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January 18, 2011

SEC: Auburn caps off another big year for West

MORE: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10

Another season, another national title for the SEC.

This is getting old, don't you think?

Auburn, expected to finish third or fourth in the SEC West in the preseason, instead steamrolled to a 14-0 finish and the national title -- the fifth in a row for SEC teams. In addition, the Tigers became the third West Division team to wear the crown in that stretch, joining LSU (2007) and archrival Alabama (2009). Florida won it all in 2006 and '08.

Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton became the third SEC player in four seasons to win the Heisman, joining former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (2007) and Alabama running back Mark Ingram (2009).

Auburn won the much more competitive SEC West, as five division teams -- all but Ole Miss -- finished in the top 17 of the final coaches' poll of the season. In contrast, SEC East winner South Carolina was the only team from that division to finish in the top 25, at 22nd.

Indeed, for the second season in a row, the East champ was the only team in the division to finish above .500 in league play.

One SEC team made a coaching change, as Vanderbilt -- which had Robbie Caldwell as the interim coach during the season -- hired Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin as its new coach.

Biggest surprise: Auburn. The Tigers were 8-5 in 2009, and entered the spring looking for a new quarterback, a new tailback and overall defensive improvement. As such, they barely registered a blip on the national radar before the season. But while the defense made just slight improvement -- from 68th in total defense in '09 to 60th this season -- that new quarterback proved to be Superman in an Auburn uniform. Junior college transfer Cameron Newton seemingly made a big play every time it was needed, and his presence was the major reason Auburn won the national title.

Biggest disappointment: Florida. Florida was 13-1 and finished third in 2009, and the Gators opened this season in the top five. But the Gators finished 8-5 and out of the top 25 after a disastrous offensive performance. To cap it all off, coach Urban Meyer stepped down after the season. All in all, 2010 will not be remembered fondly in Gainesville.

Best postseason performance: Auburn. The Tigers may not have been as prolific as usual on offense -- they scored 22 points, a bit more than half of their season average -- but it was enough to win the national title, the school's first since 1957. SEC West rivals Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State also looked good in their bowl wins, but winning the national title trumps all.

Worst postseason performance: Kentucky. It's not that the Wildcats were that good; after all, they entered the BBVA Compass Bowl sporting a 6-6 overall record and a 2-6 league mark. Still, their bowl opponent was a 7-5 Pittsburgh team that fell apart late, was missing its head coach and its offensive coordinator and had some key defenders sidelined by injuries. No matter -- Pitt rolled 27-10. Even with a backup quarterback, UK should have showed better.

Underclassmen leaving early: Auburn WR Darvin Adams, Kentucky WR Randall Cobb, Alabama DE Marcell Dareus, Georgia WR A.J. Green, South Carolina WR Tori Gurley, Florida FS Will Hill, Alabama RB Mark Ingram, Alabama WR Julio Jones, Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, Auburn QB Cameron Newton, LSU CB Patrick Peterson, Ole Miss DT Jerrell Powe, LSU RB Stevan Ridley.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Alabama RB Trent Richardson. Richardson might have been the most highly hyped backup player of the past decade. Now, though, with Ingram having gone pro, the starting tailback job is all Richardson's, and he should respond with a big season. He has rushed for 1,451 yards in his two seasons with the Tide, and he should be expected to match that this fall, then take his talents to the NFL.

Next season's breakout defensive player: LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu. The Tigers say goodbye to a big-time cornerback in Peterson, who's leaving early for the NFL. Next up is Matthieu, who had quite the freshman season; he finished with 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven pass breakups and five forced fumbles. Those are phenomenal numbers for a corner, especially for a true freshman, yet he toiled in Peterson's shadow. That won't be the case next season, when Matthieu should contend for All-America honors.

Player most on the spot next season: Georgia QB Aaron Murray. To say this season was a disappointment for Georgia is a vast understatement. Murray, though, played well, throwing for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns, against just eight picks. But he will need to find a new go-to receiver with Green turning pro, and as well as Murray played, the Bulldogs still finished 6-7. He needs a big 2011 if the Bulldogs are to do what their fan base expects them to do on an annual basis, i.e., contend for the SEC East title.

Next season's conference champions: Alabama and South Carolina. Once again, the SEC West will be miles better than the SEC East. Auburn seems likely to take a full step back -- there will be seven new starters on both sides of the ball -- but Alabama and LSU return the bulk of their key players and should battle it out for the West title. Mississippi State will enter the 2011 season with high hopes, and even without Ryan Mallett, Arkansas has numerous reasons to think it can be a division contender as well. In the East, South Carolina will go into the season as the leading contender. The Gamecocks won the division this season, their first title of any kind since 1969. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee each have numerous questions marks and will be vying to finish second.

National title contenders: Alabama and LSU. The power resides in the West, and the Alabama-LSU winner -- the game will be in Tuscaloosa -- will have the upper hand in representing the SEC in the national title game in New Orleans. Worth noting is that the past two times the title game has been in the Superdome (after the 2003 and '07 seasons), LSU has won the crown.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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