It was a banner calendar year for the SEC, as league institutions claimed 7 national championships, including winners in football and baseball, 2 of the 3 college revenue sports. The champions included programs winning their first national title in 4 of the 7 sports, including baseball, making 2021 a year of “championship firsts” in the SEC.

The SEC was also the home of the 2021 Golden Spikes Award (Kevin Kopps of Arkansas), the NCAA Gymnast of the Year (Florida’s Trinity Thomas), the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner (Bryce Young), and a host of individual national champions, including both the Men’s Tennis singles (Sam Riffice of Florida) and doubles (Adam Walton and Pat Harper of Tennessee) champs.

The league closed 2021 the way it began it: with College Football Playoff action, as SEC Champion Alabama and SEC East winner Georgia both won semifinal games en route to playing each other Monday night for a national title. (Spoiler alert: Georgia won, but we’ll talk about in next year’s review; this is a tribute all of the SEC accomplished in the calendar year 2021.)

Here is a deeper SDS look at the year that was in the SEC.

January: Peerless Alabama

On January 11, Alabama vanquished Ohio State 52-24 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida to win the program’s 6th national championship under Nick Saban.

In the national title game, it was none other than Mr. National Championship Game himself, Davonta Smith, who took over. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner caught 7 passes for 219 yards and 3 touchdowns– in the first half– to pace the Tide rout.

With multiple Heisman Trophy finalists, including Heisman winner Devonta Smith, the Doak Walker Award winner in Najee Harris, Outland Trophy winner in Alex Leatherwood, one of the more efficient offenses in the history of the sport, and an average margin of victory of 29 points, the 2020 Crimson Tide will forever be in discussions about the greatest college football team of all time. The Crimson Tide played only one game in single digits (the SEC Championship Game against Florida) and ultimately had 6 players drafted in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft, tying 2004 Miami for the most of all time.

Alabama’s victory capped a dominant bowl season for the SEC, with the league winning 7 of its 9 bowl games, including two non-College Football Playoff New Year’s Six Bowls: the Peach Bowl, won by Georgia, and the Orange Bowl, won by Texas A&M.

Alabama also reigned on the recruiting trail, finishing with the top-ranked recruiting class in the 247 Composite after the January signing day period. As has been the case each year in the past decade, the SEC led all conferences with 4 top 10 classes, including three (Alabama, Georgia, and LSU) ranked in the top 5.

January 30: SEC Hoops programs flex their muscles in BIG 12 Challenge

Slowly and steadily, the SEC has become one of the country’s preeminent basketball conferences under current league commissioner Greg Sankey, who emphasized improvement in the sport early in his tenure.

The league flexed its muscle on January 30, winning the SEC-BIG XII challenge 5-4, thanks to big wins by No. 18 Tennessee over No. 15 Kansas and Florida at No. 10 West Virginia. Conference play, which truly heated up in February, was even better, as upstart Alabama under Nate Oats stormed through league play with their high-tempo, three point barrage offense and a fierce defense led by eventual SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones.

February: Baseball begins, Gymnastics takes center stage

After losing the 2020 regular season just as it got off the ground, SEC baseball returned in February of 2021 with the SEC leading the nation in ranked teams in the preseason. The league would win a national best 77.4% of its non-conference games in 2021, led by number one national seed Arkansas and eventual Golden Spikes winner Kevin Kopps.

Moving indoors, the SEC featured multiple top 10 gymnastics programs in 2021, including Florida, who stormed through the regular season with an undefeated record, led by National Gymnast of the Year Trinity Thomas and All-American Alyssa Baumann. An injury to Thomas before the national championship left the Gators without a title, but the Gators did advance to represent the SEC in the Final Four in March.

March: Crimson Tide reign in hoops, too; SEC Flavor to March Madness; a rifle title for UK

In early March, Alabama captured the program’s first SEC basketball championship since 2002 and then pulled off the difficult double by winning the Tide’s first SEC Basketball Tournament since 1991. Alabama became the third school this century to win both the SEC football and basketball championships in the same academic year, joining Florida (2006) and LSU (2019).

Six SEC teams received bids to the Men’s NCAA Basketball Championship, with the league posting an impressive 4-2 record in the First Round as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and LSU all advanced to the Round of 32. The Crimson Tide’s run ended when UCLA upset Alabama in the Sweet 16, but a deep and balanced Arkansas advanced to the Elite 8, falling in a competitive game with eventual national champion Baylor.

While perennial blueblood Kentucky basketball missed the NCAA Tournament in 2021, there was a championship in March for the Wildcats. Kentucky Rifle won the 2021 National Championship on March 11, 2021. Kentucky sharpshooter Mary Tucker won the individual championship.

Two days after Kentucky Rifle won its national title, Arkansas captured the 2021 NCAA Indoor Women’s Track and Field Championship, the second consecutive national championship for the Razorbacks in indoor track.

April: Kentucky wins its first national volleyball championship

The Wildcats capped a dominant 23-1 season with a 3-1 victory over Texas in the NCAA Championship on April 24 in Omaha. All-American Madison Lilley was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. In winning the title, Craig Skinner’s Kentucky program became the first SEC school to ever win a NCAA Championship in volleyball.

Summer 2021: Hail State rules the diamond; plus, golf and tennis championships find SEC homes

As the weather turned from spring to summer, the SEC showed prowess across a number of sports, from women’s golf and men’s tennis to softball and baseball diamonds.

In May, a dominant Ole Miss won the 2021 Women’s Golf National championship, crushing Oklahoma State 4-1 in match play to capture the Rebels’ first national championship in the sport. The championship was the first for Ole Miss in any women’s sport.

On May 23, Florida captured its first national championship in Men’s Tennis, defeating Baylor in a back and forth final. Florida star Sam Riffice would win the NCAA Men’s Single championship later in the week, and Adam Walton and Pat Harper, of regular season SEC champion Tennessee, captured doubles glory.

SEC Softball closed its regular season in May, with the Florida Gators and Arkansas Razorbacks splitting SEC championship honors. It was the first SEC Championship in the sport for Arkansas, and Florida’s 9th SEC crown, the most of any program in the SEC.

Tournament play commenced in late May and stretched into June, with an SEC record 5 programs hosting regionals. As usual, the SEC was well-represented in Oklahoma City at the CWS as well, with SEC Tournament champion Alabama and a surprise Georgia team both qualifying for the Women’s CWS. The Crimson Tide would advance all the way to the semifinals before falling to FSU.

In baseball, the College World Series in Omaha saw SEC teams in 3 of the tournament’s 4 first round matchups, with Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State all in the field. Arkansas, the tournament’s number one overall seed and SEC Regular Season champion, was stunned by North Carolina State in the super regionals, depriving the SEC of four bids to Omaha. Three would prove to be plenty, as both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State fought off elimination games in group play before advancing to the Best of 3 final.

Vanderbilt dominated Game 1, thanks to a brilliant performance from Jack Leiter, but the Commodores were denied a repeat national title as State charged back to win the final two games of the CWS.

Mississippi State captured its first national championship in any sport on the above play, one of the defining moments in the SEC in 2021.

July: Talking Season!!

Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz, whose team would finish 6-7, “won” talking season by insulting basically everyone with a pulse or a microphone in Hoover.

If you aren’t going to win like Steve Spurrier, I guess at least you can talk like him?

Of course, you also give nice bulletin board material when you don’t win like Spurrier.

This didn’t end well for Drinkwitz, as Sam Pittman and a really good Arkansas team absolutely pummeled the Tigers on November 26.

Wonder if we get a toned down “Book of Eli” next July?

September: Full Stadiums are back and so was the Junkyard Dawg Defense

The story of September was a return of college football, as it was intended to be.

Full stadiums were back and so were tailgates, sundresses, cowboy boots and the feel of that first handshake at a tailgate with an old family friend. Championship seasons are rare, but people and pageantry make every college football season down south special. Whether it was Tennessee running through the T, the Bear on video screens on the Capstone, a walk through the Grove at Ole Miss, where they still redshirt Miss Americas, or Tom Petty blaring in The Swamp at the Florida-Alabama game, it was a special month for all of us, who waited so long to feel “normal” again.

As for the games, we wondered about Alabama, who looked mortal. We overvalued Florida, who would play well for a month before a death spiral that sent Dan Mullen packing began in October. As usual, we thought too highly of a Jimbo Fisher team that didn’t have generational talent at quarterback and running back. We thought too lowly of a team coached by Mark Stoops.

And we learned that quarterback questions aside, we shouldn’t ever sleep on Kirby Smart’s Georgia.

Led by monster space-eater Jordan Davis and the nation’s best linebacker in Nakobe Dean, the Bulldogs defense conjured up memories of Vince Dooley’s old “Junkyard Dawg” units, hounding opposing quarterbacks, hitting with gnashed teeth and chasing opponents down in the backfield like a dog gnawing on a bone. Georgia would post the most dominant defensive season the sport has seen in a decade– and that began in September, with a suffocating 10-3 victory over Clemson in Charlotte.

It was the first sign that the Dawgs were, indeed, going to end the 1980 jokes and win a national title. (But let’s get back to the calendar year, 2021, shall we?)

October: Yo yo yo, bye-bye Coach O!

How brutal is life in the SEC?

You can go from the penthouse to the doghouse in less than 2 years flat, as Ed Orgeron discovered when he was fired by LSU in the days leading up to the Florida game. Orgeron would beat the Gators before his “parting of ways” agreement with LSU was announced. I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything quite like the Coach O phenomenon again– the ideal cultural fit at a precarious cultural time for LSU who managed to win a championship with practically a perfect football team before burning out harder and brighter than a New Year’s Eve firecracker.

We’ll miss Coach O in the SEC, and hope he doesn’t wander too far.

At least another coach with a well-known southern accent, Brian Kelly, formerly the mastermind of Notre Dame’s return to national relevance, will replace him at LSU.

November: Georgia looks invincible; Signs of Life in Columbia and on Rocky Top; Mullen sent packing; Iron Bowl for the Ages

Georgia’s dominance didn’t define November in the SEC, but it certainly informed everything else that was happening in the league. Alabama, led by an improving defense and perhaps the nation’s best football player in Will Anderson Jr., was coming to life, for sure, but the Dawgs were bullying teams, winning their November games by an average score of 46-7.

The Dawgs also routed archrival Florida, 34-7, on October 30,and leaked halftime speech audio from Kirby Smart from the Florida game spoke to Georgia’s “championship or bust” attitude. As the calendar turned to December, it was difficult to imagine this Georgia team losing a game.

Before we close the year in review with that yummy rat poison, however, it bears repeating that there was football being played elsewhere in the SEC.

Two of the best stories in the league in 2021?

The job Shane Beamer did in Columbia, getting the Gamecocks bowl eligible thanks largely to two huge home wins in November over Auburn and Florida. The Gamecocks 23 point rout of the Gators was the death knell to the Dan Mullen era in Florida, but the 4 point win over a decent Auburn team was the more impressive accomplishment, and a sign of things to come at South Carolina.

Meanwhile, while it’s too early to say the sleeping giant is awakening in Knoxville, Josh Heupel’s first year at Tennessee was the most entertaining version of the Vols we’ve seen since early tenure Butch Jones roamed the sidelines on Rocky Top. Led by transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker, an underrated offensive line and a group of receivers that got better every week, the Vols played uptempo, exciting offense and managed to win 7 games, including a very impressive 45-42 win at No. 25 Kentucky in November. When Hendon Hooker announced he would use his COVID-19 season and stay one more year at Tennessee, the Vols became prohibitive favorites to be SEC East runners-up in 2022.

Another reason things are looking up for the Vols?

The long rebuild ahead of Billy Napier at Florida. Napier was announced as Florida’s new head coach less than two full weeks after Dan Mullen was dismissed as Florida’s head coach just prior to the end of his fourth full season in Gainesville.

Mullen won plenty of games in his first 3 seasons in The Swamp, becoming the first SEC coach to advance to BCS/New Year’s Six bowls in each of his first 3 seasons on campus. But Mullen was ultimately undone by a lack of program discipline, a refusal to recruit aggressively, and loyalty to subpar staff, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who became the first Gators defensive coordinator in nearly 50 years to have a defense finish outside the top 50 in total defense in Gainesville. Napier’s rebuild, coupled with Kentucky’s large attrition from a 10 win 2021 campaign, opens the door for Heupel and the Vols to become Georgia’s predominant threat in the SEC East.

November closed with rivalry week, which saw the SEC win 3 of its 4 traditional matchups with the ACC and gave us an Iron Bowl for the ages. Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy by leading the Tide, on the road, 97 yards with no timeouts for the tying score.

Alabama would win the epic game in four overtimes.

December: That rat poison was yummy; Stetson Bennett’s New Year’s Eve revenge

Alabama entered the SEC Championship game a 1-touchdown underdog to No. 1 Georgia. The thinking was Georgia would suffocate the Tide run game, make Alabama one-dimensional, and ultimately be able to harass and pressure Bryce Young enough to slow the Tide passing attack.

The thinking was wrong.

Alabama’s offensive line held up. Georgia’s secondary did not. As a result, Alabama eviscerated Georgia’s record-setting defense, gaining 7.7 yards a play and 536 total yards in a 41-24 rout of the Dawgs.

A huge reason that Georgia lost? When it finally needed to keep up offensively with another team, Stetson Bennett IV, Kirby Smart’s preferred quarterback, wasn’t good enough. Bennett finished the SEC Championship Game with 340 yards passing, but it was two costly interceptions, and the inability to consistently threaten Alabama downfield, which hurt the Dawgs the most.

After the game, Nick Saban, who famously called media praise “rat poison” a few seasons back, said the rat poison before the SEC Championship Game, about how much better Georgia was than Alabama, was “yummy.”

It turns out that the rat poison doubting Stetson Bennett IV was yummy, too.

Bennett IV torched Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Eve. dropping dimes like this pass to Jermaine Burton to help Georgia clobber Michigan and secure a rematch with Alabama for the national championship.

There wasn’t any “rat poison” ahead of Monday night’s national championship. Just two great SEC football teams, kicking off 2022 just as dominantly as the conference ended 2021. As it should be. As it often is.