Georgia, Auburn prove to be class of SEC

The question was put to rest about the time D.J. Shockley threw his second touchdown pass Saturday in the SEC championship game.

By that time, Georgia was well on its way to a second SEC championship in the last four years, thanks to a 34-14 rout of LSU that only cemented the Bulldogs' place as the conference's preeminent program.

The impressive part was that Georgia wasn't even supposed to be a part of the SEC gala this season. But Shockley and his cast of equally motivated seniors, including Max Jean-Gilles, Bryan McClendon, DeMario Minter, Tim Jennings, Kedric Golston and Greg Blue had other ideas.

While most people drank the Kool-Aid being served at Eastern Division favorites Tennessee and Florida during the preseason, Georgia quietly went about its business.

The Bulldogs (10-2) were hardly spectacular during the first half of the season, although they did pin their regular whipping on the Vols to kick off October.

Shockley's knee injury against Arkansas caused the entire Bulldog Nation to hold its breath. The fears were justified. He didn't play the next week against Florida, and the Gators squeaked out a 14-10 win.

Two weeks later, Shockley returned, but Georgia lost again -- this time to Auburn in a 31-30 shootout.

But Florida's loss earlier that day at South Carolina gave the Bulldogs a mulligan of sorts, and they cashed in with another piece of hardware.
Their battering of LSU in the SEC title game was their most complete performance of the season.

Against West Virginia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl, they will have a chance to solidify a fourth straight top-10 finish.

"All I said before the season was I thought we had as good a chance this season as any other season since I've been at Georgia," coach Mark Richt said. "I wasn't predicting that we'd win the SEC at all. I said, 'If we win enough close games, then we might find ourselves back in the championship game.'"

Even though Georgia has the trophy, Auburn might have been the SEC's best team at season's end.

The Tigers (9-2) closed the season with wins over then top-10 clubs Georgia and Alabama, and their only loss after opening the season with a defeat by Georgia Tech was at LSU in overtime when they missed five field goals.

Making just one of those field goals would have put Auburn in the SEC championship game, and maybe we'd be talking about the Tigers being the class of the conference.

Regardless, they're running a close second.

Auburn's 13-0 run through the 2004 season speaks for itself, and nobody but Tommy Tuberville expected the Tigers to win nine games this season after losing the likes of Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Jason Campbell to the pros.

For LSU, the fallout from the SEC championship game loss was a painful reminder to everyone in the league of just how warped the bowl process can be.

The Tigers (10-2) went into the game ranked third and thinking they might have an outside shot to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Citi for the national title if they could beat Georgia and either Southern Cal or Texas was upset.

Instead, they tumbled all the way to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl despite having more wins and having beaten all three of the teams selected ahead of them in the league's higher-tier bowls -- Auburn in the Capital One, Alabama in the AT&T Cotton and Florida in the Outback.

But then, nobody ever said life in the SEC was fair.

Most Valuable Player
Georgia's D.J. Shockley
Picking against Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler is difficult. He came within one win of getting Vanderbilt to a bowl game and had a brilliant senior season. But Shockley wrapped up the honor with his performance in the SEC championship game. He finished the season with 21 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. His ability to improvise and make plays was the difference for the Bulldogs, who looked like a totally different team without him in their loss to Florida. The other thing to consider is just how good Shockley would have been this season had he not been sitting on the bench and watching David Greene the last few years.

Coach of the Year
South Carolina's Steve Spurrier
Another category in which you could debate for weeks about who did the best job. Georgia's Richt won his second SEC title since taking the job in 2001. Auburn's Tuberville lost four players in the first round of the NFL draft and still won nine games. But the vote here goes to the Head Ball Coach. Squeezing out seven wins this year at South Carolina says everything you need to know about Spurrier as a football coach. The best thing for the Gamecocks is that it will only get better from here.

Newcomer of the Year
Arkansas RB Darren McFadden
Imagine what Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden could do if the Razorbacks had a passing game. Despite defenses aligning to stop him all season, McFadden became just the seventh freshman in SEC history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He finished with 1,113 yards, fourth in the SEC, and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, which was tops among the rushing leaders. He had some competition, too, in a season in which there was no shortage of talented newcomers. South Carolina receiver Sidney Rice, Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett and Tennessee tailback Arian Foster all had big years, as well.

Biggest surprise
South Carolina

Back in the summer, the feeling around the league was that Spurrier was going to take his lumps in his first season at South Carolina. Then the Gamecocks started playing and many started wondering what Spurrier had gotten himself into. The Gamecocks looked horrid against Alabama and even worse against Auburn. But Spurrier held them together, and they rebounded to win five in a row and make an appearance in the Top 25. Along the way, South Carolina snapped long losing streaks against Tennessee and Florida and earned a bid to the Independence Bowl, its first postseason trip since 2001. Make no mistake. The Head Ball Coach is back.

Biggest disappointment

For all his success at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer never seemed to get the credit he deserved for his consistency. A down year for the Vols was an eight- or nine-win season. That all changed this year. Picked No. 3 nationally in the preseason, Tennessee bumbled to its first losing season in 17 years by losing five of its last seven games and finishing 5-6. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders resigned after the loss to South Carolina, and Fulmer purged most of his offensive staff. The Vols even lost to Vanderbilt for the first time in 23 years. When you factor in all the off-the-field trouble involving Tennessee players that occurred before the season, it was nothing short of a nightmare on Rocky Top.

All-SEC Team
QB -- D.J. Shockley, Georgia
RB -- Kenny Irons, Auburn
RB -- Darren McFadden, Arkansas
WR -- Chad Jackson, Florida
WR -- Sidney Rice, South Carolina
TE -- Leonard Pope, Georgia
OL -- Marcus McNeill, Auburn
OL -- Max Jean-Gilles, Georgia
OL -- Andrew Whitworth, LSU
OL -- Tim Duckworth, Auburn
C -- Mike Degory, Florida

DL -- Willie Evans, Mississippi State
DL -- Quentin Moses, Georgia
DL -- Kyle Williams, LSU
DL -- Stanley McClover, Auburn
LB -- DeMeco Ryans, Alabama
LB -- Patrick Willis, Mississippi
LB -- Kevin Simon, Tennessee
DB -- Roman Harper, Alabama
DB -- DeMario Minter, Georgia
DB -- Greg Blue, Georgia
DB -- Ko Simpson, South Carolina

Special teams
K -- Brandon Coutu, Georgia
P -- Kody Bliss, Auburn
RS -- Skyler Green, LSU

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.