Sports, Thrill of Victory

SEC storylines to watch, Championship game edition

With just a Southeastern Conference title game between Alabama and Florida remaining, Chris Lee gives his title game pick, summarizes the latest SEC news, names his All-SEC team and reveals his final regular-season power rankings.

No Richt, more Les

Heading to Saturday’s games, it appeared that Georgia’s Mark Richt was staying in Athens, while LSU’s Les Miles was almost certainly on his way out.

LSU head coach Les Miles in the 2014 Music City Bowl. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

LSU head coach Les Miles in the 2014 Music City Bowl. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Surprise! Miles is still at LSU, while Richt is looking for work.

Both ordeals demonstrated brainlessness on the part of each school’s respective administrations.

Miles kept his job mostly because LSU couldn’t lure Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State, and in part because Miles got a rousing ovation from fans and was carried off the field by players after LSU’s 19-7 win over Texas A&M, which evidently left somewhat of an impression on athletic director Joe Alleva and the LSU administration.

And remember, Miles had the top-ranked recruiting class in the country for 2016 according to some services, though LSU’s wavering may have already cost the Tigers some recruits.

Imagine Miles’s recruiting pitch to players now: “Come play for me, I’m safe so long as my boss’s mood doesn’t shift in the next five minutes!”

To paraphrase something my friend Mitch Light at Athlon’s said on my VandySports Podcast this week, the stupidity of making a monumental decision like that based on one moment is mind-boggling.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (visor) is expected to be Georgia's next head coach. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (visor) is expected to be Georgia’s next head coach. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

That said, at least LSU seemed to have backed into the right spot, meaning that Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity may have one-upped Alleva on the idiocy scale this week.

I wrote about the potential danger of firing Richt four weeks ago. Since then, Richt won all four of his games to finish 9-3.

Part of the danger of firing Richt is the difficulty of finding a replacement with a floor of success roughly the same as Richt’s, but with a higher ceiling. If you’re going to do it, the route to go is to find someone with a long-term track record of success.

Instead, as of the wee a.m. hours of Wednesday morning, McGarity has evidently pushed all his chips in on Alabama 39-year-old defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who’s never been a head coach in his life but was reportedly the only choice, and is ready to accept the job.

Perhaps things work out in Athens, and maybe history shows that Miles was well past his time. Even so, there’s a good chance both AD’s could be right only in a in a “the broken-clock-is-right twice-a day” sense.

POWER RANKINGS (Overall record, SEC record)

  1. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
  2. Ole Miss (9-3, 6-2)
  3. Florida (10-2, 7-1)
  4. Arkansas (7-5, 4-4)
  5. LSU (8-3, 5-3)
  6. Tennessee (8-4, 5-3)
  7. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4)
  8. Mississippi St. (8-4, 4-4)
  9. Georgia (9-3, 5-3)
  10. Auburn (6-6, 2-6)
  11. Vanderbilt (4-5, 2-6)
  12. Missouri (5-7, 1-7): The Tigers averaged a paltry 13.6 points per game.
  13. Kentucky (5-7, 2-6)
  14. South Carolina (3-9, 1-7)

ALL-SEC TEAMS

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I tried to be fair.

Leonard Fournette's run for the Heisman Trophy took a hit from the Alabama defense. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

Leonard Fournette’s appeared to by a shoe in for the SEC player of the year and maybe the Heisman Trophy earlier this season. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

I tried to be fair to the standouts playing for bad teams, guys who had to make plays when perhaps none of their teammates would or could—production matters—but also fair to good players playing for good teams who may have lost on the stat sheet because they were surrounded by teammates who made plays.

And man, did I look at stats. I sorted a spreadsheet with just about every stat you can track for about seven-dozen players to make sure nothing escaped me.

I tried to trust my eyes on players I saw a lot, but not to put too much weight on the performance of a player I saw occasionally, so that a performance above or below his general level of play may didn’t unjustifiably skew my opinion of him. I tried to talk to people who saw those players play more than I did, and put a lot of stock in the evaluations of professional talent evaluators’ opinions.

I also tried to balance that with the fact that it’s the college game. Just because a guy’s an NFL first-rounder, he shouldn’t automatically eclipse someone who produced at a high level but isn’t necessarily a future NFL star. On the other hand, it’s hard for a stud like Vernon Hargreaves or Robert Nkemdiche to produce big numbers when teams purposely run or throw away from them; that must be recognized.

I picked four linebackers and four linemen on the first team, not because this is Little League and everyone deserves a trophy, but because some teams run 3-4s and others, 4-3s. I left room for an all-purpose player on offense to recognize the guy who had value beyond his position (for example, as a kick returner) or got squeezed out somewhere else.

This was excruciatingly tough. The SEC had ridiculously-talented players, especially on defense (there may be literally be 10 guys who deserved Player of the Year consideration), and there are some future first-rounders who don’t appear here. If you’re upset that your favorite team’s star didn’t appear here, I can’t necessarily tell you that you’re wrong, but I can probably tell you that he was considered.

Let the arguments begin…

Derek Henry is the runaway offensive player of the year in the SEC, and maybe the country. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

Derek Henry is the runaway offensive player of the year in the SEC, and maybe the country. PHOTO COURTESY ALABAMA ATHLETICS

OFFENSE (first team, second team)

QB: Dak Prescott, MSU; Brandon Allen, Arkansas

RB: Derrick Henry, Alabama; Alex Collins, Arkansas

RB: Leonard Fournette, LSU; Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss; Fred Ross, MSU

WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina; DeRunnya Wilson, MSU

TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas; Evan Engram, Ole Miss

C: Evan Pocic, LSU; Ryan Kelly, Alabama

OL: Vadal Alexander, LSU; Germain Ifedi, TAMU

OL: John Theus, Georgia; Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas

OL: Greg Pyke, Georgia; Denver Kirkland, Arkansas

OL: Cam Robinson, Alabama; Kyler Kerbyson, Tennessee

AP: Christian Kirk, TAMU; Sony Michel, Georgia

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Derrick Henry, Alabama

OFFENSIVE FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Christian Kirk, TAMU

Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers (10) is our pick for SEC Defensive Player of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY MISSOURI ATHLETICS

Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers (10) is our pick for SEC Defensive Player of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY MISSOURI ATHLETICS

 

DEFENSE:

DL: Myles Garrett, TAMU; Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

DL: Jon Bullard, Florida; Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss

DL: A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama; Derek Barnett, Tennessee

DL: Charles Harris, Missouri; Jonathan Allen, Alabama

LB: Kentrell Brothers, Missouri; Leonard Floyd, Georgia

LB: Reggie Ragland, Alabama; Antonio Morrison, Florida

LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee

LB: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt: Richie Brown, MSU

DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida; Dominick Sanders, Georgia

DB: Jalen Tabor, Florida; Donovan Wilson, TAMU

DB: Trae Elston, Ole Miss; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

DB: Eddie Jackson, Alabama; Mike Hilton, Ole Miss

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kentrell Brothers, Missouri

DEFENSIVE FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Walter Brady, Missouri

Tennessee's Cam Sutton is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the nation. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Tennessee’s Cam Sutton is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the nation. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

 

SPECIAL TEAMS
K:
Daniel Carlson, Auburn; Taylor Bertolet, TAMU

P: Drew Kaser, TAMU; Sean Kelly, South Carolina

PR: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee; Kirk, TAMU

KOR: Evan Berry, Tennessee; Johnathan Ford, Auburn

 

COACH OF THE YEAR: Jim McElwain, Florida

 

THIS WEEK’S PICK (83-21 overall, 46-49 vs. the spread)

Alabama 27, Florida 3 (Alabama -17.5) 

It’s been a terrific season for the Gators under first-year coach Jim McElwain, who happens to be Nick Saban’s former offensive coordinator. For that reason, Saban may take it easy on his former protégée, because just about everything favors his team.

Florida's Jim McElwain is our pick for SEC Coach of the Year and his Gators are the biggest surprise of the season. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

Florida’s Jim McElwain is our pick for SEC Coach of the Year and his Gators are the biggest surprise of the season. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

UF’s biggest weakness coming into the season was a patchwork offensive line; that’s a nightmare waiting to happen against a huddle full of potential first-round picks (Reggie Ragland, Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen) on the Crimson Tide’s front seven.

And remember, UF’s starting quarterback Will Grier is suspended until mid-season next year.

How’d that work out for Florida last week? The Gators couldn’t manage an offensive point in a 27-2 home loss to Florida State.

‘Bama running back Derrick Henry has saved his biggest games for the biggest stages this year. That’s also not good news for a Gator defense that’s hobbling into Saturday.

Florida’s one shot is that it’s good at forcing turnovers, and above-average and not giving it away. It leads the league in turnover margin (plus-10), and Alabama quarterback Jake Coker has been known to throw a bad interception or two. But even then, Coker’s improved markedly as the season’s progressed and ‘Bama’s at plus-seven in turnovers itself.

A Crimson Tide whitewashing could well be in order.