While predictions are often a shot in the dark, it is still fun to look ahead and try to predict the future. Here is our annual look at how the SEC might shape up in the coming year, with the bestowing of our annual preseason awards.
SEC Player of the Year: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. With the departure of Mark Ingram, it’s Richardson’s show now in Tuscaloosa. Backups Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler won’t get as much work in relief of Richardson as Richardson did in relief of Ingram. Richardson’s ability to run, block and catch the ball equally well will keep him on the field for most downs.
Runner-up: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina. He’s still prone to drop a few, but he’s by far the most physical receiver in the SEC and has a knack for making the big play in impossible situations.
SEC Coach of the Year: Bob Petrino, Arkansas. Petrino figures to be the glamour pick if Arkansas pulls out a second-place finish or better in the SEC West. He has a veteran team and the best chance in years to win. Knocking off either LSU or Alabama would probably secure the award for him.
Runner-up: Nick Saban, Alabama. It won’t surprise anyone if Alabama wins the SEC, but given that Alabama will have to run the gauntlet in the SEC West to do it, Saban should (deservedly) get credit.
SEC Coach With the Hottest Seat: Mark Richt, Georgia. It goes without saying that Georgia has to win the SEC East this year. But Richt might have to do even more than that. If the entire East division bombs and the Bulldogs scoot into Atlanta with a ho-hum record, even a SEC Championship Game appearance won’t be enough to cool Richt’s chair. If Georgia comes third behind South Carolina and Florida, look out.
Runner-up: Houston Nutt, Ole Miss. NARCAS has known for years that the Nutty emperor has no clothes; now the rest of the world is catching up. Nutt’s tenure in Oxford has been marked by the same loopy behavior that caused Arkansas to be underachievers. Nutt is probably safe for 2011 regardless, but if the Rebels finish the year without making the postseason, 2012 could be apocalyptic for more than just the Mayans.
Player Most Important to His Team: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. If you think Georgia can’t afford to lose another running back, just watch what would happen if Murray went down and left the keys to the Bulldog offense to Hutson Mason or Christian LeMay. Murray is the only thing standing between Georgia and a losing record, and without him Georgia’s offense has all the explosiveness of the 1990 Alabama offense under Gene Stallings.
Runner-up: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. Alabama could withstand the loss of freshman Dee Hart. But if Richardson goes down, it leaves Alabama without a receiving threat in the backfield and a couple of guys who’ve aren’t nearly as good at ball security.
SEC Team Most Likely to Fall Short of Expectations: Auburn. This gets an asterisk because the real question is what the expectations actually are at Auburn this year. Given that the Tigers are the defending national champions, it would seem most would expect Auburn to again challenge for a BCS slot. But with the SEC West having four other division title-caliber teams, it’s hard to imagine Auburn doing much better than seven or eight wins in 2011. And that would certainly be a disappointment to a fan base who thinks their team has arrived among the ranks of the elite.
Runner-up: Georgia. It would only take one or two injuries to really sink this team, and the Bulldogs have folded mentally in nearly every season under Richt.
SEC Team Most Likely to Surprise Us All: Florida. Despite putting not one single player on the 2011 TideFans/NARCAS Preseason All-SEC Team, the Gators have an excellent shot to win the SEC East. Winning the division is Florida’s likely ceiling regardless, but just making it there this year after so much offseason turmoil would be a significant feat.
Runner-up: Vanderbilt. The East is wide open. Wide open enough for Vandy? Not likely, but stranger things have happened recently – see South Carolina for an example.
SEC Team Most Likely to Make a Run at a National Championship: Alabama. The defense is there. The running game is sound. The Crimson Tide has the best offensive line in the league. Recent trends indicate a new quarterback isn’t absolutely necessary. And Alabama has Nick Saban.
Runner-up (tie): LSU and Arkansas. There is no doubt who the league’s second- and third-best teams are. One needs only to check the preseason all-SEC team to figure that out. The round-robin between LSU, Arkansas and Alabama very well could set one half of the BCS Championship Game.
SEC Team Most Likely to Fall Completely Apart: Georgia. You knew it was coming. The Bulldogs are like the weird uncle who shows up for the family reunion and doesn’t take his meds. By the time dessert is served, he’s standing on a picnic table, wearing a bundt cake pan for a hat and screaming for someone to bring him a piñata. There is plenty of talent in Athens, but Georgia needs to concern itself much less with “blackouts” and uniform trickery and more with blocking, tackling and not falling apart mentally.
Runner-up: Mississippi State. MSU isn’t a bad team; it’s that the media has determined the Bulldogs to be this year’s trendy pick. But the Bulldogs lost a ton of good players from last year’s team, they haven’t settled the offensive line situation yet and the defense was gutted. A couple of early losses could really do damage.
Newcomer Most Likely to Make a Big Impact: Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia. With Washaun Ealey gone and Caleb King out for the year as well, Crowell becomes the starter by default. His backup, Richard Samuel, played linebacker last year and is bigger than most fullbacks. No signee anywhere else will have the opportunities – or the pressure – that Crowell will have.
Runner-up: Duron Carter, WR, Alabama. Carter isn’t Julio Jones in any measure other than hype. He was a good player for one year at Ohio State but still has a lot to prove. Having said that, Alabama’s most physical returning receiver is little-used career special teamer Brandon Gibson, so Carter will get every opportunity to prove he could be Julio Jones after all.
SEC Offensive Player of the Year: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. If everything goes to play, Richardson could have close to 2,000 yards in total offense between his rushing, receiving and kick return numbers. The thought of such actually happening is staggering, and would likely propel him to the Heisman Trophy.
Runner-up (tie): Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia; and Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas. Georgia will do one of two things with the football – either have Murray throw it, or hand it to Isaiah Crowell. He racked up good yardage last year and should do the same this year. Wilson, meanwhile, will rack up the yards in Petrino’s pass-happy offense.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year: Mark Barron, S, Alabama. It’s starting to look like an Alabama year, isn’t it? Barron should be healthy again in the fall and looking to improve his draft stock. With a deeper, healthier secondary than in 2010, Alabama will be able to freestyle more with Barron and have him coming from multiple angles. Opposing quarterbacks are thrilled with the news.
Runner-up: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama. Hightower probably wasn’t as ready to go in 2010 as most thought he’d be. But at A-Day this spring, he was showing signs of finally being back to his pre-injury, dominating ways. If Barron doesn’t win this award, it will be because his teammate took it from him.
Most Underrated Player Award: Chris Marve, LB, Vanderbilt. No one knows who he is, simple as that. Despite playing on bad teams, Marve is a tackle collector, quick and smart. He has a NFL future ahead of him and if it’s even remotely possible for Vanderbilt to contend this year, it will be because of Marve’s leadership.
Runner-up: Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas. He doesn’t look like all that, but he’s a handful for all but the very best offensive tackles. He also plays nasty football at times, which gets in people’s heads.
Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype” Award: Michael Dyer, RB, Auburn. Dyer will put up great numbers, but the preseason push to get him in the Heisman talk is laughable given that there are at least three backs in the conference better all-around than him. Giving credit where it’s due, Dyer is a great fit for the spread offense. But with no Cam Newton (or even Eric Smith) leading the way, Auburn will quickly find out what it has in Dyer when the call comes for a power rushing play.
Runner-up: Stephen Garcia, QB, South Carolina. There are times when he looks like no one can stop him, but unfortunately, those flashes of brilliance are mixed in with long stretches of vapid decision-making and brain-burning interceptions.