The 2013 SEC Championship Game was a special one.
Yes, it was competitive and exciting. Yes, it had more offense than ever before. That's not what made it truly special, though.
Auburn, the victor and soon to play for the national championship, won just three games a year ago and is riding on the back of a first-year head coach. Missouri missed a bowl game in its inaugural season as a member of the Southeastern Conference and would be in Auburn's position had it won in Atlanta.
These epic turnarounds were sparked by the league's most elite players. It's become a well-established fact that the SEC, the axis around which college football spins, is home to the greatest talent in the nation. Whether you judge by results on the field, NFL draft picks or recruiting classes, it doesn't get better than the Southeastern Conference.
With that said, 2013 brought the limelight to some unsuspecting players and stole it away from others. It's time to honor the standouts of the season by handing out Bleacher Report's All-Conference team.
Punter: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
Season Stats: 44 punts, 47.4 yard average, 2085 punt yards
The difference in a 35-yard punter and a 45-yard punter may not seem to be much, but the yards a talented punter can save a team add up quickly and drastically over the course of a game and a season. Though Kaser wasn't turned to as often as some, his effectiveness is arguably the best in the conference.
Texas A&M's offense is well documented at this point. What many do not realize, though, is that rarely was the field-position battle not in the Aggies' advantage, thanks primarily to Kaser. Averaging more than 47 yards per punt isn't an easy thing to do, especially for a sophomore.
Kicker: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
Season Stats: 46-of-46 PAT, 18-of-20 FG, 10 PPG
Another standout sophomore, what Morgan has done for Georgia has been nothing short of spectacular. That may sound like flattery, but consider this: How many players on a football team are directly responsible for 10 points per game? Two, at most, outside of special teams.
Morgan has been reliable for a team that has had its share of reliability issues. Morgan will have the reins for years to come for the Bulldogs.
Punt Returner: Christion Jones, Alabama
Season Stats: 303 yards (14.4 AVG), 2 TD
One of only two players in the SEC to return a punt for a touchdown—and the only one to do it twice—Jones took more punts than any and showed himself to be a critical threat for the Tide's special teams. An effective return game can alter an opponent's game plan and keep the field-position advantage, and Jones did that better than any other this season.
Kick Returner: Solomon Patton, Florida
Season Stats: 642 yards (29.2 AVG), 1 TD
Only three kickoffs were returned for touchdowns in 2013, and Patton's 100-yarder against Missouri was one of them. Unfortunately for the Gators, that would be one of only two touchdowns Florida would score against the Tigers.
Patton, whose college career now over, has proven himself to be not only speedy but nimble. His quick reaction time has led to some of the more dynamic and exciting returns the conference has seen over the past four years. The Gators will miss his ability on special teams.
Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
Season Stats: 70 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 6 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FF
One would be hard-pressed to find a more active defender than Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt. A junior, Prewitt inexplicably missed the cut for the Jim Thorpe Award's finalists—along with the Nagurski Trophy—behind players with far worse stats and arguably lesser impact. Prewitt has been the leader on a capable Ole Miss defense all season and will be a name to remember if he returns for another year.
Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
Season Stats: 87 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 5 INT, 5 FF, 2 PBU
Ladler has become known as one of the most potent backfield defenders in the conference, helping Vanderbilt rank 35th in pass efficiency defense and 20th in passing yardage defense. At 205 pounds, the graduating senior has not only been an aware defender, but he's been a powerful one, too.
Chris Davis, Auburn
Season Stats; 69 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 14 PBU, 1 FF
Davis got his hand on more passes than any other defender in the conference this season, breaking up a league-leading 14 attempts. Auburn's defense played second fiddle to the Tiger offense, but Davis played a crucial role in the team's turnaround.
Alan Turner, Arkansas
Season Stats: 97 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU
Quick and an effective tackler, Turner and his 97 tackles ranked seventh in the conference for 2013. Though his team struggled, Turner has an eye for getting to the ball-carrier. As the Razorbacks look to continue their rebuilding process, head coach Bret Bielema can be reassured that Turner brings an effectiveness in stopping big plays almost equal to that of a lineman.
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Season Stats: 102 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5 PBU, 8 QBH, 1 FF
As the only linebacker finalist for the Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's top overall defender, Mosley led the nation's second-best scoring defense for Alabama. One of just five players in the conference with over 100 tackles, Mosley recently claimed the Butkus Award—given to the nation's top linebacker each year.
Mosley, a senior, is expected to go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft by NFLdraftscout.com.
Ramik Wilson, Georgia
Season Stats: 128 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 7 QBH
His name isn't as well known as Mosley's, but Wilson might very well be the conference's most talented linebacker. He's certainly the most proficient, with 21 more tackles than any other player, helping complement a Georgia offense that suffered through key injuries. The Bulldogs were among the nation's top 50 in total defense thanks in large part to Wilson's work up front.
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Season Stats: 106 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR
Among the SEC's best at shedding blocks to bust up a run play, Johnson had his work cut out for him on a Volunteers squad that's attempting a massive rebuilding. Johnson is one of the more intelligent players on any SEC line, uncannily aware of the flow of a play, and his ability to catch onto the angle of a run has been impressive. A junior, the Gainesville native will have another year to add to his growing NFL resume.
Michael Sam, Missouri
Season Stats: 45 tackles, 18.0 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 1 TD, 1 FR, 1 FF, 2 PBU
Sam's rise to prominence was a bit unexpected. More than doubling his stats from a year ago in nearly every important category, the redshirt senior from Hitchcock, Texas finds himself one of just five finalists for the coveted Nagurski Trophy.
Sam has caused havoc all year by bursting into the backfield to harry quarterbacks and tacklers alike. Rarely has there been a play for the Tigers that Sam hasn't been a part of. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel will be hoping that another Missouri lineman will step up in 2014 like Sam did in 2013.
Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
Season Stats: 36 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 1 FR, 3 QBH, 1 PBU
Quarles has enjoyed an outstanding junior season, establishing himself as Jadeveon Clowney's replacement as one of the premier pass rushers in the conference. With Sam graduating, Quarles will return as the SEC leader at the position, and you can bet his name will be in the mind of quarterbacks across the nation. That is, of course, assuming he returns for 2014.
Dee Ford, Auburn
Season Stats: 26 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 2 FF, 17 QBH, 1 PBU
Unlike Missouri's Michael Sam, Ford has long since created a name for himself. Ford is perhaps the SEC's most intangible player, despite his numbers. At 6'2" and 240 pounds, he uses his long arms and athleticism to help him into the backfield. He's helped Auburn survive the quality quarterbacks the Tigers have faced this season. Ford will graduate this season and is projected around the third round of the 2014 NFL draft by NFLdraftscout.com.
Chris Smith, Arkansas
Season Stats: 36 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FF, 1 PBU
Joining South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney as the only returning player to record at least nine sacks in 2012, Smith hasn't disappointed. Though his development is a bit stunted due to the team around him, Smith has become a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line. His departure will leave new head coach Bret Bielema needing to fill some mighty big shoes.
Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
Jackson hails (see what I did there?) from a MSU team becoming known for its talent on both lines. Jackson, winner of the Conerly Trophy awarded to the best football player in Mississippi, has become a staple for an offense that ranks 45th in the country in rushing. The massive 340-pound senior is projected as high as the third round of the 2014 NFL draft by CBS Sports.
David Hurd, Arkansas
The Razorbacks allowed just eight sacks this season—best in the SEC—and Hurd was a big part of that. Averaging 208.7 yards per game on the ground, the rushing attack wasn't too shabby either, as the offense revolved around Hurd's 318-pound frame.
Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
A projected first-rounder in the 2014 draft according to CBS Sports, Kouandjio has protected quarterback AJ McCarron admirably. On a stout Alabama offensive line that has allowed just 10 sacks and stands as a vital part of Alabama's rushing offense that ranks 21st nationally, Kouandjio and his 310 pounds are a huge boon, no pun intended.
Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
The Vols ranked third in the conference with just 15 sacks allowed, and Richardson was a major part of that. Similar to the others on this list, the Vols sported a top-50 rushing offense, and the offensive line ensured the quarterback-by-committee would be protected from opponents' blitzes.
Michael Bennett, Georgia
Season Stats: 483 yards (12.4 avg), 39 receptions, 4 TD
The tight end position can be a difficult one to play. Depending on the offense, a tight end may find himself blocking for most of his career. It's an important role, no doubt, but much less glamorous than the career Michael Bennett has enjoyed.
Bennett, a 2013 Biletnikoff Award Watch List selection, has accumulated 665 receiving yards and has been a strong, reliable target for quarterback Aaron Murray throughout his career. The junior from Alpharetta, Ga., leads all SEC tight ends in yards and will be a dynamic, experienced offensive threat for 2014.
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
Season Stats: 107 receptions, 1334 yards (12.5 avg), 5 TD
It's difficult, in a league like the SEC, to average over 100 yards per game. Matthews stands at 111.2 for 2013, ranking seventh nationally, and people have noticed. You name it, he's been nominated for it. Long since having appeared on first-team All-SEC ballots, Matthews is on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, Maxwell Award Watch List and the CFPA Wide Receiver Trophy Watch List.
Matthews is fast, agile, aware and one of the most dangerous wide receivers the league has seen in some time. The senior is the top-ranked wide receiver and is expected to be drafted in one of the top two rounds by NFLDraftScout.com. He has been perhaps the most important player in Vanderbilt's resurgence.
Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Season Stats: 65 receptions, 1322 yards (20.3 avg), 12 TD
How about this for a sophomore: Evans leads the nation (by a lot) in yards per catch, ranks eighth nationally with 1322 receiving yards and holds a tie for 10th nationally with 10 receiving touchdowns.
If there is a player that can eclipse the legacy that Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews has left in the SEC, it could be Evans. I know what you're thinking: Johnny Manziel makes wide receivers look good. I'd argue the opposite and say that it's wide receivers as talented and resourceful as Evans that make Manziel look even better than he is.
Tre Mason, Auburn
Season Stats: 1621 yards (5.7 avg), 283 attempts, 22 TD
When you're playing Auburn under new head coach Gus Malzahn, you know that you have to stop Tre Mason first and foremost. The junior is averaging 124.7 yards per game and is clearly the main offensive weapon of Auburn's offense.
It's that fact that makes Mason so incredible. He can't be stopped. Despite Auburn's clearly run-heavy offense with Mason as its star, teams have been powerless against him. Ranked sixth nationally in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns, he is one of six finalists for this little thing called the Heisman Trophy and is strongly considering a move to the NFL after playing for the national championship.
Regardless of his choice, no selection for this list was as easy as this one.
Jeremy Hill, LSU
Season Stats: 1185 yards (6.8 avg), 175 attempts, 14 TD
Unlike Mason, Hill played behind a talented quarterback and a potent wide receiving corps. Still, Hill led the conference in rushing average per play and served as a vital release valve to keep the Tiger offense multidimensional. Selected to the Maxwell Award Watch List as a sophomore, Hill has already become one of the most dominant running backs in the SEC and looks to take his stab at the Heisman in 2014.
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Season Stats: 3732 yards (311.0 avg/game), 270-of-391 (69.1 percent), 33 TD, 686 yards rushing
This was a difficult decision. Others came close, but it seems impossible to choose the best SEC quarterback and not choose the returning Heisman winner.
The first-ever freshman to win the award, in fact, Manziel became public enemy No. 1 across the conference's defenses. Manziel hasn't been able to manage the production on the ground that he did a year ago (over 900 fewer yards), but he slightly eclipsed his freshman campaign through the air.
Manziel, who is heading to New York City as a Heisman finalist once again, is talented in every aspect of the game. He's quick on the ground, with great decision-making skills and excellent mobility. He's not only scarily accurate through the air—he's easily the nation's best improv playmaker.
With his draft stock high and a somewhat disappointing Aggie season behind him, the phenom redshirt sophomore now faces the difficult decision whether to try his luck in the NFL. He'll leave a pretty massive whole at the quarterback position if he goes.
Agree? Disagree? Join in on the discussion in the comments below.
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