After watching these teams play for 13 or 14 games this season, we thought we knew everything about them.
But not everything.
Here’s a look at five things we learned during the SEC bowl season:
1. Alabama has what it takes to win again: Repeating as national champion isn’t easy. Just ask Florida. For that matter, winning back-to-back SEC titles isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Once again, just ask Florida. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened in more than 10 years. Tennessee last pulled it off in 1997 and 1998. Alabama will almost certainly start next season No. 1 in the polls. But more importantly, the Crimson Tide have everything in place to make a serious run at not only a second straight SEC championship, but a second straight BCS national championship. Just about all the key parts are back on offense, and the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson combo in the backfield ought to be scary. Defensively, losing three All-Americans -- Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas -- will hurt. But we’ll all be reminded these next couple of seasons of just how well Nick Saban recruits and develops. He’s pretty good at keeping a team focused, too, which only strengthens Alabama’s chances of repeating.
2. Don’t count Tebow out in the NFL: There are always going to be doubters about Tim Tebow at the next level. You’re going to hear a lot over these next few months about his funky throwing motion, his flawed delivery and the fact that he’s operated out of the shotgun for almost all of his career. But before anybody prematurely labels Tebow as a guy who can’t play quarterback in the NFL, go back and watch the tape from the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Granted, it was against a porous Cincinnati defense, but completing 31 of 35 passes against air is pretty impressive. And he made every kind of throw, too, on his way to a career-high 482 passing yards. Somebody’s going to give Tebow a shot at quarterback in the NFL, and don’t be surprised if it’s in the first round. He’s a guy that can beat you in a number of different ways, and the stat that will always separate quarterbacks at any level is how many games they win. In three years as a starter at Florida, Tebow was 35-6.
3. McCluster was the second-half MVP: With all due respect to Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram, the Most Valuable Player in the SEC for the second half of the season was Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster. In fact, had Houston Nutt played McCluster at running back from the beginning, McCluster might have made his own run at the Heisman Trophy. He was simply sensational once he moved full time to running back. Not counting the Northern Arizona game where he was essentially given the day off, McCluster rushed for 1,003 yards in his last six games. He lit up Oklahoma State for 227 all-purpose yards in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, including 182 rushing yards, and became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 receiving yards in the same season.
4. Mallett made the right choice: Listen, Ryan Mallett has gobs of talent and showed his skills often this season with his 30 touchdown passes. He’s big, has an even bigger arm and can make all the throws. But he’s not quite ready for the NFL, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl was further proof of that. He needs another year of seasoning and should have a great chance at the end of next season to be a surefire first-round pick. Mallett still needs to work on his accuracy and his consistency. There were times that he threw the ball like Dan Marino this season, and there were other times when he looked utterly confused. He also finished the season completing just 55.8 percent of his passes. Mallett still tends to try for the home-run throw too often, although he got better as the season progressed on taking the underneath stuff. But the Hogs were 0-of-13 on third down in the Liberty Bowl, and part of that was Mallett simply not doing a good enough job of moving the chains. He thought long and hard about declaring for the draft after just one season in the SEC, but made the right call in deciding to stick around.
5. Miles better get offense fixed or else: Give LSU coach Les Miles credit for doing what he needed to do last offseason to get his defense up to speed. He didn’t retain his two co-coordinators and brought in veteran John Chavis to run the Tigers’ defense. The result was a much more aggressive defense and a defense that gave the Tigers a chance to win every game it played this season. Miles has another challenge this offseason -- reviving an offense that went belly-up this season. The Tigers were woefully bad on that side of the ball in key games against Florida, Alabama and finally Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. The problems start up front in the offensive line and filter all the way down to getting younger playmakers such as Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle more involved. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson should be a year better. But as bizarre as it sounds after winning a national championship in 2007, the last thing Miles needs is another four- or five-loss season next year. To avoid that kind of finish, the Tigers will need to improve dramatically on offense.