We are just past the midway point in the SEC football season, so it’s time for some midseason awards and observations.
Coach of the year: Florida’s Jim McElwain. He inherited a program that was 7-9 in SEC in the past two seasons and went 4-8 overall in 2013. With an unproven quarterback, a shortage of running backs and a revamped offensive line, he won his first six games in Gainesville. And with his second-team quarterback in a hostile environment, McElwain pushed LSU to the brink. The Tigers needed a fake field goal attempt to pull out a seven-point win after Florida rallied from a 14-point deficit. McElwain inherited a stout defense, but what he has done with the offense – and the team’s psyche – has been remarkable.
Player of the year: LSU RB Leonard Fournette. Only three FBS players ever gave averaged 200 rushing yards per game. Fournette is at 200.3 through six games, including four in conference play. With Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M still on the schedule, Fournette won’t continue to average 200 per game, but he’s been brilliant, the best running back I’ve ever seen at LSU. He is slimmer, faster and stronger than he was a year ago, and he runs with great vision and balance. He also has been durable. He’s the front runner to win the Heisman.
Defensive player of the year: Missouri LB Kentrell Brothers. He’s the best player on a defense that leads the SEC in points allowed (12.9) and pass defense (165.3 yards) and is second in total defense (279 yards per game). Brothers has a nation’s-best 91 tackles, 22 more than anyone else int he SEC. He also has two interceptions and two sacks. Brothers beats out Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, who leads the SEC with 8.5 sacks.
Newcomer of the year: Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly has completed 65 percent of his passes for a league-high 2,234 yards and has a league-best 161.2 QB rating. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley has a team-high 38 catches while doing his best Amari Cooper impersonation. But my choice is Kirk, who leads a deep A&M receiving corps with 39 catches for 609 yards (an SEC-best 101.5 yards per game) and is No. 1 in the league in punt returns (25.1 per runback, two touchdowns). He also is second in all-purpose yards (195.0 per game) to Fournette.
The You-Are-Who-I-Thought-You-Were Award: Missouri. Finally. In each of the past two seasons, I didn’t give Missouri enough credit, didn’t see the Tigers winning the East Division. Rather than buckle to the pressure of being shown up by the Show-Me State team again, I stuck with my guns and picked Missouri to finish fourth in the East Division based on offensive inefficiency. I didn’t like the Tigers’ quarterback or receivers. Missouri has, indeed, struggled on offense, ranking last in the league in points per game (16.6), total yards (290.4 per game) and rushing yards (103.4 per game). Now 1-3 in SEC play, Missouri could finish 3-5 or 2-6; its remaining SEC games are against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Most surprising team: Florida. While I picked the Gators to be my darkhorse in the East, I didn’t think they could or would win it. A victory over Georgia next Saturday would all but clinch the division title.
Most disappointing team: Auburn. I bought into Gus Malzahn saying Jeremy Johnson would be a stud quarterback. For the uptempo, zone-read option to be effective, you have to have outstanding quarterback play. Johnson has been benched and Auburn, the pick by many to win the SEC, already has two league losses, with more on the horizon.
Most disappointing player: Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson. He had more interceptions than touchdown passes when he was benched. His poor play almost cost the Tigers a win against FCS opponent Jacksonville State.
Best call: LSU’s fake field goal for a touchdown to beat Florida 35-28. The Mad Hatter just seems to know when to roll the dice. Isn’t it uncanny how most of his trick plays work? It seems as if his success rate is better the closer we get to Halloween.
Biggest play: Florida’s winning touchdown against Tennessee. The Gators hit a fourth-and-14 completion for a 63-yard touchdown to beat Tennessee after trailing by 13 points entering the fourth quarter. Will Grier hit Antonio Callaway on a curl route; Callaway then turned the corner and scored. A loss would have put the Gators behind the eight-ball in the East race. Instead, that play put them in the driver’s seat.
Worst injury: There have been too many to single out just one. Injuries sustained by Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams and Tennessee defensive end Curt Maggitt have had huge impacts on their respective teams. But when it comes to gruesome, that belongs to Georgia running back Nick Chubb.
Best stat: Nick Saban now is 6-1 on the road against top-10 teams while at Alabama. That’s more top-10 road wins in eight-plus seasons than Bear Bryant had in 25. That is a remarkable stat and achievement for Saban.
Best recovery: Vanderbilt’s defense. The Commodores’ defense was horrific last year, allowing a league-worst 33.2 points, 183.8 rushing yards and 402.1 total yards per game. Coach Derek Mason took over the defense and Vandy has allowed 10 touchdowns (second-fewest to Missouri). The ‘Dores rank fifth in points allowed per game (18.5) and run defense (114.8) and sixth in total defense (338.0).
Biggest SEC upset: Ole Miss over Alabama. I thought the Rebels might be for real, top-10 real, after the win in Tuscaloosa. Then they got blown out by Florida and Memphis.
Most surprisingly good player: Auburn RB Peyton Barber. Barber started the season third on the depth chart behind Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas, but eventually claimed the starting job and and now ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing (108.3 yards per game) with a 4.8-per-carry average. His eight rushing touchdowns are tied for third in the SEC.
Best comeback: Ole Miss WR Laquan Treadwell. His broken leg suffered last season against Auburn appeared so serious, you wondered if he’d ever be the same. He is. He leads the SEC with 49 receptions and had 14 in the loss to Memphis. His four receiving touchdowns are tied for third. He is second in receiving yards per game (93.4).
Biggest loss: Steve Spurrier resigning. The SEC will miss his mastermind play-calling and his mouth. And South Carolina will miss being relevant.
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.