SEC delivered nail-biting finishes, talented performers on '07
The veteran sportswriter is standing next to Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive at the end of another typical, crazy SEC game this season.
"I believe somewhere in a back room in the conference office, you have a guy locked up writing these cliffhanger scripts for these games," says the writer, glancing at the field as LSU tries to hold on in the final seconds for a victory at Alabama.
"Take this game. He writes a script that has LSU jump ahead 17-3, Alabama comes back and goes ahead 27-17 after LSU throws three interceptions and commits the bulk of 14 penalties, yet had four plays ruled in its favor by instant replay, scores two touchdowns in the last three minutes and wins 41-34."
Slive, without hesitation and staring at the Bryant-Denny Stadium game clock, tells the writer, "There's still 50 seconds left in this game. Hold on."
That's a pretty good description of the 75th year of the SEC football in a nutshell.
The SEC has had some fabulous races over the years, but nothing came close to this season. Ten of 12 teams were bowl eligible and nine got bids, including league champion LSU in the BCS national championship game against Ohio State, and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl against Hawaii.
This season, it wasn't just wins and losses that told the story of parity. It was the fact most league games were nail-biting struggles.
Fifteen games were decided in the last minute of regulation, or in overtime. There were game-winning touchdown passes with a nanosecond left on the clock, game-winning field goals, last threat-killing interceptions in end zones to preserve to wins and controversial officiating decisions involving instant replay.
"Even my first year (in 2005), even in games we had a lead and extended it, I wouldn't have been surprised [if a team came back and beat LSU]," LSU coach Les Miles said. "You see on film every week the talent that's in the league, along with good coaching and teams that are prepared."
Along the way this season, Alabama's $4 million coach Nick Saban started 6-2, then lost four straight to end the regular season, including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe, a Sun Belt Conference member.
Also, third-year Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron's failed fourth-down gamble with his team leading Mississippi State 14-0 with 10 minutes left in the season finale led to State's 17-14 comeback win and Orgeron's pink slip after going 0-8 in league play.
Orgeron's departure allowed Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, fed up with Hogs' fans calling for his ouster despite winning 18 games in the last two years, to take Coach Zero's place at Ole Miss.
The talent this season has been astonishing. The SEC has players who won the Heisman, Maxwell and Davey O' Brien (Florida quarterback Tim Tebow), the Doak Walker, Walter Camp (Arkansas running back Darren McFadden), the Outland, the Nagurski and the Lombardi (LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey) and the Rimington (Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs).
Tebow became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 20 or more touchdowns, and run for more than 20 touchdowns. He's at 51 TD's (29 passing, 21 running) and heading into a Capital One Bowl date against Michigan (Jan. 1, ABC, 1 p.m. ET).
"Going back to Shane [Matthews] and [former Florida quarterbacks] Coach [Steve] Spurrier, when you play quarterback at Florida, you better be really good," Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. "I tell Tim all the time, 'Tim, the last quarterback here won a national championship.'"
The fact that Tebow returns next season as a mere junior makes Florida the favorite to win the Eastern Division and the SEC, while LSU has more than enough returning firepower to win the West.
Looking at next year:
• The SEC will have seven returning quarterbacks, led by Tebow and Georgia's Matthew Stafford.
• Virtually all the top running backs will be gone, assuming Arkansas juniors McFadden and Felix Jones jump to the NFL. But Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno, who had a Heisman-candidate-in-the-making season, will return.
• There will be many outstanding junior pass rushers, such as Ole Miss' Greg Hardy, Kentucky's Jeremy Jarmon, Auburn's Antonio Coleman and South Carolina's Eric Norwood.
• It's a safe bet that Tennessee freshman Eric Berry could become one of the best defensive backs in college football, and would be a great spread-option quarterback if the Vols' decided to use him for that, also.
• Alabama will have a great recruiting class, now that Saban has been established for a season. You can book it they'll never get beat by a hyphenated team again.
Most Valuable Player
QB Tim Tebow, Florida
Heisman Trophy winner Tebow (3,132 yards passing, 838 yards rushing) had the freak-year of all time in college football, with 29 passing touchdowns and 22 rushing TDs. He's so big it's like tackling the neighborhood monster in a frontyard pickup game. Four guys jump on his back and he dumps them in the rose bush before he scores.
Coach of the Year
Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State
It's rare when the guy who wins coach of the year loses his season opener 45-0. But that night in Starkville, after the loss to LSU, when Mississippi State's Croom stood in his locker room and reassured his downtrodden troops that they would be a good team by the end of the season, his team believed. They won SEC road games at Auburn and Kentucky, beat Alabama for a second straight year and delivered a miracle comeback win over Mississippi. A 7-5 record and 4-4 breakeven SEC mark is well-deserved for a coach who did hit his way and who didn't compromise his rules or values.
Newcomer of the Year
RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
No question that Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno came on so strong that he'll be a leading Heisman contender next year. Moreno's burst to the line of scrimmage, even when he's tired is astonishing. He virtually came out of nowhere the second half of the season and is now second in the SEC in rushing (106.1 yards per game, 12 TDs) behind McFadden.
It has to be Mississippi State, a team that went 3-9 a year ago, losing four games by a field goal or less. This season, the Bulldogs went 7-5 overall, broke even in the SEC at 4-4 and reached a bowl game for the first time since 2000. And this time around, almost every time State needed to make a play in the fourth quarter, it did. The Bulldogs won three games by five points or fewer, including coming back from that 14-0 deficit late against Ole Miss to win 17-14 and clinch a bid in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against UCF (Dec. 29, ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET).
South Carolina, even by Coach Steve Spurrier's preseason admission, was going to challenge for the Eastern Division, and SEC championships. A 6-1 start, including wins at Georgia and against Kentucky, made Spurrier look like a prophet. But after barely winning at North Carolina on Oct. 13, the Gamecocks offense never made big plays when required in the stretch, the defense got gashed for big yardage and South Carolina lost its last five games to finish 6-6. Though bowl eligible, no one wanted a team that hadn't won since mid-October.
QB Tim Tebow, So., Florida
RB Darren McFadden, Jr., Arkansas
RB Knowshon Moreno, Fr., Georgia
WR DJ Hall, Sr., Alabama
WR Earl Bennett, Jr., Vanderbilt
TE Jacob Tamme, Sr., Kentucky
OL Jonathan Luigs, Jr., Arkansas
OL Andre Smith, So., Alabama
OL Michael Oher, Jr., Ole Miss
OL Herman Johnson, Jr., LSU
K Daniel Lincoln, Fr., Tennessee
DE Titus Brown, Sr., Mississippi State
DE Jeremy Jarmon, So., Kentucky
DT Glenn Dorsey, Sr., LSU
DT Marcus Harrison, Sr., Arkansas
LB Jerod Mayo, Jr., Tennessee
LB Brandon Spikes, So., Florida
LB Wesley Woodyard, Sr., Kentucky
CB D.J. Moore, So., Vanderbilt
CB Chevis Jackson, Sr., LSU
S Craig Steltz, Sr., LSU
S Derek Pegues, Jr., Mississippi State
P Patrick Fisher, Sr., LSU
Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.
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