SEC game-changers from then and now


Tim Tebow helped UF win a national title as a freshman, won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore and guided the Gators to another national championship as a junior. He then put the finishing touches on a laundry list of school and SEC records as a senior as he led UF to its second straight 13-1 season, capped by a 482-yard, three-TD passing day against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer/FILE
Published: Sunday, December 22, 2013 at 11:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013 at 11:09 p.m.

The Southeastern Conference has been widely regarded as the best football conference in the country over the past several decades, but at no time more than the present as No. 2 Auburn prepares to battle top-ranked Florida State with a chance to bring the league its eighth straight national championship (a possible 10th in 16 years of the soon-to-be-extinct BCS). The star-power of the league has never been more evident, but the SEC has been a major player since its 1932 inception, when 10 current members joined former members Georgia Tech, Tulane and Sewanee to create a force that has only seen two rounds of expansion since: the 1992 addition of Arkansas and South Carolina and 2012's welcoming of Missouri and Texas A&M. But the legends and faces expand every year as the accolades continue to pour in, and new game-changers emerge throughout the league's 14 programs.

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Tim Tebow helped UF win a national title as a freshman, won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore and guided the Gators to another national championship as a junior. He then put the finishing touches on a laundry list of school and SEC records as a senior as he led UF to its second straight 13-1 season, capped by a 482-yard, three-TD passing day against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer/FILE

GAME-CHANGERS: EAST DIVISION

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA: TIM TEBOW (2006-09)

There were reasons the recruitment of Tim Tebow off of Florida's “First Coast” evolved into one of the largest priorities in University of Florida football history. The big left-handed quarterback with the powerful stride was all that was advertised from his opening training camp until his departure as one of the most decorated players in SEC, check that, NCAA history. Tebow went through a mighty progression that unfolded as follows: Helped UF win a national title as a freshman, won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, guided the Gators to another national championship as a junior, then put the finishing touches on a laundry list of school and SEC records as a senior as he led UF to its second straight 13-1 season, capped by a 482-yard, three-TD passing day against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Whew!

Tebow will be remembered most fondly for his competitive spirit and the inspired leadership that came from an impassioned speech in the aftermath of an upset loss against Ole Miss in 2008. The Gators did not lose again en route to the national title that season. But the numbers also bear him out as one of the finest to ever play the college game.

After Florida: Tebow was selected by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2010 draft and made his NFL name during the latter two-thirds of his second season, when he guided what had once been a 1-4 Broncos team to the AFC West title and a first-round playoff victory against Pittsburgh. Tebow threw for 316 yards and two TDs against the Steelers, but was sent to the New York Jets after a season that ended with a playoff loss at New England. Unable to find a common thread in New York, Tebow spent a brief stint in camp with the New England Patriots before being released.

UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: HERSCHEL WALKER (1980-82)

Talent has never been an issue with the University of Georgia football program, but talent had never burst into Athens with such fury as with the arrival of Herschel Walker, an NFL-ready running back who was less than a year removed from abusing the opponents of Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga.

The Bulldogs, a 6-5 team in 1979, shocked college football by unveiling the 6-foot-1, 220-pound who looked half-Hulk and half-sprinter in their 1980 season opener against Tennessee, then ran the table to the Sugar Bowl, a victory over Notre Dame and a national championship that stands as Georgia's only national title since 1942. With Walker dotting the Bulldogs' powerful I formation, Georgia went 33-3 over his three seasons and played for another national title in the Sugar Bowl to conclude the 1982 season, but fell short against Penn State. Walker left the program following his junior season having finished in the top three in Heisman Trophy voting in all three of his seasons, winning it in 1982.

After Georgia: With an NFL eligibility rule still in place that did not allow third-year players into the league, the new USFL swooped in on Walker, making him a rich man overnight and leaving Georgia fans scrambling in the shadows of a New Jersey Generals helicopter that picked Walker up in Athens. Walker was one of the faces of the USFL during its three years, then was one of the NFL's more productive players for another dozen seasons, finishing with more than 20,000 yards from scrimmage during his combined professional career.

As an aging back in 1994, Walker, as a Philadelphia Eagle, became the first NFL player with touchdown plays of 90-or-more yards as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Walker has dabbled in Olympic bobsledding, ballet and mixed martial arts on top of being an accomplished sprinter.

UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY: GEORGE BLANDA (1945-48)

The stars aligned with the Bluegrass State following World War II, when a prep sensation from Youngwood, Pa., headed for Lexington, Ky., and a rude debut, then was followed to Kentucky a year later by recently discharged Naval Lieutenant Commander Paul “Bear” Bryant, who guided Blanda and his successor at QB, Babe Parilli, into dizzying success that the Wildcats had never known before or since Bryant's eight-year stay. Blanda was responsible for much of the dirty work as Bryant pushed to turn the program around from a 2-8 season under Bernie Shively in 1945 to a 7-3 campaign in Bryant's first year on the job and a 20-9-2 finish to Blanda's collegiate career. Parilli, whose teams with Bryant in 1949, '50 and '51 produced bowl invitations to the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls, respectively, and victories in the latter two, had the more glamorous Kentucky career, but Blanda helped set the tempo — leading the Wildcats to their first bowl game and bowl win in 1947 (24-14 over Villanova in the old Great Lakes Bowl) — and made it cool for a young man to wear cleats instead of basketball sneakers in Lexington.

After Kentucky: Blanda's odyssey through the NFL and AFL was the stuff of legends, from the young quarterback/kicker who possessed flash and dazzle within a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame to the old man who didn't leave the NFL until 1975 at age 48 with the nickname “The Fossil.” Blanda, who played for the Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders, scored in 26 consecutive NFL seasons and set records as varied as seven touchdown passes in a single AFL game (1971), to most PATs kicked in a pro career (943), to oldest quarterback to start a title game. Blanda, who died in 2010 at age 83, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI: HENRY JOSEY (2010-PRESENT)

Like Texas A&M, Missouri went looking for greener pastures and found them with a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference prior to the 2012 season. Growing pains were acute and frequent as the SEC's third set of Tigers went 5-7, the only interruption in a winning-seasons-only streak that began in 2005 and was jumpstarted this year in a big way with an impressive 11-2 bounce-back season that produced the SEC East championship. The missing piece to the Missouri puzzle was Henry Josey, a 1,000-yard back as a sophomore in 2011, who suffered a severe knee injury that required more than a year of rehab, costing him the entire 2012 season. Josey emerged this season with another 1,000-yard season with a 6.6-yard average and 13 rushing touchdowns, including a late, tie-breaking 57-yarder in a win over Texas A&M that clinched the division title last month. He'll have a chance to add to his statistics when the Tigers face old Big 12 rival Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl next month.

After Missouri: Missouri has enjoyed its share of NFL stars during its time in the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences, like the prolific running backs Tony Galbreath and James Wilder, who picked up more than 8,000 yards from scrimmage each and combined for 90 touchdowns in the NFL, and Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow Sr. and Roger Wehrli. Certainly Josey appears headed for NFL fame should he remain healthy next season and beyond. How many backs have ever surpassed 1,000 yards in a season in two different conferences?

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA: JADEVEON CLOWNEY (2011-PRESENT)

With only a two-decade history within the SEC, the former ACC member and Major Independent Gamecocks can't produce a bigger game-changer than disruptive 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The school cheered a Heisman Trophy winner in George Rogers in 1980, but has enjoyed little national exposure otherwise.

South Carolina's history of championships includes a 1969 ACC crown and a 2010 SEC East title, which didn't seem to matter much at all when you consider a week later the Gamecocks were fed to the Cam Newton-led Auburn Tigers in a lopsided SEC Championship game.

Clowney signed with Steve Spurrier's program a few weeks later and helped lead South Carolina to its first two 11-win seasons in his first two years on campus (the Gamecocks can have a third straight 11-win season with a Capital One Bowl victory vs. Wisconsin). The program enjoyed only one 10-win season in its history before securing Clowney's signature.

After South Carolina: The sky will be the limit for the ESPN darling and probable top-three pick in next year's NFL Draft.

Offseason talk of a Heisman Trophy candidacy was thorough and tiring until Clowney suffered through a slow start to the 2013 season and had his leadership qualities questioned during an October injury. Highlights have been few and far between, but Clowney stands as the top prospect to come out of Columbia, S.C., since John Abraham was snatched up by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft and developed into one of this century's most accomplished pass rushers.

UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE: DOUG ATKINS (1950-52)

Coming along in a decade when the SEC was setting its roots as a league to be reckoned with and while Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss were rising as national powers, few players anywhere could compare to the strength and ability of Doug Atkins, a fearsome 6-foot-8, 275-pound defensive lineman that Tennessee coach Robert Neyland lured off the basketball court and into gridiron fame in Knoxville, Tenn. Atkins, who intimidated on sight during an era of 195-pound linemen, was one of the first purely defensive stars in an era of two-way football and helped Tennessee to a record of 29-3-1 in his three seasons, including the 1951 national championship that was the school's first.

After Tennessee: Atkins was selected in the first round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns and later became a Chicago Bears mainstay, spending 12 years in the Windy City as one of the founding fathers of the “Monsters of the Midway.” Atkins was an eight-time Pro Bowl pick, a four-time All-Pro with the Bears (10 times All-Pro as first- or second-teamer) and was the first player to be inducted into both the College and Pro Football halls of fame. He was named the SEC player of the quarter-century for 1950-1974 by the Birmingham Quarterback Club and was the only unanimous member of the All-SEC quarter-century team. Despite only playing three seasons in New Orleans at the end of his career, Atkins' No. 81 was retired by the Saints.

VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: BILL WADE (1949-51)

If there was ever anyone born and raised to become a Vanderbilt legend, it was Bill Wade. A 6-foot-2, 202-pound quarterback during an era of winning consistency by the Commodores, Wade was born at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, raised in Nashville, and is the son of a 1921 Vanderbilt football captain. He became the face of Commodore football during the middle part of the 20th century and went on to become the first pick of the NFL Draft in 1952. Wade's teams at Vanderbilt went a combined 18-14, including a 3-0 mark against Alabama. Oddly, the final pass of Wade's collegiate career was to his brother, Don Wade. Because Don Wade was a pulling guard on the play and instinctively hauled in an errant screen pass, a penalty that stopped Vandy on a late drive in its season-ending 35-27 loss to eventual national champion Tennessee in 1951.

After Vanderbilt: Wade starred for both the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears during a 13-year NFL career and was named to the Pro Bowl as a member of each team along the way. Following a successful run as a Hollywood celebrity in tandem with being the star quarterback of the L.A. Rams during the early days of TV, Wade led the Bears to the 1963 NFL championship and finished his career with 124 touchdown passes and 18,530 passing yards.

GAME-CHANGERS: WEST DIVISION

UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA: WILBUR JACKSON (1971-73)

The University of Alabama has produced seven Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees and countless numbers of NFL players and All-Americans, but perhaps the biggest game-changer in the history of the football program was Wilbur Jackson, a star running back out of Carroll High School in Ozark, Ala., and the first African-American to sign with the Crimson Tide. One year after Alabama opened the season with an embarrassing 42-21 home loss to Southern Cal and legendary running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the subsequent signing of Jackson and defensive lineman John Mitchell gave the SEC its midpoint to a five-year period of fully integrated football programs. With the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Jackson plugged into the new Wishbone offense, Alabama opened the next season with a win at USC and rebounded from a barely above .500 period between Paul “Bear” Bryant dynasties to go 11-1, 10-2 and 11-1 with a share of the 1973 national championship, the first of three 1970s national championships won by the Tide. Jackson finished his collegiate career as part of a crowded Alabama backfield with 1,529 rushing yards and 17 TDs.

After Alabama: Jackson was selected ninth overall in the 1974 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and spent five productive seasons there before moving on to a three-year stay with the Washington Redskins, which included a Super Bowl XVII victory against the Miami Dolphins.

UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS: DARREN McFADDEN (2005-07)

While Arkansas has never been short on productive offensive players during its 21-year run in the SEC, there is something about Darren McFadden that puts him front and center in our minds when we think about the Razorbacks. Perhaps it was his SEC record-tying 321-yard rushing performance against South Carolina, or his 206-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 2007 win over eventual national champion LSU, or his 1,500-plus-yard average while at Arkansas, or his two Heisman Trophy runner-up finishes. Whatever “it” was, the electrifying McFadden had it, somehow dwarfing the accomplishments of fellow Arkansas backs Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, who have both had substantial NFL careers themselves.

With McFadden on board in 2006, Arkansas represented the SEC West for only the second time in the SEC Championship game, losing to Florida, same as in 1995.

After Arkansas: McFadden ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and was selected by the Oakland Raiders with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. He has been slowed by a variety of injuries, but maintains a robust 4.3-yard average per carry in his limited duty, having compiled 4,783 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns in 57 career games.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY: BO JACKSON (1982-85)

No program in the nation signed as many quality running backs during a period of a decade that began in the mid-1970s, when Auburn was trotting out a “Who's Who” of eventual NFL standouts like William Andrews, James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, Tommy Agee, Lionel James and Brent Fullwood. Difficult as it may seem, Bo Jackson established himself as a cut above the rest from his first days on campus until his Heisman Trophy-winning departure. Helping the Tigers climb out of the muck of mediocrity to an SEC championship and a short list of national contenders in the span of two years, Jackson endeared himself for a lifetime to eager Auburn fans who had been without league supremacy between 1957 and 1983. The two-sport star from Bessemer, Ala., and McAdory High School led Auburn to a 13-win improvement over the Tigers' previous four-year record and helped set the table for an Auburn run that resulted in three straight SEC titles from 1987-89 and an undefeated 1993 campaign.

After Auburn: Jackson was drafted No. 1 overall by Tampa Bay in 1986, but spurned the Buccaneers in favor of a baseball offer from the Kansas City Royals. He took the sports pages by storm after eventually sharing his baseball days with the Los Angeles Raiders, who picked up Jackson in the 1987 NFL Draft on a seventh-round flier. Jackson would become an all-star in both sports and was among the most popular athletes of his time until a hip injury in a Raiders' 1991 playoff game against Cincinnati ended his NFL career and robbed him of the blazing speed (10 seconds flat in the 100 meters) that helped define the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder's baseball career.

LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY: BILLY CANNON (1957-59)

LSU's only Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Cannon, a Baton Rouge high schooler, was a star for Paul Dietzel's powerhouse teams of the late 1950s. The do-everything Cannon, who had his jersey No. 20 retired by LSU, led the Bayou Bengals to their first national championship in 1958. He then followed that by winning a Heisman Trophy in 1959, when a 14-13 loss to Tennessee was the only regular-season blemish on LSU's way to a second straight Sugar Bowl appearance. On Halloween night of that season, he wrapped up the Heisman with an 89-yard punt return in Tiger Stadium that provided the only touchdown in a 7-3 victory over a powerful Ole Miss team that earned redemption with a 21-0 victory over the Tigers in a Sugar Bowl rematch.

After LSU: Cannon was drafted No. 1 overall in both the NFL and AFL drafts, then decided on the fledgling American Football League, where he starred for the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders for a decade before winding up his pro career with the Kansas City Chiefs, a former AFL franchise that had been part of a recent merger with the NFL. Cannon became an orthodontist, but a series of real estate ventures and gambling debts later landed him in prison after a counterfeiting arrest. Working diligently to clear his name, Cannon was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008, 25 years after he had originally been selected, but denied entry due to his legal entanglements. The 1988 Dennis Quaid/Jessica Lange/John Goodman film “Everybody's All-American” is loosely based on Cannon's life story.

UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI: ELI MANNING (2000-03)

Another Manning, Eli's father Archie, could make a case for this spot. But it became quite clear, quite quickly that young Eli has Archie covered on all fronts, more than doubling Archie's Ole Miss passing yardage (10,119 to 4,753), going higher in the NFL Draft (No. 1 overall vs. No. 2 overall) and winning the Super Bowl that eluded Archie ... twice! Following years of slightly above average seasons, and sometimes dreadful ones, the signing of Eli Manning out of the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans was cause for both celebration and reminiscing for the Rebel faithful who remembered Archie's late-'60s wizardry under legendary Ole Miss coach John Vaught. And Eli produced. He notched a 31-touchdown, nine-interception season as a sophomore, then surpassed 3,400 passing yards as a junior and senior, helping the Rebels win the Cotton Bowl to cap a 10-win season and collecting the Unitas and Maxwell awards on his way out of Oxford, Miss.

After Ole Miss: Manning was drafted No. 1 overall by the New York Giants in April of 2004 and has developed into one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL over the past decade, earning three Pro Bowl invitations and Super Bowl MVP honors in the Giants' thrilling victories over the New England Patriots following the 2007 and 2011 seasons. Still in his playing prime, Manning has already surpassed 31,000 passing yards during his NFL career and appears headed for a career that could lead him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he will likely be greeted by older brother Peyton Manning.

MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY: JOHNIE COOKS (1978-81)

Coming off two straight winless seasons (0-22 combined), Bob Tyler's staff in Starkville, Miss., was given an uncharacteristic extra opportunity to get things right in 1978, and the best step the Bulldogs could've made was securing the signature of Johnie Cooks, an all-everything linebacker from Leland, Miss. Cooks helped make an instant impact for MSU, leading a maroon defense to unprecedented heights as the Bulldogs qualified for their only two bowl games in a 17-season span — the 1980 Sun Bowl (loss to Nebraska) and 1981 Hall of Fame Bowl (win over Kansas) — and made a life-long memory in 1980 with his efforts in a 6-3 victory over Paul “Bear” Bryant's two-time and defending national champion Alabama team, a win that snapped the Crimson Tide's 28-game winning streak and put Mississippi State football on the map for the first time in 40 years. Cooks, a 6-foot-4, 243-pound blitzing linebacker, was a matchup terror during his entire time in Starkville, and helped MSU to a 15-win improvement during his stay vs. the previous four years without him.

After Mississippi State: Cooks was selected No. 2 overall in the 1982 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts and moved with the Colts to Indianapolis, where he began a productive decade in the NFL. As a second-year pro, Cooks sacked Jim Plunkett of the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders four times in one game, four of his 11 sacks that season. Later in his career, Cooks was signed by the New York Giants, with whom he won a Super Bowl championship to finish the 1990 season.

TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY: JOHNNY MANZIEL (2012-PRESENT)

During a turbulent time that involved a new coach and the natural trepidation that rolls over a program in the midst of joining a new conference, the Texas A&M Aggies needed a hero. Coach Kevin Sumlin emerged as one, but not without the other, which came in the form of 19-year-old redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. “Johnny Football” transformed from scout-team freak to Heisman Trophy legend in the span of one year and left the nation wanting more after accounting for more than 5,100 total yards and 27 touchdowns. Manziel led the Aggies past eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa along the way and finished with 516 total yards in a 41-13 thrashing of former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in a Cotton Bowl statement. Manziel won't come close to reaching the 1,410 rushing yards or 21 rushing TDs he posted as a freshman (he has 686 and eight, respectively), but the repeat Heisman finalist has improved in every passing statistic as a sophomore with one game remaining, the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 31 vs. Duke.

After Texas A&M: We can only imagine what the now-21, agent-ready Manziel will be doing following a New Year's Eve game in Atlanta, one which will likely spell the end of his collegiate career. But a spot in next spring's NFL Draft appears assured.

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