SEC 2011 regular season wrap

Before the season, we all had inkling that the SEC Western Division would be just a little bit stronger than its Eastern counterpart.

The West dominated the East in 2010, and with little overall improvement from that side of the conference, the consensus was that the road to SEC supremacy was headed through Alabama, Arkansas or Louisiana.

But getting out of that frighteningly tough division was another chore in itself.

Most of us put our cards in Alabama’s camp. With a defense that looked like it was copied and pasted from an NFL roster, a bulldozing running back in Trent Richardson and Nick Saban leading things, the Crimson Tide seemed like a safe bet.

But it was once again the Year of the Tiger.

LSU teased us with its talent before the season. No one questioned the assortment of riches coach Les Miles had at his disposal, but we were worried about the youth, Miles’ quirkiness and a troubling quarterback situation.

All of that came into play during LSU’s magical season, and the Tigers never blinked.

The year started with the suspension of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and the ineligibility of starting wide receiver Russell Shepard. That didn’t seem to matter as equally as embattled quarterback Jarrett Lee stepped up and led the Tigers to a 4-0 start with wins over three ranked teams, including No. 3 Oregon, all on the road.

We saw an efficient, powerful offense and an athletic, selfish defense. The Mad Hatter appeared to have something special, but we wouldn’t be certain until more controversy hit.

Outside of the obvious awkward quarterback situation once Jefferson came back, Miles watched as national darling Tyrann Mathieu, who strictly became known as the “Honey Badger,” and starting running back Spencer Ware were suspended two weeks before the Alabama game.

Again, LSU didn’t flinch.

In a showdown that received more hype than national championship games, we saw two SEC sledgehammers bludgeon each other before LSU escaped with a 9-6 overtime win at Alabama. LSU controlled not only the SEC but the nation.

LSU met two more real challenges before clinching a spot in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. Thanks to some fancy punt returns from the Honey Badger, LSU erased 14- and 10-point deficits to Arkansas and Georgia with 40-plus runs.

LSU is 13-0 for the first time and a win in New Orleans could make this the greatest season for an SEC team.

The Tigers will have to play Alabama, again. The Tide never left the national scene after its lone loss, only dropping as far as third in the BCS standings. Even after watching the final weekend, it had enough support to be thrust into the title game for what should be an epic rematch.

The West will send three other teams bowling, including an Arkansas team that flirted with the BCS until the final weekend. Bobby Petrino reeled off another 10-win season and did so without one of the SEC’s most complete running backs in Knile Davis.

A year removed from winning the national championship, Auburn had to deal with harsh realities of rebuilding. The Tigers started 4-1, but their young players hit the wall shortly after. Still, there looks to be some solid talent on the Plains.

Mississippi State didn’t live up to the lofty expectations, but will be bowling in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than a decade, while Ole Miss’ 2-10 season got its head coach fired.

As for the East, South Carolina and Georgia battled until the very end, while Florida and Tennessee sank further into mediocrity. Vanderbilt was the feel-good story, as new coach James Franklin truly reenergized that program, leading the Commodores back to the postseason, while Kentucky snapped its 26-year losing streak to Tennessee.

Georgia’s rebound from a 0-2 start was exactly what coach Mark Richt needed. With his seat getting hotter and hotter in Athens, Richt helped orchestrate a 10-game winning streak that took the Dawgs back to the SEC title game.

The Gamecocks might have been the preseason favorites in the East, but came up short after losing starting quarterback Stephen Garcia and running back Marcus Lattimore. Still, 10 wins is nothing to scoff at.

We knew the West was bigger, stronger and better than the East, but with LSU and Alabama set to collide once more, it now seems like it’s bigger, stronger and better than anyone.

Offensive MVP: Alabama running back Trent Richardson

Richardson has a chance to be Alabama’s second Heisman Trophy winner after a tremendous junior year. It usually takes a handful of defenders strapped to his back to finally bring Richardson down. As Alabama’s main back, Richardson led the SEC with 1,583 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Against SEC competition, Richardson averaged 137 yards a game and 6 yards per carry. In 12 games, he accumulated more than 100 rushing yards nine times. In five of those games, he registered more than 160 yards. Richardson not only carried opposing defenders throughout the season but he carried Alabama’s offense and dictated the way the Tide moved the ball.

Defensive MVP: LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu

The Honey Badger was one of the most exciting players to watch in college football this season. It didn’t matter where he was on the field, he knew how to find the ball, forcing offenses to change their game plans in order to direct plays away from him. Mathieu led LSU in tackles (70), intercepted two passes, defended nine passes, forced six fumbles, recovered five fumbles and scored four non-offensive touchdowns. Mathieu was the commander of the Tigers’ back-to-back 40-point runs against Arkansas and Georgia with punt returns that went for scores of 92 and 62 yards. He forced and recovered two fumbles in those games and like Richardson, is headed to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Newcomer of the Year: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones

Jones officially came back home this season. Because of transfer rules Jones had to sit last year after leaving USC, but was more than ready for his return to college football. Jones was asked to come in and replace former Bulldog star Justin Houston and, boy, did he make Houston’s departure easier to stomach. Jones wasn’t just one of the best linebackers in the SEC but he was one of the best at his position in the country. Jones found ways all season to disrupt opposing backfields and led the SEC with 19.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks. Jones had the speed to make plays all over the field for the Bulldogs and helped make Georgia’s defense rank third nationally.

Coach of the year: LSU’s Les Miles

Somehow, the Mad Hatter has done it again. Despite his sometimes-odd decisions, Miles has his Tigers undefeated and a win away from capturing their second national title during his tenure. Miles hasn’t just had his team prepared every week but he’s been able to direct his players through the off-field sludge that could have derailed LSU’s special season. With every distraction LSU faced, the Tigers just got stronger. Players credit LSU’s mental strength to Miles, who found ways to keep his team focused and relaxed on the way to a season that saw eight wins over ranked teams, with five coming away from Baton Rouge.

Biggest Surprise: Vanderbilt

It wasn’t just the fact that Vanderbilt made it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2008 that made this season special; it was the way Vandy did it. First-year coach James Franklin wanted to instill a new attitude at Vandy. Mission accomplished. The Commodores didn’t back down to anyone and were fun to watch on both offense and defense. Once Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback midway through the year, the Commodores were equipped with one of the more explosive SEC offenses, while the defense was extremely aggressive, forcing 27 turnovers. The Commodores were a few mistakes away from possibly winning eight or nine games. Franklin’s bravado and post-game antics showed the Commodores weren’t going to be taken lightly.

Biggest Disappointment: Florida

The Gators are in this category for the second straight year because of the offensive nightmare Florida endured. Florida went through a coaching transition in 2011, but with it came offensive guru Charlie Weis and a pro-style offense. Senior quarterback John Brantley was supposed to fit much better into Weis’ system, and after the first four weeks it looked like he did. However, after suffering a severe ankle injury in the Alabama game, Brantley and Florida’s season went south. Even after Brantley returned, Florida’s offense never fully recovered and all the highly-rated recruits Florida was stocked with struggled to stay consistent. Will Muschamp’s first regular season as head coach ended with a 6-6 record and the Gators had a losing record in SEC play for the first time since 1986.

Best Game: South Carolina 45, Georgia 42, Sept. 10

LSU and Alabama’s game of the century was the perfect display of SEC power, but South Carolina’s comeback win over Georgia in Week 2 had everything. There were 831 combined yards of total offense, 87 points, a special teams touchdown by a defensive lineman, seven lead changes and a late touchdown that almost step up an eighth and final lead change. The biggest lead was 10 points, and that came with a little more than three minutes left after South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram, who went 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt, took an Aaron Murray fumble into the end zone to make it 45-35. Murray cut the lead to three less than a minute later with a 33-yard touchdown pass, but a failed on-side kick and two clutch runs by Lattimore sealed the game for the Gamecocks.