NCF Nation: Stephen Alli

SEC 2011 regular-season wrap

December, 6, 2011
Before the season, we all had an inkling that the SEC Western Division would be just a little bit stronger than its Eastern counterpart.

The West dominated the East in 2010, and with little overall improvement from that side of the conference, the consensus was that the road to SEC supremacy was headed through Alabama, Arkansas or Louisiana.

But getting out of that frighteningly tough division was another chore in itself.

Most of us put our cards in Alabama’s camp. With a defense that looked like it was copied and pasted from an NFL roster, a bulldozing running back in Trent Richardson and Nick Saban leading things, the Crimson Tide seemed like a safe bet.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles and his Tigers have one more game to win before possibly capping off LSU's best season ever.
But it was once again the Year of the Tiger.

LSU teased us with its talent before the season. No one questioned the assortment of riches coach Les Miles had at his disposal, but we were worried about the youth, Miles’ quirkiness and a troubling quarterback situation.

All of that came into play during LSU’s magical season, and the Tigers never blinked.

The year started with the suspension of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and the ineligibility of starting wide receiver Russell Shepard. That didn’t seem to matter as equally embattled quarterback Jarrett Lee stepped up and led the Tigers to a 4-0 start with wins over three ranked teams, including No. 3 Oregon, all on the road.

We saw an efficient, powerful offense and an athletic, selfish defense. The Mad Hatter appeared to have something special, but we wouldn’t be certain until more controversy hit.

Outside of the obvious awkward quarterback situation once Jefferson came back, Miles watched as national darling Tyrann Mathieu, who became known as the “Honey Badger,” and starting running back Spencer Ware were suspended two weeks before the Alabama game.

Again, LSU didn’t flinch.

In a showdown that received more hype than some national championship games, we saw two SEC sledgehammers bludgeon each other before LSU escaped with a 9-6 overtime win at Alabama. LSU controlled not only the SEC but the nation.

LSU met two more REAL challenges before clinching a spot in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. Thanks to some fancy punt returns from the Honey Badger, LSU erased 14- and 10-point deficits to Arkansas and Georgia with 40-plus runs.

LSU is 13-0 for the first time, and a win in New Orleans could make this the greatest season for an SEC team.

The Tigers will have to play Alabama, again. The Tide never left the national scene after their lone loss, only dropping as far as third in the BCS standings. Even after watching the final weekend, it had enough support to be thrust into the title game for what should be an epic rematch.

The West will send three other teams bowling, including an Arkansas team that flirted with the BCS until the final weekend. Bobby Petrino reeled off another 10-win season and did so without one of the SEC’s most complete running backs in Knile Davis.

A year removed from winning the national championship, Auburn had to deal with harsh realities of rebuilding. The Tigers started 4-1, but their young players hit the wall shortly after. Still, there looks to be some solid talent on the Plains.

Mississippi State didn’t live up to lofty expectations, but will be bowling in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than a decade, while Ole Miss’ 2-10 season got its head coach fired.

As for the East, South Carolina and Georgia battled until the very end, while Florida and Tennessee sank further into mediocrity. Vanderbilt was the feel-good story, as new coach James Franklin truly re-energized that program, leading the Commodores back to the postseason.

Georgia’s rebound from a 0-2 start was exactly what coach Mark Richt needed. With his seat getting hotter and hotter in Athens, Richt helped orchestrate a 10-game winning streak that took the Dawgs back to the SEC title game.

The Gamecocks might have been the preseason favorites in the East, but came up short after losing starting quarterback Stephen Garcia and running back Marcus Lattimore. Still, 10 wins is nothing to scoff at.

We knew the West was bigger, stronger and better than the East, but with LSU and Alabama set to collide once more, it now seems like it’s bigger, stronger and better than anyone.

Offensive MVP: Alabama running back Trent Richardson

Richardson has a chance to be Alabama’s second Heisman Trophy winner after a tremendous junior year. It usually takes a handful of defenders strapped to his back to finally bring Richardson down. As Alabama’s main back, Richardson led the SEC with 1,583 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Against SEC competition, Richardson averaged 137 yards a game and 6 yards per carry. In 12 games, he accumulated more than 100 rushing yards nine times. In five of those games, he registered more than 160 yards. Richardson not only carried opposing defenders throughout the season but he carried Alabama’s offense and dictated the way the Tide moved the ball.

Defensive MVP: LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu

The Honey Badger was one of the most exciting players to watch in college football this season. It didn’t matter where he was on the field, he knew how to find the ball, forcing offenses to change their game plans in order to direct plays away from him. Mathieu led LSU in tackles (70), intercepted two passes, defended nine passes, forced six fumbles, recovered five fumbles and scored four non-offensive touchdowns. Mathieu was the commander of the Tigers’ back-to-back 40-point runs against Arkansas and Georgia with punt returns that went for scores of 92 and 62 yards. He forced and recovered two fumbles in those games and like Richardson, is headed to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Newcomer of the Year: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones

Jones officially came back home this season. Because of transfer rules he had to sit last year after leaving USC, but was more than ready for his return to college football. Jones was asked to come in and replace former Bulldog star Justin Houston and, boy, did he make Houston’s departure easier to stomach. Jones wasn’t just one of the best linebackers in the SEC; he was one of the best at his position in the country. Jones found ways all season to disrupt opposing backfields and led the SEC with 19.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks. He had the speed to make plays all over the field for the Bulldogs and helped make Georgia’s defense rank third nationally.

[+] EnlargeJordan Rodgers
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireCoach James Franklin gave his Commodores a midseason boost by starting Jordan Rodgers at QB.
Coach of the year: LSU’s Les Miles

Somehow, the Mad Hatter has done it again. Despite his sometimes-odd decisions, Miles has his Tigers undefeated and a win away from capturing their second national title during his tenure. Miles hasn’t only had his team prepared every week; he’s been able to direct his players through the off-field sludge that could have derailed LSU’s special season. With every distraction LSU faced, the Tigers just got stronger. Players credit LSU’s mental strength to Miles, who found ways to keep his team focused and relaxed on the way to a season that saw eight wins over ranked teams, with five coming away from Baton Rouge.

Biggest Surprise: Vanderbilt

It wasn’t just the fact that Vanderbilt made it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2008 that made this season special; it was the way Vandy did it. First-year coach James Franklin wanted to instill a new attitude at Vandy. Mission accomplished. The Commodores didn’t back down to anyone and were fun to watch on both offense and defense. Once Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback midway through the year, the Commodores were equipped with one of the more explosive SEC offenses, while the defense was extremely aggressive, forcing 27 turnovers. The Commodores were a few mistakes away from possibly winning eight or nine games. Franklin’s bravado and postgame antics showed the Commodores weren’t going to be taken lightly.

Biggest Disappointment: Florida

The Gators are in this category for the second straight year because of the offensive nightmare Florida endured. Florida went through a coaching transition in 2011, but with it came offensive guru Charlie Weis and a pro-style offense. Senior quarterback John Brantley was supposed to fit much better into Weis’ system, and after the first four weeks it looked like he did. However, after suffering a severe ankle injury in the Alabama game, Brantley and Florida’s season went south. Even after Brantley returned, Florida’s offense never fully recovered, and all the highly rated recruits Florida was stocked with struggled to stay consistent. Will Muschamp’s first regular season as head coach ended with a 6-6 record and the Gators had a losing record in SEC play for the first time since 1986.

Best Game: South Carolina 45, Georgia 42, Sept. 10

LSU and Alabama’s game of the century was the perfect display of SEC power, but South Carolina’s comeback win over Georgia in Week 2 had everything. There were 831 combined yards of total offense, 87 points, a special-teams touchdown by a defensive lineman, seven lead changes and a late touchdown that almost set up an eighth and final lead change. The biggest lead was 10 points, and that came with a little more than three minutes left after South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram, who went 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt, took an Aaron Murray fumble into the end zone to make it 45-35. Murray cut the lead to three less than a minute later with a 33-yard touchdown pass, but a failed on-side kick and two clutch runs by Lattimore sealed the game for the Gamecocks.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp is no stranger to the game-day scene in and around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The Gainesville, Fla., native grew up spending Saturdays walking to The Swamp, waiting in angst for the Gators to rush out onto the field.

[+] EnlargeWil Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida coach Wil Muschamp, center, watches his team during the Orange and Blue spring game.
But Saturday, Muschamp wasn’t just going to the show, he was part of it.

He jogged out of the South End Zone tunnel, for his first real game-like situation as Florida’s new coach with an announced crowd of 53,000 peering down on him.

Every move his team made was critiqued and carefully analyzed during a game failing to last two hours and finishing with walk-ons scoring more points than starters as the Blue team defeated the Orange 13-10 in the Orange and Blue Debut.

Muschamp, who spent the past five years as the defensive coordinator at Texas and Auburn, felt anxious, goose bumps littering his arms, as adrenaline rushed inside and around him. But for Muschamp, switching roles from coordinator to head coach didn't make him nervous, he's just like that around football.

“You know what? I get that way when I walk on the practice field,” Muschamp said.

With everything that happened (or didn’t) Saturday, it’d be easy to understand if Muschamp lost the charge he entered the stadium with.

Marred by injuries, Florida displayed two makeshift offenses, with walk-on defensive back Malcolm Jones filling in at running back and offensive linemen sharing time between both teams.

There wasn’t a touchdown scored until the fourth quarter, when backup quarterback Tyler Murphy’s dump-off pass went to walk-on running back Ben Sams for a 10-yard score, making it 10-6 Orange with 9:49 left.

Starting quarterback John Brantley started the game 0-for-6 passing, with two batted down at the line, and finished 4-for-14 with 45 yards for the Blue.

Walk-on quarterback Christian Provancha finally rallied the Blue with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Robert Clark with less than a minute remaining.

Not surprisingly, the loudest cheer of the day came when former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who was on hand for Florida’s unveiling of Heisman statues, picked up an incomplete pass from Brantley in the end zone and effortlessly hurled it back at him.

The game wasn’t thrilling, but it was a chance for Muschamp’s players to work inside the new offensive and defensive schemes and to be “fast, compete and play physical.”

“I just want to see great competition and see guys getting after each other, and I think we did for the most part,” Muschamp said.

What will be scrutinized is the offensive production. The teams combined for just 340 yards of total offense. By design, Brantley played just the first half.

The scapegoat for a lot of Florida’s offensive failures last season, Brantley was praised by Muschamp and players this spring. Despite Saturday’s efforts, Muschamp said he’s been very pleased with Brantley, who had completed nearly 70 percent of his practice passes.

“If we started the season today,” Muschamp said, “John Brantley would be our starter.”

Orange defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who tied for a game-high four tackles and led with three for loss, said Brantley’s issues were attributed to the pressure the defensive line provided.

“I wouldn’t call John Brantley’s play today a struggle. I would call it, ‘Not enough room,’” Floyd said. “Me and Dominique Easley collapsed the pocket, and that’s one of our main goals. We forced offensive linemen into his face, and he had to roll out.”

Brantley, who has embraced the opportunity to work with new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, said he’s a better fit for Weis’ more pro-style offense.

“I feel pretty comfortable,” he said. “There’s a lot more to learn, and coach Weis and everyone will get us ready for that, but right now, coming out of spring, we have a good basis for what we’re going to do in the fall.”

Murphy led the Orange with 68 yards and a touchdown on 7 of 11 passing. Much ballyhooed early enrollee Jeff Driskel split time between teams, going 3-for-8 for 58 yards.

Receiver Quinton Dunbar caught two passes for 45 yards, including a 29-yarder from Driskel, and Stephen Alli had 31 yards on two catches.

The offense wasn’t sharp and it’s still too early to tell on Florida’s defense, but Muschamp came away pleased with his first spring at the helm.

Now, Muschamp is relying on his players.

With spring over, NCAA restrictions on coach-player interactions will put more responsibility on the players as far as workouts, and Muschamp hopes this is where his team takes the next step on its own.

“I challenged some guys in the locker room. It’s time for them to step up,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be a senior.

“They need to understand it’s their football team, not mine. We will only be as good as we are with the work ethic that takes place.”