On the saddest day of the year – when we now have to wait until next autumn for college football’s regular season to resume again – it is hardly surprising that six Southeastern Conference teams are in the Coaches’ Top 10, or that nine of the 14 league schools will be playing in post season bowl games. What comes as a jolt is the fact that four teams have fired their head coaches in this “do or die” era of our society.
Gene Chizik, just two years removed from winning the national championship at Auburn, was canned at Auburn Sunday morning; one day after John Smith was ceremoniously dumped at Arkansas. Last weekend Derek Dooley was fired at Tennessee and Joker Phillips had already been told at Kentucky – with revenue losses expected to be $5 million in football this year – his time was up.
The conference races turned out to be what most expected in August – talented Georgia winning the SEC West and defending national champ Alabama regaining dominance in the East – so the surprise was which teams would fall in the gauntlet of having to face one giant-slayer after another in a 12-game run.
In the East, where South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC) was expected to challenge after handing Georgia a solid 35-7 thumping, it was Will Muschamp who developed Florida (11-1, 7-1) into the power broker and after the Gators slaughtered the Gamecocks, 44-11, the very next week it was Georgia’s 17-9 win in Jacksonville that sealed the deal.
That said, probably the biggest success in the SEC East was Vanderbilt’s 8-4 season, the Commodores rising to 5-3 in conference play after going 2-6 last year to make James Franklin a possible Coach of the Year candidate. Missouri, 2-6 in the conference and 5-7 overall, is too shell-shocked after its inaugural year in the ever-stormy SEC while Tennessee (5-7, 1-7) and Kentucky (0-8, 2-10) were never a factor.
Alabama totally dominated the SEC West early but seemed to lose a step in beating LSU and then losing to Texas A&M in early-November squeakers. The Tide (11-1, 7-1) embarrassed Auburn in the Iron Bowl Saturday and will be favored over Mark Richt’s best-ever Georgia this week in the Championship game in Atlanta (4 p.m., CBS).
But it was Texas A&M that made rookie coach Kevin Sumlin the odds-on favorite for the Coach of the Year plaque. Sumlin’s Aggies stumbled early, losing 20-17 to Georgia and then dropping a harrowing 24-19 loss to LSU while winning the other ten. It was the 29-24 win over top-ranked Alabama that solidified Johnny Manziel's march to the Heisman Trophy.
Arkansas, with the stench of the Bobby Petrino scandal too fresh, was a bust under the hapless “interim coach” Smith, so Mississippi State, where Dan Mullen won the first seven games before breaking under the SEC West’s heavy footprint, won 4-4 in the conference to win up 8-4 overall. It was a great tribute to State but upstart Ole Miss, under rookie coach Hugh Freeze, was the one that came alive late in the season.
Last year Ole Miss won just two games overall (0-8 in the SEC) but Freeze performed miracles, gelling his team into a 6-6 season that included three conference wins and an 41-24 upset over State in Oxford Saturday night to become bowl eligible.
Chizik, whose Auburn team had just three wins and was 0-8 in the conference, reportedly has a $7.5 buyout but a looming NCAA investigation – and a fierce clause against such in his contract – could make the impending divorce a mess.
The best player? Who would have ever thought it? Manziel, a red-shirt freshman, wasn’t even a starter when the Aggies opened practice but now he’s the fifth NCAA player – and the first freshman ever – to pass for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 in the same year. His regular-season numbers were 184 carries for 1,342 yards rushing (average 98.4 per game) and he passed for 3,419 yards, this coming on 273-400-8 for an average of 284.9 yards per game. He ran for 19 touchdowns and passed for 24 more.
With Manziel now a lock for “Freshman of the Year” and “Player of the Year,” the top defensive player in my opinion is Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, a linebacker who transferred to Athens from Southern Cal with a neck injury but who, instead of quitting, has become the premier defensive player in the conference. South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and LSU’s Barkevious Mingo are pretty salty but Jones has had a huge effect on his team.
The biggest tragedy of the year was the total knee wreck that South Carolina’s marvelous Marcus Lattimore suffered against Tennessee. Sadly, it was after the injury that Lattimore’s better greatness emerged – he is a standout student, beloved by the student body, and is active in all kinds of efforts to help others. So he gets our courage award.
What a great year! And what a shame we have to now wait nine more months before the next baby!