With cameras focused on AJ McCarron sobbing uncontrollably on the sidelines, someone tuning in with one minute remaining in the Alabama-LSU classic would have presumed it all slipped away, a perfect season evaporating in a riotous sea of purple and gold.
TV cameras did, after all, show the Crimson Tide were in Tiger Stadium, where — according to LSU coach Les Miles — opponents’ dreams come to die. But one dream barely made it out alive Saturday night. McCarron found freshman running back T.J. Yeldon for a 28-yard screen pass to stun the Tigers 21-17.
Those were tears of joy on Alabama’s sidelines, and they were the highlight of yet another strong SEC tilt that saw its two most nationally relevant teams — top-ranked Alabama and No. 6 Georgia — stay on course for an SEC Championship meeting. Georgia overcame a slow start to demolish Ole Miss in Sanford Stadium.
Florida and Texas A&M also kept their heads up in the BCS standings, as the Gators escaped Missouri — once again, just barely — while the Aggies put on an offensive clinic in Starkville, exposing Mississippi State 38-13.
There were disappointments, with the usual 2012 cast of characters lining up to be the weekend’s punchline, but there was more good than bad Saturday. That’s the beauty of putting on a classic with the entire nation watching.
Here is Saturday’s honor roll for the best and worst in the SEC:
Big Men On Campus
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The freshman sensation’s season-long joyride has landed him on these types of lists numerous times in 2012, but this performance tops the charts. For the first time in his (extremely) young career, Manziel put on a show against a quality defense. In past meetings with Florida and LSU, he accounted for just one touchdown and three turnovers. Not this time. He posted 440 total yards and two rushing touchdowns against the Bulldogs. The Heisman possibilities still exist.
Aaron Murray, Georgia: Big-game Murray is often used in sarcastic tones, but he came up in a big way against the Rebels. Granted, Ole Miss is far from a quality defense, but 384 passing yards and four touchdowns in a contest that brought the Bulldogs within one game of its second consecutive SEC Championship appearance is worth recognition. Murray now has 2,448 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. Georgia’s passing records are being obliterated.
Florida’s defense: This group is maniacal and it kept Florida’s head above water in the SEC East race. After another paltry performance from coach Will Muschamp’s offense, the defense stepped up, forcing four more turnovers — bringing its grand total to 22 this season. It may sound like a broken record, but safeties Josh Evans and Matt Elam were excellent again (nabbing an interception apiece).
Kevin Norwood, Alabama: Amid the bedlam surrounding the result in Baton Rouge, it is easy to forget Norwood, who has proven in two straight LSU clashes that he is a clutch receiver of the highest variety in the college ranks. Nearly 10 months removed from torching former LSU corner Tyrann Mathieu in the BCS title game, Norwood hurt LSU once more — this time on the final drive that kept Alabama’s season alive. He caught three passes on the Crimson Tide’s game-winning drive, finishing with five receptions for 62 yards.
Zach Mettenberger, LSU: Was this even the same quarterback? How does a guy who completed just 43 percent of his passes in the previous three games solve Alabama’s (once presumed) unsolvable defense? The junior finished the game with nearly 300 yards passing and a score. He was phenomenal in the second half and might have turned a corner Saturday night.
Disappointment of the Week
Sal Sunseri, Tennessee: Transitioning to the 3-4 defense takes time. It took Nick Saban one season in Tuscaloosa. It took Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham a season in Athens. But this particular transition may cost Sunseri, Tennessee’s first-year defensive coordinator, and his boss their jobs. With Derek Dooley on the brink of unemployment, Tennessee has allowed 222 points in the past five games — this time it was Troy (3-3 in the Sun Belt) gaining 721 yards on offense. The clock is ticking.
Coach of the Week
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: Very few could have imagined a more successful entrance into the SEC for the Aggies and their first-year coach. With Texas A&M’s first win over a ranked conference opponent since joining the league, Sumlin’s run looks more and more legitimate. He has a young star in Manziel. The defense is playing above expectations. The SEC West needs to keep its collective head on a swivel, and that starts with top-ranked Alabama next weekend.
Player of the Week
T.J. Yeldon: The similarities between the Yeldon-Eddie Lacy backfield and Trent-Richardson-Mark Ingram one are undeniable. And, much like Richardson, it looks like Yeldon is a future star. After nearly being the goat on a fourth quarter fumble (McCarron certainly wasn’t faultless with his handoff), Yeldon finalized a play that will live in Crimson Tide lore forever. He finished with 104 total yards and the game-winning score, a dash that only a select few in college football could make.