By Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
The Commish – that’s what I call SEC commissioner Mike Slive – stood on the confetti-covered Georgia Dome field near the 50-yard line – last Saturday night. He was surveying the post-league championship game scene when we spotted each other.
“That’s the best championship game in my 11 years in the conference,” The Commish said.
“I’ve been to all 21 of these games, and that’s the best one I’ve ever seen,” I said.
The only thing I haven’t seen is SEC championship game decided in overtime. But after watching Alabama stop Georgia at Crimson Tide 5-yard line as time expired to preserve a 32-28 victory that sent ’Bama to its third BCS national championship game in four years, I’m thinking overtime will happen soon in this annual battle royal that decides the best team in college football’s premier conference.
It might be a long time, though, before you have a championship game that starts with a scoreless first quarter, finishes with six lead changes and has a last-gasp drive by the trailing team kept alive when an interception by Alabama was overturned by instant replay with less than a minute to play.
Those were firsts for the league title game, as was Alabama’s 350 yards rushing and the Tide having two running backs gain rumble for more than 100 yards each.
How good was this game?
Alabama senior center Barrett Jones is arguably one of the greatest student-athletes in SEC history. He’s a two-time first-team all-American who last season won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman. On Tuesday, he won the National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy, given to the best player in the country who combines academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership. The award comes with a 24-inch, 25-pound bronze trophy and a $25,000 postgraduate scholarship. On Thursday night, Barrett concluded his week by winning the Rimington Award as college football’s best center.
Barrett has started on two (with a third pending) national championship teams. He has won two SEC titles. He has played against 24 ranked teams and won 19 times.
Considering all that, his words definitely carry weight.
So as he limped off the Georgia Dome field on crutches – he hurt an ankle in the first quarter and didn’t miss a snap all night banging his 6-5, 302-pound frame into a 6-6, 350-pound mountain disguised as Georgia nose guard Kwame Geathers – Barrett didn’t downplay his feelings.
“I never thought I’d say this,” Barrett said, “but this was the most special win I’ve ever had.”
It was an extraordinary game to watch. As Georgia’s classy coach Mark Richt said, “It was a knockdown drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end. . .they played well, we played well, clock ran out.”
It also marked the end of one of the best regular seasons in the 80-year history of the SEC, with six teams in the final top 10 of the BCS rankings. Also for the first ever, the league has six teams – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M – with 10 wins or more.
Also, don’t forget the SEC mopping up in postseason awards – Jones with his Campbell Trophy and Rimington, South Carolina’s Jadevon Clowney winning the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end, Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel winning the Outland as the top interior lineman, Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks capturing the Thorpe as college football’s best defensive back and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel capturing the Davey O’Brien as the nation’s best QB.
Manziel is could make history on Saturday as the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy as college’s football most outstanding player. That would mean the SEC would have four Heisman winners in the last six years after having seven winners previously stretched over five decades.
Since 2006 when the SEC began its string of six straight national championships with a seventh possible when Alabama meets Notre Dame in Miami on Jan. 7 in the BCS national championship game, the league’s run on national awards has been astounding.
In this seven-year stretch, SEC players have won (Heisman, Manning, Lot and Hornung Awards for 2012 yet to be announced) 40 major awards:
4 times: Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), Thorpe Award (best defensive back)
3 times: Heisman Trophy (best player), Maxwell Award (best player), Doak Walker Award (best running back), Davey O’Brien (best quarterback), Rimington Award (best center)
2 times: Lombardi Award (for nation’s best lineman or linebacker), Butkus Award (best linebacker), Ray Guy Award (best punter), Bednarik Award (best defensive player), John Mackey Award (best tight end),
1 times: Nagurski Award (best defensive player), Hendricks Award (best defensive end), Lott Trophy (best defensive player with character), Wuerffel Trophy (best player exemplifying community service mixed with academic and athletic achievement), Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player, Manning Award (best quarterback), Campbell Trophy (academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership).
If you could have predicted Manziel before the season that “Johnny Football” would be merely Heisman candidate, much less a Heisman winner, that’s some news Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin would like to have had.
He didn’t know who would be his starting quarterback until three weeks before the start of the season. Then he chooses Johnny Football, who at 6-1, 200 and a youthful 20 years old (his birthday was Thursday), looks more like a bagger at a grocery store than a major college quarterback.
Then, Johnny Football runs through and passes over SEC defenses like he was playing touch football. He already has as 4,600 yards total offense in 12 games, breaking 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton’s league single season total offense record that Newton set in 14 games for Auburn’s national championship team.
When asked what he thinks about during his madcap, creative scrambles, Johnny Football says, “Get it in the end zone. That’s the only thing.”
The stunning emergence of someone so unknown with such breathtakingly talent is why I never quit loving SEC football. No matter how much you think you’ve got it figured out, that’s when you don’t.
There were surprises all around the league this season.
In the Eastern Division, second-year Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped from a 7-6 record in his maiden voyage a year ago to 10-1 this season, a No. 3 BCS rating and a Sugar Bowl date with Louisville.
For the Gators, the turnaround started in last season’s regular-finale loss to Florida State when Will told his team in the dressing room that they were “soft.”
“When you’re 6-6 at the University of Florida, it’s never good after experiencing it, but you also find out who’s on board and who’s not with your football team,” Will says. “I knew then, with that team, with our team right now, that we had a bunch of guys that were bought into what we were doing. There was no wavering, there were no guys wondering if what we were doing was the right thing and that’s really where I saw some good things coming.”
In the Western Division, eyebrows were raised last December when Ole Miss hired Hugh Freeze as its head coach. Hugh, a 43-year-old Mississippi native who came from Arkansas State where he was 10-2 in his only season as a FBS head coach, was coaching at a Memphis area high school just eight seasons ago.
At Ole Miss, he not only took over a team that was 1-15 the last two years, but also a squad that he said had two dozen players in academic trouble. Scholarship numbers were also down.
But with tough love – Hugh daily during the fall would make morning rounds on campus to make sure his players were in class on time – and with a fast-paced no-huddle offense he used sparingly at times because of a lack of depth, the Rebels went 6-6 to qualify for a bowl.
And it wasn’t luck. Ole Miss, because of depth issues, lost three games in the final 10 minutes to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. But the Rebels did break a 14-game SEC losing streak and snapped a three-game losing skein to arch-rival Mississippi State, the last win pushing Ole Miss into the Jan. 5 BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham vs. Pittsburgh.
Hugh never promised before the season that Ole Miss would win a certain amount of games. All he said was his team would play with “passion and effort for 60 minutes,” and the Rebels have done that. He credits his senior class for showing the way.
"Most of our seniors, without exception, were the easiest to convince to buy-in to what our staff wanted to do,” Hugh says. “More than any others, our seniors can attest to the disappointing times that they have experienced. They knew that they didn’t want this season to go like the others, where you're being looked at as getting beat badly in games and somewhat as the laughingstock of the conference. They've done a lot to remove that stigma."
It’s the circle of life in the competitive SEC that four of the five schools that didn’t receive bowl bids – Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee – are making head coaching changes. This assures that for the 20th time in 21 seasons (and 38 of the last 42) that the SEC will have at least one new head coach.
But before the new guys take over, there’s this little matter of nine SEC teams in bowls, the fifth time in the last seven seasons that’s happened.
SEC pride is on the line. The league hasn’t had a losing bowl record since 2002. Since 2006, the SEC has more bowl wins (36) and appearances (55) than any other conference. Also since ’06, the SEC has posted a 9-3 record in BCS bowl games, more wins and a higher winning percentage (.750) than any other conference.
And in posting a 6-1 record in the BCS national championship game, an SEC team has led or tied for the lead at the end of 20 of the last 24 quarters of those national title showdowns. The only SEC loss in a BCS title game was last January’s all-SEC affair, won 21-0 by Alabama over LSU.
Former Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram said it best when he was asked about SEC pride before Alabama’s win over Texas for the 2009 BCS national championship.
“During the season, we’re all rivals and we all beat up on each other,” Mark said. “We all don’t like each other, but we take pride in each other. Teams that I hate during the season, I root for them in bowl season. Because when you play in such a tough conference with so many great teams, you’ve got to take pride in it.”
Crank up those S-E-C!, S-E-C!, S-E-C! chants people. Bowl season is just around the corner.