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December 7, 2006

Postseason Breakdown: SEC

Prior to the college football season we offered up an inside look at what to expect in the SEC.

As expected, we pegged some things right and were off the mark on a few others.

Here is our look back at the SEC season:

SEC Standings
Rivals.com's Preseason Predictions:
East Division West Division
1. Florida 1. Auburn
2. Georgia 2. LSU
3. Tennessee 3. Arkansas
4. South Carolina 4. Alabama
5. Kentucky 5. Ole Miss
6. Vanderbilt 6. Mississippi State
Championship Game: Auburn over Florida
Actual SEC Standings:
East Division West Division
1. Florida 1. Arkansas
2. Tennessee 2. Auburn
3. Kentucky 3. LSU
4. Georgia 4. Alabama
5. South Carolina 5. Ole Miss
6. Vanderbilt 6. Mississippi State
Championship Game: Florida over Arkansas
Offensive MVP: Arkansas RB Darren McFadden. Is there really any question? McFadden capitalized on new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's creativity to develop into the game's most exciting player. He's the best running back in the nation and just might be the best quarterback on his team. McFadden leads the SEC with 1,558 rushing yards, and he also has gone 6-of-8 through the air with three touchdown passes. A big performance in the Capital One Bowl would make him a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite next year.
Honorable mention: LSU QB JaMarcus Russell. There were better offensive players in the conference, but nobody other than McFadden meant more to his team. Whenever Russell struggled, so did the Tigers.
Defensive MVP: Florida S Reggie Nelson. This was a much tougher decision than choosing the offensive MVP. In fact, if we were calling this the Defensive Player of the Year Award, we may have chosen Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis instead. However, it's tough to give an MVP award to a player from a losing team, so we instead will side with the best overall player from the squad that won the SEC championship. Nelson has picked off six passes and has blocked two kicks while emerging as one of the league's hardest hitters. The Jim Thorpe Award finalist teamed up with cornerback Ryan Smith to give Florida the nation's best pair of ball-hawking defensive backs.
Honorable mention: Willis. He just might be the best player to wear an Ole Miss uniform since Archie Manning.
Coach of the Year: Florida's Urban Meyer. Do you go with the coach of the most surprising team or the guy who took a consistent contender to the next level? We opted with the latter, which explains why Meyer is the choice over Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. Meyer navigated the Gators through one of the nation's toughest schedules and found ways to develop a decent running attack even without a dominant tailback. After arriving at Florida with a reputation as an offensive guru, Meyer adjusted to his personnel and helped build the Gators into one of the nation's top defensive teams.
Honorable mention: Nutt. He went from the hot seat to the catbird's seat in one year.
Freshman of the Year: Florida WR Percy Harvin. Rivals.com rated him as the top player in the 2006 recruiting class, and Harvin certainly has lived up to his billing. Although he typically lines up at wide receiver, Harvin also has carried the ball 36 times and averages an astounding 11.3 yards per rush. He had a touchdown run and touchdown catch to earn MVP honors in the SEC championship game.
Honorable mention: Alabama OT Andre Smith and LB Prince Hall. Smith has started at left tackle all season, while Hall ranks third on the team with 71 tackles.
Coordinator of the Year: Arkansas OC Gus Malzahn. This former high school coach's arrival on Arkansas' staff was accompanied by plenty of snickers around rival campuses, but the laughter stopped as soon as Arkansas started running wild against just about every conference foe. Malzahn has found different ways to get the ball in the hands of his best players each week, even if it means having the SEC's leading rusher lining up at quarterback on occasion.
Honorable mention: Tennessee OC David Cutcliffe. His return to Knoxville revitalized the career of Vols QB Erik Ainge.
Surprise team: Arkansas. The Razorbacks were supposed to bounce back from back-to-back losing seasons, but nobody expected this much of a jump, particularly after that season-opening 50-14 loss to Southern California. Arkansas recovered from that setback and won 10 consecutive games before suffering back-to-back losses to LSU and Florida.
Honorable mention: Kentucky. The Wildcats earned their first bowl bid since 1999 while proving you don't need to have an overpowering defense to win in this league.
Disappointing team: Alabama. The Crimson Tide's 6-6 season included a stunning home loss to Mississippi State, a fifth consecutive Iron Bowl defeat and the dismissal of head coach Mike Shula. Alabama had one of its best passing attacks in school history, but that couldn't make up for a sluggish running game and a tendency to fall apart in close contests. Dishonorable mention: Ole Miss. While nobody predicted a division title for the Rebels, there was plenty of buzz surrounding this program before the season because of QB Brent Schaeffer's arrival. Schaeffer completed less than half his passes as the Rebels struggled to a 4-8 finish, though a talented freshman class at least offers hope for the future.
Team on the rise: South Carolina. The Gamecocks came oh-so-close to beating plenty of top teams despite having a lineup full of underclassmen. South Carolina's victory over Clemson in the regular-season finale showed this young team is finally learning how to win.
Honorable mention: Florida. The Gators can't rise much higher, but the contributions of their freshman class indicate they'll remain national title contenders for years to come.
Best game: LSU 28, Tennessee 24. The sequel to last year's overtime thriller provided just as much excitement. Tennessee fought valiantly at home even after an ankle injury knocked QB Erik Ainge out in the first half. The game featured four lead changes before JaMarcus Russell finally gave LSU the victory on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Early Doucet with nine seconds remaining.
Honorable mention: Florida 17, South Carolina 16. Arkansas 24, Alabama 23.
Biggest upset: Arkansas 27, Auburn 10. This is the game that changed the course of the Western Division race. Arkansas headed into the Plains as a 15-point underdog and spent the entire afternoon pushing Auburn around the field. Marcus Monk's 50-yard touchdown catch and Darren McFadden's 63-yard breakaway showed the nation the big-play ability the Razorbacks would possess all season.
Honorable mention: Vanderbilt 24, Georgia 22. Mississippi State 24, Alabama 16.
Most likely to win bowl game: LSU. The Tigers will be playing in front of a partisan crowd in their home state and have a huge matchup advantage with that talented receiving corps of Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet going against Notre Dame's vulnerable secondary. If the Tigers' defensive backs can handle Notre Dame's outstanding receiving duo of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, the Tigers shouldn't have too much trouble winning this one.
Honorable mention: South Carolina. The Gamecocks blew a big lead in the Independence Bowl last year and should make amends against Houston in the Liberty this season.
Least likely to win bowl game: Florida. We've seen plenty of upsets in championship games before (e.g. Texas over Southern California last year), so the Gators shouldn't be dismissed. But they still will enter the championship game as major underdogs against undefeated Ohio State. Florida won't have a chance unless its offense plays the way it did in the SEC championship game - instead of reverting to its regular-season form.
Dishonorable mention: Georgia. The Bulldogs are on a roll and should have a partisan crowd on their side, but they're also facing one of the nation's hottest teams. Georgia could have trouble scoring against a Virginia Tech team that leads all Division I-A programs in total defense and scoring defense.
Worth noting: The SEC has nine teams playing in bowl games this season. SEC bowl representatives include Florida (BCS championship game Jan. 8 vs. Ohio State), LSU (Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 vs. Notre Dame), Arkansas (Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. Wisconsin), Auburn (Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. Nebraska), Tennessee (Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. Penn State), Georgia (Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 30 vs. Virginia Tech), South Carolina (Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29 vs. Houston), Kentucky (Music City Bowl on Dec. 29 vs. Clemson) and Alabama (Independence Bowl on Dec. 28 vs. Oklahoma State). Florida S Reggie Nelson is one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award that will be handed out tonight to the nation's top defensive back. The other finalists are Michigan CB Leon Hall and Texas CB Aaron Ross. Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis is a finalist for the Butkus Award that will be awarded tonight to the nation's top linebacker. The other finalists are Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Penn State's Paul Posluszny. Arkansas C Jonathan Luigs is one of six finalists for the Rimington Trophy that will be awarded tonight to the nation's top center. The other finalists are Michigan's Mark Bihl, Ohio State's Doug Datish, Southern California's Ryan Kalil, West Virginia's Dan Mozes and Rutgers' Darnell Stapleton. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award that will be given out tonight to the nation's top running back. McFadden is competing with Michigan's Mike Hart and West Virginia's Steve Slaton. Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was named the Region 2 Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association. Region 2 includes schools in the Sun Belt Conference and SEC.
Season prediction record: 79-16. Season against the spread: 8-6.

Rivals.com 2006 All-SEC Team

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