NCF Nation: Houston Nutt

Say what you want about the flagging reputations of former USC quarterbacks, but at least they keep things interesting.

One of the big questions for the 2013 NFL draft this week is the fate of Matt Barkley. Will he still get picked in the first round or will his stock continue to tumble?

Barkley seemed to -- finally? -- reveal some frustrations this week in a series of interviews in which he questioned coach Lane Kiffin's play-calling in 2012.

See here. And here.

But he wasn't the only former Trojan making news.

Mark Sanchez spoke up about the New York Jets acquiring Tim Tebow last year, and the media circus that the organization seemed to embrace. That, of course, created a new, if more modulated, media circus.

That wasn't the oddest bit of "news."

Former USC quarterback Mitch Mustain, who backed up Sanchez and Barkley after transferring from Arkansas, is the subject of a new documentary. It's narrated by former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, which adds to a slightly strange texture in itself.

What's it about? Well, it's called "The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain," which strikes me as a bit melodramatic. Mustain, who had an undeniably live arm, had one problem: His ability to select football programs.

When Mustain decided to leave Arkansas, where he was mismatched with head coach Houston Nutt, he could have become the starter for about 100 or so teams. But he chose USC, which simply had better quarterbacks on hand. End of story, at least on the USC end.

The Arkansas stuff, however, is fairly rich.

Meanwhile, Matt Leinart is a free agent, Carson Palmer signed with Arizona -- perhaps to be closer to the Pac-12 blog -- Matt Cassel is with the Minnesota Vikings, Aaron Corp is on the Buffalo Bills roster and John David Booty is out of the league.

Not many schools can list so many NFL QBs, but that operates as a negative when the success rate is so low.

The cumulative affect of all this mediocrity and odd drama -- fair or unfair -- is freight for Barkley.

His draft stock is not just about a disappointing season and over-heated questions about his arm strength, which is certainly NFL-adequate. It's guilt by association: USC QBs and their recent history in the NFL is pretty lousy.

USC's QB past shouldn't mean that much. Barkley should be evaluated, positively or negatively, on what he has done, who he is and his potential. But that dubious lineage will make more than a few NFL GMs skittish.

But all it takes is for Barkley to end up back in the first round. We shall see.

Paying SEC coaches to go away

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
11:46
AM ET
Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley didn’t stay unemployed for long.

He’s taken a job with the Dallas Cowboys as their receivers coach. Obviously, Dooley won’t make the kind of money he did as the Vols’ head coach ($2 million per year), but he’s also not hurting for dough. He walked away from Tennessee with a $5 million buyout.

The money that SEC schools have paid out to coaches just to go away over the past six years is staggering.

Ole Miss just recently settled with former coach Houston Nutt and paid Nutt a lump sum of $4.35 million to complete its remaining financial obligation to Nutt, who had a $6 million buyout payable over five years when he was fired toward the end of the 2011 season.

Ole Miss saved $500,000 by negotiating the $4.35 million lump sum with Nutt.

If you go back to the end of the 2007 season when Nutt received a $3.5 million settlement after he and Arkansas parted ways, SEC schools have doled out a staggering $38.65 million in buyouts.

That’s right, nearly $40 million for coaches not to coach.

And that’s just the head coaches.

Granted, just about all of these settlements were payable in installments that were spread out over several years.

Still …

Here’s a rundown:
  • Houston Nutt, Arkansas (2007) -- $3.5 million
  • Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State (2008) -- $3.5 million
  • Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee (2008) -- $6 million
  • Tommy Tuberville, Auburn (2008) -- $5.1 million
  • Houston Nutt, Ole Miss (2011) -- $5.5 million
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn (2012) -- $7.5 million
  • Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2012) -- $5 million
  • Joker Phillips, Kentucky (2012) -- $2.55 million
If Ole Miss isn't careful, it's going to win enough games to be eligible for the postseason.

Seriously.

For a team that was basically left for dead after two horrible seasons that produced just six wins and the start of a 15-game conference losing streak, the Rebels have some real fight in them this year, and new coach Hugh Freeze might know what he's doing over there in the Grove.

Through five games, Ole Miss has already surpassed last year's win mark by a game (three), and it actually has an offense that fans can stomach and get excited about. More importantly, it has a team that fights and plays for its coach.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Bill HaberHugh Freeze seems to have things on the right track at Ole Miss.
You couldn't really say that last year about the Rebels, who eventually lost Houston Nutt before the season even finished.

But things are much different. The caliber of ball played by the Freeze-led Rebs is much better. So is the discipline and the attitude. The product is bearable. And the expectations are higher.

Yes, five games in and we have to seriously consider the Rebels for a bowl game. In fact, some kind of expect it with the way they're playing and with the way their opponents are playing, as well.

While Ole Miss is fresh off a 19-point loss to No. 1 Alabama, there are a few positives the Rebels can build off from that game. After being annihilated by the Tide last year with basically the same personnel, the Rebels put it to the defending champs for a while.

Alabama stood with the 33-14 win Saturday night, but if the Rebels wanted to, they could have easily claimed a moral victory in Tuscaloosa. It was certainly there for the taking when you consider that this team stopped Alabama's gaudy lead streak that dated back to Oct. 22, 2011, scored two touchdowns on that vaunted Tide defense and held Alabama to just 305 yards of offense, including not allowing any running backs to eclipse the 83-yard mark.

Think about how far this defense has come since that nightmarish 35-point loss to Texas.

Freeze wasn't interested in moral victories Saturday night. He wanted the real one, as improbable as it might have been.

“I’m pleased with the effort and attitude of our kids and how hungry they are to succeed,” Freeze said. “I’m disappointed because I feel like we should have been in it the fourth quarter and for whatever reason -- we can go through all of them -- we didn’t get there. The next step in this journey is to get there. Get in that fourth quarter. I don’t know if we’ll win it or not but sure would feel good to play as hard as they’re playing and get in one.”

Kudos to Freeze for being genuinely disappointed. If not for three costly turnovers, terrible special-teams play and some execution issues, Ole Miss really might have made a game of it in the fourth quarter. This is certainly something the Rebels can build on and be upset about.

Last year, we saw a team that didn't play for its coach. Really, it was a group of athletes playing, not a team. The leadership stunk and players admitted to giving up far before games were over.

You don't see that this season. You see a team determined to move out of the SEC West cellar. It has better quarterback play, with Bo Wallace taking over (his turnover issues have to stop), and Donte Moncrief might be the most underrated receiver in the SEC.

It's obvious Freeze's spread is working, as the offense ranks fourth in the SEC, and while the defense has its issues, it's nowhere near as clumsy as it was last season.

When you look at the rest of Ole Miss' schedule, believe it or not, a bowl berth isn't an impossibility. Who can seriously sit here right now and say the Rebels wouldn't be favored against Auburn (home), Arkansas or Vanderbilt (home)? Win those and the Rebels are at six wins and can head to the postseason.

And don't count them out in the game against Mississippi State, which is in Oxford. When you have a team that has been disrespected by its rival for three straight years and has a coach who knows this is the game to win, things can get interesting.

Ole Miss still has a lot of work to do, and the lack of overall depth could be an issue down the stretch, but when you look at the Rebels, it's clear the SEC losing streak is coming to an end. And it isn't crazy to think that this team could be playing a 13th game.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss’ football program is stuck in the wilderness -- a scary place, filled with a plethora of overgrown obstacles.

When coach Hugh Freeze arrived last December, he says the jungle was as thick as ever and it didn’t look like his new team was ready to cut its way out.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMINew coach Hugh Freeze has set out an agenda for all Ole Miss players: "winning the day."
That was until Freeze offered a solution: his “Journey.” He told players that he didn’t know how long it would take for them to make it out or find some sort of salvation, but if they followed him, they’d find the light.

“The reasonable expectation for us in Year 1 is for us to compete passionately for this university for 60 minutes,” Freeze said. “And whatever that scoreboard says at the end of that 60 minutes we’ll have to live with.”

The Rebels will have to plod through this quagmire, but Freeze insists patience is the key to turning around a program that is less than three years removed from a second straight Cotton Bowl victory.

“It’s well-documented that we don’t have the talent level that people in the SEC West have right now at a lot of spots, at least not the depth,” Freeze said. “That’s not fixed overnight.”

And it’s just one of the handful of problems Freeze is looking to fix, as he replaces Houston Nutt, who was once heralded as Ole Miss' greatest hire. Academic and discipline issues are also on the agenda. As Freeze puts it, he has “a few mountains to climb” before he can shape things up, but since the journey began in December, progress has been made.

Freeze said probably 65-70 percent of the players have bought in, which might be a conservative number. It’s better than what he expected, considering the trust issues and players being set in their old ways of doing “what they’ve wanted to do for themselves for so long.”

“They think they like it the way they had it, even though, if they’re intelligent enough, they look at the results,” he said. “You’re will is something that’s hard to change once you get set.”

Freeze put the Rebels’ abysmal 6-18 two-year record and 14 straight SEC losses front and center as motivation, he made academics more of a priority, looked to adjust Ole Miss’ lenient drug policy, and created accountability groups.

Everything has helped, but the accountability groups really took off.

They were created to show players how much their actions affected everyone. Miss class? Your group runs at 5 a.m. Miss tutoring? Group run; 5 a.m. Late for anything? Welcome the sun with some running.

Rising junior linebacker Mike Marry said his group never ran – he made sure of it – but he saw other groups running as much as five times during a two-week span. The running cut down as the spring went on and there was hardly any toward the end.

“That’s what I like about him,” Marry said of Freeze, “he doesn’t let little things slide.

“The last coaches, they let certain things slide. Certain things were small, but eventually they start building up and turn into big things and people started feeling like they could get away with more and more things. Since he’s not letting little things slide, you’re seeing the team come together closer and closer and there are fewer problems.”

Freeze said eliminating off-field trouble is top priority. That’s why he’s so nervous about leaving his players in their own hands during the true offseason. Progress was made, but he worries guys will fall back on old habits when less supervised.

To ease his mind, Freeze turns to recruiting. With Ole Miss so thin at defensive tackle, offensive line, running back and safety, and needing walk-ons to fill three full teams in practice (on both sides), Freeze is stacking recruiting on recruiting.

He had some early success in his first class, grabbing three Under Armour All-Americans – DT Issac Gross, DE Channing Ware and DB Trae Elston -- and two junior college All-Americans – QB Bo Wallace and OT Pierce Burton – and his roll has continued with nine commitments in hand for 2013.

Recruiting at Ole Miss has hardly ever been easy with schools like Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia in such close proximity, but Freeze believes he’ll make it work. And he’ll do it by going after the top prospects, not by getting lax and offering whomever to fill space.

“We can make it easy in recruiting, now, and I think that’s what’s happened,” he said.

“I know you can recruit here. I’ve been here before when we did it and when we had 20 kids drafted in the NFL in those three classes that we brought in.

“Is it easy? No, but it is doable.”

Fixing Ole Miss is also doable, he said. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time, but it requires patience. Freeze’s mantra is “Winning the day,” not winning the week.

“The one thing that we have that’s constant and equal [to opponents] is time,” Freeze said. “So, what are we doing to prepare for that end goal -- whatever that is -- today?

“We’re a fragile state of mind right now and when you start talking about things that are so far out there, I don’t think that will be beneficial to us. Let’s just talk about today.”

Freeze might be preaching about today, but you can sense the confidence growing inside players, especially wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who took things a step further.

“Everybody keeps putting us under the radar, but once we learn this offense and the defense keeps playing like it’s playing, we’re going to shock a lot of teams,” he said.

What a journey that’d be.
Ole Miss quarterback Barry Brunetti has seen a lot of change during his two years as a college quarterback.

He's seen two different campuses -- after starting his career at West Virginia -- and attempted to learn his third different offense under his third different offensive coordinator this spring.

[+] EnlargeBarry Brunetti
Spruce Derden/US PresswireOle Miss quarterback Barry Brunetti finds himself in another competition for a starting job.
As much as things have changed for the rising junior, one thing has stayed constant: Brunetti has had a fight on his hands each step of the way.

"I've been competing since ninth grade for a spot, so it kind of comes natural to me," Brunetti said. "It's nothing new to me. It's something I do every day. It comes natural."

Brunetti lost out to favorite Geno Smith at WVU back in 2010, and after carrying the starting torch at the beginning of last season at his new school, he quickly lost it before the season opener even ended and watched as Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt took over for most of the year.

Sitting behind Smith wasn't a surprise, but Brunetti was blindsided by his sudden fall in 2011. Former coach Houston Nutt even said during the season that he wished he had redshirted Brunetti, who played in just four games and threw for 144 yards on 19 of 35 passing.

The benching crushed Brunetti, but he still doesn't know the reasoning behind the move by Nutt and then offensive coordinator David Lee.

"I wish I could tell you, but I can't," Brunetti said.

"I try not to dread on last year. I try not to think about it."

So as Brunetti's second spring at Ole Miss ends, he's yet again in a fight, but this time he's more comfortable with where he stands because Ole Miss’ offense has now morphed into the spread. Once he got the terminology down, Brunetti said he grasped the offense quickly, because it was very similar to what he ran at West Virginia and high school.

"I'm very comfortable now," he said. "This is back to what I do."

Brunetti led the competition last spring, but heads into the summer tied with junior college transfer Bo Wallace. Wallace had the edge early in the competition, because he knew the offense after being with new coach Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. That lead quickly shrank as Brunetti took more reps.

Brunetti said he operates best in the spread because he prefers the quick routes and throws, and loves to use his feet. He passed for just 62 yards, while running for 109 in Ole Miss’ spring game, but offensive coordinator Dan Werner said Brunetti made tremendous progress this spring.

"This is suited for him," Werner said. "He has a quick release, he has quick feet, and that's what we try to do is get rid if the ball quick. Also, he runs the ball well, and we want to be able to use his abilities there, too."

Werner made sure the battle between Brunetti and Wallace, who threw for 240 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the spring game, was intense. Once it became clear that they were the front-runners the reps evened out -- each one just as important as the other.

Every snap taken and every question Werner asked contributed to Werner's thoughts on which was the right quarterback.

He left spring without a clear answer.

Brunetti wants to be the answer. As he looks to reinvent himself and his career, Brunetti also wants to help reinvent Ole Miss. The program has been on a free fall for two years, resulting in six wins and 14 straight conference losses.

Brunetti hopes to turn that around.

"I've been in college for two years, man, and I'm itching to be a starter for a season," he said. "I really want people to see what I can do, and what I can do with this team, because we have great young talent.

"I really want to win this job. I think about it every day before I go to sleep."
There's no question that there are more than a few issues surrounding Ole Miss' football team.

Hugh Freeze inherited a team that is lacking depth in key areas, is still searching for playmakers, and hasn't won an SEC game in its pst 14 tries.

But if Ole Miss is going to make any immediate progress on the football field, things need to get cleaned up off the field.

Suspensions and dismissals rocked Ole Miss' team last fall, showing an obvious lack of discipline while former coach Houston Nutt was in charge.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Saundra SovickNew coach Hugh Freeze has made it clear he won't tolerate the off-field problems that troubled Ole Miss before his arrival.
When Freeze was introduced to his new team back in December, he made it crystal clear to players that certain things from the past wouldn't be tolerated, and that the attitude around Ole Miss' program was going to change.

Fast-forward to April, and quarterback Barry Brunetti says he's seen a dramatic difference in the way players conduct themselves with Freeze's no-nonsense persona front and center.

"I can just see it in the guys' eyes every day," Brunetti said. "They're ready to come to practice every day, and they're ready to work every day."

Brunetti said Freeze has made improving discipline throughout the entire team priority No. 1 this spring. Sure, learning new schemes and finding the right pieces here and there are important, but Brunetti said this team won't go anywhere without getting away from its troubled past.

"We need to be more disciplined than we were last year, because we have the talent. We have talent just as good as anybody in the SEC," Brunetti said. "I see it every day. I work out with these guys every day, and I know we can go get it.

"I know we can turn it around. We just have to learn to be more disciplined."

That means not getting carried away around the bar scene. That means not getting dismissed for continuing to violate team rules. That means not having starters suspended, especially before the season finale against your rival.

Brunetti said players who have made past mistakes have been forgiven, and the team is trying to forget, but he also said that it's time to make sure silly gaffes from the past don't creep back up.

"At the same time, we have to stop that, and that comes with discipline," Brunetti said. "I really believe that when Coach Freeze came in, a lot of it stopped, and a lot of it has decreased dramatically. Guys are doing very well who were struggling last year.

"To change, you have to change yourself, and that's what Coach Freeze is saying every time he sees us."
STILLWATER, Okla. -- We've only scratched the surface of my notebook after my visit to Stillwater on Wednesday. Lots, lots, lots more to come. Here's a few spare thoughts, notes and quotes from my day with the reigning Big 12 champs.
  • You've heard enough about Oklahoma State's QBs for today (Part 1, Part 2), with more to come on that trio, but whoever wins the job won't be short for targets. Receiver Josh Stewart's made the biggest improvement this offseason, but Tracy Moore has come on strong on the outside, too. Inside, you really do have to watch out for Blake Jackson. I regret not putting him on my "Top Newcomers in the Big 12" list from earlier this week. He's playing inside, but he's basically a tight end, and was the best of the junior college ranks last year. He's also a man. He's a huge target with great, great hands. Look for him to get some run on the goal line, but in this offense, he may actually be my frontrunner for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. I'd almost guarantee him getting a high volume of touches, and he's going to be tough to bring down at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds. He's every bit of that, too. "He's a big body guy and has really good hands. If it's in the general area of him, he's going to catch it," quarterback J.W. Walsh said. "He's got really good leaping ability and great ball skills."
  • Speaking of newcomers, you don't hear as much hype around him, but defensive coordinator Bill Young is hopeful that Calvin Barnett can have a big impact on the defensive line. Plenty of folks were after the one-time OSU commit, turned Arkansas signee, turned juco All-American, turned Cowboy signee. The 6-foot-2, 300-pounder has big-time potential, but he has to pick up the speed of the game and focus on technique. OSU's defense may ultimately depend on strength at the defensive tackle spot. "He's a very talented guy, he's really strong and powerful. Weight coaches have raved about what he's done in the weight room," said Young. "He's a big guy who can run and change direction. We're fortunate to have him." Big impact? "We're hoping he can," Young said.
  • Fired Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, an Oklahoma State alum, was back on OSU's campus on Wednesday visiting with the coaching staff. Colorado coach Jon Embree also showed up unannounced earlier this spring to meet with Gundy, who granted the request.
  • Oklahoma State's corners and running backs are both having great springs, as expected. Those two spots might be the biggest strength on the team. OSU has a great case as the Big 12's best set of running backs, and is second to only Texas at cornerback.
  • Defensively, Mike Gundy feels like this year's team is the most talented and deepest of any team he's had dating all the way back to even when Gundy was an assistant under Les Miles.
  • Oklahoma State may be hurt the most of anyone with the new rule changes in special teams. Kickoffs have been moved up to the 35-yard line and touchbacks are now brought out to the 25-yard line. That negates two huge advantages OSU has had the past two season. Quinn Sharp boomed 61 touchbacks last season. No other kicker had more than 40. Meanwhile, Justin Gilbert is one of the most dynamic return men in the league, but he'll have fewer opportunities. He says he'll still plan on taking it out when he gets a chance, but he'll have to dial it back some and take the unselfish route a whole lot more. Sad to see that. He's electrifying.
  • Oklahoma State moved safety Daytawion Lowe to nickel back and Lavocheya Cooper is holding down the free safety spot. The void at strong safety will be filled by committee, Young said. Zack Craig will be part of it, as and Shamiel Gary and Deion Imade will get a shot, too. "The good thing about is we have all the backups back," Young said.
  • OSU is missing center Evan Epstein this week. He's out with pneumonia.
  • Former OSU lineman Levy Adcock showed up briefly to Oklahoma State' facilities on Wednesday. I can confirm he's shaved his mullet.

Sawyer, Rebels to fight for each other

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
12:25
PM ET
There’s not a lot to remember fondly about Ole Miss’ football season a year ago.

Really, make that the past two seasons.

Junior cornerback Charles Sawyer chooses to look at it differently. That’s because he has no interest, period, in looking into his rear-view mirror.

The Rebels open spring practice on Friday afternoon, and just about everything is new -- from the head coach, to the coordinators, to a more demanding approach that Sawyer says was a long time coming.

“It’s a new start, a clean slate,” Sawyer said. “You can already tell that everything’s going to be more demanding around here. There’s just more focus, more protecting the team.

“The coaches send us text messages throughout the day reminding us to always protect the team and do the right things. It’s just a different atmosphere, and we needed that. When you go into that locker room, everybody’s focused and everybody’s ready to work.”

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews, Charles Sawyer
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDefensive back Charles Sawyer was Ole Miss' second-leading tackler last season.
Sawyer is quick to point out that he’s not bashing Houston Nutt and the Rebels’ previous regime.

Rather, he’s embracing first-year coach Hugh Freeze and the imprint that Freeze is trying to place on a program that has lost 14 consecutive SEC games and experienced a rash of player suspensions and dismissals over the past two years, not to mention some crippling injuries.

“It starts at the top and transfers down to the players,” Sawyer said. “There are a lot of rules, and if you don’t go by them, you’re not going to be a part of this program. Players see that and want to be a part of it. If they don’t, they leave and we keep on moving forward.”

Sawyer was diplomatic when asked if that same mentality existed under the previous coaching staff.

“It started fading away through all the adversities that we had,” Sawyer said. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just that I think we had it and then sort of lost it.”

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Sawyer has already demonstrated that he’s a team-first player and a player that performs regardless of what’s going on around him.

He came to Ole Miss from Miami, Fla., as a cornerback, but shifted over to safety last season because there was a pressing need there. Then when Marcus Temple was injured, Sawyer went back to cornerback and generally played wherever the Rebels needed him.

He played well, too, and enters the 2012 season as one of the more underrated defenders in the SEC. Because of Ole Miss’ struggles, Sawyer simply didn’t get the recognition that he deserved.

His 70 total tackles ranked him second on the team behind linebacker Mike Marry. Sawyer also intercepted four passes and returned one 96 yards for a touchdown in the opener against BYU.

Go back and look at how many defensive backs in the SEC last season racked up 70 or more tackles and intercepted at least four passes.

Morris Claiborne didn’t do it. Neither did Mark Barron, Tyrann Mathieu, Stephon Gilmore, Bacarri Rambo or Casey Hayward.

“My role on this team hasn’t changed,” Sawyer said. “I’m going to lead by example and make the plays I can make. I want to be a team player, and wherever they need me to play, I’ll play.

“Whatever I did last year, I have to multiply that by 10.”

And while others may dwell on the Rebels’ drought in the SEC, Sawyer is confident that better days are ahead. The last time he or any of his Ole Miss teammates tasted victory in an SEC contest was Oct. 2, 2010. The Rebels beat Kentucky 42-35 that day.

Since then it’s been a string of 14 straight losses, and 11 of those by 13 points or more.

“It hasn’t been easy, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” Sawyer said. “For me, it’s been motivation to get back out there, because none of us want to go through that again.”

Sawyer said Freeze’s message to the team has been one of unity and belief in one another.

“He tells us to play and not worry about making mistakes,” Sawyer said. “He wants us to compete and give it our all, and at the end of the day, whatever happens happens.

“We’re going to fight for each other this season. That’s something I can promise you.”

SEC Valentine's Day cards

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
3:52
PM ET
Even in the fiercely competitive SEC, it’s good to spread a little love.

OK, maybe just once a year. And that one day is today … Valentine’s Day.

So just as we did a year ago, we’re going to set aside all the bitter rivalries, feuds and finger-pointing for a day and hand out some very deserving Valentine’s Day cards.

Sit back and enjoy.

Dear …

Alabama coach Nick Saban,

Your football program is without peer right now, and I mean anywhere in college football. A lot of people were shocked when they heard that Alabama was paying you $32 million over eight years – a financial package that has since been sweetened. I’d say it’s been money well spent when you look at the Crimson Tide’s trophy case over the last few years. Everybody wonders what your secret is. Here’s one: Great football players who are also high-character kids in the mold of Trent Richardson, Barrett Jones, William Vlachos, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt,

Hated to see you go out like that. But regardless of what anybody says, average coaches don’t make it 14 years in this league at two different places. The same goes for your defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Both of you are better coaches than the last two seasons would suggest. There’s an entire body of work out there that says so.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore,

Can’t wait to see you back on the field, and here’s hoping you’re as good as new. Your sense of team, combined with your incredible work ethic and awesome athletic ability, make you the kind of player coaches and fans dream about.

Arkansas running back Knile Davis,

Probably should have sent you and Marcus the same card. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that you’re healthy again. Your unbreakable will to keep coming back from so many injuries is an inspiration to all of us, and we're eager to see the version of you run the ball again that we saw in 2010 when you led all SEC running backs in rushing.

LSU coach Les Miles,

I’m not one of those who writes off what you and your team did for the first 13 games this past season simply because of that one forgettable night in New Orleans. It was a remarkable run against a killer schedule. But do everybody on the Bayou a favor and trash that offensive game plan from the BCS national championship game.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray,

Your arm strength and ability to make all of the throws is unquestioned. You’re equally fearless in the pocket. But now it’s time to become a true quarterback and raise the level of play of all the guys around you. The great quarterbacks take it upon themselves to lead their entire team, and they do so as much off the field as they do on the field.

Arkansas receiver/punt returner Joe Adams,

Do you really have eyes in the back of your head? We’re still dying to know how you broke all of those tackles (somewhere around eight) on that 60-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee? It’s as good a punt return as I’ve ever seen.

Vanderbilt defensive end Tim Fugger,

There are a lot of underrated players in this league, but you were right there at or near the top this season. You were invaluable to that Vanderbilt defense with your 13.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks, and three forced fumbles. It wasn’t just your numbers that set you apart, but the way you played the game with precision, passion and grit on every snap.

Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan,

We’re not supposed to have favorites in our business. But how can you not pull for a guy like Trevathan? Kentucky coach Joker Phillips used to joke that he found Trevathan up under a rock down in Florida during the recruiting process. Well, Trevathan turned out to be a rock, racking up nearly 300 total tackles during his last two seasons and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played no matter what the scoreboard said. We'll miss you, Danny.

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham,

The entire Bulldog Nation thanks you for bringing a mental toughness to that defense (and to the program) that was lacking at times in past seasons. Your defense was the backbone in Georgia’s turnaround and 10-game winning streak this season, and even though your fire might have burned a little too brightly a couple of times, it’s exactly what the Bulldogs needed.

Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer,

Not even the great Bo Jackson rushed for 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons on the Plains. It was a joy to watch you play. Just wished it didn’t end on such a sour note.

Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain,

Congrats on the new gig at Colorado State. You were destined to be a head coach, and I’ll make sure everybody remembers that they did play a little offense at Alabama this past season, too. In fact, your Tide offense was the only one in the SEC to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game. That’s saying something when you consider the level of defense played in the SEC.

Florida coach Will Muschamp,

You made some tough decisions in Year 1, notably sending star cornerback Janoris Jenkins packing following his second drug arrest. You’ve also got your coaching staff more to your liking, and your players understand unequivocally now what you expect from them. The 2012 version of the Gators will more closely reflect you as a football coach, and I’d be surprised if the results weren’t markedly better.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen,

I really like the way you’ve helped yourself with junior college talent. I also like the way your 2012 schedule looks through the middle of October. With five home games and two very winnable road dates, a 6-1 or even 7-0 start is very possible. I’m not trying to jinx you, Dan, but maybe Year No. 4 in Starkville is going to be that magical season everyone was predicting this past year. The bottom line is that you’ve led the Bulldogs to back-to-back winning seasons, and the last time that happened was 10 years ago.

Updating records against winning teams

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
11:10
AM ET
We’ve updated our career records for SEC head coaches from this past season against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record, which is always one of the best gauges for coaching success.

Obviously, there are exceptions. In some cases, a coach may just be starting out, and there are also situations where he’s come from a smaller school and taken his lumps.

Generally, though, it’s a pretty good measurement of how a coach has fared over the course of his career.

LSU’s Les Miles made a big jump this season by finishing 9-1 against teams with winning records in 2011.

Houston Nutt, who was fired as Ole Miss’ coach, won 36 games during his career against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record, but he lost 69 to leave his winning percentage at .343.

Hugh FreezeAP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisHugh Freeze is all smiles now, but he takes over a program that has lost 14 straight SEC games.
This week marked a special time in Hugh Freeze’s life.

And it had nothing to do with player evaluations, recruiting or clocking 40 times.

This was the first time Ole Miss’ new head coach actually got to see what organization looked like in his office. Gone were the boxes that littered his floors and the loose papers that cluttered his desk.

There is some sort of balance in his workspace, but there are still voice mails and emails that haven’t been returned. It’s not that he’s dismissed them; he just hasn’t had time to respond.

“I really don’t have everything in order yet,” Freeze said.

Yet, he’s happy to see some sort of sanity return. Since Freeze was announced as Ole Miss’ 37th head coach on Dec. 5, he’s had one team meeting and a whole lot of recruiting on his mind.

Freeze, who returns to Ole Miss after spending three years on Ed Orgeron’s staff, has barely moved into Danny Nutt’s (Houston Nutt’s brother) old house because he had to build relationships with committed and uncommitted prospects with less than two months until national signing day. And he had to do so at a program that had endured two straight seasons in the SEC’s cellar, winning just six games and dropping 14 straight league games, including three straight to archrival Mississippi State.

Ole Miss’ longer winter break also meant that he only had one official visit weekend in which students would be on campus -- the final one.

“As you know, Oxford is a different place when the kids are here,” Freeze said.

It is, and Freeze worried that prospects wouldn’t be able to really digest the Ole Miss experience without them.

But on national signing day, Freeze finished off his class of 18 with a pretty successful turnout. Freeze signed a solid defensive foundation in four-star defensive linemen Issac Gross, Channing Ward and safety Trae Elston.

Though Freeze suffered tough losses, including local star Jeremy Liggins, who signed with LSU, he saved six initial scholarships that can be counted back next year and he thinks he signed “quality kids who really want to be at Ole Miss.”

Now, he has to make sure he has those players on his current roster. Freeze isn’t pointing fingers, but he knows that discipline is an issue at Ole Miss. The mindset isn’t toxic, but it isn’t great.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Saundra SovickHugh Freeze is familiar with rebuilding programs. He turned Arkansas State into a winner in 2011.
Freeze is well aware of the off-field incidents and the questionable heart this team showed on the field last season. Therefore, he’s calling for an overhaul. Things will change mentally and physically for these players.

“It is requiring them to get out of their comfort zone and change what they’re used to,” Freeze said.

Freeze’s situation at Ole Miss is similar to the one he had at Arkansas State. During his one season as ASU’s head coach last year, he had players who had never had a winning season. Expunging the losing attitudes was step 1.

Step 2 was developing the talent at a faster, more efficient rate. Freeze created a well-disciplined team that won the Sun Belt after getting 10 wins for the first time since 1986. Freeze earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year, while 13 of his players earned all-league honors.

Can that overnight success be duplicated in Oxford? Freeze isn’t expecting such a dramatic turnaround, but he does anticipate immediate improvement. He won’t settle for mediocrity. He didn’t return just for Ajax Diner’s veggies smothered in bacon and grease or the flawlessly battered catfish at Taylor Grocery.

He came home to win ball games and change the culture of Ole Miss football. He knows the offensive line wasn’t recruited for a more “power-type offense” and that youth ran the 2011 team.

But he also knows that he has the pieces in place to run his high-octane, spread offense. There are dual-threat quarterbacks galore, including Bo Wallace, who at one time was an ASU signee, and the Rebels have quality speed at the skill positions.

Freeze doesn’t view Ole Miss’ program as bleak, and while the Rebels spent 2011 at the bottom of the SEC pile, with time, Freeze believes he can get this program to rebound.

“I do believe with all my heart that we’ll get back to being competitive and hopefully we’ll do it sooner rather than later, but I’ve got to preach to myself patience,” he said. “I’m not a very patient guy, but I’ve got to be patient with these guys. Hopefully, there’s a large percentage of the team that wants to change the way things are and we can get them to buy in. Hopefully, the ones who are on the fence can buy in with us.”

Still, inconsistency has thrived at Ole Miss. There’s the idea that Freeze isn’t experienced enough. There’s the fact that the Rebels haven’t been to the SEC championship game and have won 10 games just once since 1971.

The Rebels have ways to go before they'll really compete in the SEC, but Freeze hopes he can shake the stigma that winning at Ole Miss is preposterous.

“I embrace that. I don’t run from it and we acknowledge it,” he said. “I obviously think it can be done or I would have taken one of those other jobs that I had. I do think it’s going to take all of our efforts and us being of one mind, one accord on the same page with our fan base and our staff, and us changing the way we think of ourselves.

“It’ll take time.”

The SEC's top 10 moments in 2011

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
11:22
AM ET
As we take another look at the 2011 season, we'll check out the top 10 moments from the SEC's year.

It's not as easy as it looks, but someone has to do it.

I'm sure we'll think of a couple more as the days go by, but here are our top 10 moments from 2011 in reverse order:

10. Houston Nutt's dismissal:
Ole Miss said goodbye to its head coach after Nutt was fired toward the end of the season. After back-to-back nine-win seasons that ended with Cotton Bowl victories, Nutt was fired after two dismal seasons in Oxford. He coached the entire season, but ended his tenure with 14 straight losses to SEC opponents.

9. Kentucky's last stand: There wasn't much for the Wildcats to be proud of in 2011, but Kentucky's 10-7 win over Tennessee was truly memorable. It snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Vols (dating back to when Joker Phillips played at Kentucky) and eliminated Tennessee from postseason play.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt and the Bulldogs overcame an 0-2 start to the season to win the SEC's Eastern Division.
8. Georgia clinching the East: After starting the season 0-2, Georgia won 10 straight, but its ninth win meant the most. Georgia's 19-10 win over Kentucky on Nov. 19 clinched the SEC Eastern Division and sent the Bulldogs back to the SEC championship for the first time since 2005.

7. Vandy's bowl bid: Coach James Franklin promised change at Vanderbilt and he got it in his first year. The Commodores reeled off six wins and their 41-7 win over Wake Forest on the last weekend of the regular season sent Vandy bowling for the first time since 2008.

6. Richardson's run: Trent Richardson's Heisman moment came on a run and a move for the ages. Before he could finish off his eventual 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against Ole Miss, he had to embarrass defender Senquez Golson by cutting back and then immediately forward, leaving the rookie stumbling to the turf just before the end zone.

5. Adams' return: No plays were as exciting to watch in the SEC -- and probably nationally -- than Joe Adams' amazing punt return against Tennessee. Adams was scintillating, as he reversed field 10 yards and shook off five tackles before darting down the right sideline for what stood as a 60-yard touchdown return.

4. South Carolina's 11th win: Last year, the Gamecocks made history when they made it to their first SEC championship game. In 2011, South Carolina won 11 games in a season for the first time when the Gamecocks routed Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It also ended a streak of three straight bowl losses.

3. Reid's interception: When you think back at the 2011 season, Eric Reid's interception against Alabama at LSU's own 1-yard line has to be one of the first images you see. With the Tide running a trick play involving a pass from receiver Marquis Maze to tight end Michael Williams, Reid out-muscled Williams for the ball in midair. The play propelled LSU on its magical run and sent Alabama home with what seemed like a season-changing loss.

2. LSU's magical run ends: LSU was a win away from entering the "best ever" conversation, with eight wins over ranked teams, but LSU ran into a freight train named Alabama in the hated rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. LSU's offense fell flat as the Tide ran over the Tigers 21-0 in their own backyard of New Orleans.

1. Alabama hoists the crystal football ... again:
The state of Alabama clearly owns college football at the moment. Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the national championship gave the state three straight crystal footballs and was the second for the Crimson Tide in three years. Nick Saban admitted that this championship (his third) was the sweetest and you could tell because he actually smiled afterward and took his Gatorade bath like a true champ.

Final SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
11:00
AM ET
Now that the national championship has been decided, here’s a look at the final SEC power rankings for the 2011 season:

1. Alabama (12-1): There will always be a group of fans who insist that Alabama should have never even been in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. But the system worked for the Crimson Tide this season, and they took full advantage. You’ll search long and hard to find a better defense. Nobody scored more than 14 points against Alabama’s defense all season. And while there might be some debate about whether Alabama deserved a rematch, there’s no debate about who was the better team on Monday in the Big Easy.

2. LSU (13-1): Everything had gone right for LSU until Monday night. The Tigers went belly-up offensively against an Alabama defense that was overwhelming. Lasting impressions are what people remember, and the disappointment in the Superdome will resonate for a long time. But it was still a great season on the Bayou. The Tigers beat eight nationally ranked teams, including three top-5 teams. It just so happened that they had to go through Alabama a second time, and that’s what got them.

3. Arkansas (11-2): The Hogs might have been overshadowed by Alabama and LSU, but they had their second straight outstanding season under Bobby Petrino. They won 11 games for the first time since 1977 with a pair of victories over top-10 teams, including Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. It’s a senior class they will remember fondly in the Ozarks.

4. South Carolina (11-2): Think the Head Ball Coach is having fun in the twilight of his career? He was almost giddy following South Carolina’s 30-13 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It was the Gamecocks’ first 11-win season in school history, and they did it despite some adversity. Star running back Marcus Lattimore missed the last half of the season after injuring his knee.

5. Georgia (10-4): The finish was not what the Bulldogs were hoping for, getting blown out in the SEC championship game by LSU and then faltering in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. Nonetheless, to win 10 straight games after opening the season 0-2 and even making it to the SEC championship game speaks for itself. Mark Richt, his staff and the seniors on this team did a great job of keeping the faith.

6. Auburn (8-5): The Tigers lost so much from their 2010 national championship team that nobody expected them to be in the title chase again. Still, the drop-off on offense and defense was probably steeper than anybody expected. Winning the bowl game and getting to eight wins helped ease the pain of being blown out late in the season by LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

7. Florida (7-6): There wasn’t a lot to celebrate in Will Muschamp’s inaugural season in Gainesville. The Gators didn’t beat anybody of note, were painful to watch on offense for the second straight season and finished with six losses for the first time since 1987. They were still able to carve out a winning season thanks to their victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, and Muschamp should be better able to put his stamp on the program in Year 2.

8. Mississippi State (7-6): The expectations were dizzying for the Bulldogs coming off their 9-4 finish in 2010, and while they didn’t make any noise in the Western Division race, they did make a second straight bowl appearance for the first time in more than a decade. The downer for the Bulldogs was that they went a second consecutive season with only one Western Division win -- Ole Miss.

9. Vanderbilt (6-7): James Franklin made an immediate impact in his first season at Vanderbilt. He took a program that had won just two games in each of its previous two seasons and guided it to only its fifth bowl game in school history. The Commodores were solid on defense all season and improved dramatically on offense. They didn’t play one of their better games in losing to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

10. Kentucky (5-7): It was a struggle all season offensively for the Wildcats, who had hoped to lean on their offensive line. But that never happened, which was only made worse by a lack of production at quarterback. First-year coordinator Rick Minter did improve the defense, and the Wildcats kept the season from being a total loss by winning over Tennessee and snapping a 26-game losing streak to the Vols.

11. Tennessee (5-7): If you’re looking for hot seats, Derek Dooley’s figures to be mighty toasty if the Vols don’t make considerable strides next season. The 2011 season went from mediocre to bad after Kentucky beat Tennessee 10-7 in the regular-season finale with a receiver playing quarterback. There seemed to be a disconnect that developed between Dooley and his team that he needs to fix this offseason.

12. Ole Miss (2-10): The Houston Nutt tenure at Ole Miss came to a disappointing end this season. Nutt was fired toward the end of the season, and the Rebels went on to lose their 14th straight SEC game before it was all over. Ole Miss does have some promising young players in the program, but new coach Hugh Freeze will have his work cut out in the big, bad Western Division.

Top surprises in the Western Division

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
2:21
PM ET
No college football season ever turns out exactly the way you thought it would.

There are always surprises -- good and bad.

I’ll tackle my biggest surprises in the SEC’s Western Division this season, and Edward will unveil his biggest surprises in the Eastern Division later today.

We’ll do it by teams:

ALABAMA

Struggles in the kicking game: It wasn’t all bad. Marquis Maze was one of the top kickoff and punt returners in the SEC, but Alabama was ninth in the SEC in net punting and 11th in kickoff coverage. What’s more, the Crimson Tide missed 11 field goals this season. And while nobody in Tuscaloosa needs to be reminded, four of those misses came in the LSU game.

Anthony Steen: The 6-foot-3, 303-pound sophomore was one of the Crimson Tide’s most pleasant surprises in the preseason, and he wound up starting nine games at right guard. He was a big part of Alabama’s bruising running game, which topped the SEC with an average of 219.8 yards per game.

ARKANSAS

Defensive turnover: This was supposed to be Arkansas’ best defense under Bobby Petrino. The Hogs had depth and experience, but wound up ninth in the SEC in total defense and gave up 28 or more points in six games. Petrino fired defensive coordinator Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes from Ohio State as the Hogs’ new defensive coordinator.

Greg Childs: After tearing the patella tendon in his right knee during the 2010 season, Childs never returned to his All-SEC form. He just wasn’t the same physically this season and finished with 16 catches in 10 games and no touchdowns.

AUBURN

Defensive decline: Everybody on the Plains expected some drop-off on defense after losing so many veteran players from the national championship team. But the Tigers were torched for more than 1,600 total yards in their first three games in a sign of things to come. They wound up giving up 29.3 points per game and 405.8 yards per game, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the UCF defensive coordinator’s job when the regular season ended.

Gus Malzahn leaving for Arkansas State: Most in and around the Auburn program had a feeling that Malzahn was poised to leave for a head job. After all, he turned down $3 million per year at Vanderbilt last year. But nobody would have guessed that he would leave for the Arkansas State head job.

LSU

No quarterback controversy: With the way LSU’s quarterback situation has played out, it’s a minor miracle there hasn’t been a quarterback controversy. But, then, it’s been that kind of season for the Tigers. Still, you can’t help but wonder what Jarrett Lee’s true thoughts are right now.

The Honey Badger: It was obvious from Tyrann Mathieu’s freshman season that he was a very good football player. But who knew he would blossom into one of the best all-around players in the country this season? He scored four touchdowns and didn’t play a snap on offense.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

No signature wins: After the Bulldogs racked up nine wins in 2010, the expectations in Starkville were off the charts. In retrospect, maybe too much was expected. Either way, Mississippi State lost all five of its games to nationally ranked foes and only beat one Western Division opponent (Ole Miss).

Cameron Lawrence: In his first season as a starter, Lawrence collected 114 total tackles to rank third in the SEC. Everybody was wondering coming into the season what the Bulldogs were going to do at linebacker after losing all three starters. Lawrence, who played quarterback in high school, stepped right in and anchored a unit that was solid all season.

OLE MISS

Houston Nutt’s ouster: Nutt had been the ultimate survivor in the SEC, and when his back was to the wall, he usually produced some of his best results. It wasn’t to be this season, though, as the Rebels saw their SEC losing streak reach 14 straight games. Following the loss to Kentucky on Nov. 5, the university announced that Nutt wouldn’t be back next season.

Quick trigger for Brunetti: One of the more puzzling things about the season for Ole Miss was how Barry Brunetti could win the starting quarterback job during the preseason, then get benched in the opener and never really be heard from again until the very end of the season.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
10:21
AM ET
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES