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Monday, August 24, 2009
SEC superlatives

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We'll wrap up our preview of the SEC with a few preseason awards and predictions:

1. Offensive Player of the Year: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. If you had one pick of any current player in the SEC, Tebow would be the guy. He's a force throwing the ball. He's a force running the ball and he's the quintessential leader.

2. Defensive Player of the Year: Tennessee safety Eric Berry. The Vols are promoting Berry for the Heisman Trophy, and why not? He's intercepted 12 passes his first two seasons and hits like a linebacker. Just ask Knowshon Moreno.

3. Newcomer of the Year: Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. He has one of the strongest arms in college football, talented playmakers around him and a firm grasp of Bobby Petrino's system. It all adds up to a big debut season at Arkansas.

4. Freshman of the Year: South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Steve Spurrier has already said Gilmore is one of the best freshmen he's ever signed. He's going to start at cornerback for the Gamecocks and will also get a few snaps at quarterback in the Wildcat formation.

5. Comeback Player of the Year: Mississippi State linebacker Jamar Chaney. A second-team All-SEC selection two years ago, Chaney broke his left fibula and tore ligaments in his ankle in the season opener last year. He's back in the middle this season, though, and in the best shape of his career. Look for him to anchor what should be a terrific Mississippi State linebacker corps.

6. Breakout Player of the Year: Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. His transformation from one of the best freshmen in the league to one of the best players in the league will be on full display this season. The Crimson Tide will use him in different roles, and he's much more in tune with the complexities of the defense. His best is yet to come.

7. Most exciting player: Ole Miss running back/receiver Dexter McCluster. Percy Harvin wasn't the only member of the 600/600 club last season. A threat in the running game, passing game and maybe even the return game, the speedy McCluster rushed for 655 yards and also had 625 yards receiving in 2008. He's one of those guys you expect to score every time he gets in the open field.

8. Coach of the Year: Arkansas' Bobby Petrino. With road games at Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, if Petrino can figure out a way to win seven or eight games this season, then he can go ahead and clear out a spot on his mantle for the trophy. The Hogs will be much improved in Petrino's second season.

9. Game of the Year: Florida at LSU, Oct. 10 in Baton Rouge. This is actually one of two huge games in the league the second weekend in October. Alabama also travels to Ole Miss. But if you look down Florida's schedule, the trip to Tiger Stadium looms as the Gators' toughest challenge. And if LSU can knock off Florida, you've got to like the Tigers' chances in the West race.

10. Team that will surprise: Georgia. The pick here is based largely on the Bulldogs being an afterthought in the East race, only a year removed from being everybody's preseason No. 1. Georgia isn't good enough to unseat Florida in the East, but the Bulldogs behind a strong offensive line and a defense out to avenge last season's poor showing will be a lot better than people think.

11. Team that will disappoint: Alabama. Breaking in a new quarterback the same year you're revamping your offensive line is never a good mix. The Crimson Tide won't fall off completely. Their defense will be too good. But remember that Nick Saban has never won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons in his head coaching career.