December 13, 2008
The Doc definitely does not have a vote for tonight's ceremony in Manhattan, and frankly wouldn't cross the street to cast a lot in this race. If someone from the Downtown Athletic Club flew to my house and put a ballot in front of my face and a pen in my hand, though, and threw in some some strawberry blintzes, I might fill it out with the following names:
• Eric Berry Tennessee. Future millionaires Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno will agree with this choice, I think:
Since they were only paying attention to the ballooning loss column, most people probably missed that Tennessee's defense finished fourth nationally in yards allowed -- ahead of Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma and Penn State and one spot behind Alabama -- and 11th in scoring D despite bearing the statistical burden of defensive or special teams touchdowns by UCLA, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina, Wyoming and Vanderbilt. The Vol D rocked all year, and no member harder than Berry: He was third on the team in tackles, had three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, broke up six passes and picked off seven; he took two of those back for touchdowns in Volunteer wins and averaged 38 yards per INT return.
If there had been enough offense on the other side to make UT a championship contender, that exact resumé would have landed Berry in Manhattan this weekend in the Charles Woodson role. Instead, he had to cede superstardom to the horror show offense and was reduced to quietly complaining on his Facebook page about being snubbed by the Jim Thorpe Foundation. It's Lane Kiffin's primary moral duty to make sure this kid doesn't have to endure another year like 2008 before he takes his act to the NFL.
• Brandon Spikes Florida. For many legitimate reasons, Rey Maualuga is the most hyped middle linebacker in the country, so if you need the comparison, think of Spikes as Maualuga with more big plays: Spikes was more active in opponents' backfields (4 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) and returned interceptions for touchdowns in the blowout wins over LSU and South Carolina. Besides leading Florida in tackles, Spikes made a big play in almost every game, and in especially in the Gators' biggest games: His combined line against Miami, Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida State and Alabama is 49.5 tackles (4.5 for loss), three sacks, four interceptions, two touchdowns and one ferocious tone-setter.
• Brian Orakpo Texas. Orakpo finally delivered some of the numbers to match his "workout warrior" hype -- 10.5 sacks, including two against Oklahoma, and another 5.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles on top of that -- but it's the influence of the pass rush that usually counts as much as actually getting home, as the usually untouchable Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel found out in back-to-back weeks in mid-October:
4. Andre Smith Alabama. It's almost impossible to single out or calculate the value of a single offensive lineman, but ornery, nimble 340-pounders get certain concessions. Smith is the closest thing over the last couple years to an Orlando Pace or Bryant McKinnie, the exceedingly rare left tackle who deserves as much as hype as any stat-driven player for sheer size and dominance alone. The Tide's primetime, wipeout performances against Clemson and Georgia in September were two of the most impressive of the entire season, and no one was more essential to the physical makeover than Smith (I suggest 'mute' on the first clip, but they're your ears):
Smith gave John Parker Wilson enough time to look good. You shouldn't need a stronger endorsement than that.