19 biggest takeaways from the SEC’s wild rivalry week

The 2013 regular season is officially over, and we look ahead to the SEC Championship Saturday between Auburn and Missouri. Everyone picked both Auburn and Mizzou preseason, right? Right. Isn’t that what’s beautiful about college football?

Here are the biggest takeaways from the SEC’s final weekend:

SEC Championship game: An Auburn and Missouri matchup sets up for a different type of SEC Championship. The SEC is historically known as a defensive-minded conference where offense comes second, but staying true to the 2013 offensive theme, two spread teams will play for the marbles in Atlanta. Auburn and Missouri sit No. 1 and No. 2 in rushing offense, and both defensive lines are worthy and forceful units. It should energize the SEC and create optimism and intrigue around the country. Auburn had 75/1 odds and Missouri had 50/1 odds to win the SEC before the season. Neither team made a bowl game in 2012. Don’t think too hard about that…

Related: The unlikely SEC Championship Game

National Championship: The SEC has two realistic shots for a national championship. Auburn will likely move to No. 3 behind FSU and Ohio State, while Alabama could fall to No. 4, just above Missouri. FSU plays Duke Saturday, and Ohio State plays Michigan State. Regardless of whether Ohio State is the real No. 2 team in the country or not, I still think one of those two teams will have to lose to get a one-loss SEC Champion in the national championship. But Alabama, Auburn and Mizzou are all better than Ohio State.

Related: Watch college football’s play of the year

Game of the year: We had to wait until week 14 during Rivalry Week, but 2013’s Iron Bowl will go down as the greatest in history and the college football game of the year. Presumptuous? Perhaps, but the chain of events that led to the Auburn victory was simply incredible. From Alabama’s 99-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead 28-21 TD, to Nick Marshall hitting Sammie Coates for the game-tying TD in the closing seconds. Then, the unthinkable happened when Alabama had one second remaining on the clock, leading to Chris Davis returning the missed field goal for a 100-yard touchdown. Unbelievable. Nothing tops this game in 2013, and it happened in the SEC. Never change, college football.

Related: Complete Alabama-Auburn highlights

SEC vs. ACC: The SEC finished 3-1 over the ACC. Florida was the only loser to Florida State. Vanderbilt took care of Wake Forest; Georgia skirted past Georgia Tech in double overtime; South Carolina throttled Clemson…again. The SEC is 7-1 in just the last two years against the ACC during rivalry week.

Team of destiny: Auburn has won three games with less than a minute remaining in regulation this season. They skirted past Mississippi State during week three with a touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining to win 24-20. The 73-yard miracle against Georgia was with 25 seconds left for the 43-38 win, and the Iron Bowl’s 100-yard missed field goal return by Chris Davis was with one second left. That’s three wins with a combined 36 seconds remaining. The Tigers also beat the Aggies with a little over a minute left and scored late against Ole Miss to seal it. Don’t stand in the way of destiny, or you might get run over.

Coach of the Year: Not only in the SEC, but Gus Malzahn is the National Coach of the Year. Yeah, I know David Cutcliffe won the division with Duke in the ACC, but Malzahn inherited a 3-9 team that was winless in SEC play. He’s now 11-1 and bidding for an SEC and national championship. Malzahn has the best case of any coach in the country. Give it to him!

Taking care of business: On a night when the Aggies’ defense finally showed up, the Tigers fought and grinded out a win. The Tigers held Johnny Manziel in check for the second straight week. When everyone kept waiting for Mizzou to lose to Ole Miss or Texas A&M, it didn’t happen, and even with a target on their back, they took care of business. The Tigers are one overtime loss away from being the No. 1 ranked team in the country. The Tigers almost had a perfect balance against Texas A&M, passing for 238 yards and rushing for 225. They’re playing great football, and they are primed to win an SEC Championship.

Related: Watch Missouri-Texas A&M highlights

Where does that leave Alabama? Counting Saturday, the Tide will have won just one of the last four SEC Championships. That’s certainly an interesting stat for a team that was shooting for three straight national championships and three of the last four. Alabama should play in a BCS bowl, depending on how things shake out, but man, what a heartbreaking loss. The Tide struggled so badly on special teams and looked extremely tight to start the game. We never see Nick Saban-coached teams fall in this manner, especially with a missed field goal touchdown return — unthinkable. I’m still curious why Saban even kicked the long field goal. There was a better chance that Auburn returned it for a touchdown than him actually making it from that distance.

Carolina owns Clemson: The Gamecocks have beat the Tigers five years in a row, and Connor Shaw improved to 17-0 at home to close out his brilliant career on senior night. Does Shaw go down as the best quarterback in the history of program? He has to; he was sensational, and Shaw threw for one touchdown and ran for one, totaling 22 carries. The Gamecocks’ defense was just as good and forced six Clemson turnovers. That’s three straight years that South Carolina has beaten the SEC East division winner and not made it to Atlanta. That proves just how tough this league really is. The loss to Tennessee will haunt this group for a while.

Related: South Carolina-Clemson highlights

What happened to TAMU’s offense? It’s like they just disappeared and fell off the map. After averaging well over 40 points per game, the Aggies’ offense has averaged just 15.5 points the last two weeks against LSU and Missouri. Johnny Manziel has been banged up, and Mike Evans has been non-existent. The defense did play well against Missouri, however.

Related: Aggies give Sumlin new 6-year deal yesterday 

The New Guys: Bret Bielema, Mark Stoops and Butch Jones combined for a 2-22 SEC record, with Tennessee winning those two games but falling short of a bowl game. Gus Malzahn finished 7-1 and orchestrated the biggest turnaround in college football. We’ll see what effect Bielema, Stoops and Jones have in the future at their respective schools. Arkansas didn’t improve; Kentucky didn’t either; Tennessee finished about where expected; Auburn is way ahead of schedule.

Hope for the future: LSU nearly lost to SEC winless Arkansas, and had it not been for freshman QB Anthony Jennings, the Tigers would have suffered an embarrassing upset. After Zach Mettenberger slept walked for three quarters and injured his knee, Jennings came in and drove the Tigers 99 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, including his 49-yard dime to freshman WR Travin Dural. That’s a snapshot of 2014, because Mett, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill will likely all be gone. We know how Les Miles loves dual-threat QBs, and Jennings could be a star for Miles and Cam Cameron next season. It wasn’t pretty at times, but the Tigers are certainly glad the Golden Boot remains in Baton Rouge another season.

Anchor Down: How about back-to-back eight win seasons for the Commodores? James Franklin’s bunch made it interesting once again, playing a close one against four-win Wake Forest, but the Commodores are so well coached and are so confident, they don’t care to be trailing or to play a close game. Vanderbilt has a shot to reach back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time in history. The Dores have now notched three straight bowl appearances in Franklin’s first three years. It’s a remarkable feat that not many coaches could accomplish.

Better than their record: Finishing 6-6 may not impress anyone, but Mississippi State lost to six ranked teams in 2013. They played Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State tough, and they aren’t that far off from having a pretty good team. QB Dak Prescott is the centerpiece surrounding a very good up-and-coming class on both sides of the ball. Mullen quiets critics for at least another year with a huge Egg Bowl victory, and it was imperative for gaining bowl eligibility and garnering some momentum in Starkville.

Related: Dan Mullen shut up his critics with Egg Bowl win

Largest comeback in Richt’s tenure: It’s absolutely sickening that Aaron Murray was injured for the rest of the season last week, but Hutson Mason is getting such valuable experience that it could become a blessing in disguise for next season. Mason’s pocket presence needs some work, but he has a cannon of an arm and could be stronger than Murray’s. But it’s the intangibles and pocket presence that need the most work for 2014. With that being said, he guided Georgia to 20-point comeback and double-overtime victory against Georgia Tech, and that’s the largest comeback in Mark Richt’s tenure. The Hutson Mason era kicks off on a strong positive note. He threw for 299 yards, two touchdowns and one INT, while Todd Gurley rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns.

Related: Georgia-Georgia Tech highlights

A successful season? Which direction is the Ole Miss program heading? The Rebels were a streaky team in 2013, starting off 3-0 before losing three straight to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. Ole Miss then rebounded and won four straight, including against LSU, before dropping the final two games against Missouri and Mississippi State. Overall, is it a successful season? I would argue it wasn’t. From turning things around to 7-6 last year, there was hope the Rebels could close strong, sitting at 7-3 heading into their final two weekends of play. The Rebels have some nice players, but I question whether they can win a championship with Bo Wallace. Clearly, their best players are freshmen, and another year in the system will surely help. But, overall, it was a very disappointing finish for one of the most promising teams in the SEC West. Finishing 7-5 isn’t what anyone expected, and winning a bowl game is almost paramount now.

Never quit: Arkansas fought LSU like hell Friday. No, they didn’t win, but they sure didn’t give up either. In fact, they didn’t give up all season, and it’s a credit to the players and coaches for staying motivated throughout a brutal schedule and nine-game losing streak. The Hogs have some young talent with whom to build around, but until they sign some SEC-worthy linebackers, corners and safeties it’s going to be rough. Bret Bielema just led Arkansas to an 0-8 SEC record in his first season, the worst season ever for the Hogs in the conference.

Change gon’ come: Sometime early this week, we’ll know exactly who Florida will replace on the offensive staff. Will Muschamp will return next season, but expect OC Brent Pease, OL coach Tim Davis and TE coach Derek Lewis to all be let go. Muschamp has to get out of his comfort zone with his next coordinator hire on offense. I’m not saying go all spread offense like Baylor or Texas A&M, but something that’s creative and creates mismatches would bode well for the Gators’ offense. Muschamp’s comfort zone is straight pro-style power running game and to dominate the time of possession, but he needs to settle for less time of possession for more points. The defense will be fine.

Positive end: Tennessee ended their season on a positive note, but they ultimately fell short of their bowl game goal. RB Rajion Neal capped off a great senior season with 20 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown in the win over Kentucky. Senior Corey Miller recorded a UT record 4.5 sacks in one game, and there’s some positive momentum headed into the offseason for QB Joshua Dobbs, who threw two touchdown passes and showed some growth and development. However, there’s much work to be done in Knoxville.

Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports