SEC Football: Top 10 Contenders for 2014 Offensive Player of the Year
The Southeastern Conference is in search of its next stable of offensive superstars.
Several big names on the defensive side of the ball left for the NFL draft, and the new crop of conference talent is strong but largely unproven. But that is nothing compared to the gargantuan gulf left on the offensive side.
Stars around which the SEC built its reputation of being deep and dynamic are gone—players such as Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Tre Mason, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Connor Shaw, Jarvis Landry, Jeremy Hill, Henry Josey and Jordan Matthews.
Countless other players teams depended on have exhausted eligibility and are heading to the NFL.
After the Florida State Seminoles won this past national championship and thereby derailed its run of BCS dominance, the SEC enters the playoff era with tons of talent but a many leadership questions, too.
Any time a list such as this doesn't include talented rising stars like Derrick Henry and Maty Mauk, you know there is still a deep pool of players. Still, 2014 should be interesting, to say the least.
Let's take a look at this year's candidates for the conference's Offensive Player of the Year award.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
If he's healthy, Todd Gurley will run away from the pack in for Player of the Year honors in the SEC.
With Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs breaking in a new quarterback in 2014 (albeit a senior in Hutson Mason), they'll rely heavily on the run.
Even in a crowded backfield that will welcome back from injury Keith Marshall and introduce to the world Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Gurley will get his.
Despite an injury-plagued 2013 season, Gurley managed to rush for 989 yards and a 6.0 yard-per-carry average while scoring 10 touchdowns. It wasn't the encore he wanted after a dynamic freshman year, but expect him to bounce back to full strength in 2014.
Gurley's combination of power and speed makes him one of the league's most consistent weapons.
This will likely be the final season for the 6'1", 232-pound workhorse from Tarboro, N.C., and his third year in Athens could carry with it plenty of Heisman Trophy consideration.
The prediction here is Gurley wins the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top college running back and heads to the NFL with plenty of hardware.
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
A year ago, Nick Marshall was not yet on Auburn's campus. Now, he is one of the top candidates for SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
That's what happens when a 6'1", 210-pound former Georgia Bulldogs defensive back-turned-quarterback leads the Tigers to the BCS National Championship Game in his first year on the Plains.
There is no question Marshall needs to improve his passing accuracy and decision-making in the passing game, but he still put up incredible numbers in 2013 as a strong-armed, do-it-all athlete who led Gus Malzahn's potent attack.
Marshall had 1,068 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground while completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 more yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. That isn't bad for a player who was kind of winging it.
Malzahn indicated to Al.com's Joel Erickson shortly after the championship game that Auburn could throw the football more in '14. If so, Marshall will have the opportunity to prove he is not only a complete quarterback but an NFL prospect.
What he did in one year, not going through spring and not winning the job until two weeks before the season, was phenomenal. I don't know if there's ever been a situation similar to that.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
At a compact 5'9", 215 pounds, Mike Davis looks like the prototypical every-down SEC running back.
He played like one of the best in the conference during the first two-thirds of his sophomore season.
Now, with quarterback Connor Shaw gone, the rising South Carolina junior back will see much of the load shifted to his sturdy shoulders, as the Gamecocks look to bring Steve Spurrier his fourth consecutive 11-win season.
In a league filled with star runners, Davis finished fourth with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on a 5.8 average.
Those numbers are a tiny bit misleading. According to Charleston's The Post and Courier's Ryan Wood, Davis eclipsed 1,000 yards after the first nine games. He wore down a bit toward the end of the year, rushing for a combined 76 yards on 28 carries against Florida and Clemson.
Davis wasn't 100 percent healthy, and he concluded the year with 49 yards on just nine carries in the Capital One Bowl.
With a little more uncertainty surrounding the Gamecocks, Davis should break through with a huge 2014. But he needs to stay healthy to contend for the league's top honor on offense.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
The recruiting world was stunned early in 2013 when Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze convinced the nation's top wide receiver to come all the way from Crete, Ill., to Oxford for his college career.
But much like Laquon Treadwell's commitment to the Rebels validated Freeze as a recruiter, Freeze featuring his freshman phenom last year solidified Treadwell as a viable Offensive Player of the Year candidate as a sophomore.
Treadwell set Ole Miss freshman records with 72 catches for 608 yards and five touchdowns. The reigning SEC freshman of the year should see his numbers surge since Donte Moncrief elected not to return for his senior year.
At 6'3", 215 pounds, Treadwell is an all-around terror for cornerbacks.
He was smart enough to grasp Freeze's offense relatively quickly. When he didn't know what he was doing, the coaches were smart enough to throw quick passes to Treadwell and let his immense talent take over.
With a senior quarterback in Bo Wallace and a ton of talent around him, Treadwell should have a monster 2014 season. He will be the league's best receiver in a year when there are few proven targets.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
When you've got so much talent on your roster, really good players tend to be underappreciated.
Such is the case when you've got two of the top five running backs in the SEC in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Oh yeah, Kenyan Drake isn't bad, either.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has proven over the years that he can juggle a stellar stable of running backs, and 2014 is going to be another one of those seasons.
How Saban handles the runners in a year where he's going to be breaking in a new quarterback will go a long way in determining whether the Crimson Tide are national champion contenders or just another ho-hum double-digit win team.
'Bama fans everywhere are clamoring for the massive Henry to start over Yeldon, and he very well may wind up getting the nod.
Until he does, the safe money is on Yeldon, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground in 2013.
He is big and fast and patient, and he brings to the table all of the intangibles to make a great running back. But the bottom line is Yeldon must hang onto the football, or Henry is going to eat up those carries in a hurry.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
Looking for an underrated sleeper on the list? Look no further than Starkville, Miss., where redshirt junior quarterback Dak Prescott could very well turn some heads in 2014.
The Haughton, La., native didn't get a full slate of action last year thanks to Dan Mullen's insistence on playing Tyler Russell despite the fact that Prescott was much more productive.
Now with Russell out of the way, Prescott should improve on his 1,940 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Most people probably didn't notice, but Prescott's passing numbers weren't too far away from those of Nick Marshall.
Also, Prescott finished 11th in the SEC with 829 rushing yards. Had he played the entire time, Prescott may have posted similar rushing numbers as Marshall as well.
Mullen recently spoke of his quarterback to ESPN's Edward Aschoff:
He's a very level-headed kid. He's gone through some tough things, obviously with his mom passing away [last] year. A lot of the stuff he's had to overcome, he lets that keep him in check. I haven't seen him be anything different than what he is, and he has a drive to be even better. He's working harder now than I've ever seen him work before, which says a lot because he's one of the hardest-working guys on our team.
At 6'2", 230 pounds, Prescott is a load, and his skill set is impressive. After he concluded the season with strong performances in wins over Ole Miss and Rice, there is some excitement buzzing around him.
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Another player who battled injuries last year and wasn't quite the same force that he was as a freshman was Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Even so, there is no doubting the elite skills of the 6'1", 202-pound Crimson Tide target.
Once he mended, Cooper torched Auburn for 178 yards on six catches including a 99-yard touchdown. Then, in the Sugar Bowl, he had nine more grabs for 121 yards against Oklahoma.
The Miami native is expected to be completely healthy in 2014 and should return to his freshman form when he had 1,000 receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns...that is, if 'Bama can find somebody to get him the ball.
Whether it's Jacob Coker or somebody else tossing Cooper passes, Nick Saban is smart enough to throw quick-hitches or bubble screens to ensure the ball gets into the hands of his star receiver.
Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
It takes a talented runner to break onto the scene with the kind of freshman season that Arkansas' Alex Collins had in 2013.
The first-year player from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., overcame a bizarre fiasco on national signing day involving his mother running away with his national letter of intent. Nevertheless, Collins surged to a super freshman year for Arkansas' first-year head coach Bret Bielema.
Collins joined Darren McFadden as only the second Razorbacks runner to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman.
He was named the Associated Press' SEC Freshman of the Year and was featured on several All-Freshmen teams in the process.
So, what will he do for an encore?
The Hogs offense—and the entire team, for that matter—is going to have to be much better for Collins to get serious Player of the Year consideration.
Also, Collins is going to have to put up more consistent numbers. After a torrid start to 2013, he failed to total more than 100 rushing yards in any of his final seven games. Teams keyed on him because the Hogs had nothing else offensively, and the extra attention hurt Collins' numbers.
If Arkansas improves significantly and Collins is the man who carries that turnaround on his shoulders, Bielema may have another star running back to boast about in recruiting.
Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss
Because of conference has lost so many of its veteran signal-callers, the quarterback position in the SEC for 2014 is tough to figure out.
Because these players have the ball in their hands on every play, there will always be contenders for the conference's top offensive honor under center. The big question this year is, "Who will be the top SEC quarterbacks?"
Bo Wallace has the ability and the talent around him to post a big senior season, so that's why he gets the slight nod over Missouri's Maty Mauk. Wallace enters his senior season second in Ole Miss history in total offense and passing yards.
He can win games with his arm or legs. But he can also lose them.
Wallace trimmed his interceptions from 17 down to 10 last year, but between picks and his fumbling issues, he tends to be a bit of a turnover machine.
The 6'4", 209-pound Pulaski, Tenn., native has plenty of skills, but he has to be more clutch with games on the line. If he learns to hang onto the football, he has a chance to be a star.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Maybe it's a stretch to put a true freshman on the list, but when that true freshman is arguably the best high school running back in the past decade, it's less of a gamble.
Leonard Fournette will head from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans to play for his home-state LSU Tigers, and he will eventually slide right into the primary running back role vacated by Jeremy Hill.
At 6'1", 226 pounds, Fournette has all the tools to be great. He was the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 class, according to the 247Sports.com, and he picked the Tigers over Alabama during the Under Armour All-America Game.
He finished his high school career with 7,630 rushing yards and 90 touchdowns.
Even though the Tigers return Terrence Magee and his 626 rushing yards along with Kenny Hilliard (who finished with 310 yards and seven scores), neither are as talented as Fournette.
He is intelligent and hard working enough to figure things out in a hurry, and because of the commitment LSU coach Les Miles made to him throughout the recruiting process, the coach will give Fournette every opportunity to earn meaningful carries.
That's why it's possible for Fournette to open his career on the Bayou with a 1,000-plus yard season performance and become a dark-horse candidate for the league's top player.