The best and worst of the SEC
A final team-by-team look at the SEC.
Ever since the Mike Price strip-a-thon story broke, the Crimson Tide has been in regroup mode. After 13 largely unsuccessful games, they're still regrouping in Tuscaloosa. Year One under Mike Shula was at least free of off-field embarrassment. It also was free of on-field glory. The best thing you could say about Alabama's season is that it at least put forth valiant efforts in losses to top 10 teams Oklahoma and Tennessee. But there also were ugly rollovers against LSU, Mississippi and Georgia. Quarterback injuries didn't help an offense that had enough trouble scoring with everyone healthy. The bottom line says nine losses, the most at Bama since J.B. "Ears" Whitworth was the coach in 1955. Shula gets a pass this year, but this isn't the kind of place to give free passes for long.
MVP: RB Shaud Williams. Williams ran courageously all year, piling up the third-most yards (1,356) and carries (278) in school history. The senior with modest physical talent benefited from running behind a veteran offensive line, but gained a lot of yards after contact on sheer determination. Without a significant threat from the passing game -- last in the SEC in yards per game at 192 -- the durable Williams did a lot of tough running against stacked defenses.
Biggest Disappointment: Besides Mike Price? It would have to be coughing up a 21-point second-half lead at home against Arkansas, then losing in overtime. It looked like Bama would go to 3-2, but instead wound up 2-3 and lost six of its last eight. The first game after the Razorbacks, a deflated Crimson Tide team fell behind 37-3 in the first half against Georgia.
What's Next: There will be talent on hand in 2004, but it still figures to get worse before it gets better -- which isn't exactly what they want to hear in Tuscaloosa. Scholarship cuts from the dirty dealings in Memphis a few years ago will begin to seriously take hold. Quarterback Brodie Croyle must prove he can elevate his skills to match his toughness. And Shula must prove he's the man for this difficult job -- especially now that Mississippi State has hired the guy 'Bama passed on, Sylvester Croom. If Croom shows a faster growth curve than Shula, the heat will increase.
The Razorbacks had a pair of four-game winning streaks. Streak One was highlighted by whipping ancient rival Texas in Austin, and a huge comeback to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Streak Two was highlighted by the seven-overtime thriller at Kentucky and a tough-minded rout of South Carolina just five days later. In between was a three-game losing streak marked by offensive problems. And after the second streak came a season-ending blowout loss to streaking LSU. Most schools will take 8-4, and Arkansas shouldn't be an exception. Befitting a Houston Nutt team, the Hogs made their hay running the football (a league-high 579 carries for a league-high 2,845 yards) and winning the turnover battle (plus-eight on the year). Arkansas also improved its passing game, which helped it go from worst to first in the SEC in third-down conversions from last year. But with 25 seniors on this team, there remains a slight sense that a big opportunity passed Arkansas by this year.
MVP: RB Cedric Cobbs. Cobbs edges out freakishly talented quarterback Matt Jones. Cobbs' production dipped in midseason after injuries slowed him, but he opened with four straight 100-yard games and closed with two straight at 150 or more to win the league rushing title. The senior salvaged a career that appeared to have veered badly off track after a promising freshman season.
Biggest Disappointment: Jones was a much better passer this year than in his first two seasons, but he still struggled throwing in three of Arkansas' four losses. Against Auburn, Mississippi and LSU, Jones was just 29-of-69 for 408 yards and two touchdowns. Not coincidentally, those were the three lowest-scoring games of the year for the Arkansas offense: three points against Auburn, seven against Ole Miss and 24 against LSU.
What's Next: Arkansas is going to the Independence Bowl. After that, Nutt says goodbye to a huge senior class and perhaps a couple of juniors -- huge offensive tackle Shawn Andrews most likely among them. Quarterback Matt Jones returns, depth remains at running back and a solid core of defensive players should be back, led by big-hitting safety/linebacker Tony Bua. Arkansas won't slip far under Nutt, but it might take a step back next season.
Well, wasn't that a fun season? OK, maybe not -- but it sure wasn't predictable. Forecast to win 11 or 12 games and compete for the national title, Auburn instead won seven and competed for very little of consequence. In trouble near the end of the regular season, Tommy Tuberville figured to keep his job by beating Alabama -- only to find himself all but fired in the days thereafter. Then, while waiting for the axe to fall, Auburn's bosses were outed for their underhanded maneuvering to get Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to take Tuberville's place -- helping Tub keep his job in the end. Auburn's hierarchy and heavy-handed boosters should be humiliated, but those reptiles might not be capable of being shamed. Nevertheless, they must now stew in the fact that, in a year when Alabama all but capitulated state supremacy, the Tigers still managed to screw it up. They won the game with the Crimson Tide this year but lost the war for national credibility. That's hard to do when your rival goes 4-9, but Auburn managed it.
MVP: RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. For some strange reason, offensive coordinator Hugh Nall failed to call Williams' number nearly often enough this year. He got 20 or more carries just five times in 12 games -- way too few for a guy who averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Nevertheless, the Caddy was the Mac Daddy for Auburn, producing a career-high 204 yards against Alabama that included an 80-yard touchdown run on the game's first play. Should Williams choose to return for his senior season, the new offensive coordinator (whoever it is) will give him the ball more often.
Biggest Disappointment: Nothing can truly match the skullduggery of the Auburn administration, but let's assume we're talking on-field disappointments here. That would be the horrific start to this much-hyped season, when the Tigers rolled out an offense that scored all of three points in consecutive upset losses to USC and Georgia Tech. Auburn never recovered from that.
What's Next: After president William Walker and athletic director David Housel finish washing Tuberville's courtesy car, they can move on to naming a building on campus after their football coach. There is some sucking up to do on the Plains. But the pressure will return next year, when Tuberville is without four serious defensive studs and perhaps his centerpiece running back. The new offensive coordinator will have to do a better job with quarterback Jason Campbell and his young receivers, because the passing game simply wasn't good enough last year.
The Zooker is safe for another season, at least. Much like his first year replacing Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook managed to have the Florida faithful spewing molten indignation in early October, then steadily won back the hearts and minds over the next month. Until losing to Florida State in the finale. At least this year Gator Nation seems much more fixated on suspect officiating in that game than on insufficient coaching. Houdini of the Swamp is now 8-6 through the first seven games the last two seasons and 8-2 thereafter in the regular season. He's undefeated against Georgia -- but winless against Mississippi, Miami and Florida State. This year Florida went 3-3 against teams that were ranked in the top 12 at the time. A team that was young in some key spots definitely got better as the season went along. The record is identical to last year, but you get the feeling that the trajectory is upward for the Gators.
MVP: DB Keiwan Ratliff. If a defensive back can be your MVP, then Ratliff is your man. The senior cornerback led the SEC in interceptions with nine, was fourth in the league in punt returns and scored four defensive touchdowns. He was the ringleader of a unit that stepped up when the season was in crisis to shut down LSU, Arkansas for three quarters and Georgia.
Biggest Disappointment: Performance in the Sunshine State. Other than beating Georgia in Jacksonville -- which some folks consider a Georgia colony -- the Gators were lousy in their home state. They lost at home to Tennessee, Ole Miss and Florida State, and at Miami to the Hurricanes. The Swamp was hardly the intimidating edifice it used to be.
What's Next: Conventional thinking says that if you didn't get Zook this year, you might not get him for a while. With freshman quarterback Chris Leak and a whole lot of other young talent, the Gators should be loaded for the next couple of years and make a return to dominance. If they don't, Zook will run out of escapes and someone else might end up coaching his talent.
Expectations increased so far and so fast in Athens that this 10-3 season has replicated none of the euphoria from last year's 13-1 team. That's unfortunate, given the number of injuries the Bulldogs suffered and some of their accomplishments. Any team that demolishes Tennessee in Knoxville by 27 points is pretty strong. Blowing out rivals Clemson, South Carolina, Auburn and Georgia Tech isn't bad, either. Neither is destroying Alabama, no matter how weak this Crimson Tide team is. Returning to the SEC title game with five new offensive linemen and an all-new linebacking corps counts for something, too. Best sign of all for the program was how many players rose to occasion when needed. David Greene was consistent, even when his receivers weren't. Tailback by committee worked well enough. And when offenses game-planned to take high-impact end David Pollack out of action, guys like safety Sean Jones and linebacker Thomas Davis made the big plays. The offense at times lacked explosiveness, but made up for it by protecting the ball well. The defense was across-the-board stellar. This program is on very solid footing.
MVP: S Sean Jones. You figure if a defensive player is the MVP at Georgia it's Pollack, right? Try junior safety Sean Jones. All he did was account for more than one-fourth of Georgia's takeaways, with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries in just 10 games, as the Bulldogs led the SEC in turnover margin. He led the team in tackles per game. Jones had the biggest defensive score of the season, returning a fumble 90-plus yards on the last play of the first half at Tennessee to trigger a second-half blowout.
Biggest Disappointment: Kicker Billy Bennett had a sensational, SEC-record-filled career at Georgia. The only problem was some poorly times misses: three of them in a one-touchdown loss at LSU and a 36-yarder in a three-point loss to Florida. It's a little bit unfair to say, but if Bennett makes those, Georgia might be on a collision course with Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
What's Next: The 'Dogs are headed to the Capital One Bowl and then should be in position for another big-time run next year. Most everybody should be back on offense and the defensive front seven. There might be some holes to fill in the secondary, and coach Mark Richt will hold his breath on Pollack (and perhaps others) when it comes to going pro. Nevertheless, the foundation has been built for long-term, big-time success between the hedges.
One year into athletic director Mitch Barnhart's football coaching gamble, the AD is hemorrhaging credibility. He showed little interest in keeping Guy Morriss after a 7-5 season, gambling that he could get better. He courted Bill Parcells and wound up whiffing. He brought in Rich Brooks from retirement in Oregon, and watched him go 4-8 with what figures to be a better collection of talent than anything Lexington will see in the next few seasons. That doesn't mean it can't turn around, but it will take some really hard work and/or some really big breaks. It will take a drastically improved offense over the attack that did not fit the skills of record-setting quarterback Jared Lorenzen. Kentucky's offense was 92nd nationally and averaged just 4.8 yards per play, which is last in the SEC. Of the 27 teams that averaged 4.8 or fewer per play, only one (South Florida) had a winning record. Special teams also were a big bust. Kentucky went from first to worst in the SEC in net punting and got just one return-game touchdown from NCAA record holder Derek Abney. The Kentucky defense was the brightest spot. Coordinator Mike Archer used his NFL savvy to disguise coverages and blitzes and frustrate Eastern Division heavies Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, keeping the Wildcats in contention against all three.
MVP: DE Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns. A high-motor defensive end, Burns made his mark last year as a playmaker rushing off the edge -- and unlike Georgia's David Pollack, his production didn't drop off this year. Burns led the SEC by a mile in tackles for loss with 20, despite hobbling through the last couple of games with injuries.
Biggest Disappointment: Brooks badly needed a support-building win against archrival Louisville in the season opener. Instead he got a 40-24 whipping on his home field and a solid favorite. That set the tone for a season in which Kentucky produced zero victories that truly excited the fan base and convinced them that Brooks was the man to see the program through a rough stretch of probation.
What's Next: Other than losing the most prolific passer and all-purpose runner in school history, plus three starters on the line, improving the offense should be a breeze. If Kentucky is going to survive its scholarship cuts without completely imploding, its defense will have to save the day. Nine starters should return from a solid unit. The days of high-octane, chuck-it-around football at Kentucky could be replaced by grind-it-out, defense-first football.
Tigers fans are currently bombarding anyone who will listen with requests for tickets to the Sugar Bowl. It's highly annoying, but the Bayou Bengals have given their fans a lot of ammunition. After all, when you play for the national title in your backyard, it's bound to be the toughest ticket around. LSU has been dominant in all phases of the game. The Tigers lead the SEC in scoring and scoring defense; in pass efficiency and pass efficiency defense; in punting and punt returns and time of possession. They're first or second in the league in a whopping 17 statistical categories, without filling many preseason All-America spots. Nick Saban's team has been built around veteran, physically dominant offensive and defensive lines. Quarterback Matt Mauck has had a great season throwing to a deluxe receiving crew, and a young bunch of running backs has shared carries effectively. The LSU secondary has come together brilliantly, keying a defense that has made 28 takeaways. (Only a grump would point out that the two best place-kickers in the league, Ole Miss' Jonathan Nichols and Georgia's Billy Bennett, combined to miss four field goals in close, key games against the Tigers. Forget we mentioned it.)
MVP: QB Matt Mauck. Defensive tackle Chad Lavalais in the defensive linchpin, with six sacks and 14 tackles for loss, but the Mauck's play has been the difference that elevated LSU to national championship contender. It's Mauck, not Eli Manning or Casey Clausen or David Greene or Jared Lorenzen, who leads the SEC in passing efficiency. Mauck has thrown for 2,701 yards and 28 touchdowns, completing a league-best 64.3 percent of his passes. Not bad for a former minor-league baseball player who was considered a question mark entering the season.
Biggest Disappointment: A single day of offensive disappearance is what separates LSU from the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers failed to score an offensive touchdown at home against Florida in a 19-7 loss, taking a 7-0 lead on a Skyler Green punt return and then falling apart. Win that, and suddenly there's no question if LSU belongs in the national title game.
What's Next: The Tigers are poised to take over the SEC West -- if Nick Saban disregards the siren song of the NFL. He's recruited like gangbusters and has shown the ability to develop players as their careers move along. If Saban stays around, LSU should be in the top ten for the foreseeable future.
The Rebels rekindled the glory days of the John Vaught Era four decades ago, and quarterback Eli Manning created more excitement than any Rebel since his dad, Archie, in the late 1960s and early '70s. It was a year they'll talk about a long time in The Grove, even if it ended without any SEC hardware once again. Ole Miss wobbled early, losing to Memphis and Texas Tech to stand 2-2, then reeled off six straight SEC victories before losing a heartbreaker to LSU with the Western Division title on the line. Manning triggered an offense that ranked second in the league in scoring and yardage and first in passing yards, but it was the running game that improved most and helped Ole Miss control games. The Mississippi defense, prone to collapse in previous years, was also much improved. The Rebels were super-tough against the run. They were largely awful against the pass, but got better in that area as the season went along.
MVP: QB Eli Manning. Gee, you think? If he's the league MVP, yeah, he's probably The Man for the Rebels, too. Good as he's been, though, he's still a couple of spots behind big brother Peyton in almost all the SEC career statistical categories. But he did take Dad out of the Ole Miss books in a number of areas.
Biggest Disappointment: It had to be Eli's last play in Oxford. With Ole Miss fans desperate for some Manning magic to rally from three points down in the final minutes against LSU, Eli started to drop back on fourth down. The result: Manning was tripped by an offensive lineman and fell on his backside. Ballgame. Not quite the storybook ending to a storybook home career.
What's Next: The future is highly uncertain at Ole Miss. Cutcliffe has to replace an institution at QB, the most productive receiver in school history (Chris Collins) and most of his starting defense. But the offensive line should be a strength, and several skill position players will return. Is that enough to remain in the upper half of the SEC West? Probably depends on how the next quarterback does.
Jackie Sherrill's out, and not a moment too soon. Not just because the NCAA dagger hanging above the program; the Bulldogs also collapsed on the field in graphic fashion. From the time one of the game's biggest con men announced his retirement in mid-October, Mississippi State was blown out six straight times. Simply put, his team quit on him. Sherrill brought this program out of the SEC depths, but then returned it most of the way there over his final three seasons. State finished last in the league in scoring offense and defense, total offense and defense, and turnover margin. A team that began the season unable to stop anybody diversified into a team unable to move the ball on anybody, either. It was a complete group non-effort.
MVP: WR Justin Jenkins. Jenkins hadn't lived up to potential until his senior year. Even with some highly unreliable quarterbacks throwing to him from behind a highly unreliable line, Jenkins had 62 catches (third-best in the league) for 880 yards and nine touchdowns. Only three SEC non-kickers scored more points than Jenkins.
Biggest Disappointment: State's inability to muster any kind of fight in the 100th Egg Bowl was a tremendous letdown. Not only was it Jackie Sherrill's last game as coach, not only was it at home in Starkville, but it was a chance for the Bulldogs to spoil Ole Miss' good feeling about this season. Instead, State laid down for the sixth straight game, losing 31-0.
What's Next: The good news: State becomes the first SEC school with the courage to break the football head-coaching color barrier, hiring Green Bay Packers assistant Sylvester Croom. The positive PR, plus the potential recruiting boon in a state that has produced the likes of Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and dozens of other NFL players, is huge. The bad news: Croom could be entering a brutally tough job, depending on the outcome of the NCAA inquiry and subsequent penalties. Even without restrictions, State operates on a much smaller budget than many other SEC schools. It won't be easy to win there for the next couple of years.
The honeymoon is way over for Lou Holtz in Columbia. The good feeling from consecutive trips to the Outback Bowl? Washed away by consecutive late-season fades that left the Gamecocks home for the postseason with losing records. Carolina ended 2002 with a five-game losing streak to finish 5-7. Now Carolina has ended 2003 with a four-game losing streak to finish 5-7. Making a sequel to an unpopular original has not gone over well. Holtz was given a one-year contract extension before the season-ending game against Clemson. Athletic director Mike McGee probably wished he could have revoked it by the time that game ended and Clemson had crushed Carolina 63-17. Holtz has fired three assistants since then. The biggest problem for the Gamecocks continues to be the inability to develop a quarterback since Phil Petty left in 2001. But the defense wasn't much better this year, ranking low in almost all statistical categories.
MVP: RB Demetris Summers. Slim pickings here, but give it to the true freshman who had to work his way up the depth chart, then fight through some injuries to rack up 920 all-purpose yards in 11 games. Summers has the kind of talent to be the offensive centerpiece for the next couple of years.
Biggest Disappointment: The game that turned a potentially promising season into a bummer was the overtime loss at Tennessee. Once again, the Gamecocks played the Volunteers off their feet without winning. Had Carolina gotten the win, it would have been 4-1 heading into a bye week. That loss meant the difference between bowling and not bowling.
What's Next: Holtz figures to be on the clock next year. Another losing season could be his last. (At his age a winning season could be his last, too. He'd clearly like son Skip to take over, but that won't be possible unless Dad goes out on a high note and McGee has confidence that the program is in good shape.) He's recruited well enough to get back to bowling -- if the right guy can be found to productively run the offense.
Yet another November charge saved the season in Knoxville. Upsetting Miami in the Orange Bowl was the highlight of a closing six-game winning streak that helped everyone forget back-to-back losses to Auburn and Georgia. For years now, Tennessee has rolled through the end of the season to pretty up its record. Until the turnaround this year, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was being vilified statewide, and head coach Phil Fulmer wasn't much more popular. But in the end, it's hard to argue with a 10-2 record and top 10 ranking. After a very bad 2002, this was the Vols getting back to business as usual under Fulmer. By and large, Tennessee was an unspectacular offensive team. Fulmer mixed and matched running backs, made a receiver out of converted quarterback James Banks and got a serviceable QB performance from Casey Clausen. Defense saved the day in Tennessee's two biggest wins at Florida and at the Hurricanes.
MVP: QB Casey Clausen. Clausen goes out with 2,584 yards, 25 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He never approached the greatness of Peyton Manning and couldn't put together the one golden season of Tee Martin, but Clausen had a good career on Rocky Top. He was so highly touted out of high school -- and showed so much promise as a freshman -- that expectations might have gotten out of hand. Nobody should put up those kind of numbers for a season and be considered a disappointment.
Biggest Disappointment: The home-field humiliation against Georgia was one of the worst losses in Fulmer's 12 years, ranking right down there with his worst losses to Steve Spurrier. It produced an extreme rarity in Neyland Stadium: the place was more than half empty before the third quarter ended. Tennessee fans love sticking around to see their team crush outmanned opponents, but they had no interest in staying if their team is the one being blown out.
What's Next: Fulmer's place at Tennessee should be unassailable, but nobody ever said the SEC made sense. Keeping that in mind, he will be challenged next year. He has no proven quarterback whatsoever, while divisional rivals Florida and Georgia should both be ready for big seasons. Mark Richt is now 3-0 against Fulmer with David Greene coming back, and Ron Zook is packing Chris Leak. The Vols need to step it up a notch.
The athletic department was de-emphasized in September. Lousy Mississippi State beat the Commodores in October, then Navy beat them the following week at Vandy's Homecoming. Thank goodness for November, and a disinterested Kentucky. Beating the Wildcats terminated the nation's longest conference losing streak at 23 games, and injected a wee bit of hope into the Bobby Johnson Era. Until then the coach was 3-19, with two of those wins coming against I-AA teams. It might not be the start of a turnaround, but it beats the alternative. Of all the things Vanderbilt needs to improve upon, Red Zone performance tops the list. The Commodores were last in the SEC in Red Zone scoring, producing points just 69 percent of the time it got inside the 20-yard line. They also were last in Red Zone defense, giving up points 94 percent of the time.
MVP: QB Jay Cutler. From 2002, Cutler significantly improved his passing efficiency (up 15 points), touchdown passes (10 to 18), accuracy (up 8.6 percent) and passing yards per game (up 65). If the sophomore keeps up that growth rate, he's a star on the rise.
Biggest Disappointment: Vanderbilt had a great chance to beat Mississippi in the season opener, losing on two 50-yard-plus field goals in the fourth quarter. A win there might have derailed the Rebels' season -- and, more importantly for the Commodores, jump-started their own year. Instead, the game joins an incredibly long list of near-misses.
What's Next: Don't look now, but there is legitimate optimism in Camp Commodore. The team had almost no senior class to speak of, and many of Vandy's best players will be juniors next year. Put it this way: If the 'Dores don't break through and go to a bowl game in the next two years, it ain't gonna happen.
Pat Forde covers the college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
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