By: Barrett Sallee
The 2009 SEC season is wrapped up and what do ya know, another SEC team is headed to play for the crystal football. It's getting to a point where you can't legitimately have a National Championship Game without a team from the SEC, and that's the way it should be. Alabama and Florida were predicted to make it to Atlanta all along, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't excitement along the way. Here is my take on the players, coaches and games of the year in the SEC.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
Mark Ingram may be taking the Heisman Trophy back to Tuscaloosa, but he's not even the best player on his team. That designation belongs to junior linebacker Rolando McClain. McClain led the Alabama defense with 96 total tackles, 34 more than his nearest competition on the Tide roster. Additionally, he tallied 12 TFL's, four sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. The Alabama offense struggled here and there en route to their SEC Championship, but the defense stayed steady all season long. The Tide finished the season 2nd in the nation in total defense allowing 241 yards per game, and McClain was the biggest reason why.
PLAYER YOU DIDN'T HEAR MUCH ABOUT, BUT SHOULD HAVE
Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State
Guess who led the SEC in yards per game in 2009. Mark Ingram? No. Montario Hardesty? Guess again. Ben Tate? Nope. It was Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon. Dixon finished the year with 1,391 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games played. He flew under-the-radar all season long, but was the key piece to the Mississippi State offense that was greatly improved under first-year head coach Dan Mullen, finishing seventh in the conference in total offense. If you saw the Bulldogs play in 2008, that's a pretty impressive leap.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Nick Saban, Alabama
Yeah, it's the easy way out. But who else could it be? Alabama started the season as the favorite to win the SEC West, the conference and as a likely candidate to win the National Championship. Three months later, two of those goals have been achieved and the other is likely. It's one thing to win as an underdog. It's another to win when you're supposed to. The Tide had the target on their backs all season long, but never played like it. That's a testament to good coaching.
COACH THAT DESERVED TO BE IN THE COACH OF THE YEAR DISCUSSION
Rich Brooks, Kentucky
The Wildcats head coach led his team to a fourth consecutive bowl game, and did it with Morgan Newton, a true freshman quarterback, leading the offense. Kentucky went on the road to beat Georgia for the first time in Athens in 32 years, and won at Auburn, which was the first time the Wildcats have beaten the Tigers anywhere since 1966. Last May, I took some heat for ranking Rich Brooks as the fifth-best coach in the SEC. I received countless e-mails from readers who couldn't fathom the Kentucky head coach being ranked so high. After this season, it might be hard to fathom why he was ranked SO LOW.
THE TIGER WOODS, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” COACHING MOMENT
LSU head coach Les Miles vs. Ole Miss
The last minute-and-a-half of this game was an abject disaster. The Tigers, facing a fourth-and-26 in Ole Miss territory down two, let 17 seconds tick off the clock before calling their final time out. Jordan Jefferson then found Terrance Tolliver inside the 10-yard line with one second left. As the Tigers set to apparently try to kill the clock at the direction of The Mad Hatter, mass confusion took hold and Jefferson couldn't even get the snap off. It wouldn't have mattered. Last time I checked, spiking the ball does still take at least one second. Then, to compound the issue, Miles threw everyone except himself under the bus after the game, even though video evidence showed that he did call for Jefferson to spike the ball. As former Memphis head coach Tommy West would say, “It's Painful.”
GAME OF THE YEAR
The Iron Bowl
Auburn came into the Iron Bowl vs. Alabama as heavy underdogs at home, but you couldn't tell by watching the first three-and-a-half quarters. The Tigers used big plays and a stifling defense to send Alabama to the brink of disaster. But the Alabama storybook closed this chapter of the Iron Bowl by marching down the field on a punishing 7:08 drive, culminating with a Greg McElroy to Roy Upchurch four-yard touchdown pass. Alabama fans used Auburn's “trick plays” as an excuse, but there was no trickery involved. That's just Auburn's offense. Auburn went toe-to-toe with Alabama and proved that the gap in the state wasn't as wide as many thought following the 36-0 shutout in 2008.
THE JERSEY SHORE, “IT'S PAINFUL, BUT I CAN'T LOOK AWAY” GAME
Florida vs. LSU
This game was viewed as the biggest possible stumbling block for the Gators during the 2009 regular season. All the talk coming into this game swirled around Tim Tebow (shocking, I know), after Tebow suffered a concussion at Kentucky two weeks earlier. But from the moment this game started, it was apparent that Florida knew they could win with defense. Trying to protect Tebow, the normally high-octane Gators offense ran the same dive play almost every down in the first half, taking a 10-3 lead into halftime. At that point, the game was essentially over. The Gators could have run Red Beaulieu's offense from The Waterboy in the second half, kneeling on it three times and punting, because LSU certainly wasn't going to score. All the hype, pomp and circumstance amounted to mind-numbingly boring and monotonous football in Baton Rouge.
THE GAME YOU PROBABLY FORGOT ABOUT, BUT SHOULDN'T HAVE
West Virginia vs. Auburn
This game had it all, a torrential downpour, big plays and a rousing comeback. After a rainstorm that resembled more of a hurricane delayed the start of this non-conference tilt for an hour-and-a-half and literally flooded Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Mountaineers came out smoking, taking a 21-10 lead into the second quarter. But the resilient Tigers forced West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown to throw four interceptions in the final three quarters, the last one returned 15 yards by Tigers linebacker Craig Stevens for a touchdown, to seal the Tigers 41-30 come-from-behind victory.
PLAY YOU HAD TO REWIND, JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU HADN'T HAD TOO MANY “GAMEDAY'S”
LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson's non-INT vs. Alabama
Down six to Alabama with 5:54 to play, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson stepped in front of a Greg McElroy pass and clearly got one (if not two) feet down with possession of the football. The play was ruled as an incomplete pass, but there was more than enough video evidence to prove that Peterson caught the ball and had possession with at least one foot in bounds. After several minutes of review, it was determined that the ruling on the field stood. No interception. What everyone with a functioning television set thought they saw, didn't actually happen. The party line out of Tuscaloosa evolved from “he didn't get two feet in,” to “he didn't have control,” to “Julio Jones touched it first.” Bottom line, it should have been overturned and LSU should have had a chance at the win. Granted, it was Jarrett Lee at the helm, so a Tiger touchdown was far from a certainty. But the Tigers should have at least had the chance.
FINAL THOUGHT ON WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
In case you missed it, the FCS National Semifinal between Appalachian State and Montana was wildly entertaining, and gave us a glimpse of what could be. The Montana Grizzlies drove down to take a seven point lead with 1:30 to play in a driving snow storm in Missoula. The Mountaineers drove down the field and had four chances in the red zone to tie the game, but an Armanti Edwards pass fell incomplete to Brian Quick on the goal line as time expired, ending the App State season, and sending Montana to the National Championship Game.
Swap those two teams out with, say, TCU vs. Alabama in the Sugar Bowl or Texas vs. Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl with a trip to Pasadena and the crystal football at stake. The entire football world would have been losing their minds. As it stands, we get one compelling BCS game and four other games that make Courgartown seem like compelling television. Simple – add Atlanta and Dallas to the BCS cities using one site twice every year, use the BCS to determine the top eight, and let the championship be determined on the field. It's not as complicated as Ari Fleischer is trying to make it at the lame excuse of a website that the BCS is using to keep playoff proponents at bay.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BSallee_CFN
Off-Season Column Archive:
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009
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