Originally created 12/02/99

'Year of the Upset' in SEC



Searching for the right label for a wacky season in the Southeastern Conference? How about Year of the Upset?

Who would have imagined Vanderbilt over Ole Miss? Louisiana Tech over Alabama? Alabama over Florida? Arkansas over Tennessee? Auburn over Georgia?

It was also a year that saw LSU coach Gerry DiNardo lose his job during a miserable season and Alabama coach Mike DuBose keep his -- we think -- with an SEC West title.

It was a year the conference saw one of its own, lowly South Carolina, assume ownership of the nation's longest losing streak and extend it to a still-going 21 games.

It was a year with a familiar ending. Florida and Alabama will meet in the SEC Championship game Saturday for the fifth time in the 1990s.

The conference superlatives for 1999:

Play of the year: Who can forget Ronney Daniels against LSU? The freshman hauled in a bomb from quarterback Ben Leard and was headed for a touchdown before he was blind-sided at the Tigers' 21 and fumbled. A cartoon-like chase for the pigskin ensued, with players kicking and batting the ball to the 1-yard line. Daniels followed the bouncing ball, grabbed it after it popped loose and dived into the end zone for the craziest 84-yard touchdown reception you'll ever see.

Biggest surprise: Kentucky. Coach Hal Mumme had little to work with but produced a 6-5 record and assurance that the Wildcats soon will be a factor.

Biggest disappointment: LSU. With more talent than most and seven home games, three wins are unexplainable and unacceptable. Tigers were blown out by Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Houston.

Breakout performance: Kentucky's James Whalen. The senior walk-on set the NCAA season receptions record for a tight end with 90 catches for 1,019 yards -- all this two years after the Oregon native recruited himself onto the team by sending Mumme a tape of his high school highlights.

Close behind is Daniels, who amassed 56 catches for a 19.1-yard average in his freshman season.

Worst calls: A tie between Mumme and Vanderbilt's Woody Widenhofer. Against Georgia, both called for fake punts deep in their own territory that backfired. Widenhofer's was the most ill-timed; Commodores led 17-7, but the Bulldogs scored 20 unanswered points after the gaffe and won 27-17.

Offensive player of the year: Alabama's Shaun Alexander. Despite a nagging ankle injury in his seventh game, the senior tailback still led the conference in rushing -- by 351 yards -- and is the biggest reason his team is in the title game.

Defensive player of the year: Deon Grant, Tennessee. Former Josey star had nine interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. He is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, to be given next week.

Coach of the year: Tie between Mumme and Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill. The Wildcats lost Tim Couch, their whole offensive line and were picked to finish last. Six wins and a bowl invitation later, it's clear Mumme is no dummy.

Sherrill's team was picked fourth before the season but almost stole the SEC West title. The Bulldogs might've had the weakest schedule in the league, but nine wins -- including last-second victories over Ole Miss, Kentucky, LSU, Auburn and Memphis -- were impressive.

Best game: It's tough to top Alabama 40, Florida 39. Gators missed an extra point in overtime, then Alabama did the same. But a penalty was called, offsides on Florida. The second attempt was good, and so ended Florida's 30-game home winning streak.

Team to watch in 2000: Georgia. Sure, the Bulldogs are disappointed that the stellar recruiting classes of the past two years produced a 7-4 mark in '99, but almost everyone returns next season. If sophomore quarterback Quincy Carter opts to stay in Athens instead of declaring for the NFL, look out.

Who's in the hot seat? No one, though the temperature could rise with a few. It is warm at LSU year-round, so new guy Nick Saban will feel the heat if he duplicates the failures of DiNardo. As for Georgia's Jim Donnan, the cupboard is stocked. A six-win season in 2000 won't cut it.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larrywill7@yahoo.com.