It has been quite the year in the Southeastern Conference.
Two coaching firings at traditonal SEC powers Florida, which was a College Football Playoff contender just a year ago, and LSU, which won the national championship just two years ago. Florida’s Dan Mullen was fired on Nov. 21 after losing 24-23 at Missouri in overtime to fall to 4-6. LSU’s Ed Orgeron was fired on Oct. 10 after losing 42-21 at Kentucky to drop to 3-3.
The league saw one of its member institutions raid the mighty Golden Dome of Notre Dame for a sitting coach for the first time since 1907 as LSU hired Brian Kelly. Florida raided Louisiana to hire Billy Napier, a Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney disciple, right out of LSU’s backyard.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach, respectively, made peace as they routinely actually said the other team’s name while they praised one another and got along almost like brothers.
And one of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s coaching sons finally beat pop after an 0-24 dryspell, but Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher struggled to beat many others.
Here are the best, worst and wackiest of SEC football 2021 by SEC East writer Trey Wallace and SEC West writer Glenn Guilbeau heading into Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta between No. 1 Georgia (12-0, 8-0, 6.5-point favorite by FanDuel) and No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) at 3 p.m. central time on CBS.
UPSETS OF THE YEAR
EAST – South Carolina blows out 18-point favorite Florida 40-17 in Columbia, S.C. on Nov. 6, and Gators’ coach Dan Mullen never recovered. It was his third straight loss, and he would lose four straight in the SEC to end the season before getting fired. The win made the Gamecocks’ season for first-year coach Shane Beamer as they finished 6-5.
WEST – Unranked Texas A&M beats No. 1 and 17-point favorite Alabama 41-38 in College Station, Texas on Oct. 9 as time expired on a 28-yard field goal by Seth Small. Alabama coach Nick Saban had been 24-0 against his former assistants who became coaches, and the Tide lost for the first time since 48-45 at Auburn in 2019, snapping its 19-game winning streak. The Aggies went into the game after back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State and ended the season descending with back-to-back SEC losses at Ole Miss and at LSU for an 8-4 finish.
EAST – The Tennessee Volunteers (7-5, 4-4). Tennessee had a roster that was absolutely depleted. The fast-paced offense was tough to handle for a lot of teams, and first-year coach Josh Heupel got the most out of this group after inheriting a 3-7 team. Quarterback Hendon Hooker becoming the starter in Week Three changed the course of this season. If Heupel had stuck with Joe Milton, this team might have won only five games.
WEST – The Arkansas Razorbacks (8-4, 4-4). Arkansas enjoyed a trinity of trophies season as it won the Southwest Classic against Texas A&M, the Battle for the Boot against LSU and beat Missouri in the Battle Line rivalry. In his second season, coach Sam Pittman reversed the course of the 3-7 campaign in his first season.
EAST – Rocky Top Hits Bottom, Oct. 16. Late in Ole Miss’ 31-26 win at Tennessee when officials ruled that the Vols did not get a critical first down, fans pelted the field with water bottles, a mustard container and a golf ball that nearly hit Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. The SEC fined Tennessee $250,000 for the incidents. That was the craziest thing this season, unless Alabama beats Georgia by 14 on Saturday.
WEST – Ed Orgeron Walks Off With A Win And A Blonde, Nov. 27. The lame duck LSU coach, fired in October less than two years after winning the national championship, finished out the season with a 27-24 win over Texas A&M with 20 seconds left on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Max Johnson to Jaray Jenkins.
His blonde girlfriend joined him at the postgame press conference wearing hip boots.
“I want to say this,” Orgeron said in closing his last postgame press conference. “Six years, man, y’all been fair to me. I love y’all. I’m always going to be around. And if you come to Destin, we got a little sun tan lotion for you boys. Go Tigers!”
As he exited stage right, he said, “C’mon, baby, let’s go.”
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAMS
EAST – Florida Gators. Easy answer. The coaching staff wasted talent by putting it in horrible spots. They did not live up to expectations and appeared to have quit in the South Carolina loss.
WEST – Texas A&M Aggies. Good enough to beat No. 1 Alabama, but they can’t beat LSU? Coach Jimbo Fisher may need to reevaluate his offensive philosophy. Yes, he lost starting freshman quarterback Haynes King early in the season to an injury and did a good job with backup Zach Calzada, but this offense was stagnant too often. See 10-7 win at Colorado, 20-10 loss to Arkansas, 26-22 loss to Mississippi State and 29-19 loss at Ole Miss. And the Aggies had no business losing at 5-6 LSU. That loss took much of the luster off the historical win over Alabama.
BEST AND WORST GAMES TO WATCH
EAST – Best: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 42, Nov. 6. Though an offensive showcase, it was Tennessee’s defense that secured the victory. The Vols were explosive, but credit Kentucky for finding ways to control the clock and stay in the game. Worst: East Tennessee State 23, Vanderbilt 3, Sept. 4. This was the worst possible way for Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea to debut. The Commodores were beaten in every facet, and it was ugly to watch. Vanderbilt finished 2-10.
WEST – Best: Ole Miss 52, Arkansas 51, Oct. 9. There were five ties in all – 14-14, 24-24, 31-31, 38-38 and 45-45 – in this classic. And there could have been one more, but Arkansas coach Sam Pittman chose to go for two and the win on the road with no time remaining. But quarterback K.J. Jefferson’s two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Treylon Burks, who was crowded by Ole Miss defenders, fell incomplete. And it was over. Worst: LSU 34, McNeese State 7, Sept. 11. The outcome of the game was never in doubt, but the Tigers were just going through the motions in the beginning of a lost season.
COACHES OF THE YEAR
EAST – Tie between Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Tennessee’s Josh Heupel for 9-3 and 5-3 and 7-5 and 4-4 seasons, respectively. Stoops’ Wildcats matched high expectations. Heupel made the most of what he had.
WEST – Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who is more than just a passing game genius. The Rebels (10-2, 6-2) won with offense, but they also won with defense and improved on last season by five wins and recorded 10 wins in a regular season for the first time in history. LSU and Florida will both regret not trying to hire Kiffin.
PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
EAST – Georgia senior nose guard Jordan Davis, 24 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 9 quarterback hurries. He eats blockers and has changed the way opponents prepare to play Georgia.
WEST – Alabama sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., 86 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 30.5 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hurries. Probably the best defensive player in the nation as he leads the nation in tackles for loss and is second in sacks.
STATISTICS OF THE YEAR
EAST – Georgia is the only FBS team that didn’t allow 100 points on the season. The Bulldogs have allowed 83 and an average of a miniscule 6.9 a game. Clemson has the next best defense with 180 points allowed and 15 points a game.
WEST – Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. has 30.5 tackles for loss to lead the nation — eight more than the closest to him. The entire Akron team has 37.
QUOTES OF THE YEAR
EAST – “May the force be with you.”
… Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz after beating Florida 24-23 in overtime on Nov. 20 and after pulling a hoodie over his head and grabbing a light saber. Florida coach Dan Mullen, who was fired the next day, had donned a Darth Vader costume after beating Missouri 41-17 on Halloween last year.
WEST – “Because people are nuts.”
… Mississippi State coach Mike Leach when asked why there have been so many in-season head coach firings in college football during the 2021 season.
SEC BOWL PROJECTIONS
Missouri vs. Eastern Michigan, Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit, Dec. 27
Florida vs. Central Florida, Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 28
Tennessee vs. Clemson, Mayo Bowl, Dec. 30
South Carolina vs. Minnesota, Music City Bowl, Dec. 30
Georgia vs. Oklahoma State, College Football Playoff Orange Bowl, Dec. 31
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, Outback Bowl, Jan. 1
LSU vs. Texas Tech, Liberty Bowl, Dec. 28
Auburn vs. SMU, Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 28
Ole Miss vs. Wake Forest, Peach Bowl, Dec. 30
Mississippi State vs. Clemson, Gator Bowl, Dec. 31
Arkansas vs. Minnesota, Outback Bowl, Jan. 1
Alabama vs. Baylor, Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1
Texas A&M vs. Kansas State, Texas Bowl, Jan. 4