SCOTT: Who's Who in the SEC

In the Southeastern Conference, choosing the best of the best in any season is a challenge, even in a season in which the SEC has fallen short in the national championship picture and most of the major individual awards.

Still, there's enough talent in the SEC, especially returning talent, to see the past two seasons as more of a dip than a trend. These things tend to be cyclical, and the SEC will soon return to its deserved spot at the top of the college football mountain.


In the meantime, here's one person's look at the best of the best in the SEC.


BEST QUARTERBACK: Like most categories, this one offers more than one good choice. Nobody improved from season to the next more than Georgia's D.J. Shockley and no one improved over the course of the season than Auburn's Brandon Cox. Nobody did his part to win more big games than LSU's JaMarcus Russell. Then again, no one individual did more to elevate his team and give his team a chance week after week, regardless of the circumstances and the opponent, than Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler.


BEST TAILBACK: Mississippi State's Jerious Norwood and Kentucky's Rafael Little had to carry their respective offenses most of the time. Kenneth Darby gave Alabama a chance when the passing game broke down. Darren McFadden gave Arkansas a much-needed spark with his big plays. But when Auburn faced a critical juncture midway through the season and made a stubborn-but-necessary commitment to the running game, it was Kenny Irons who stepped up (behind an outstanding line) and gave the Tigers both a physical presence and a danger factor that proved to be the foundation of the SEC's most improved offense from game one to game 11.


BEST RECEIVER: Florida's Chad Jackson led the SEC in receptions, but the SEC's most dangerous and consistently productive receivers turned out to be true freshmen, South Carolina's Sidney Rice and Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett. The choice here goes to Rice, simply because Bennett wasn't alone among Vanderbilt's capable receivers while Rice was often the lone quality target for South Carolina. Yet, he still led the conference with 952 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.


BEST BLOCKER: LSU fans can probably guess this one after watching the SEC championship game. The SEC played two first-team offensive linemen on various All-American teams, Auburn tackle Marcus McNeil and Georgia guard Max Jean-Gilles. They're both dominant players, but while McNeil got off to a slow start and finished strong, Jean-Gilles was more consistently dominant throughout the season. Just ask LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten, who spent the SEC championship game being pushed around like a pile of rubble by a bulldozer named Jean-Gilles.


BEST PASS RUSHER: Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans is dangerous off the edge and defensive ends such as Georgia's Quentin Moses, Tennessee's Parys Haralson, LSU's Melvin Oliver and Florida's Jarvis Moss all did their share of damage. Auburn's Stanley McClover is the best of the bunch when he's healthy, but he was only healthy in the final third of the season. That said, no one in the SEC did more with less help than Mississippi State's Willie Evans, who led the SEC in sacks and tackles for losses, even though opponents were able to double him because he was by far the Bulldogs' best lineman.


BEST TACKLER: It would be easy to pick Ryans, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but he isn't the only choice. Vandy's Moses Osemwegie, Arkansas' Sam Olajubutu, Kentucky's Wesley Woodyard and South Carolina's Ko Simpson all spent a lot of time this season making stops, but nobody did more to make an impact on a defense than Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis – not just because he led the SEC in tackles, but because he was do consistently dependable through injuries and adversity from start to finish in 2005.


BEST BALL HAWK: Georgia cornerback Tim Jennings came through with big interceptions in the Georgia Tech and LSU games late in the season, but he's not the pick here. If the ball was loose, Florida linebacker Branson Siler was around it and on it for seven fumble recoveries in one season.


BEST FRESHMAN: When is the last time this category has been so difficult? In any other year, Arkansas tailback Felix Jones could win this for his combination of running, receiving and kicking, but he didn't even start. Between McFadden, Rice and Bennett, the SEC has three bright big-play stars for the future. For now, considering the lack of help in the passing game and the way injuries hit his offensive line, the pick goes to McFadden.


BEST SURPRISE: For the first four weeks of the season, Vanderbilt appeared well on its way to a winning season, a bowl invitation and the obvious winner in this category. Then reality set in for the Commodores. About the same time Vandy hit the skids, South Carolina climbed out of a deep, dark hole with five consecutive wins, including victories over Tennessee and Florida, and pulled off the best surprise of the SEC season.


BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Not many college football observers expected Ole Miss to be that good, but who expected the Rebels to be that bad? By the end of the season, the Rebels were the worst team in the SEC. Meanwhile at Tennessee, the Vols were expected to contend for the national championship and they weren't afraid to say it. Talk is cheap, as the Vols proved, and a 5-6 finish complete with a home loss to Vanderbilt, excessive penalties, dropped passes and turnovers forced changes in the coaching staff and put head coach Phillip Fulmer on notice.


BEST GAME: LSU fans will certainly point to overtime victories over Auburn and Alabama, with good reason, but Auburn's 31-30 victory at Georgia produced more back-and-forth action, more momentum swings, a dramatic fourth-and-10 play on the decisive drive and a last-second game-winning field goal by a kicker in need of big-game redemption.


BEST COACHING JOB: Not best coach, but best coaching job. Considering what he has to work with (and without), the best coach in the SEC might be Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson. As for the best coaching job in the SEC in 2005, the legitimate candidates are many: Alabama fans are unhappy with the Crimson Tide's finish, but the Tide overachieved at 9-2 in Mike Shula's third season; Georgia exceeded the preseason expectations surrounding the program, survived a late-season hit and bounced back to finish strong under Mark Richt; Auburn improved more than any SEC team over the course of the season under Tommy Tuberville; and, after an ugly 2-3 start, South Carolina won five consecutive games and beat both Tennessee and Florida in Steve Spurrier's first season in Columbia.


For all those worthy contenders, no one faced more adversity and obstacles throughout the season than first-year LSU coach Les Miles and his staff. From Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in their own backyard, three schedule changes, three overtime games and six games decided by less than a touchdown, the coaches and veterans on this team did an outstanding job of keeping the team moving in the right direction throughout the season. Now if they could just cut back on those penalties ...


BEST ASSISTANT COACH: Plenty of candidates to choose from, including three defensive coordinators whose units showed improvement throughout most of the season in LSU's Bo Pellini, Arkansas' Reggie Herring and South Carolina's Tyrone Nix, but no group showed more improvement than Auburn's offense. Despite the loss of three star players and two solid offensive linemen, Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges did an outstanding job of shaping and molding the Tigers' offense into a dangerous bunch.


BEST BOWL (SEC category): Be honest now. Are you all that inspired by Georgia-West Virginia in the Sugar and Auburn-Wisconsin in the Capital One? Or Florida-Iowa in the Outback? On the other hand, South Carolina-Missouri in the Independence could be entertaining and Alabama-Texas Tech in the Cotton is intriguing, but the folks at the Peach Bowl obviously had naked pictures of someone important to pull off LSU-Miami, a battle of two top-10 teams. If both these teams are motivated and prepared to play, this could be one of the three or four best games of the entire bowl season.

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