2012: The best year in SEC history

Ben Cook

December 10, 2012 at 4:17 pm.

Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel made 2012 a special year for the SEC. (Thomas Campbell)

We are drawing near the close of the greatest year in SEC football history.

Think about it. The calendar year opened with the tail end of the 2011 football season. Bowl games actually played in 2012 saw SEC teams go 4-2 including the BCS National Championship Game, where Alabama won the conference’s sixth consecutive national title by beating LSU, another SEC team.

Then came the recruiting season and when the dust had settled, Alabamahad won the mythical recruiting national title as well. And the talent pipeline continued to flow in the direction of the SEC. Florida and Auburn were ranked 3rd and 10th respectively. Georgia, Texas A&M,Tennessee, LSU and South Carolina were also ranked in the top 25.

Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference this year, expanding the league to 14 teams, and when the 2012 football season got underway, Alabama drilled Michigan in the season opener.Alabama’s lopsided win served notice that the league was once again ready to flex its collective muscles.

The SEC posted strong showings in non-conference games as the usual suspects — Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida — continued to win and win big. The most unexpected aspects of the early part of the football season were the collapse of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Auburn Tigers.

Arkansas’ collapse was perhaps predictable after the self-inflicted demise of Bobby Petrino as coach of the Razorbacks. John L. Smith came in to serve as interim coach and was never able to generate any momentum in Fayetteville. Tyler Wilson’s return for his senior year was a disaster and likely cost him several million dollars in this year’s draft.

Auburn fell victim to quarterback and offensive problems in what turned out to be Gene Chizik’s final season. It was the first year that Chizik brought in a new offensive coordinator to take the place of Gus Malzahn, who left to become the head coach at Arkansas State.

New coordinator Scot Loeffler took over the Auburn offense. Auburn’s leading rusher from 2011, Michael Dyer, was suspended, and then transferred to follow Malzahn to Arkansas State.Auburn’s season-long struggles at quarterback never allowed Loeffler’s offense to develop.

While Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky (as expected) were disappointing, there were good stories that developed in Starkville, Oxford and Nashville.

In Starkville, Mississippi State broke out of the gate with nine consecutive wins before finally losing to Alabama. Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs hit the meat of the schedule late but still finished with eight wins and a date with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.

“It’s great to get bowl practices started, to get back out there on the field,” said Mullen. “The guys have had a couple of weeks to let their bodies their minds rest and get ready to go. We’re playing our second New Year’s Day bowl game in three years. Those are special, playing a New Year’s Day bowl inFlorida.”

In Oxford, Ole Miss welcomed in new coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels, with renewed excitement over the football program, won five of their first eight games and appeared to be ready to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years.

But the Rebels lost toGeorgiaand then lost a one-point game to Vanderbilt and a six-point game at LSU when the Tigers scored the game-winner with just 15 seconds left. But on the verge of missing out on a bowl bid, Ole Miss rebounded and hammered Mississippi State 41-24 to win the Egg Bowl and secure bowl eligibility that led to a BBVA Compass Bowl bid to play Pitt.

“I am so happy for our players, staff and Rebel Nation to be a part of the BBVA Compass Bowl,” Freeze said. “This accomplishment is a credit to our team’s hard work and dedication, and we are very appreciative of the opportunity. We have one of the richest bowl traditions in college football, and I’m proud of our staff for returning this program to the postseason in our first season. I’m so grateful to Rebel Nation for the amazing support this year, and I can’t wait to see The Grove recreated in Birmingham.”

In Nashville, the Commodores started slowly, losing four of their first six games, but James Franklin’s team pulled it back together and finished the season with a six-game winning streak to wind up with an 8-4 record and a bid to the Music City Bowl to face NC State and new coach Dave Doeren, formerly the Northern Illinois coach.

“They will have a few new wrinkles like everyone does for bowl games, but (offensive coordinator) Dana Bible is a real good coach,” Franklin said. “They will be ready, they will be prepared. It will be pretty much what they’ve been doing.”

Besides those three bowl teams, six other SEC teams finished with enough wins to achieve bowl eligibility and were all immediately snapped up by bowls eager to bring an SEC team with its rabid fan base to their game …  and, of course, an SEC team will play in the BCS National Championship Game. That is becoming a familiar refrain for college football. Although the game will not be played until the 2013 calendar year,Alabamawill have a chance to win the conference’s seventh straight national championship.

In the yearly coaching shuffle in college football, the SEC lost three head coaches added one interim but replaced them with some proven commodities in Butch Jones, Bret Bielema, Bob Stoops and Malzahn.

But what has set this season apart from past seasons is what happened last Saturday night in New York when the conference produced another Heisman Trophy winner.

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M was named as the conference’s 11th Heisman winner, but what made this one the most special Heisman Trophy winner’s in SEC history is that Manziel became the first freshman to win the award, and that is an honor that can never go to another conference.

“This should motivate you to work even harder,” Manziel said after winning the trophy on Saturday. “There’s always a chance you can fail. If you work hard enough and you put in the time and effort, that’s not going to happen. If you continue to strive to try to be the best football player in the entire world, which I want to be, I think good things will happen.”

Another freshman may win it someday, but there will never be another first-time freshman winner.

Manziel’s victory capped a remarkable 2012 football season, arguably the best in SEC history.