A season-ending look at the SEC

Updated: December 14, 2006, 11:36 AM ET
By Chris Low | Special to ESPN.com

An Urban legend? Hardly.

Urban Meyer came to Florida a year ago anointed as one of the hottest young coaches in the country and with a track record of showing his best results in year No. 2 on the job.

He did it at Bowling Green. He did it at Utah, and now he's done it at Florida.

Urban Meyer
AP Photo/Neil BrakeUrban Meyer worked his magic in his second year at Florida.

The Gators, fresh off their first SEC championship since 2000, are headed to the Arizona desert next month for a shot at the national championship against No. 1-ranked Ohio State.

"This coaching gig is overrated. It's the players," Meyer said soon after learning that the Gators (12-1, 8-1) had passed Michigan and moved up to No. 2 in the final BCS standings.

"It's a great tribute to coach [Ron] Zook and his staff, the Ray McDonalds, the Jarvis Mosses, the Chris Leaks running around and Jemalle Cornelius. Obviously, you can't get it done without some great players."

The feeling going into the season was that Florida was as good a bet as any to contend for the conference crown. But there was some uncertainty on the offensive line, and the jury was still out on how Meyer's spread option offense would cut it in a speed league like the SEC.

Some injuries up front made the Gators' line play even more of a concern, and they never found the kind of consistency offensively that Meyer was looking for.

But when it came to finding ways to win, nobody was better.

The defense was one of the best in the league, maybe the best when senior tackle Marcus Thomas was in the lineup. His season was cut short, though, because of multiple drug testing infractions.

Senior quarterback Leak came up with timely throws, and freshman quarterback Tim Tebow did the dirty work any time the Gators needed the tough yards. Around them, Dallas Baker, Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell and Cornelius took turns making plays.

And when all else failed, defensive end Moss showed his hops by blocking a kick, or even two. Just ask South Carolina.

"Have we been perfect? No," said Meyer, whose Gators survived a league-high 110 penalties and overcame 24 turnovers by forcing 27 of their own. "Have we fought and scraped and blocked punts and played great defense? Yeah, we found ways to win."

From a pure talent standpoint, that crown belonged to LSU this season. The Tigers (10-2, 6-2) played their way into a BCS bowl game after shooting blanks offensively in their first two big games against Auburn and Florida. They scored a total of 13 points in those two losses, but ended the season with six straight wins.

The Tigers led the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense. But they also led the league in schedule difficulty. Their four SEC road games were all against Top 10 teams -- Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee.

Even if they defeat Notre Dame on Jan. 3 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and get to 11 wins, there's sure to be a smattering of "What if?" in the Bayou. Some around the league felt this LSU team was even more talented than the one that shared the national championship in 2003 with Southern Cal.

"I still say LSU is as fine a football team as there is on film," said Meyer, whose Gators capitalized on breakdowns by the Tigers in the kicking game to win 23-10 on Oct. 7. "The day after that game, I thought we were a little bit better than I was giving us credit for because that was a two-touchdown win over a top-3, top-4, in my opinion, football team."

With Florida and LSU both going to BCS bowls, it's the first time since 2001 when Florida and LSU both went that the SEC has sent two teams to BCS bowls.

Most Valuable Player

Darren McFadden, Arkansas

 Darren McFadden
McFadden
He's one of those players that makes everybody else around him look like they're operating in a lower gear. The 6-2, 213-pound McFadden has that mix of speed and power that all great tailbacks have, but he also had a knack this season for coming up with his biggest plays when the Razorbacks needed them most. He accounted for 19 touchdowns, rushing for 14, throwing for three, catching one and also returning a kickoff 92 yards for a score. He's a true Renaissance man and one of the best tailbacks to come through the SEC since Bo Jackson.

Coach of the Year

Houston Nutt, Arkansas

Nutt's back wasn't just to the wall when this season started. His heels were over the edge. After back-to-back losing seasons, he needed to come up with something pretty special to get the Hog Nation off his back and ensure that he still had a job. Nutt delivered and then some with Arkansas' first trip to the SEC Championship Game since the 2002 season and the Razorbacks' first 10-win season since 1989. He did it with a true freshman quarterback for most of the season and a first-year offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, who took an already effective running game and sprinkled a little creativity into it.

Newcomer of the Year

Andre Smith, Alabama

Florida freshman receiver Percy Harvin earned more highlights, and Florida junior cornerback Ryan Smith (a transfer from Utah) led the league with eight interceptions. But no newcomer had a more impressive debut than Alabama's Andre Smith. The 6-5, 320-pound Birmingham native started all 12 games at left offensive tackle, which is unheard of in this league for a freshman, and played more snaps this season than anybody on Alabama's team. His 62 knockdown blocks led the Crimson Tide, and he's just the seventh true freshman to start the opener for Alabama since freshman eligibility was restored in 1973.

Biggest Surprise

Kentucky

 Rich Brooks
Brooks
Those of you that had Kentucky in a bowl game when the season began, raise your hand. For the record, Rich Brooks' wife doesn't count. Who saw it coming? But give Brooks his props. He said back in August that Kentucky had better athletes and more of them than at any other time since he's been in Lexington. Sure enough, the Wildcats (7-5, 4-4) are headed to Nashville to face Clemson in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl on Dec. 29 (ESPN, 1 ET). They were one of the more exciting offensive teams in the league, beat Georgia and nearly knocked off Tennessee. We won't spoil the party, though, by getting into defense.

Biggest Disappointment

Alabama

These days at Alabama, it's probably wise not to blink. If you do, you might miss a coaching change. The Crimson Tide (6-6, 2-6) went from a 10-win team in 2005 to a team that couldn't finish drives on offense, couldn't stop people on defense when it had to and a team that ultimately got its coach fired. Mike Shula, after four seasons of learning on the job, was canned following his fourth straight loss to Auburn. The deck was probably stacked against him from the outset. Arriving in May after Mike Price was let go following his strip club antics, Shula inherited NCAA sanctions and had never been a head coach before. Alabama's president, Dr. Robert Witt, said following the 2005 season and Cotton Bowl victory that Shula had proven himself, leading to a big raise and extension for the former Tide quarterback. Obviously, he unproved himself this season, and as a result, Alabama is looking for its eighth head coach since the late Bear Bryant retired following the 1982 season.

All-SEC Team
Offense
QB - JaMarcus Russell, LSU
RB - Darren McFadden, Arkansas
RB - Kenny Irons, Auburn
TE - Martrez Milner, Georgia
WR - Robert Meachem, Tennessee
WR - Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt
OL - Arron Sears, Tennessee
OL - Tony Ugoh, Arkansas
OL - Stephen Parker, Arkansas
OL - Ben Grubbs, Auburn
C - Nick Jones, Georgia
K - James Wilhoit, Tennessee

Defense
DE - Jamaal Anderson, Arkansas
DE - Quentin Groves, Auburn
DT - Glenn Dorsey, LSU
DT - Deljuan Robinson, Mississippi State
LB - Patrick Willis, Mississippi
LB - Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina
LB - Brandon Siler, Florida
CB - Simeon Castille, Alabama
CB - Ryan Smith, Florida
S - Reggie Nelson, Florida
S - Jonathan Hefney, Tennessee
P - Britton Colquitt, Tennessee

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.

Chris Low | email

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