ATLANTA — Long known for its power offense, Alabama opened things up this season.
With a player such as Amari Cooper, that was a good call.
Cooper, the nation’s leading receiver, was honored as the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year Monday by The Associated Press, recognizing his huge role in helping the Crimson Tide claim the No. 1 ranking and a spot in college football’s inaugural playoff.
Shane Ray became the second straight Missouri player to take the award as the leading defensive player, while Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen was selected as SEC coach of the year. Georgia running back Nick Chubb was voted the top freshman.
Cooper, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior, leads the nation with 115 catches and 1,656 yards, and ranks second with 14 receiving touchdowns. Later Monday, he was selected as one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy.
“Amari has gotten better every year,” coach Nick Saban said. “He’s a hard worker and a really prideful guy in terms of his performance. I just think he played with a lot more consistency this year. His focus has been better. He’s not let the little things bother him, whether it’s a little nagging injury or whatever. He’s just been a demon in how he competes.”
With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide (12-1) went to a more fast-paced offense that was a perfect fit for Cooper and senior quarterback Blake Sims. A team that had relied on a stout running game became a force through the air, ranking third in the SEC with 281 yards per game.
Alabama will meet Big Ten champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Day.
Ray, who leads the SEC with 14 sacks, kept the defensive award in Missouri’s hands after Michael Sam won it a year ago. With Ray and Markus Golden pacing the conference’s most fearsome pass rush, the Tigers (10-3) captured their second straight SEC East title.
In the league championship game, Missouri lost to Alabama 42-13 this past weekend, a game that was marred by Ray’s brutal hit on Sims after he delivered a 58-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers star was ejected from the game, and Missouri settled for a spot in the Citrus Bowl against Minnesota.
“It’s not how you want to end your season at all,” Ray said. “I’m not a dirty player.”
Mullen guided Mississippi State (10-2) to the top of the AP rankings for the first time in school history, a startling rise for a program that had long been an also-ran in the rugged SEC West. The Bulldogs’ quest for a perfect season ended with a loss to Alabama, and any chance of making the four-team playoff was doomed by a loss to rival Mississippi.
Still, Mullen’s team was selected to play Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
The 5-10, 228-pound Chubb was expected to play a backup role for Georgia. That changed when star running back Todd Gurley received a four-game suspension for selling his autograph, then went down with a season-ending knee injury.
With Chubb taking over the lead role, the Bulldogs didn’t miss a beat. He finished second in the SEC with 1,281 yards rushing, averaging 6.9 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns.
Cooper was a unanimous selection to the first team, which included five of his teammates: offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reggie Ragland, safety Landon Collins and punter JK Scott. Like Cooper, Collins was named on every ballot.
The other unanimous pick was Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. The Rebels, who are headed to the Peach Bowl, had four other players on the first team with offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, tight end Evan Engram, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt.
Ray was among three Missouri first-teamers, joined by receiver Bud Sasser and all-purpose player Marcus Murphy. Mississippi State was represented by star quarterback Dak Prescott and offensive lineman Ben Beckwith. Chubb and linebacker Amarlo Herrera made the team from Georgia. Auburn landed center Reese Dismukes and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s top rusher with 1,482 yards. Defensive end Bud Dupree and kicker Austin MacGinnis from Kentucky also made the elite squad.
Rounding out the team were South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper, LSU offensive lineman La’el Collins, Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight, and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Prewitt and Hargreaves were the only first-teamers to repeat from 2013.
Texas A&M was among three schools that didn’t have at least one first-teamer, though the Aggies did land four players on the second team.
Also missing from the first team were Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
The 82nd annual AP All-SEC team was selected by a 14-member media panel representing each of the conference’s 11 states.