It was the weirdest, and in some ways the worst, football season we've been subjected to in some time: Jerry Sandusky, Nevin Shapiro, conferences swapping members and re-forming while the season was still being played, the ongoing Tatgate fallout at Ohio State, rematch controversy, Todd Graham, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. So with all this going on and creating a pervasive sense that the game as we know it is irrevocably changing, it was almost comforting to see the 2011 season come to an end exactly the way a lot of us thought it would: with Alabama's defense bludgeoning its way to the Crimson Tide's second national championship in the past three years.
Obviously, the Tide sit at the top of my final SEC Power Poll ballot of the season, and I don't think I need to add a SPOILER ALERT tag when I predict they'll be at the top of everyone else's. For this year-ending ballot, I've also added quick guesses as to whether each time is a buy, sell or hold heading into 2012. Look for the full tally of all the ballots at Team Speed Kills on Friday morning.
Congratulations to the Tide, and to everyone else, keep pushing that rock up the hill . . .
1. Alabama -- Ordinarily I roll my eyes whenever people start talking breathlessly about how this team or that player might be "the best ever!" not even 48 hours removed from the end of the season, but I'm thinking this defense will look just as staggeringly good to us even after we've all had a chance to calm down and collect our thoughts on the 2011 season. Or, hell, 10 or 20 years from now. Clearly, the Crimson Tide will be a national juggernaut for as long as they can keep Saban in Tuscaloosa. Stock: Buy
2. LSU -- Guess they just made the mistake of beating Alabama at the wrong time this year. The quarterback situation definitely needs some sorting out in Baton Rouge, but when you look at how many freshman and sophomores the Tigers fielded this year at a wide variety of positions, you gotta think they'll get another shot at the title sometime in the very near future. Stock: Buy
3. Arkansas -- Didn't miss a beat in transitioning from Ryan Mallett to Tyler Wilson, but certainly didn't come any closer to breaking the Bama/LSU stranglehold on the top of the division, either. Remains to be seen if a long-overdue injection of new blood at defensive coordinator can put them over the top. Stock: Hold
4. South Carolina -- The last couple years have really turned into a "Twilight Zone" episode for Steve Spurrier: He's finally achieved his goal of turning the Gamecocks into a force to be reckoned with in the SEC East . . . and he's had to do it with a passing game that's little more than an afterthought. OH, THE HORRIBLE IRONY. Stock: Hold
5. Georgia -- The triple-OT loss to Michigan State in the bowl game was like a cosmic reminder for the Dawgs not to get too full of themselves heading into 2012. The 10-game winning streak was thrilling, sure, but it was bookended by four losses that not coincidentally came to the only truly good teams they faced all year. Georgia got Mark Richt off the hot seat for a few more years and reclaimed top-dog status in the SEC East, but there's still plenty for this program to check off its honey-do list. Stock: Buy
6. Auburn -- For a squad just 12 months removed from a national championship, things look awfully . . . fluid on the Plains. Both coordinators jumped ship for jobs at non-BCS-conference programs, and star running back Michael Dyer followed Gus Malzahn to Arkansas State. Brian VanGorder was a huge get for defensive coordinator, but this program still seems to be showing more than its share of cracks. Stock: Hold
7. Florida -- No tears were shed when Charlie Weis left after only one year to take the head-coaching job at Kansas -- if anything, it was a cause for celebration in Gainesville -- but that still means the Gators head into 2012 with an inexperienced QB and their fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. Better hope Will Muschamp has some really killer defense in the works. Stock: Sell
8. Mississippi State -- Tough to decide whether MSU or Vandy belonged in this spot. Despite State taking a step back this season while Vandy took a big one forward, I still think the Bizarro Bulldogs are more talented and probably better coached, but Dan Mullen certainly got no closer to breaking into the top ranks of the SEC West this year. Stock: Hold
9. Vanderbilt -- Say what you want about James Franklin -- he's either a charismatic young coach who pulled off a near-impossible job in Nashville or a poster child for little-man syndrome -- but a lot of teams are going to enter the 2012 season worried sick about having to play the Commodores. And they probably should be. Stock: Buy
10. Kentucky -- Snapping the decades-long losing streak to Tennessee was a great way to end the season, but once UK fans come down from that high, they'll see precious little to be optimistic about for the long term. To paraphrase a guy the Wildcats are awfully familiar with: André Woodson is not walking through that door. Randall Cobb is not walking through that door, and Derrick Locke is not walking through that door . . . Stock: Sell
11. Tennessee -- Yeah, I know: Derek Dooley inherited a mess when he got to Knoxville two years ago, and losing his two most talented offensive players to injuries early in the season certainly didn't help. But with a new AD in Big Orange Country, and each new day bringing news of another weird, arbitrary decision from the top of the program, you've got to wonder whether Dooley (11-14 at UT, 4-12 in SEC play) has more than a year left to turn things around. Stock: Sell
12. Ole Miss -- Not that I have my finger on the pulse of all 120 programs in Division I-A, but I can't think of another team that quit on its coach more completely than the Rebels did in the second half of the '11 season. (OK, maybe Illinois.) So why do I have them listed as a "buy"? Well, they do have a new coach . . . and things certainly can't get any worse. Stock: Buy