This has been a wild, upside down year for the SEC. The conference was as loaded as ever, but that strength came from unexpected places.
Auburn and Missouri seemed unfit for the SEC a year ago, but they will meet for the conference championship this weekend. Florida and Texas A&M looked like national title contenders in the preseason, but neither lived up to the hype.
Many thought Alabama was destined to three-peat and capture its fourth BCS championship in five years, and the Crimson Tide were on track until last week’s bizarre defeat at Auburn.
Alabama had rolled through 11 straight opponents before that loss. Success is fragile and fleeting in America’s toughest conference. Here is a look at the SEC’s best in 2013:
Coach of the year: Gus Malzahn, Auburn
A lot of schools wish they had this guy coaching their football team. He was the offensive coordinator for Auburn’s 2010 national title team, left for a year to lead Arkansas State to a 9-3 season, then came back to the Tigers to pull off one of the nation’s most amazing turnarounds. Auburn was 3-9 last season (including 0-8 in the SEC) but surged to 11-1 under Malzahn this year with a chance to get to 13-1.
Offensive MVP: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
For the second straight year, Manziel was the SEC’s most dangerous weapon and possibly the best player in the country. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner threw for 3,537 yards and rushed for 665 during the regular season, giving him an average of 382 per game. Manziel already owns the SEC’s single-season record for total offense from last year and is on track for the No. 2 mark this season.
Defensive MVP: Michael Sam, Missouri
The Tigers hit the jackpot with this unheralded recruit, and he developed into a huge problem for opposing offenses during his senior season. Sam led the SEC in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (17) after starting just 10 games in his first three seasons with Mizzou.
Breakout player of the year: Mike Davis, South Carolina
Davis will be a force in the conference for as long as he stays. He erupted for 1,112 rushing yards as a sophomore, second in the SEC to Auburn’s Tre Mason at 1,153, and ran for 10 touchdowns. Davis figures to be a candidate for next year’s Heisman Trophy.
Surprise of the season: Auburn
Missouri and Auburn pulled off tremendous improvements this year, but Auburn’s was harder to see coming. Auburn fought its way from going 0-8 in the conference last season to winning the brutal SEC Western Division this year.
Disappointment of the season: Florida
One year removed from going 11-2 and playing in the Sugar Bowl, the Gators posted one of the worst seasons in the 107-year history of their program. At 4-8, Florida will miss a bowl game for the first time in 23 seasons. UF was battered by major injuries but still should have reached at least six wins.
Top moment of the season: Auburn beats Alabama on last-second 100-yard return
It’s still hard to believe this really happened — especially for Crimson Tide fans. Auburn stunned its arch-rival in last week’s Iron Bowl by returning a missed field goal for a TD to win the game 34-28. Alabama kicker Adam Griffith tried a 57-yarder to win the game, but the ball was short and Auburn’s Chris Davis brought it back 100 yards for the victory. By doing so, he helped the Tigers topple the No. 1 team in the nation and advance to the SEC title game.
Championship game prediction: Auburn over Missouri
It seems like nothing can stop Auburn’s miracle season, not even Missouri’s miracle season. Auburn is in the SEC title game for the first time since 2010 and won’t squander the opportunity to potentially play for another national championship. Missouri’s defense has been solid but won’t be able to slow down an Auburn team averaging 499.9 yards per game.