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    Monday, March 20, 2023

    Georgia, Alabama duos stand out at SEC's midseason point

    Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts runs for a touchdown during the first half of a Sept. 16 game against Colorado State in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Southeastern Conference has produced upsets, letdowns, blowouts and frantic finishes, and it's only the midway point of the season. (Brynn Anderson/AP Photo)

    Gainesville, Fla. — The Southeastern Conference has produced upsets, letdowns, blowouts and frantic finishes — and it's only the midway point of the season.

    There have been surprises, disappointments and the usual dominance from top-ranked Alabama.

    The Tide and No. 3 Georgia are the league's only unbeaten teams and remain popular picks to reach the SEC championship game in early December. Both teams were well represented in midseason voting by Associated Press writers who cover the 14 SEC schools in 11 states.

    The results in several categories:

    Coach of the Year: Georgia's Kirby Smart.

    Smart has the Bulldogs rolling, notching impressive win after impressive win. And he's not just doing it with defense. In his second season at his alma mater after spending more than a decade working under Nick Saban, Smart has quickly built the Bulldogs into Alabama 2.0. They are recruiting near the top of the league, dominating on both sides of the ball and raising the bar in the watered-down Eastern Division. He has several huge games remaining, beginning next week against rival Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, and continuing two weeks later at Auburn.

    Also receiving votes: Saban.

    Offensive Player of the Year: Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts.

    Hurts has accounted for 14 touchdowns in seven games: eight passing and six rushing. He ranks second on the Tide with 558 yards on the ground, including three 100-yard games. Although he has topped 200 yards passing just once, against Colorado State, he's doing a much better job of protecting the football. After throwing nine interceptions in 15 games as a freshman in 2016, Hurts has just one this season.

    Also receiving votes: Georgia running back Nick Chubb, Alabama running back Damien Harris and Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson.

    Defensive Player of the Year: Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.

    It's hard to stand out on a defense filled with talent, but Fitzpatrick has this season. He's the leader of the SEC's top unit, which has held opponents to single digits in four of seven games. Fitzpatrick plays his position "as well as anybody I ever coached," Saban said. He has 32 tackles, including 4 1/2 tackles for loss, and five pass breakups. He also has an interception, a blocked kick and a forced fumble.

    Also receiving votes: LSU cornerback Donte Jackson, Alabama defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and LSU linebacker Devin White.

    Freshman of the Year: Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.

    Fromm replaced injured starter Jacob Eason in the season opener and has played well enough since that no one expects the Bulldogs to make a change now that Eason is healthy. Fromm has completed 60 percent of his passes for 836 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has two rushing scores. Smart said playing a freshman at the all-important position begins with patience and preparation.

    "Allow them to grow and develop and teaching him," Smart said. "You don't want to paralyze them with information, but you can't be too simple with the defenses in this league. You have to get better in each game."

    Also receiving votes: Florida running back Malik Davis, Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond and LSU cornerback Andraez Williams.

    Most Surprising Team: Georgia.

    Even though the Bulldogs were the preseason favorite to win the East, few expected them to have four lopsided victories through four SEC games. Beating Mississippi State 31-3 raised eyebrows. Thumping Tennessee 41-0 on the road made it clear Georgia was no fluke. The last two wins — 41-14 at Vanderbilt and 53-28 against Missouri — simply reinforced outside beliefs that the Bulldogs can play with anyone — maybe even Alabama.

    "When you see the scores and the point differential and what looks like really lights-out defensive play, that's what champions are built of," former Georgia coach and current Miami coach Mark Richt said.

    Also receiving votes: Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina.

    Most Surprising Player: Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur.

    The son of Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Kyle Shurmur has been one of a few bright spots for the Commodores. Although he looked overmatched against Alabama, he's been better since. He has completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,331 yards, with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. Only Hurts has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio in the league.

    Also receiving votes: Tennessee running back John Kelly, Georgia cornerback J.R. Reed and Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace.

    Most Disappointing Team: Tennessee.

    No surprise here. The Volunteers have been the talk of college football much of the year, from the garbage can on the sideline to the team's play on the field and to coach Butch Jones' future. It could get worse, too. Tennessee travels to Alabama on Saturday.

    Also receiving votes: Florida.

    Most Disappointing Player (s): LSU running back Derrius Guice and LSU linebacker Arden Key.

    Tie goes to LSU. Guice and Key have been equally disappointing for the Tigers this season. At times last year, Guice was just as effective as Leonard Fournette. But Guice ranks 12th in the league in rushing in 2017, averaging 4.3 yards a carry and scoring five touchdowns. Key, widely considered a first-round NFL talent, has been slow to fully recover from offseason shoulder surgery. He did, however, have his best game in LSU's victory against Auburn last week. He finished with six tackles, including a sack that sealed the victory.

    Also receiving votes: Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen and Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks.

    AP Sports Writers David Brandt, Gary Graves, Pete Iacobelli, Charles Odum, Brett Martel, Steve Megargee, Kristie Rieken, Kurt Voigt, Teresa Walker and John Zenor contributed to this report.

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