LSU Tigers: Gus Malzahn

AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Whether or not the much debated 10-second rule passes or not on Thursday (or even goes to a vote), it’s clear that the pace of the game in college football and the number of plays being run has been the topic du jour this offseason.

The coaches who want to go fast frown at the thought of a restrictor plate being placed on their offenses, while a few defensive-minded coaches, namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, are concerned that player safety is compromised by increasing the number of plays in a game.

“This is the only game in history of any sport where the college game is longer than the pro game,” Saban said.

Compared to the rest of the country, the SEC wasn’t a league last season that necessarily lived in the fast lane, at least as a whole.

Ole Miss averaged the most offensive plays per game (79.8), but only ranked 21st nationally. Texas Tech was first nationally with an average of 90.3 plays per game.

Not surprisingly, Alabama and Arkansas were at the bottom of the SEC. The Crimson Tide averaged 65.9 plays and the Hogs 64.7 plays.

Auburn, which is renowned for its hurry-up, no-huddle attack under Gus Malzahn, was tied for fifth in the SEC along with Texas A&M with an average of 73.8 plays per game.

In 2012, before to Malzahn’s arrival as head coach, Auburn averaged just 60.5 plays per game, which ranked last among 124 FBS teams.

The Aggies went the other way in Kevin Sumlin’s second season in College Station. They averaged 83.5 plays per game in 2012 and dipped to 73.8 last season, a difference of nearly 10 plays per game.

Here’s a rundown of the entire SEC in the last two seasons in terms of offensive snaps per game:

2013

1. Ole Miss: 79.8
2. Missouri: 75.5
3. Georgia: 74.6
4. Mississippi State: 74.2
5. Auburn: 73.8
6. Texas A&M: 73.8
7. South Carolina: 72.5
8. Vanderbilt: 70.8
9. Florida: 68.9
10. LSU: 67.7
11. Tennessee: 67.7
12. Kentucky: 66.8
13. Alabama: 65.9
14. Arkansas: 64.7

2012

1. Texas A&M: 83.5
2. Ole Miss: 76.2
3. Missouri: 75.7
4. Tennessee: 75.1
5. LSU: 70.8
6. Arkansas: 70.5
7. Vanderbilt: 69.2
8. South Carolina: 69
9. Georgia: 67.8
10. Florida: 67.2
11. Kentucky: 67
12. Mississippi State: 66.8
13. Alabama: 66.3
14. Auburn: 60.5

SEC's lunch links

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
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Spring practice kicks off for four more teams in the SEC this week. Here’s a look at the latest news and notes around the league in today’s lunch links.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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Let's take a quick spin through the headlines from across the SEC:

SEC's lunch links

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
12:00
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The dust has finally settled on signing day. It was another year in which the SEC dominated the class rankings, and the league is hoping that will translate to championships. Read more about the future in Thursday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
12:00
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Lots of coaches are taking their talents to new locations these days. Let's take a look at what is happening around the SEC.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

SEC's lunch links

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
12:00
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Let's take a look at what's happening around the SEC.

Florida assistant and former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips is reportedly among the finalists to join Charlie Strong's new staff at Texas.

Kurt Roper left a secure situation at Duke to take over as offensive coordinator at Florida, and he needs to quickly construct an attack that can move up and down the field more effectively.

With the return of defensive line coach Bo Davis, Alabama welcomes back an excellent recruiter.

Former Auburn quarterback and receiver Kodi Burns plays an important role as a graduate assistant on Gus Malzahn's staff.

LSU grapples with massive losses from its offense to early entry into the NFL draft.

Freshman receiver De'Runnya Wilson could contribute on Mississippi State's basketball team.

Tennessee announced on Monday that it will play its spring game on April 12.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams is hitting the road in search of a new football coach.

Speaking of which, Athlon lists 10 candidates to replace James Franklin as the Commodores' coach.

Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham's drug arrest from last week is still under investigation and has not yet been submitted to a prosecutor.

Florida running back Matt Jones will miss spring practice after he undergoes a second knee surgery in the next few weeks.

SEC's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.

SEC's lunch links

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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After New Year’s Day, the SEC is now 5-1 in bowl games. But four teams still have games left to play, including Auburn in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. For the latest news and notes from around the conference, check out today’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 17, 2013
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It seems as if everyone is denying interest in the now-vacant Texas head coaching position. Even Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly took a swing at stamping out the speculation the other day. But even so, this thing is far from over. Until the Longhorns have their guy in place, expect the rumor mill to continue churning.
  • Speaking of Texas, LSU coach Les Miles says, "Oh please, let's not kick my name around," about speculation on him leaving for Austin. His focus is on an Iowa team he's fired up to face.
  • "I'm a good fit for the Tigers," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the Texas job talk. "That's why I signed a contract."
  • What's Malzahn's first impression of Florida State? The Noles are "super fast." And that's coming from a guy who loves to put the pedal to the metal.
  • Like a lot of teams around the country, Georgia isn't just facing Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs must battle apathy in order to finish the season strong against the Cornhuskers.
  • Grading the Gamecocks: How did South Carolina grade out on offense, defense, special teams and coaching?
  • The time for rest is over for Ole Miss. "We got to get after it," Hugh Freeze says. Now it's on to the Music City Bowl against a dangerous offense in Georgia Tech.
  • "Turn up! Turn up!" That's what you'll hear from Geoff Collins during practice these days. Mississippi State's defensive coordinator wants his guys to turn up the pressure.
  • Oklahoma and Alabama enter bowl practice on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. How will the Tide resolve after ending the regular season on such a sour note?

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
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That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.

SEC's lunch links

December, 12, 2013
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We're a couple of weeks from an SEC team playing in an actual game, but there is still plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.

• Auburn's assistant coaches should join head coach Gus Malzahn in receiving raises in the near future. A USA Today salary database shows that Auburn's coaching salary pool is already the fifth biggest in the country.

• Speaking of that USA Today salary database, take a look. LSU and Alabama both rank ahead of Auburn on the list and eight of the top 12 are from the SEC.

• Former President George W. Bush sent a letter of support to Alabama kicker Cade Foster, whose missed kicks helped Auburn stay in the game and eventually upset the Crimson Tide.

• Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was announced as a regional coach of the year on Wednesday by the American Football Coaches Association.

• South Carolina is trying to strike the right balance in its bowl prep.

• The Advocate's Scott Rabalais writes that LSU's matchup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl is sexier than it's getting credit for.

• Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel thinks he's ready for the NFL, but says he hasn't made a decision yet about whether to enter the draft.

• Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell was named the conference's top freshman on Wednesday and will almost certainly make the SEC's All-Freshman team, which will be announced today.

• Ten SEC players were named to USA Today's All-America teams on Wednesday.

• Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell's season ended the way it started: with an injury.

• LSU coach Les Miles plans to watch his son (and some other prospects) at today's state championship games at the Louisiana Superdome.

• It has been a monster year for new Georgia recruiting prospect Nate Brown.

• Florida should have enviable backfield depth in 2014.

• Kentucky's big recruiting weekend is missing one who got away.

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