With the 2009 season now finally in the books, it's time to hand out some more postseason awards:
Offensive Player of the Year: Mark Ingram
Give Ingram credit where it is due. He was most productive when the biggest games were in contention, and he almost singlehandedly carried the offense for weeks in the middle of the season. He wrapped up an incredible season by out-shining Tim Tebow in the de facto national championship play-in game, and then justified his selection as Heisman Trophy winner with yet another outstanding performance in the BCS National Championship game. Simply put, Ingram did it all and it should be recognized as such.
Runner Up: Tim Tebow
Many will probably consider Tim Tebow the greatest college football player ever, and if nothing else a persuasive case can at least be made in his favor. And he largely did it all again as a senior... completed almost 70% of his passes, threw for almost 3,000 yards, averaged over nine yards per attempt, had 35 touchdowns, you name it. At the very least he will be one of the all-time greats, and the only thing keeping him from winning this award a second year in a row was his inability to work his magic in Atlanta for the second year in a row.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rolando McClain
The junior linebacker from Decatur got the nod last year in this space as the most underrated player in the SEC, but he is underrated no longer. A one-dimensional, run-stuffing linebacker when he arrived at Alabama three years ago, McClain has since established himself as a threat in all dimensions of the game and also turned into perhaps the best leader we've seen at Alabama in decades. With a national championship ring on his hand, McClain's legacy in Alabama and SEC football lore is now complete.
Runner Up: Joe Haden
In a conference that is known for having a slew of high-end cornerbacks, Haden is the best of the group. He covered every receiver he faced this year like a blanket, and even completing a pass in his direction was of the utmost difficulty. It's possible that he may have been the best SEC cornerback this conference has seen in ages.
Best Offensive Lineman: Mike Johnson
After the departure of Andre Smith and Michael Oher, the SEC didn't see the premiere tackle play that it has grown accustomed to, especially with Ciron Black having a bit of a disappointing senior campaign. As a result, I'll give the best offensive lineman award this year to a guard, Mike Johnson. He was a good pass protector, but he truly excelled in the running game where he was a vicious mauler in the trenches. Johnson was the best pure masher at one of the inside positions that the Tide has had in ages, and his All-American selection was well earned.
Best Defensive Lineman: Terrence Cody
Much like was the case with the offensive tackle position, it was probably a bit of a down year for premier play at defensive end, specifically with Greg Hardy's continued injuries and Carlos Dunlap's arrest and subsequent suspension for the SEC Championship Game. As a result, I'll give the award to an interior lineman, and in that group it's clear that Terrence Cody is the best of the best. He was his usual dominating self anchoring the Crimson Tide's 3-4 defense, and his shoes will not be easily filled. There was a reason he was the only defensive lineman in the conference to be a unanimous choice to the All-SEC team.
Most Overrated Player: Ryan Mallett
I'll be blunt... the talk of Mallett being a future NFL star is absolutely laughable at this point. Yes he is very tall and yes he has a huge arm. However, he's not exactly a great decision maker, his accuracy is highly suspect, his mechanics are terrible, the ball comes out slowly, and half the time he has to move in the pocket he almost falls over his own feet. His arm may get him a place in the NFL someday, but he's got a very long way to go first. As of right now, he's just a big-armed kid lucky enough to be playing for one of the premiere passing game strategists in football. He's basically a poor man's version of a washed up Drew Bledsoe.
Runner Up: Ben Tate
The self proclaimed best running back in the state of Alabama had an impressive senior campaign, but to say he was ever an elite back was a stretch, and that is what a few tried to make him out to be. He had a good offensive line in front of him, and thanks to the mind-boggling nature of Gus Malzahn's offense, he probably led the conference by a mile in yards before contact. He wasn't a game-changer, he was a cog, big mouth and all. At absolute best he was the fourth best tailback in his own division. He could not have started at Alabama, LSU, or Mississippi State.
Most Underrated Player: Aaron Hernandez
All of the hype surround the Florida offense effectively went to either Tim Tebow or Urban Meyer, but Hernandez was nothing short of unstoppable. As an incredible athlete for his size, Hernandez presented a match-up advantage against everyone he faced... he easily outran linebackers, absolutely abused cornerbacks, and did some combination of the two to safeties. No single player on the entire schedule gave Alabama as much trouble as Hernandez. Thank God this guy decided to turn pro early and thus won't be coming to Tuscaloosa next Fall.
Runner Up: Anthony Dixon
It's hard to imagine just what all Dixon could have done had he chosen somewhere aside from Starkville when he came out of Jackson as a highly-touted recruit, but even so he was a high-end player for Mississippi State, despite the void of talent surrounding him. He eschewed the notion that there was no role for a big, powerful back in Urban Meyer's spread option scheme, and he almost singlehandedly led Mississippi State to a bowl game this year against arguably the toughest schedule in the nation.
Breakout Player: Mark Barron
The sophomore five-star product from Mobile spent his true freshman campaign lost in the confusion of Nick Saban's complicated cover schemes, and prior to the start of the season many people didn't even think Barron could beat-out Robby Green for the starting safety job opposite Justin Woodall. Instead, Barron started all year and showed himself to be both a ball-hawk in the secondary (he led the SEC in interceptions) and a headhunter who could take out anyone in his path. Moving into his junior campaign, Barron will be a preseason All-American and will be on everyone's early list for the 2011 NFL Draft.
Runner Up: Montario Hardesty
After gaining barely 300 yards as a junior, while averaging roughly 3.5 yards per carry, Hardesty came out of nowhere to emerge as a star player in his senior campaign. He kept the highly-touted freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku on the bench, and led the Volunteer offense with over 1,300 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. I'm not even sure Hardesty's girlfriend expected that...
Most Disappointing Player: Jevan Snead
Heisman contender my ass. Snead ultimately showed himself to be one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the SEC, and frankly he probably should have been benched a couple of different times throughout the season. He wasn't mobile, he didn't have a big arm, he struggled to read defenses, and he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with half of his throws. The good news for Ole Miss fans, though, is that he decided to turn pro early, which coincidentally shows that he's not too bright either.
Runner Up: Brandon Spikes
Spikes' disappointing senior campaign didn't get much attention given all of the wins that Florida posted this year, but he had a rough go of things. He reportedly showed up for Fall camp roughly 20 pounds over his playing weight, didn't lead his team in tackles, was a relative non-factor in the SEC Championship Game, and his most highly publicized moment of the year came when he tried to gouge out someone's eyes. Given all of the foregoing, Spikes likely knocked himself out of the first round of the NFL Draft, and with the lack of a national championship ring to show for his senior season, I think we can safely say that his decision to return was a pretty dumb one.
Coach of the Year: Nick Saban
Can you really even legitimately make a case for anyone else? Several coaches did a fine job in the SEC this year, but no one came close to matching Saban's quick rebuild of the Alabama football program. By winning the SEC and the national championship in only his third year in Tuscaloosa, Saban has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches to ever live. If that's not enough to win you coach of the year, nothing is.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Gus Malzahn
With all due respect to Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain, no one assistant was more integral to the success of his team than Gus Malzahn. Given the terrible defensive play that Auburn experienced this year, an averaging showing by an offensive coordinator -- which is exactly what Auburn should have gotten, relative to the level of talent and depth that they had -- would have probably resulted in the Tigers finishing up 4-8 at best. Instead, Malzahn somehow turned what little talent he had on hand into a relative offensive juggernaut, and Auburn ended up a surprising 8-5. Malzahn was the biggest driving force behind that record.
Worst Coaching Decision (gameday): Les Miles
I don't think I even need to expound upon this one. Miles' spike debacle in Oxford will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst gameday coaching moves in modern SEC history. What more really needs to be written?
Worst Coaching Decision (program level): Mark Richt
Consider this... coming into this season, Mark Richt decides to retain his unsuccessful defensive coordinator instead of bringing in a new leader for the defensive side of the ball, and then decides to hand over the reins at quarterback to fifth year senior Joe Cox, all the while letting two super-recruits ride the pine. In other words, Richt goes all in to try to win now. But what happened? Martinez and Cox were disasters, UGA had their worst season in more than a decade, and now Richt has to get a new defensive coordinator one year later, not to mention break in a green quarterback in 2010. Given the choice of trying to win now or build for the future, Richt tried to win now, but didn't, and now must still rebuild. Epic fail all the way around, and suddenly Richt's seat is getting a bit warm.
Worst Game of the Year: Auburn v. Northwestern
Let me recap this game... Auburn takes an early lead on two very poorly thrown passes that result in interceptions and ultimately touchdowns. In the third quarter, however, with the chance to pick the game away deep in Northwestern territory, Auburn throws an interception of their own. Then Northwestern storms back to the tie the game thanks to a dumb personal foul penalty that extended the drive and a blown coverage by Auburn. Auburn re-gains the lead later, and has the game won late with a two touchdown advantage. But then they allow umpteen fourth down conversions on a touchdown drive, and with the game still won, stupidly fumble the football away the next possession. Then they overturn a turnover on downs with a stupid personal foul, leading to a game-tying touchdown. And then they fumble the kick-off, giving Northwestern a chance to win the game with a field goal, but naturally the Northwestern kicker chokes. In overtime, Auburn craps out with a first and goal inside the five yard line. Northwestern gets the ball back, but ultimately fumbles it away, only to have the ball given back to them when the pass is ruled incomplete. And then Auburn thinks they won yet again with another sack that resulted in a fumble, but that too is overturned when they rule the quarterback was down before the fumble. Northwestern is then forced to kick, where the kicker misses once again, but instead of victory Auburn extends the game with a roughing the kicker penalty, which coincidentally knocked the Northwestern kicker out of the game. Given new life and a first and goal, Northwestern once again craps out, and then decides to run the fake field goal, which is set up perfectly until one of the blockers on the edge whiffs on an Auburn defender. See what I mean? Close, exciting games aren't necessarily played at a high level.
Biggest Surprise: Lane Kiffin's departure
Who in the world could have seen this one coming? Personally I'm convinced that Lane Kiffin hung up on Mike Garrett when he first called him offering the USC job. Surely Kiffin thought it was just a prank call from Urban Meyer. I would have. Again, who could have easily possibly believed that could happen? If you had given me betting odds on an asteroid crashing into the Earth and Lane Kiffin being the USC head coach on January 15th, 2010, I would have taken the asteroid a hundred times out of a hundred. Kiffin probably would have too.
Runner Up: Gene Chizik's competence
So Auburn made arguably the worst coaching hire in the SEC since Curley Hallman, and Jay Jacobs ought to have been waterboarded for doing so. Auburn was going to be an absolute laughingstock for years to come. Except one problem, a funny thing happened... Gene Chizik was surprisingly competent in his debut campaign. He wasn't great by any stretch, and he still has an extremely tough job, but even so Chizik inherited a bad situation and did a solid job. He did well choosing a staff, got the entire team to buy into his message, did as reasonably well as he probably could have on both the recruiting trails and on the football field, and has looked surprisingly calm, cool, and collected throughout the entire process. Even the Auburn Kool-Aid drinkers wouldn't have put their money on that twelve months ago...