Closing out the 2002 SEC Football Year that was

After much hype leading up the SEC slate in 2002, there were some strange results. There were so many big names going into the 2002 season in the Southeastern Conference. There were big name players that had the hopes of their team resting on their shoulders. There were coaches that had high expectations placed upon them despite being relatively new to the conference. When you look at what really happened for the ‘02 year as compared to the preseason hype, you read a completely different story.

 

Preseason Heisman pick Rex Grossman

Rex Grossman started out the year as several publications pick to win the Heisman trophy as the nation's top collegiate football player. Now that wasn't a stretch in the slightest. After all, he had finished a close second in 2001 to Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch. Picking Grossman to be in New York to take home the trophy in the second week of December was a safe bet.

Kelley Washington was the only Vol underclassman (the other two being Albert Haynesworth and Donte Stallworth) to spurn the NFL for one more season of wearing the orange. Washington got his fair share of national media attention over the summer as well. During which, he proclaimed himself "The Future" to an ESPN the Magazine staff writer.

New Florida head coach Ron Zook started his tenure off by convincing Grossman to remain in Gainesville for his junior season and smoking the microphone right off the stand during SEC media days last July. Zook's past history, namely his fax incident with former Vol assistant Jack Sells, added a cloud to his beginning in the Swamp.

 Mark Richt

Mark Richt was coming off of a season-ending loss to Boston College in the Music City Bowl. Following a few incidents in the 2001 season where he made questionable game management calls, many ‘Dawg fans chastised his ability to be the primary play caller for their team. As his second season in Athens was nearing, Richt found some doubt swirling around Athens.

Alabama head coach Dennis Franchione was about to begin his second season at the helm of the Crimson Tide. This team won their 2001 Independence Bowl matchup with Iowa State, as the Cyclones watched a field goal questionably sail over the top of the left goal post. NCAA sanctions and questioning was the topic of discussion throughout the south all summer long. How would ‘Coach Fran' answer the Bama nation?

Let us recap how 2002 went for this group and where they find themselves as the summer approaches:

Grossman's team got off to a slow start after a 41-16 loss to Miami in the second game of the season. Two weeks later they sloshed over Tennessee 30-13 and Rex looked remarkable in the win. He tossed for 324 yards and 3 touchdowns on the Vol defense. As fate would have it, that would be Grossman's shining moment during the 8-5 campaign for the Gators. The team went on to losses against Ole Miss, LSU (at home), Florida State and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Grossman and gang had the lone distinction of hanging the only loss of the year on the Georgia Bulldogs, which essentially knocked the ‘Dawgs out of a berth in the Fiesta Bowl opposite Miami. That would be one of the few positives in Florida's football year. Grossman's highlight came a two weeks ago when he was selected by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the NFL Draft. Grossman, who is from Indiana, finds himself in familiar territory to start his rookie year in the NFL. As the old Behind the Music slogan goes: "Rex Grossman's college football career has come full circle."

 Kelley Washington

Kelley Washington. Where to begin? The Tennessee Volunteer receiver took ssssooooo much heat for his aforementioned comments to ESPN the Mag. A few Tennessee fans took exception to his boisterous way of promoting himself off the field. Others thought it could be tolerated if Kelley would produce and the team would have success. Washington missed the first two games (Wyoming and MTSU) due to injury. He performed well against Florida, Rutgers and Arkansas. Then came to matchup with Georgia in Athens. Washington was mostly bottled up until he made a catch late in the fourth quarter with the Vols making a dramatic comeback. He turned up field and ran down the right sideline. He took a vicious hit that ended his Tennessee career. He would undergo surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck. In early January KW announced he was bound for the NFL after two seasons in orange. Washington felt the brunt of a 8-5 season that fans had to sit and endure. "He was poison in the locker room" or "If I was Phil Fulmer, he would NEVER be back on campus" were a few statements that I will always remember hearing from Tennessee fans. The injury cost Washington a chance at top 15 draft status and he fell to the third round of the NFL pro selection process. Not to mention, he was selected by the hapless Cincinnati Bengals. Injury cost Kelley Washington an All-America type season and the Tennessee faithful may not have benefited much either.

 Ron Zook

Ron Zook was the highly publicized third choice to replace Steve Spurrier as head coach of the Florida Gators. University Athletic Director Jeremy Foley went knocking on the doors of Bob Stoops (Oklahoma head coach and former Florida defensive coordinator) and Mike Shanahan (Denver Broncos head coach), only to be politely turned away. Zook, a close friend of Foley, quickly jumped on the ship to be the new head man. Zook was the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints before his promotion to Spurrier's old position. The Florida fans weren't elated with the selection of Zook. This is evident by the FireRonZook.com website that was up just hours after the announcement of his hiring. The SEC crowd was all over the situation, chastising him for his past coaching blunders namely "Faxgate" from his days with Spurrier. The Gators' season was summarized above, but no one felt the pressure this year at Florida like the head coach. Wins over Tennessee and Georgia helped numb the pain tremendously with fans even though the team performed badly against more than one opponent. Now with Grossman and 12 other starters gone, how can he respond to the desire of all involved in the Florida program to be back on top? The answer is almost identical to his preseason forecast last summer, we'll have to wait and see.

Mark Richt is the success story of the bunch. His offensive woes from 2001 did not linger for the 2002 season. The University of Georgia snapped out of 20-year slump with a SEC title and a Sugar Bowl win over Florida State. The loss against Florida was a downer, but in this day the conference title means almost as much as the national crown to fans. The final No. 3 ranking and 13-1 record satisfied the hungering for a successful season. David Pollack, a junior defensive end, stunned everyone by playing well enough to take home the honor of being SEC Player of the Year. The first Georgia player to garner that award since Herschel Walker in 1982. Richt not only returns Pollack, he also gets his all-conference quarterback David Greene and the electrifying Fred Gibson back for at least one more run at Atlanta. The only problem is that is about it. His leading rusher (Musa Smith) and leading receiver (Terrence Edwards) headed off to the NFL. It is hard to pick against Georgia in 2003 even though they did lose 13 starters. Don't go betting against Richt and Co. playing for the SEC crown in 2003, then again I wouldn't be putting the farm on their shoulders either.

 Coach Fran

The University of Alabama hired Dennis Franchione in 2001 following solid coaching tenure at Texas Christian University. His team had a so-so season in 2001 and the 2002 bunch wasn't expected to do much either. The NCAA was all over the University investigating recruiting violations. The Tide surprised their rabid fan base by starting off the year with a near upset of highly ranked Oklahoma and rolling to a 10-3 2002 record. The sanctions restricted the Tide from the SEC title game and any bowl game appearances for two years. University officials pulled a deal to get a final away game scheduled against Hawaii. This would be a way for the seniors to have an imaginary bowl trip and play a 13-game schedule. Fran's team grabbed a 21-16 win on the island and the Bama nation was on cloud nine. Then fate struck the Tide again. The beloved Coach Franchione stunned his followers by taking a midnight train to College Station, Texas to coach the Texas A&M football squad. He had denied weeks of speculation that he was leaving Tuscaloosa. To say this situation was the biggest story to come out of T-town this year would be shade premature. The last few weeks have brought even more pain to the Alabama faithful. The University now finds their third Mike (Shula) leading them to the season. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Dennis Franchione is preparing for a run at the Big 12 championship game with his new team. It does make you wonder; after all Franchione went through, did he make the best decision? Maybe the Alabama fans are thinking that exact thing themselves.

Now we stand a quick summer from the start of the 2003 season. Can Georgia continue their run? Will Florida and Tennessee bounce back to national prominence? Will Alabama win a game? The SEC season now carries the drama of a daytime television series. Don't be expecting that to change anytime soon and especially this year.


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