By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
At the midpoint of the 2011 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 — Les Miles, LSU
Miles gets the nod over Nick Saban for two reasons: LSU’s schedule has been a little bit more difficult, and the Tigers have overcome some serious distractions — most notably the arrest of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson — en route to their 7–0 start. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin deserves some consideration, and might have been the choice had the Commodores been able to score on the blocked punt in the final seconds of the 33–28 loss to Georgia.
Freshman of the Year — Isaiah Crowell, Georgia
He arrived in Athens with a ton of hype, and Crowell has, for the most part, delivered. The Columbus, Ga., native has emerged as the primary ball-carrier for a Bulldog team that has won four straight games. He rushed for 100-plus yards in his first three SEC games but has been held to 58 (Tennessee) and 35 (Vanderbilt) in his last two. For the season, Crowell has rushed for 608 yards on 128 carries for a 4.8-yard average.
Newcomer of the Year — Jarvis Jones, Georgia
A transfer from USC, Jones has started all seven games at outside linebacker for the Bulldogs. He leads the team in both tackles for a loss (10) and sacks (4) and ranks second on the team in total tackles (39).
Offensive Player of the Year — Trent Richardson, Alabama
Richardson is thriving in his first year as the Tide’s primary ball-carrier. He leads the league with 130.3 yards per game on an incredible 6.9-yard average. He has rushed for 100-plus yards in six straight games, highlighted by his 181 yards at Florida and 183 last Saturday at Ole Miss. If Alabama keeps winning, Richardson could be the school’s second Heisman Trophy winner in the last three seasons.
Defensive Player of the Year — Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
Mathieu, a lightly recruited cornerback from New Orleans, has emerged as one of the elite players in the nation — at any position. He is an outstanding cover corner with a nose for the ball; he has three fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and four forced fumbles (which ties for the SEC lead). Mathieu is getting some Heisman buzz, but he will have to make some big plays in some key late-season games to become a serious contender.
Midseason Disappointment — Mississippi State
Nobody expected the Bulldogs to win the SEC West, but very few expected this team to be 0–4 at the halfway point of league play. Mississippi State scored a total of 93 points in its first two games, but has had trouble moving the ball since. The Dogs have averaged 9.3 points in their last three SEC games, due in large part to inconsistent play at the quarterback position. Tyler Russell stepped in for Chris Relf last week, but completed only 11-of-29 for 165 yards in a 14–12 loss to South Carolina.
Midseason Disappointment — Stephen Garcia, South Carolina
Garcia had an opportunity to cement his legacy at South Carolina by leading the Gamecocks to their second straight SEC East title. Instead, his career ended prematurely after being kicked off the team in the middle of the season. Even before his dismissal, Garcia was benched for poor play. He threw only four touchdown passes in five starts and was intercepted nine times, including four times in one game.
Midseason Surprise — Auburn
The defending national champs were expected by most — including Athlon Sports — to take several steps back in 2011. And while this team clearly isn’t as good as the Cam Newton-led group from ’10, the Tigers are 3–1 at the halfway mark with wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina and Florida. The defense has been brutal at times, but only allowed 13 points at South Carolina and six points in the win vs. Florida at home last weekend. Don’t expect another trip to Atlanta for Gene Chizik’s club — dates with LSU and Alabama loom — but the Tigers deserve a ton of credit for even being in the conversation at this point of the season.
Midseason Surprise — Jarrett Lee
The oft-ridiculed quarterback who threw 16 interceptions as a freshman in 2008 is enjoying a banner senior season for one of the elite teams in college football. Thrust into the starting role when expected starter Jordan Jefferson was arrested before the season, Lee has run the Tigers’ offense with surprising efficiency. He is completing over 60 percent of his passes and, most important, is taking care of the ball; he has thrown only one interception in 132 attempts. Lee is proving all of his skeptics wrong — and might just pick up a national title ring on his way out the door.
What Athlon Sports got right — It’s far too early to send Georgia to the SEC title game, but we picked the Bulldogs, not South Carolina, to win the East. The Gamecocks are still very much in the hunt — they lead the division with a 4–1 record and own the tiebreaker vs. Georgia — but Steve Spurrier’s club must play the rest of the season without star tailback Marcus Lattimore.
What Athlon Sports got wrong — We pegged Auburn for a fifth- place finish in the West and forecasted the Tigers to win only two SEC games. They’ve won three games already with four league games remaining.
Athlon projects the wins and losses for each team for the rest of the season. Here's how we think the final standings will look before the SEC Championship.
1. Georgia 10-2 (7-1)
2. South Carolina 8-4 (5-3)
3. Florida 7-5 (4-4)
4. Tennessee 6-6 (2-6)
5. Vanderbilt 5-7 (2-6)
6. Kentucky 4-8 (1-7)
1. Alabama 12-0 (8-0)
2. LSU 11-1 (7-1)
3. Arkansas 10-2 (6-2)
4. Auburn 7-5 (4-4)
5. Mississippi State 6-6 (2-6)
6. Ole Miss 3-9 (0-8)
SEC Championship: Alabama vs. Georgia
Three Things to Watch
Can James Franklin get Vanderbilt to a bowl?
The Commodores are 3–3 and have a great opportunity to pick up win No. 4 this week against Army. They should be favored against Kentucky on Nov. 12. Is there a sixth win on the schedule? Possibly Tennessee or Wake Forest, but both games are on the road. The guess here is that Vanderbilt ends the first year of the Franklin a with a 5–7record.
How many points will it take to win the Game of the Century on Nov. 5?
LSU and Alabama meet in the de facto SEC title game on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa. These two teams feature arguably the top two defenses in the nation. Both offenses are more than capable, but this game will be dominated by defense. So how many points will the winning team score? The guess here is 21.
Florida’s progress on offense
Florida’s offense went from mediocre to bad when starting quarterback John Brantley went down with an injury just before halftime against Alabama. The Gators have scored a total of 17 points over the last six quarters — hardly what Florida had in mind when Charlie Weis was named offensive coordinator. To be fair, the offense has been operated by a pair of true freshman quarterbacks, but the numbers are still alarmingly bad. When Brantley returns — the Gators hope to have him back for the Georgia game on Oct. 29 — can Weis figure out a way to get this attack moving in the right direction?