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Mitchell: The SEC Best of 2012
A pat on the head
A pat on the head
Posted Dec 17, 2012

Now that the dust has settled, we take a look back at the best and worst of the 2012 SEC football season. First up, and in no particular order: The Best. Because we're happy that way

READ MORE: Mitchell: The SEC Worst of 2012

By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb

Johnny Football...or is it Johnny Heisman? (The over/under on how long it will takes his parents to trademark that like they did Johnny Football: one week.) Manziel’s come a long way from a June 2012 fight that saw him accused of giving a false ID to authorities; what a difference six months and some postseason hardware can make. Manziel could end up losing both of his excellent offensive tackles early to the NFL, including the Lombardi Trophy winner (Luke Joeckel). But if both return, TAMU loses only three starters on offense, Florida drops off the schedule in favor of Vandy, Bama is in College Station and the LSU game comes after the the Aggies’ bye week. Hm... 2013 can’t get here soon enough for Johnny Heisman.

Break up Vandy!...Speaking of the Dores, back-to-back never echoed so sweet. Head coach and gridiron savior James Franklin not only has Vandy playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time ever, thanks to the school's first eight win season since 1982, but it appears he spurned several lucrative coaching offers to jump ship (Arkansas?). However, it’s bigger even than bowl games/wins - in the span of two short years, Franklin has turned around the image of Vandy as the perennial conference doormat. With seven weeks to go, Vandy has a top 15 recruiting class. Yes, Vandy. For some perspective: in the decade before Franklin arrived in Nashville, Vandy’s average recruiting class was 79. Someone get him working on the Fiscal Cliff!

Ole Miss...The Rebels were my most underrated team heading into the season, and they didn’t disappoint. But not even I had them going to a bowl game...particularly with what appeared then to be one of the nation’s most difficult schedules back in August. Hugh Freeze’s young team was not only competitive but got better as the season progressed (especially in run defense). Ole Miss should have beaten TAMU, nearly beat LSU in Death Valley, and outscored Alabama in the second half in Tuscaloosa. Moreover, several freshmen who were forced into duty shinned, particularly on defense. We keep mentioning defense...remember that for next year, SEC fans, as most eyes tend to drift to this Ole Miss offense.

Todd Gurley...I have a theory. With a name like Gurley, you either get tougher beyond your years or you’re devoured by the pack. The former seems to explain how the true freshman from Tarboro, NC surprised everyone but himself in becoming one of the most prolific freshman backs since Marcus Lattimore, and the best freshman Georgia back since some guy named Walker. Before the season began, Gurley breezed past questions surrounding the UGA OL and the media’s fascination with fellow freshman Keith Marshall. Now comes the biggest threat for any star Georgia tailback: the offseason.

The Alabama Invitational...also known as the BCS Championship game. Alabama gets yet another chance to take home some hardware, and this time they have an SEC trophy to pair it with. IF Nick Saban’s Tide should beat the Irish, as the smart folks in Vegas think, that’s three of the last four BCS titles for the Capstone...all while coaching in a conference that appears to be in a golden age. Remember, Saban is only 60 years young... Given what appears to be a favorable 2013 schedule and a strong recruiting pipeline, there’s no reason why Alabama won’t be in the hunt again next year. Should the Tide win a couple more crowns under Saban and regularly compete for them, its time to start considering his place not just among the college football greats (Wilkinson, Rockne, Bryant, Osborne, Hayes, Schembechler, Neyland, Switzer, etal,) but among the greatest college coaches of all time, regardless the sport.

TAM-U too!...It’s too easy to point just to Manziel and Kevin Sumlin, and it does a discredit to the rest of this Aggies program. A&M’s defense ranked 7 or 8 in the conference in most defensive categories, which is respectable. But the difference was a punt team that ranked near the top in both coverage and returns, and which regularly put the Aggies in good field position from which to start. Still, let’s call it what it is: TAMU finished first in the SEC in rushing, passing, scoring and total offense. Not bad for a team moving into the conference that didn’t crack the top three in any offensive category last year. OK, perhaps a new head coach and Heisman QB really were a nice upgrade.

Florida’s season...In 2011, we picked Florida to go winless in October and in the process lose four straight conference games for the first time since 1979. Folks scoffed, and I was right. Many of those same people converged on The Swamp, pitchforks in hand, ready to run Will Muschamp out of football, let alone Gainesville. Yet if not for six turnovers to the Dawgs, and the mother-of-all cozy schedules for Georgia, the Gators would have likely been undefeated, ranked in the top 2, and playing Alabama in Atlanta for a chance at a BCS title (again, as we told you). Not bad for a second year’s worth of work by Muschamp and crew, particularly with an inexperienced, and often sporadic, sophomore quarterback. Florida ended the year with wins over LSU, TAMU, SC & FSU, a better resume than any team playing the sport. The Gators also ranked second or higher in every meaningful SEC defensive category, and ranked best in the conference in turnover margin. Clearly, it matters when you turn the ball over...isn’t that right, Bama (1-7 vs. LSU, TAMU & UGA).

Jarvis Jones...Some cat named Manti T’eo stole too much of Jones’ hardware in 2012. You’re hardly alone if it seemed that Jones regularly ducked into phone booths this season to change into a Superman outfit. Moreover, as is his penchant, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year saved his best performances for the most critical games. In all the hype surrounding Mizzou’s first SEC home game, and playing without several of his suspended teammates, Jones virtually shut down the Tigers by himself in the fourth quarter. Against Florida, Jones had 13 tackles, 12 of them solo, along with three sacks, four tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, and the complete humiliation of Gator QB Jeff Driskel. No truth to the rumor that Driskel’s mom called Jones’ after the game to complain. Even last year, Jones’ biggest performances came in his biggest games against Boise State and Florida. See you on Sundays, Jarvis.

Freshman RBs...Two freshmen led the conference in rushing yards per game (Manziel and Gurley). Jeremy Hill of LSU came on midway through the season and made folks on the bayou forget five other future NFL tailbacks. T.J. Yeldon hit the ground running on day one, shining against an albeit weak Michigan run defense, but then proceeded to repeat the performance week after week. We even had a freshman duo (Gurley/Marshall) who led Georgia to the SEC Championship game. One rung down the ladder (though likely not for next year) was Brian Kimbrow at Vandy, who got more carries late in the season and made the Dores’ faithful almost forget the great Zac Stacy. Almost. Mike Davis got a bigger role at SC after the injury to Marcus Lattimore. Then to a lesser extent, though still noteworthy: Trey Williams at TAMU, Matt Jones at Florida and Jonathan Williams at Arkansas all have bright futures. A great year for freshman backs.

Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC Columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb

READ MORE: Mitchell: The SEC Worst of 2012