-by Braden Gall (follow at @AthlonBraden)
The BCS is wrapping up its 14th season of action, and Athlon has dissected the numbers and reviewed the tapes of all six BCS conferences in order to rank the best each league has had to offer. Which Oklahoma team was the best of the decade? Which Florida team was the toughest to stop? How do you rank the Florida State teams of the late '90s? Which Miami team was the best? How about those loaded USC teams? Alabama vs. Auburn?
The debates will most assuredly rage on for decades, but here is Athlon's two cents. Here are the Top 15 SEC teams of the BCS Era (1998-present):
"First Day" indicates 1st and 2nd round NFL Draft picks
* - team played in the SEC Championship game
15. Georgia Bulldogs, 2005 (10-3, 7-2*)
Head Coach: Mark Richt
Key Stats: Forced four Jared Zabransky interceptions in the 48-13 season opening win, finished eighth in the nation in scoring defense (16.4 ppg), and D.J. Shockley led the SEC in passing efficiency (148.26).
Award Winners: N/A
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Tim Jennings (2nd, 2006), Mohamed Massaquoi (2nd, 2009)
The Dawgs began by destroying No. 19 Boise State and beat No. 7 Tennessee on the road before losing in the Cocktail Party to No. 18 Florida (without starting quarterback D.J. Shockley) and at home against No. 17 Auburn. Richt’s bunch, led by Shockley, rebounded with a win over No. 24 Georgia Tech and shellacked No. 3 LSU in the SEC title game 34-14. The Sugar Bowl had to be moved to Atlanta due to Hurricane Katrina, and the Dawgs ran into a Pat White-Steve Slaton buzzsaw, losing 38-35 to West Virginia.
14. LSU Tigers, 2001 (10-3, 6-3*)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Championships: SEC, Sugar Bowl
Key Stats: Josh Reed set SEC receiving records for yards in a game (293), season (1,740) and career (3,001) as well as the single-game receptions mark (19). All but his career yards mark still stand. His 145.0 yards per game led the nation.
Award Winners: Josh Reed (Fred Biletnikoff)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Josh Reed (2nd, 2002), Michael Clayton (1st, 2004), Devery Henderson (2nd, 2004), Marquise Hill (2nd, 2004)
This team may have been the third-best team in the SEC in 2001 — it lost to No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Tennessee on consecutive weeks early in the year. But the Bayou Bengals easily handled the extraordinarily talented Tennessee team in the SEC championship game 31-20. Led by the SEC’s all-time leading receiver and Biletnikoff winner Josh Reed, Nick Saban announced that the Tigers had returned to prominence with LSU’s first conference title since 1988 and a Sugar Bowl championship over Illinois.
13. Tennessee Volunteers, 2001 (11-2, 7-2*)
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer
Championships: SEC East, Citrus Bowl
Key Stats: Finished third in the nation in rushing defense (85.3 ypg) while Travis Stephens’ 122.0 yards rushing per game led the SEC. The Vols were a 17.5-point underdog to Florida.
Award Winners: Casey Clausen (Citrus Bowl MVP)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: John Henderson (1st, 2002), Donte Stallworth (1st, 2002), Albert Haynesworth (1st, 2002), Eddie Moore (2nd, 2003)
Ranked no lower than 11th in the polls, Tennessee — and the rest of the nation — had to deal with the tragedy of 9/11 in their own way. The rivalry game with No. 2-ranked Florida was moved from Week 3 to December 1 where the Vols were 17.5-point underdogs. With 226 yards from Travis Stephens, the Vols pulled off the massive 34-32 upset and earned a trip to Atlanta an a rematch with an LSU team Tennessee had already defeated back in September. A likely trip to the National Championship Fiesta Bowl and a date with the best Big East Team of the BCS Era was on the line for Big Orange Nation. However, backup LSU quarterback Matt Mauck ran the Tigers to victory over the heavily favored Vols. Tennessee went on to beat Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. This team sent 22 players into the NFL Draft from 2002-2004.
12. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2008 (12-2, 8-1*)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Championships: SEC West
Key Stats: Finished No. 2 nationally against the run (74.1 ypg) and third nationally in total defense (263.5 ypg); John Parker Wilson’s 7,924 yards are an all-time Alabama record.
Award Winners: Andre Smith (Outland), Nick Saban (SEC Coach of the Year)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Andre Smith (1st, 2009), Rolando McClain (1st, 2010), Kareem Jackson (1st, 2010), Mark Ingram (1st, 2011), James Carpenter (1st, 2011), Marcell Dareus (1st, 2011), Julio Jones (1st, 2011)
In Nick Saban’s second season at The Capstone, the Tide was quickly back in the national title picture. The Tide boasted a senior-laden offense, beat three ranked teams for an 8-0 SEC record and were the No. 1 team in the land when they headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game with the No. 2-ranked Florida Gators. The Gators defense foiled the Tide’s hopes for a national title by holding quarterback John Parker Wilson to 12-of-25 passing, no touchdowns and one key interception. The loss to Florida sent Alabama to the Sugar Bowl against an unbeaten Utah team. Without Andre Smith — or a chance at the crystal ball — the Tide failed to play motivated football and fell 31-17 to what might be considered the best Ute team in program history.
11. Georgia Bulldogs, 2007 (11-2, 6-2)
Head Coach: Mark Richt
Championships: Sugar Bowl
Key Stats: This team led the SEC in sacks (3.23 pg) and was eighth nationally; Georgia’s 42-30 win over Florida was only the second win over the Gators in 10 tries; this was the second highest scoring team in school history at 32.6 points per game.
Award Winners: Knowshon Moreno (SEC Freshman of the Year)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Matt Stafford (1st, 2009), Knowshon Moreno (1st, 2009), Mohamed Massaquoi (2nd, 2009)
The most talented quarterback in school history, Matthew Stafford came close to leading Georgia back to the national title game. An early loss to South Carolina would not have ended the Dawgs' title hopes. However, an inexplicable 35-14 road loss to underdog Tennessee did cost Mark Richt a chance at playing a two-loss LSU in the SEC title game. The Tigers defeated the Vols, who won the division on a tie-breaker, and went on to beat Ohio State in the BCS national championship game, while Georgia was left to face an undefeated Hawaii team in the Sugar Bowl — in the same building as LSU. Georgia forced six turnovers and held the Warriors to minus-5 yards rushing in the 41-10 victory. Stafford was the first overall pick in the draft one year later.
10. Georgia Bulldogs, 2002 (13-1, 8-1*)
Head Coach: Mark Richt
Championships: SEC, Sugar Bowl
Key Stats: Finished fourth in the nation in scoring defense (15.1 ppg) and led the SEC in scoring (32.1); no Georgia team has scored more than 2002’s 450 points.
Award Winners: David Pollack (SEC Player of the Year), Mark Richt (SEC Coach of the Year), Musa Smith (Sugar Bowl MVP)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Jonathan Sullivan (1st, 2003), George Foster (1st, 2003), Boss Bailey (2nd, 2003), Jon Stinchcomb (2nd, 2003), Ben Watson (1st, 2004), Sean Jones (2nd, 2004), David Pollack (1st, 2005), Thomas Davis (1st, 2005), Reggie Brown (2nd, 2005), Tim Jennings (2nd, 2006)
No Georgia team has ever won more games or scored more points in a single season than the 2002 edition. And other than the 1980 Vince Dooley team and the 1945 Wallace Butts team, no Dawgs squad has had a better record than the 13-1 mark. Led by David Greene at quarterback and a stacked defense (Pollack, Davis, Jones, Jennings), Georgia rolled to an 8-0 mark before losing in the Cocktail Party 20-13 to Florida. After being knocked out of the national title hunt, Georgia crushed Ole Miss, topped Auburn, pummeled rival Georgia Tech before destroying Arkansas in the SEC title game. They capped the season with a Sugar Bowl title over Florida State.
9. LSU Tigers, 2007 (12-2, 7-2*)
Head Coach: Les Miles
Championships: SEC, BCS National Championship
Key Stats: LSU beat seven ranked teams; the only BCS champion with two losses.
Award Winners: Glenn Dorsey (Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski, Lott, SEC Def. Player of the Year)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Glenn Dorsey (1st, 2008), Tyson Jackson (1st, 2009)
By definition only, this is the “worst” BCS national champion due its two losses. However, wins over ranked Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee (with back-up quarterback Ryan Perrilloux) and Ohio State gave the Bayou Bengals the crystal ball nonetheless. The Tigers were undefeated in regulation, however, as both Kentucky and Arkansas needed overtime to top the Tigers. Despite the two losses and the 83 combined points allowed, the LSU Tigers defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes in relatively easy fashion 38-24. Matt Flynn threw four touchdown passes, and the defense, led by an 8-tackle, 1.5-sack, forced fumble performance by Ali Highsmith, kept the Bucks at arm’s length the entire game. It was the Tigers' second national title in five years.
8. Florida Gators, 2009 (13-1, 8-1*)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Championships: SEC East, Sugar Bowl
Key Stats: Tim Tebow led the nation in passing efficency (164.17), set the SEC all-time total offense record (12,232 yards), and the SEC’s all-time touchdowns responsible for record (145).
Award Winners: Aaron Hernandez (John Mackey), Maurkice Pouncey (Rimington), Tim Tebow (SEC Off. Player of the Year)
“First Day” NFL Draft Picks: Tim Tebow (1st, 2010), Joe Haden (1st, 2010), Maurkice Pouncey (1st, 2010), Carlos Dunlap (2nd, 2010), Jermaine Cunningham (2nd, 2010), Brandon Spikes (2nd, 2010), Mike Pouncey (1st, 2011), Marcus Gilbert (2nd, 2011)
After the Gators claimed the 2008 BCS National Championship, Tim Tebow decided to return to Gainesville for his senior season. He led the Gators to an undefeated regular season mark and berth in the SEC Championship game against No. 2 Alabama. The rematch of the 2008 SEC title game went the way of the Tide 32-13, as Greg McElroy outplayed Tebow. While it was not the third national title he wanted, Tebow finished his career by setting a BCS bowl record for total yards with 533 and passing yards with 482 in the 51-24 win over Cincinnati. It was only the Gators' second win over a ranked opponent all season.