204 yards, and Wright surpassed that by halftime. He also caught a 68-yard touchdown pass and pounced on a loose ball in the end zone in the fourth quarter that wound up being the tying touchdown.

7. LSU’s Brad Wing vs. Alabama: Without Wing’s heroics, LSU doesn’t win that first game against Alabama. It’s just that simple. He kept the Crimson Tide bottled up all night. He punted six times and four were downed inside the Alabama 20-yard line. One was downed at the 5 and another at the 4. His 73-yard punt in the fourth quarter completely changed the game and helped get the Tigers to overtime, where they prevailed 9-6.

8. Alabama’s Trent Richardson vs. Ole Miss: There were so many great performances by Richardson that it’s difficult to pick out just one. But he rolled up 183 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the 52-7 rout of Ole Miss, and they’ll be showing the highlights of his dazzling 76-yard touchdown run for a long time to come. He averaged 10.8 yards per carry that night and finished with 213 all-purpose yards.

9. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray vs. Cincinnati: It’s about as perfect a game as a quarterback could have. Bray lit up the Bearcats in the second week of the season for a career-high 405 passing yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also had a rushing touchdown and completed 34 of 41 passes in the 45-23 victory. In the second half, Bray completed all but one of his 14 passing attempts, and his 83 percent completion rate set a school record.

10. South Carolina’s Antonio Allen vs. East Carolina: It’s one of the great performances of the season that nobody really remembers because it came in the opener. Allen, the Gamecocks’ “Spur” linebacker/safety, totaled 16 tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and broke up two passes in the come-from-behind 56-37 win over East Carolina.

Here are five more that just missed the cut:

  • South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram running for a 68-yard touchdown on a fake punt, scoring a second touchdown on a 5-yard fumble return and recovering an onside kick to preserve a 45-42 win over Georgia.
  • Florida’s Chris Rainey rushing for 108 yards and also totaling 104 receiving yards in a 33-23 win over Tennessee. Rainey accounted for 233 all-purpose yards and had an 83-yard touchdown catch to put the Gators ahead 30-7 in the third quarter. He also blocked a punt in the second quarter, leading to a Florida field goal.
  • South Carolina’s Connor Shaw passing for 210 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown in a 34-13 victory over Clemson. Shaw finished 14 of 20 passing without an interception.
  • Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-7 road victory over Wake Forest that made the Commodores bowl eligible. Stacy had touchdown runs of 40 and 20 yards on his way to becoming the school’s single-season record-holder for rushing yards.
  • Kentucky’s Danny Trevathan totaling 17 tackles, including 12 solo stops, for the second week in a row. He had three tackles for loss and also forced two fumbles in the Wildcats’ 19-10 loss to Georgia.

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
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Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).

The 2011 SEC All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
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We're taking one last look at the SEC's postseason by putting together our All-SEC bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina: Shaw didn't seem to feel the pressure of a bowl game, completing 11 of 17 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 42 yards and another score in the Gamecocks' win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He even gave South Carolina the momentum going into the second half with a touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Vick Ballard rushed for 180 yards against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.
RB: Vick Ballard, Mississippi State: Ballard ended his career with the Bulldogs with one of his best performances, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries in Mississippi State's win against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl. His touchdowns went for 72 and 60 yards.

RB: Onterio McCalebb, Auburn: As the Tigers' lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60. He also recorded a three-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in Auburn's win against Virginia.

WR: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina: Jeffery's day would have been even better if he hadn't been ejected. However, he still caught four passes for a game-high 148 yards and snagged Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. He also had a 78-yard reception.

WR: Tavarres King, Georgia: King tried his best to get Georgia a victory in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. He was Aaron Murray's best friend, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass that at one point stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

TE: Brad Smelley, Alabama: The Crimson Tide got its passing game going with Smelley in Monday's Allstate BCS National Championship win against LSU. He was AJ McCarron's safety net when plays broke down, and the young quarterback also used Smelley on rollouts. Smelley finished the game with seven catches for 39 yards.

OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama: Behind one of the most versatile linemen in the entire country, Alabama's line held back LSU's defensive front for most of Monday night's game. Alabama ran for 150 yards against LSU's vaunted defense. He also kept McCarron safe, as the youngster was sacked only twice while throwing for 234 yards.

OL: Alvin Bailey, Arkansas: He just keeps looking better and better for the Razorbacks. In Arkansas' AT&T Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State, he helped Arkansas churn out 129 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry and helped give quarterback Tyler Wilson enough time to pass for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

OL: Kyle Nunn, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' offensive line gave up four sacks to Nebraska, but Shaw was still able to throw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. With Nunn's help, the Gamecocks also rushed for 121 yards against the Cornhuskers.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: Ballard's outstanding performance for the Bulldogs wouldn't have been possible if not for some solid line play. Jackson had one of his best outings, as he helped Mississippi State rush for 253 yards and pass for another 129. Mississippi State gave up just one sack to Wake Forest.

C: William Vlachos, Alabama: Vlachos had his hands full with the interior of LSU's defensive line, but he more than held his own. He battled all night with LSU's Michael Brockers and allowed him to assist on just one tackle for loss. He provided a ton of protection in the passing game and helped Alabama rush for 150 yards on LSU's defense.

DEFENSE

DE: Jake Bequette, Arkansas: Bequette said before Arkansas' bowl game that the Hogs' defense needed to make a statement. Bequette certainly made a few in his final game with the Razorbacks, registering two sacks, forcing a fumble and totaling three tackles.

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: The freshman put a nice bow on his first season with the Gamecocks. He put a ton of pressure on Nebraska's backfield with two sacks for a loss of 13 yards and finished the game with four tackles.

DT: Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox wanted to make a lasting impression in his final game with the Bulldogs, and he certainly did by disrupting Wake Forest's offensive line in the Music City Bowl. He finished the game with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and blocked his fifth career kick, which is a Mississippi State record.

DT: Michael Brockers, LSU: Brockers had a tough time with Vlachos in the middle, but that didn't stop him from making plays. He did a tremendous job of clogging holes in the middle for the Tigers and finished the game with seven tackles, assisting on one for loss, and blocked a field goal attempt.

LB: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: It came as no surprise that Upshaw was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. He was nearly unblockable for LSU on Monday night. He put immense pressure on LSU's backfield and finished the game with six tackles, including a sack.

LB: Archibald Barnes, Vanderbilt: Barnes was a true rover for Vanderbilt against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. He had a game-high 10 tackles, assisting on one for a loss, and blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.

LB: Alec Ogletree, Georgia: Georgia might not have come up with the win in the Outback Bowl, but it wasn't because of how Ogletree played. He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, grabbing a game-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, breaking up two passes and getting a sack.

CB: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt: Yet again, Hayward was tremendous in coverage for the Commodores. He grabbed two interceptions and broke up another pass. He was also second on the team with eight tackles, including one for loss. Cincinnati threw for just 80 yards against the Commodores.

CB: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Gilmore ended his South Carolina career on a high note. He recorded five tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. He also returned a blocked extra point for South Carolina's first points of the game. Nebraska threw for just 116 yards on the Gamecocks' secondary.

S: Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron recorded just two tackles, including a sack, but he was outstanding in coverage. He roamed the back part of the field for the Crimson Tide and didn't allow LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson to stretch the field at all because of his positioning. Jefferson threw for just 53 yards on Alabama.

S: Matt Elam, Florida: Elam was Florida's most consistent player during the regular season, and he was all over the field for the Gators in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl against Ohio State. He finished the game with six tackles, two for loss and a sack.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Jeremy Shelley, Alabama: Talk about redeeming the position that spoiled Alabama's first game against LSU. Shelley hit five of his seven field goal attempts against the Tigers and even rebounded to hit four of his final five after having his second attempt blocked in the second quarter.

P: Dylan Breeding, Arkansas: He punted four times for an average of 46.8 yards per kick. He had a long of 63 yards and dropped two inside the 20-yard line against Kansas State.

RS: Joe Adams, Arkansas: Surprise, surprise, Adams made another special teams unit look silly. Against Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Adams got things started for the Hogs with a nifty 51-yard punt return for a touchdown. His return sparked a 16-point second quarter for the Hogs.

AP: Brandon Boykin, Georgia: Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. He forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play, returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

Best and worst from the SEC bowl season

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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Let’s review some of the highs and lows of the bowl season:

[+] EnlargeBrandon Boykin
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireGeorgia's Brandon Boykin had a huge game against Michigan State, including this punt return for a TD.
Best performance: Even in a loss, there was no topping Georgia’s Brandon Boykin. The senior cornerback certainly did his part in the Bulldogs’ 33-30 triple-overtime setback to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. He scored three different ways, starting with a safety when he tackled Keshawn Martin in the end zone. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and caught a 13-yard touchdown pass to give Georgia a 27-20 lead with 6:44 remaining in regulation.

Best defensive performance: This one goes out to the entire Alabama defense, which saved its best for last. The Crimson Tide pitched the first shutout in BCS National Championship Game history and held LSU to 92 total yards. Let’s face it. They could have played 10 more quarters and LSU wouldn’t have scored a touchdown against Alabama on Monday night. It was like watching one giant crimson swarm all night.

Worst game: Unless you’re of the Alabama persuasion, the BCS National Championship Game was one of the worst in recent memory. That doesn’t diminish what the Crimson Tide accomplished, but it was a real stinker as a game. There was never any real drama. LSU was horrid on offense, and the game was decided once Alabama got more than a touchdown ahead.

Best off-the-bench performance: Auburn junior quarterback Barrett Trotter came off the bench after starter Clint Moseley went down with an injury and delivered one of his best passing performances of the season in the Tigers’ 43-24 victory against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Trotter finished 11-of-18 for 175 yards and a touchdown and didn’t throw any interceptions. Most importantly, he was ready when his team needed him.

Best offensive game plan: Alabama turned to sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron to open the game and let him get into a rhythm with a series of bootleg passes and short throws. LSU wasn’t able to get to him with its pass rush, and McCarron’s confidence grew as the game progressed. It also allowed the Crimson Tide to drive the ball out of bad field position a couple of different times in the first quarter.

Worst offensive game plan: Easy choice here. LSU looked like a grade-school offense in the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers stubbornly kept trying to run the speed option outside and never made any adjustments when they were stopped in their tracks. They did try to go hurry-up at one point, but didn’t have any answers for an Alabama defense determined to make Jordan Jefferson a passer.

Best farewell: The entire Arkansas senior class went out in style, from Joe Adams, to Jarius Wright, to Jake Bequette. There were 20 of them in all, and it’s a class that took Arkansas to new heights with 21 wins over the past two years. They capped their careers with a 29-16 victory against Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, marking the first 11-win season for the Hogs since 1977.

Worst farewell: The unfortunate part for Jefferson is that he did some good things for LSU this season and made a big difference for the Tigers in that first game against Alabama. But fans are probably going to remember his arrest in the preseason and how poorly he played in the national championship game against Alabama more than any play he might have made to help the Tigers get there.

Best catch: South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery didn’t have the kind of season anyone was expecting, but his leaping grab of Connor Shaw’s Hail Mary and 51-yard touchdown as the first half ended completely changed the complexion of the Capital One Bowl and paved the way for the Gamecocks to go on and win 30-13 against Nebraska.

Worst luck: Marquis Maze got the ball rolling for Alabama with his 49-yard punt return in the first quarter, but he pulled his hamstring on the play and had to run out of bounds. He probably scores there if he doesn’t have the injury. He wasn’t able to return to the game, and seeing tears streaming down his face while watching his teammates from the sideline later on told you all you needed to know about what that game meant to Maze.

Best coaching move: Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, coaching in his last game before taking on the Colorado State head-coaching gig, had the Crimson Tide come out throwing, particularly on first down, and that opened up the entire offense and sort of put LSU’s defense on its heels early.

Worst coaching move: Georgia coach Mark Richt gets big props for guiding the Bulldogs to 10 straight wins after the two losses to open the season. But his decision to play for a field goal in the first overtime, especially when Blair Walsh had been so inconsistent all season, was hard to figure. A 42-yarder isn’t a chip shot for anybody, and Walsh missed it right. That was the opening Michigan State needed to win the game in three overtimes.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
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The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.
The gift baskets should be sent to East Lansing, Mich., care of Mark Dantonio.

The sender: commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan State's electric triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl prevented the Big Ten from going 0-for-5 on college football's version of New Year's Day for the second consecutive season. The Spartans erased a 16-point halftime deficit and a 7-point deficit in the final moments of regulation to force overtime. Defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White blocked a Blair Walsh field-goal attempt in the third overtime to seal a 33-30 win, the team's first postseason victory under Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.
You had to be happy for senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who led the tying drive in the fourth quarter and survived an interception in overtime. The Spartans' defense was brilliant for most of the day, particularly defensive end William Gholston, who had five tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

Just a great moment for Dantonio and the Spartans.

The rest of the league? Not so much.

Nebraska and Ohio State melted down in the second half, Penn State melted down in the first quarter and Wisconsin committed two second-half turnovers to lose a lead against Oregon. The result is a 1-4 ledger for the Big Ten, dropping its bowl record to 3-6 overall.

For the second straight year, Wisconsin lost the Rose Bowl in heart-breaking fashion, as a handful of plays and decisions led to Oregon's victory. Bret Bielema's timeout early in the third quarter when he thought Oregon had crossed the end line before downing the ball in the end zone came back to haunt Wisconsin in the final seconds. The timeout certainly wasn't Bielema's friend in losses to Oregon and Michigan State.

In the fourth quarter, Wisconsin's offense finally recaptured its big-play ability on a long pass to receiver Jared Abbrederis, who fumbled the ball away, the lone blemish on his otherwise masterful day.

The game ended with a questionable decision to spike the ball with only 2 seconds left and a winding clock. Very hard to do. And a hard way to lose.

The Big Ten now has won only one Rose Bowl since Wisconsin's back-to-back wins in the 1999 and 2000 games.

The league's bowl season wraps up Tuesday with Michigan going against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

A few thoughts on the day:

  • Special teams played a huge role for Big Ten teams. While Michigan State blocked a field goal to win its game, the all-important third phase hurt the Big Ten teams more than it helped. Ohio State's kicking-game breakdowns led to two Florida touchdowns, a kickoff return and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Nebraska, arguably the Big Ten's top special-teams squad during the season, had a miserable day in the kicking game, as South Carolina returned a blocked extra-point try for two points and Huskers' All-Big Ten kicker Brett Maher missed a short field-goal attempt early in the third quarter. Even Michigan State had a special-teams breakdown in its win, as Georgia's Brandon Boykin scooted 92 yards for a touchdown on a kick return late in the first half. Wisconsin had a strong special teams performance against Oregon.
  • Penalties also were a theme for the five Big Ten squads. Nebraska drew 10 flags in its loss and star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was ejected for fighting with Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery (also ejected). Michigan State received eight penalties in its win against Georgia, and Penn State drew six penalties, one above its season average.
  • Nebraska thoroughly outplayed South Carolina in the first half and had to be beside itself following the Hail Mary touchdown pass from Connor Shaw to Jeffery with no time left. After a good drive to begin the second half ended in the Maher missed field-goal try, the Huskers were done. They melted down in the final 25 minutes, drawing seven penalties. This is a mostly young team that should improve in some areas for 2012, although the Legends Division figures to be tough once again.
  • Penn State's performance wasn't a huge surprise, although I thought the Lions defense would fare better against Case Keenum. Penn State missed Matthew McGloin at quarterback, and the offensive line didn't impose its will against a Houston team that hasn't stopped the run all season.
  • For both Penn State and Ohio State, it's good to get these bowls in the rear-view mirror. Both teams need to move forward after rough years with new coaches (Penn State's has yet to be named).

Michigan State gave the Big Ten a much-needed bowl win with a thrilling 33-30 triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

Here's an instant analysis:

How the game was won: Defense was king to start the day, but we saw both offenses catch some fire in the second half. After being outscored 16-0 in the first half, the Spartans outscored Georgia 27-11 in the second. Michigan State survived quarterback Kirk Cousins' third interception of the day to start overtime, then Georgia's Blair Walsh missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Spartans kicker Dan Conroy won the game in triple overtime with a 28-yard field goal.

Turning point: Walsh's missed field goal attempt on Georgia's first possession in overtime kept Michigan State alive and allowed it to score in the next two overtime periods.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 68 rushes for 124 yards.

Player of the game: Michigan State wide receiver Brian Linthicum had a spectacular day catching the ball. He hauled in seven catches for 115 yards, and his 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter helped set up a touchdown that gave Michigan State its first lead of the day.

Unsung hero of the game: Fifth-year senior wide receiver/holder Brad Sonntag saved the Spartans on two huge kicks. He snagged a low one on the tying extra point to send the game into overtime and grabbed a high one for the winner.

Best call: With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio challenged a play ruled a catch by Georgia's Marlon Brown. Even with pass interference being called on the play, a completion would have left the game clock at 3:30, but if it was incomplete, the clock would have had 13 seconds added. The play was overturned, 13 seconds were added, and Michigan State eventually scored its tying touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

Second-guessing: Georgia coach Mark Richt has often been criticized for being too conservative, and it almost cost him, as he ran just two plays after Bacarri Rambo's interception before sending Walsh out for the 42-yard field goal attempt on Georgia's first overtime possession. Walsh missed, and Michigan State eventually won in triple overtime ... after a Walsh kick that was blocked.

What it means: Michigan State ends its five-game losing streak in bowl games and gives Dantonio his first bowl win as the Spartans' head coach. With 11 wins and a bowl win, Michigan State should be overflowing with confidence heading into the offseason. This likely will make the Spartans a top-10 team to open the 2012 season. For Georgia, this loss will sting for a while. The conservative play calling late and the missed field goal likely will be brought up a lot with this team. The Bulldogs should return a talented team that will have it near top-10 status, though.

Record performance: Brandon Boykin's stellar 92-yard punt return is the longest play in Outback Bowl history. Less than two minutes earlier, Aaron Murray's 80-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King stood as the longest play in the bowl's 26-year existence. It was also a career-long pass for Murray and a career-long reception for King. Also, King's 205 receiving yards were a Georgia school record.

Record performance 2: Walsh's eight points on kicks made him the SEC's all-time leading scorer with 411 points.
Georgia will be well represented in the 2012 Senior Bowl later this month.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin, punter Drew Butler, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones will head to Mobile, Ala., for one last game at the college level.

"Georgia had one of the more remarkable winning streaks in the country this season, and there's no doubt these four seniors played a big role in the Bulldogs reeling off 10 straight victories to claim the Eastern Division title," said Steve Hale, who is the President and CEO of the Senior Bowl. "We're confident this group will take advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the NFL decision-makers."

All four could hear their names called during the 2012 NFL Draft. Boykin was a second team All-SEC selection by the league coaches after recording 48 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, nine pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Boykin would have heard his name in last year's draft as well, but he made a last-minute decision to return to school for his senior season.

Glenn and Jones were two of the best offensive linemen in the SEC this season. Glenn showed some versatility by moving from right tackle to left tackle, while Jones was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's top center.

Butler punted 51 times for 2,260 yards, averaging 44.3 yards per punt, which ranks second in the SEC and 13th in the country. He had 16 punts of 50 yards or more and downed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard also added his name to the Senior Bowl roster. Ballard is fresh off of a 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Music City Bowl win against Wake Forest. Ballard rushed for 1,189 yards, averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored 10 rushing touchdowns in 2011.

The game will be played at 4 p.m. ET on Jan. 28. All of the Senior Bowl practices can be seen on the NFL Network.

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