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December 11, 2008

SEC lacked depth of previous seasons

MORE: All-SEC Team

It wasn't too long ago that college football experts across the country were declaring this a golden age for the SEC.

Not anymore.

Sure, Florida could give the SEC a third consecutive national champion. Alabama also returned to glory and spent much of the season as the top-ranked team in the country.

But there was a steep drop in quality after those two teams.

Defending national champion LSU barely finished above .500. Tennessee and preseason Western Division favorite Auburn were so bad they made coaching changes at the end of the season. Vanderbilt capitalized on the lack of depth across the conference to go 6-6 and earn its first bowl bid since 1982.

Here's a rundown of the best and worst of the SEC in 2008.

Player of the year: Florida QB Tim Tebow. Although he didn't put up the otherworldly statistics he delivered during his Heisman-winning campaign last year, Tebow still put together one of the best seasons of any player in the country. He threw 28 touchdown passes and ran for 12 more scores while being intercepted only twice. His performance in the SEC Championship Game without Percy Harvin in the lineup underscored why Tebow might be the most valuable player in the country.

Coach of the year: Alabama coach Nick Saban. He completed the rebuilding project at Alabama faster than anyone could have reasonably expected. After going 7-6 in his first season with the Crimson Tide, Saban led Alabama to a 12-1 record that included a No. 1 ranking up until the SEC Championship Game loss to Florida.

Freshman of the year: Georgia WR A.J. Green. This true freshman lived up to his five-star billing by leading the SEC with 951 receiving yards in his debut season. Green caught 55 passes, tied for the conference lead with eight touchdown catches and continually delivered in big situations. He caught winning touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks against Kentucky and Auburn.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Dan Mullen, Florida. Some Gators fans were howling for his dismissal after a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss. As it turned out, Florida wouldn't be held below 31 points the rest of the season. While Florida last season relied on Tebow and Harvin to carry the offense, Mullen utilized all of the Gators' weapons this season by making freshman running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey important cogs in Florida's rushing attack.

Defensive coordinator of the year: John Chavis, Tennessee. Don't blame Chavis for the Volunteers' woes this season. Tennessee finished fourth in the nation in total defense and 12th in scoring defense despite getting little help from a pitiful offense that ranked 116th out of 120 FBS (i.e., Division I-A) teams. Tennessee's struggles on offense resulted in the dismissal of coach Phillip Fulmer, making Chavis perhaps the nation's hottest free-agent assistant this offseason.

Best game: Alabama 27, LSU 21 (OT), Nov. 8 in Baton Rouge. Even without the national championship implications associated with this game, Saban's return to LSU still would have made this one of the most anticipated matchups of the season. A blocked field goal at the end of regulation created one of the sweetest moments in a disappointing LSU season, but Alabama displayed a champion's resolve by intercepting a pass and scoring a touchdown in overtime.

Biggest upset: Ole Miss 31, Florida 30, Sept. 27 in Gainesville. As it turned out, this wasn't quite as big an upset as it seemed at the time. Florida's loss to Ole Miss seemed stunning because the Rebels didn't win an SEC game last season, but they ended up placing second in the West and earning a Cotton Bowl bid. Considering how thoroughly the Gators dominated everyone else in the SEC, it's still amazing anyone managed to beat Florida in The Swamp this season.

Biggest surprise, player: Arkansas RB Michael Smith . This 5-foot-7 junior had the unenviable task of replacing first-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield, but he carried the Razorbacks on his shoulders for much of the season. Smith ran for 1,072 yards gaining at least 133 yards in four consecutive games and led the SEC in rushing before wearing down late in the year.

Biggest surprise, team: Ole Miss. What a difference a quality coach and quarterback can make. After going winless in SEC play a year ago, the Rebels capitalized on the arrivals of new coach Houston Nutt and Texas transfer Jevan Snead at quarterback to go 8-4 and end the season on a five-game winning streak. And the Rebels didn't exactly benefit from a favorable schedule. Ole Miss played Florida, Alabama and LSU on the road and managed to win two of those games while losing to the Tide by only four points.

Biggest disappointment, player: Mississippi State QB Wesley Carroll and Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton . Carroll, who could do no wrong for most of the 2007 season, did little right this season. He personified the sophomore slump by completing less than half his passes and throwing seven interceptions with only three touchdowns before losing his job. Crompton also threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and lost his starting job. By the end of the season, the coaches of Crompton and Carroll also had lost their jobs.

Biggest disappointment, team: Auburn. The Tigers opened the season as SEC West favorites and in the top 10 in the national rankings. Auburn fans were eagerly anticipating how new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's spread offense would change the program. Well, it changed the program all right. Franklin was fired by midseason, and Auburn's offense didn't get any better without him. Auburn wrapped up a 5-7 season with a shutout loss to Alabama that led to coach Tommy Tuberville's departure.

Underclassmen liable to go pro: Georgia CB Asher Allen, LSU OT Ciron Black, Auburn LB Tray Blackmon, Alabama DT Terrence Cody, Auburn DE Antonio Coleman, Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham, Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy, Florida WR Percy Harvin, Ole Miss WR Shay Hodge, LSU DT Ricky Jean-Francois, LSU WR Brandon LaFell, Kentucky CB Trevard Lindley, Vanderbilt CB D.J. Moore, South Carolina LB Eric Norwood, Alabama OT Andre Smith, Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks, Tennessee LB Rico McCoy, Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno, LSU RB Charles Scott, Florida LB Brandon Spikes, Georgia QB Matthew Stafford, Florida QB Tim Tebow, Tennessee DT Dan Williams.

Next season's division winners: Florida and Alabama. They've already met six times in the SEC Championship Game, so why not plan for a seventh showdown next season? Florida doesn't have a senior on its 2008 defensive two-deep, so you have to think the Gators will have an elite team next season even if Tebow doesn't return. Alabama's a tougher call, as the Tide must break in a new starting quarterback and could suffer major losses on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Then again, Ole Miss also could have a tough time replacing Michael Oher. As long as LSU and Auburn remain unsettled at quarterback, Alabama still looks like the team to beat in the West.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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