By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – I’ll never forget my first day of school when I moved to the state of Alabama.
I was nine years old, coming to the Heart of Dixie from the Bronx, New York, with no idea what to expect. A culture shock doesn’t describe it enough, as I went from a cramped city full of people to small town filled with open space.
My first day was a whirlwind, as I tried to learn as much as I could about my new surroundings. After speaking to my first classmate, I quickly found out what made this part of the country tick.
Remember, I was nine years old.
After the little boy had some trouble understanding my accent, he paused and asked me a question. This question would be burned into my brain, a simply inquiry that sums up the state of Alabama, and many others in the Southeast during this particular week of the year.
“Ok, but who do you root for, Alabama or Auburn?”
That’s rivalry week in a nutshell.
First Down: Who Is The SEC Coach Of The Year?
Simple question right? But, due to the depth of the SEC, there is no simple answer.
When you have six SEC teams ranked in the top 10 of the Bowl Championship Series standings, you have a quality league. Quality teams are led by quality coaches, leaving a remarkably difficult choice when it comes to naming the best of the best.
Ask 10 different people who should be SEC Coach of the Year, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Folks in Texas would say Aggie head man Kevin Sumlin should win, as the new SEC squad has reached heights no one predicted. The state of Florida likely backs Will Muschamp, pointing to an impressive resume and a strong finish. Look north to Nashville and you’ll hear the drumbeat for Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, who has revamped the culture of a long dormant program.
How tough is this choice? The two coaches headed to Atlanta, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Mark Richt wouldn’t make most people’s top three.
So, who you got?
There are eight legitimate candidates, all putting together solid resumes of success. The head men of the six teams in the BCS top 10 go without saying. I already mentioned Franklin, and you can probably add in Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, who has turned around the Rebels in the span of a few months.
But, of those eight, three stand out in my mind. When you measure preseason expectations, body of work and on field production, the candidates are tough to differentiate. I’ll make the case for my top three, in no order (I can’t choose) below.
Will Muschamp, Florida
When the season began, there were many questions in Gainesville. Fast forward to December, and Florida is a top three team nationally, with the most impressive resume of any one-loss team in the country. Muschamp’s squad has dispatched of four teams in the top 15 (South Carolina, LSU, Florida State, Texas A&M), and finished the season with a bang in defeating the in-state rival Seminoles 37-26. Lead by a tremendous defense and strong running game, Muschamp has put Florida back on the national map in only his second season as coach.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin’s first year in College Station has been memorable, as the former Houston head coach has turned the Aggies into an offensive powerhouse and more importantly a 10-2 team. Many predicted that Texas A&M would struggle in their maiden SEC voyage, but they greatly improved as the season wore on. The Aggies are the only team in the country to have beaten Western Division Champion Alabama, and Sumlin’s attack has turned Johnny Manziel from an unknown freshman to the Heisman front runner.
James Franklin, Vanderbilt
The Vanderbilt Commodores are 8-4 this year. Read that again. In the second year of Franklin’s tenure, Vandy has turned from a conference afterthought to a legitimate bowl team, heading to back-to-back postseason games for the first time in school history. Perhaps most impressively, four of the Commodores eight wins this year have come on the road. Franklin’s open approach has put the Vanderbilt program in a different light, and what he’s done in Nashville this season is nothing short of amazing.
Second Down: SEC Standouts
Rivalry week brought out the best in many SEC players this week. Usually it takes me a while to finalize my top five performances, but this weekend the “standouts” were easy choices.
Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M): Not that his performance against Missouri wasn’t enough to merit mention on its own, but it wouldn’t feel right if “Johnny Football” wasn’t listed here to end the season. He’s had a magical year, Heisman worthy in my mind, as we’ve watched him grow from an unknown rookie to the most talked about quarterback in the country. He capped it off with a bang, throwing for 377 yards and accounting for five touchdowns against the Tigers. Manziel set an SEC record for total offense, passing names like Tim Tebow and Cam Newton with his 2012 season. Whether or not he wins the honor bestowed on the nation’s top player (he should), we can all take solace in knowing we had the opportunity to watch perhaps the greatest season by a quarterback in SEC history.
JaDaveon Clowney (South Carolina): We may not have known about Manziel coming into this year, but we certainly knew all about Clowney, who continues to solidify himself as the nation’s top defensive lineman. He had 4 ½ sacks against in-state rival Clemson, setting South Carolina’s season record for sacks (13). He was physically dominant. Clowney’s talent is undeniable, and if he wasn’t just a sophomore he’d likely be the top overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. That’s not the case though, and he’ll terrorize SEC quarterbacks for at least one more season.
Alec Ogletree (Georgia): I’ll let his stat line speak for itself. 15 tackles, one stop for loss. Ogletree was a beast against Georgia Tech, and had a standout performance in the Bulldogs final regular season matchup. Ogletree was referred to as a “dude” by ESPN analyst Jessie Palmer, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that. His 15 tackle total was the highest in the SEC this week, and shows the junior’s ability to be a sideline to sideline defender.
The Ole Miss Offense: It was hard to single out one player in the Rebels 41-24 victory in the Egg Bowl, so I decided to reward the entire unit. In Ole Miss’ biggest game, with bowl eligibility hanging in the balance, head coach Hugh Freeze’s offense took over. The group had 527 total yards against State, averaging 6.8 per play, and had success in each phase of the game. Jeff Scott ran for 111 yards, Donte Moncrief caught 177 yards worth of passes, and Bo Wallace threw for five touchdowns. Freeze was known as an offensive genius at his previous stops (Lambuth, Arkansas State), and for one Saturday night in Oxford that philosophy came to life. It also got the Rebels to a bowl game, something few predicted a few months ago.
The SEC Fans: 7 million. That’s the number of fans that have attended SEC football games this season. Well, the number is higher than that actually, since that was the total following the Arkansas-LSU matchup on Friday. What makes the SEC special is the support of its followers, and their connection to the programs in this league. Saturdays in the South are tradition, the chance to cheer history as it unfolds. The SEC is the first conference to ever reach that attendance number, an accomplishment that deserves a tip of the cap. How much is seven million? That total is bigger than every US city’s population, save one…New York. Thank you SEC fans.
Third Down: The Week Ahead
I know we usually look back here at the Three and Out, but I’d be re-miss if I didn’t alert you of what’s to come here at the SEC Digital Network. While you may have noticed a #SECATL makeover of the SEC home page (both coaches on the rails), that is just the tip of iceberg. SEC Championship Game week is one of the biggest events on the conference’s calendar, and we plan to cover it like never before on the website.
With so much riding on this game both in the league and nationally, we figured we needed to step up our game as well. So, starting yesterday through kickoff next Saturday, we will bombard you with unique coverage of this matchup. Not only will we tell you about the game on the field, but we will break down the happenings off of it, and even tell the history of these two storied programs.
All in all, expect more than 20 different articles/videos of content in the coming days. We will set the stage for Atlanta, while also featuring some of the biggest keys to this matchup. Our collection of SEC Digital Network writers will essentially own the story from all angles, giving you complete coverage of the country’s biggest championship game.
A few highlights you’ll need to remember. All of these items will be housed on the SEC Football Championship page.
- The SEC website will live stream Friday’s coaches press conference from the Georgia Dome, giving you the chance to hear directly from Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Mark Richt.
- There will be a live twitter feed on the SEC Championship Page with up to the minute coverage from SECDN writers and SEC staff.
- There will be a special SEC tickets Q&A, so fans can get information regarding where they are sitting and how to navigate the Georgia Dome.
- SEC Fanfare (#SECFanfare) will be in full swing starting Friday, proving a live twitter feed so fans can interact at the event.
- Expect behind the scenes photo blogs from every day the SECDN is on the ground in Atlanta. (Thursday-Saturday)