Remember what we were all talking about in SEC football circles this time a year ago?
We were wondering how two teams (Alabama and Florida) could run off and leave everybody else in a conference that hasn’t given us a repeat champion since 1998.
Chasing history in this league is indeed a slippery slope.
Alabama and Florida both found out this season what so many teams before them have learned the hard way: The winds of change blow swiftly and with very little warning in the SEC.
“It’s not about who’s done what or anything you might have done in the past,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose club was eying a second straight national championship. “It’s about playing your best in that moment, and we struggled to put a complete game together this year.”
Between them, Alabama and Florida -- the last two BCS national champions -- lost seven SEC games this season. That’s four more than they lost in the 2008 and 2009 seasons combined, and two of those three losses were to each other.
Still, there was a team separating itself from the rest of the pack this season, the same team that ended last season by losing five of its last six SEC games.
Auburn (13-0) turned living on the edge into an art form. The Tigers came back to win four different times after falling behind by two touchdowns or more.
Of course, nothing compared to the Tigers’ 24-point comeback on the road to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. They clinched their trip to the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, though, amid very little drama.
That is, if you don’t count the NCAA’s ruling three days before the SEC championship game that Auburn quarterback Cam Newton would be eligible to play after the NCAA initially ruled that Newton’s father, Cecil Newton, violated NCAA rules by shopping his son to Mississippi State.
Newton never flinched. He hasn’t all season. If anything, he played better the more things heated up off the field.
He carved apart South Carolina with four touchdown passes and two touchdown runs to lead Auburn to a 56-17 blowout in the SEC championship game and send the Tigers to Glendale, Ariz., to face Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game.
“Cam told us he wasn’t going to let us down, and we weren’t going to let him down,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “The way he went out there and played those last few games with all that stuff flying was amazing.
“I think it just made him stronger. I know it made us stronger as a team.”
While the Newton eligibility saga dominated most of the last month of the season, it was hardly the only storyline in the SEC.
Steve Spurrier guided South Carolina to the SEC championship game for the first time in school history. It was the Head Ball Coach’s first trip back to the title game in 10 years.
He and the Gamecocks benefited from an Eastern Division that’s seen better days. In fact, South Carolina was the only team in the East that had a winning record in league play. Georgia lost four straight games at one point. Florida was a train wreck offensively, and Tennessee had to win its last four games just to become bowl eligible.
The East managed just three wins over the West all season, and Ole Miss was responsible for two of the West losses.
At least for the time being, the power in this league has shifted to the West.
But the more some things change, the more one thing stays the same. The SEC is once again a part of the BCS National Championship Game equation and will try to make it five straight years that a team from this conference has brought home the crystal trophy.
Not only that, but Auburn would be the fourth different SEC team to win a national championship in the last four years.
Some people call it balance. In the SEC, they call it business as usual.
Offensive MVP: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton
This will probably be Newton’s one and only season in the SEC as a starter, as the NFL will surely come calling. But as one-year careers go in the SEC, Newton has forever set the standard. Nobody really stopped him all season, not even close. Think about it. He already has more than 2,500 passing yards (2,589) and also has a shot at 1,500 rushing yards (1,409). How many people thought they would ever see a college quarterback at this level pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season? Not to mention, Newton has accounted for 49 touchdowns -- 28 passing, 20 rushing and one receiving. Simply, it’s been a season for the ages.
Defensive MVP: Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley
Fairley would also be the runaway winner as the SEC’s Most Improved Player. As a sophomore, he only started in two games, recording 28 total tackles, which included 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. That was a single game for the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Fairley this season. He was easily the most dominant defender in the league and completely wrecked what offenses were trying to do with his push up the middle. Fairley leads the SEC with 21 tackles for loss, which includes a league-leading 10.5 sacks. Known for his trademark slamming of quarterbacks to the ground, which got Fairley into some hot water, he was every offense’s worst nightmare this season.
Newcomer of the Year: South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore
When the Gamecocks signed the highly recruited Lattimore out of Duncan, S.C., they hoped he would help rejuvenate a floundering running game. He did that and more. Lattimore was the missing piece offensively for South Carolina in its run to its first-ever Eastern Division championship and appearance in the SEC championship game. He leads all SEC running backs with 1,198 rushing yards and is one off the SEC freshman touchdown record in a season with 19. One of the things that sets Lattimore apart is his ability to break tackles and gain yardage after contact. He’s listed at 218 pounds, but runs like he’s closer to 245.
Coach of the Year: Auburn’s Gene Chizik
Talk about a guy who’s come a long way in the department of public opinion. We all remember the reception Chizik initially received at Auburn when the Tigers hired him. He’d posted a 5-19 record at Iowa State in two seasons, and just about everybody on the Plains was scratching his head and trying to figure out, “Why this guy?” In his second season at Auburn, Chizik has answered that question as definitively as he possibly could. He has the Tigers 13-0 and poised to play for their first national championship since 1957. Very few people picked the Tigers in the West, and this was a team that had trouble finishing games a year ago. That was their strength this season, and Chizik also did a super job in keeping this team on point during all the Newton distractions.
Biggest surprise: Mississippi State
The other team that gets some votes here is South Carolina, but the East was wide open this season for the Gamecocks. So Mississippi State gets the nod. Dan Mullen took the Bulldogs from a 5-7 record last season and no bowl to an 8-4 record this season and a Jan. 1 date in the Gator Bowl. It’s still a young Mississippi State team, too, in a lot of spots. The Bulldogs have a chance to be even better next season. They averaged more than 200 yards rushing for the second year in a row, and first-year coordinator Manny Diaz did a terrific job with the defense.
Biggest disappointment: Florida
This was an easy selection even though Georgia also tanked in the East. But Florida was the pick in most quarters, and we heard all offseason how potent that offense was going to be with John Brantley sliding in at quarterback. As it turns out, the Gators ended up having one of the worst offenses in the league, lost three straight games in the regular season for the first time since 1988 and stumbled to a 7-5 finish. Following an embarrassing 31-7 loss to Florida State to end the regular season, Florida coach Urban Meyer said the reality was that the Gators faced a major rebuilding task.
Game of the Year: Auburn 28, Alabama 27, Nov. 26
This one will also go down as one of the games of the decade and certainly one of the most memorable games in the storied history of the Iron Bowl. Auburn, with its national championship hopes flickering, fell behind 24-0 in the first half with the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd roaring. It could have been a lot worse had Alabama not turned the ball over a few times in the first half. But in vintage fashion, Auburn never panicked. The Tigers went into the half trailing 24-7, hit a big 70-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachery less than a minute into the third quarter -- and the greatest comeback in Auburn history was on. The Tigers dominated the second half, holding the Crimson Tide to 67 total yards, and took the lead for good on Cam Newton’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.