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At the midpoint of the 2012 season, it’s time to take a look at the first half and predict how the second half will turn out in the SEC.
Coach of the Year — Will Muschamp, Florida
After struggling through a difficult first season — the Gators’ 3–5 record in the SEC in 2011 was the school’s worst since 1986 — Muschamp has the Gators in the thick of the SEC East race in Year 2. Florida improved to 6–0 overall and 5–0 in the league with a 31–17 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Gators are winning with defense and power-running game — a formula that has served Muschamp’s former boss, Nick Saban, quite well over the years. Senior tailback Mike Gillislee ranks second in the SEC in rushing with 102.5 yards per game and is on pace to be Florida’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. The defense has been dominant, ranking 13th in the nation in total yards and sixth in points allowed.
Freshman of the Year — Todd Gurley, Georgia
Johnny Manziel is the midseason Offense Player of the Year, so we will tab Gurley as the SEC’s top freshman. The 6-1, 218-pound native of North Carolina ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing with 95.8 yards per game on a healthy 7.1-yard average. He has topped the 100-yard mark in four of six games and had back-to-back 130-yard efforts in wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Fellow freshman tailback Keith Marshall is averaging 77.5 yards per game and 7.3 yards per carry.
Newcomer of the Year — Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
Patterson has lived up to the hype in his first season out of junior college. The 6-3, 205-pound wide receiver is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Through six games, Patterson has 23 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns and has carried the ball 11 times for 214 yards (19.5 per rush) and two scores. He teams with junior Justin Hunter to form one of the nation’s most dangerous wide receiver tandems.
Offensive Player of the Year — Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Manziel, a one-time Oregon commitment, has been spectacular for Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies in their first season in the SEC. A true dual-threat quarterback, Manziel is one of three quarterbacks in the nation with over 1,500 yards passing and 500 yards rushing. He has been efficient throwing the ball, completing 67.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Most important, he’s winning: The Aggies are 5–1 overall and 2–1 in the SEC, with the only loss coming by three points to Florida in their season-opener. Manziel was at his best in A&M’s 59–57 win at Louisiana Tech on Saturday night. He broke is own SEC record for total yards in a game (576) by throwing for 395 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 181 and three scores.
Defensive Player of the Year — Jadaveon Clowney, South Carolina
Georgia’s Jarvis Jones received a lot of buzz early in the season, but Clowney has been the most dominant defender in the first half of 2012. A freakishly athletic 6-6, 256-pound defensive end, Clowney spearheads a defense that has limited all seven opponents — including five in conference play — to 17 points or fewer. Clowney, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, has recorded 31 tackles, including 12.0 for a loss (with 6.5 sacks).
Midseason Disappointment (Team) — Auburn
Just two years removed from winning the national championship, Auburn is now the worst the team in the SEC West. The Tigers secured that dubious honor by losing on Saturday at Ole Miss, which had not won an SEC game since October 2010. Auburn is 1–5 overall and 0–4 in the SEC and ranks last in the league in total offense and 12th in total defense. The Tigers head to Nashville this week to play Vanderbilt in a game Gene Chizik cannot afford to lose.
Midseason Disappointment (Player) — Knile Davis, Arkansas
Maybe he’s not 100 percent healthy after missing last season with an ankle injury, but Davis has yet to show the skills that made him one of the elite offensive players in the nation in the final two-thirds of the 2010 season. Through seven games, Davis has a total of 337 yards on 98 carries for an alarmingly low 3.4 yards-per-carry average — almost three yards less than his career average heading into the ’12 season.
Midseason Surprise (Team) — Florida
Mississippi State deserves a ton of credit for its 6–0 start, but Florida gets the nod thanks to its top-5 ranking and the quality of its wins. The Gators, a fringe-top-25 team in the preseason, already have three SEC road wins and have a victory over LSU at home. There are still more hurdles to climb — the Gators play South Carolina and Georgia in the next two weeks — but right now Florida looks like the best team in the much-improved SEC East.
Midseason Surprise (Player) — Jeff Driskel, Florida
The quarterback position was a huge concern for Florida heading into the 2012 season. Now it’s a strength. Driskel has emerged as a weapon in the Gators’ run-first offense and has also shown the ability to hurt defense’s in the passing game. He has completed 74-of-111 passes for 836 yards with four touchdowns and only one interception. He had moderate success running the ball in Florida’s first five games but then busted out with 181 yards (a record for a Gator quarterback) and three touchdowns in a 31–17 win at Vanderbilt Saturday night.
What Athlon Sports got right — We weren’t exactly going out on a limb, but Kentucky was the preseason pick to finish last in the SEC East. We also projected a three-way tie for fourth place in the East between Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and it looks like all three teams will be jockeying for position in the middle of the division throughout the conference season.
What Athlon Sports got wrong — We undervalued South Carolina and Florida, projecting both to finish 5–3 and in a tie for second place in the East behind Georgia. We thought LSU would finish ahead of Alabama in the West, but it looks as though the Crimson Tide will represent the division in the SEC title game. And we also didn’t envision that Auburn would be quite so bad. We picked the Tigers to finish with a .500 mark in the SEC and in fourth place in the West.
Here’s how we think things will look at the conclusion of the 2012 season.
2. South Carolina
3. Mississippi State
4. Texas A&M
6. Ole Miss
Three Things to Watch
Coaches on the Hot Seat — Joker Phillips is almost assuredly gone at Kentucky, and the John L. Smith experiment will come to an end some time in December, but what about the other coaches on the hot seat? Can Derek Dooley do enough in the second half of the season to save his job? Conventional wisdom suggest that Dooley must win at least eight games, but would an 8–4 record that doesn’t include a quality win in SEC play be enough to give him another year? What about Gene Chizik? Would the Auburn administration pull the plug only two years after he won a national title. Here’s some advice for Chizik: Don’t lose to Vanderbilt next week in Nashville.
LSU’s offense — The Tigers, as usual, are fielding a championship defense. The offense, however, isn’t quite doing its part. Through six games, LSU ranks 73rd in the nation in total offense (395.7) and 49th in scoring offense (32.0 ppg). In three SEC games, wins over Auburn and South Carolina and a loss at Florida, the Tigers have scored a total of 41 points. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was expected to upgrade the passing attack, ranks 10th in the SEC in passing efficiency and has only six touchdown passes in seven games. Despite the disappointing showing in Gainesville two weeks ago, LSU is still very much alive in the national title race. The offense, however, must improve significantly for this team to live up to its preseason expectations.
Auburn’s question to win a game — Take a look at Auburn’s schedule. If the Tigers don’t win this weekend at Vanderbilt — and they opened as an 8-point underdog — it’s quite possible they will end the 2012 SEC season with an 0–8 record. After Saturday’s trip to Nashville, Auburn hosts Texas A&M (Oct. 27) and Georgia (Nov. 10) and plays at Alabama (Nov. 24) — games that range from difficult to very difficult to sure death. The Tigers have gone winless in the SEC five times, most recently in 1980 when Doug Barfield’s final team went 0–6.
Three Games to Watch in the Second Half
1. South Carolina at Florida, Oct. 20 — The winner of next week’s showdown at the Swamp will emerge as a strong favorite to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game. Two years ago, South Carolina clinched its first-ever SEC East title with an impressive 36–14 win over the Gators in Gainesville. This Florida team, however, is much tougher — both physically and mentally. It should be a great game.
2. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3 — The hype won’t be quite as outrageous as last year, but this is still the game of the year in the SEC. Alabama is the consensus No. 1 team in the country, and LSU proved last week in its win over South Carolina that it’s still very capable of beating any team in the nation.
3. Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 27 — Georgia’s ego took a big hit with its humbling 35–7 loss at South Carolina a few weeks ago, but this still a very good team that can still have a special season. The Dawgs need some help, but don’t rule out a return to Atlanta for the SEC title game. Beating Florida in Jacksonville, however, is a must.
Post-Week 7 Power Rankings
1. Alabama — Crimson Tide overpower Missouri to remain unbeaten.
2. Florida — It wasn't easy, but Gators survive in Nashville thanks to Jeff Driskel.
3. LSU — Tigers' defense shuts down Gamecocks attack.
4. South Carolina — Did Carolina's title hope die in Death Valley?
5. Georgia — Dawgs still very much alive in SEC East race.
6. Mississippi State — Russell was the better Tyler as State stays perfect.
7. Texas A&M — Johnny Manziel runs and throws Aggies past Louisiana Tech.
8. Tennessee — Vols doomed by slow start in Starkville.
9. Arkansas — Hogs dominate Kentucky with ease.
10. Vanderbilt — Special teams was the difference in loss vs. Florida.
11. Ole Miss — Rebels pick up first SEC win in two years.
12. Missouri — Shorthanded Tigers no match for powerful Alabama.
13. Auburn — Tigers show signs of life on offense but lose in Oxford.
14. Kentucky — Wildcats whipped in every phase in Fayetteville.
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