SEC Football: Players Facing the Most Pressure in 2014
There is no greater microscope in college football than the SEC's. So, when a player agrees to become part of a team in the conference, he accepts the scrutiny that accompanies the celebrity.
It's part of the deal, age be darned.
Players and coaches are lauded or loathed. Key plays are painted, hung in living rooms and etched into fans' minds for lifetimes. Controversial calls are dissected on call-in shows and posted frame-by-frame on internet message boards. Smack is constantly talked.
Whether they're replacing a legend, returning from injury, competing for a championship or simply trying to prove a point, numerous players will have the spotlight centered on them.
Let's take a look at 12 names about to jump head-first into the pressure-cooker world of SEC criticism this year.
12. D'haquille Williams, Auburn WR
The 6'2", 216-pound wide receiver was 247Sports' No. 1-ranked JUCO player coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and he did nothing to change any minds this spring.
After leading the team with five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown in Auburn's A-Day Game, Williams drew high praise from coach Gus Malzahn.
"He's a playmaker," Malzahn told ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf. "There's no doubt. He can get open. He's one of those big, long, rangy guys that wants the football and makes a pretty good target for a quarterback."
Blessed with a big frame and speedy wheels, he carries with him as much clout as any two-year player since Cordarrelle Patterson picked Tennessee a couple recruiting cycles ago.
Patterson was selected with the 29th pick of the first round by the Minnesota Vikings and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Those are big shoes to fill, but Williams has the hype. It's essential for Auburn that he provides Nick Marshall with another able receiver to take some pressure off deep threat Sammie Coates. A lot of eyes will be on him this fall.
11. Mike Davis, South Carolina RB
There's not much left to prove for Mike Davis when it comes to sheer ability. He's one of the best running backs in the SEC, if not the nation.
But he has to prove he can stay healthy if he wants to enter the Heisman Trophy conversation.
His health is also essential to the championship hopes of South Carolina after Connor Shaw—the team's statistical and inspirational leader—exhausted his eligibility.
Davis was on his way to a monster season in 2013, rushing for 100-plus yards in seven of his team's first nine games (per cfbstats.com) before nagging injuries derailed him.
He ran for just 125 yards in three games afterward and didn't play against Coastal Carolina.
The 5'9", 216-pound junior wrecking ball is going to mean as much to his team as any player in the conference this year, and staying on the field is going to be vital.
10. Markus Golden, Missouri DE
Two big reasons why Missouri shocked the SEC in 2013 were SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam and second-round draft pick Kony Ealy.
The duo combined for a staggering 19.5 sacks, 90 tackles and five forced fumbles, wreaking havoc on quarterbacks across the league.
Both are gone.
So, the next men up are 6'3", 260-pound Markus Golden and Shane Ray.
Golden is a heat-seeking missile who finished 2013 with 6.5 sacks and 55 tackles as a situational defensive end. Those are even more productive tackling numbers than either of the stars. Ray added 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for a loss of his own.
Mizzou defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski is one of the most underrated assistants in the nation, and he always has star linemen emerge. But filling the shoes of Sam and Ealy is not going to be easy.
Golden has to continue to blossom as an elite playmaker, and the Tigers have to keep getting pressure on quarterbacks if MU is going to replicate its success from a season ago.
9. Derrick Henry, Alabama RB
Few around the country knew much about Derrick Henry prior to last season's Sugar Bowl.
That's when, despite not much going right for Alabama during a lopsided loss to Oklahoma, Tide fans hung their hats on the then-freshman's 161-yard, two-touchdown performance.
Henry since has become a player of Paul Bunyan-like legend.
His freakish 6'3", 243-pound frame, shattering national rushing records while at Yulee (Florida) High School and the fact that he is at Alabama, where running backs thrive under Nick Saban, have to translate into college stardom.
Having T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake in the same backfield will ease a lot of the spotlight off Henry. But he has the talent to win that starting running back job, and he has the ability to eventually win a Heisman.
He'll have to perform, or those high expectations in Tuscaloosa will consume him.
After all, even as good as Yeldon has been, national media members like ESPN's Edward Aschoff are ushering him out of Henry's way.
Talk about pressure.
8. Curt Maggitt, Tennessee LB/DE
Curt Maggitt has not played in a football game since November of 2012.
Yet he returns to Tennessee as a redshirt junior expected to be the anchor (along with A.J. Johnson) of an extremely young defense that has to improve dramatically for UT to have any success.
That's a big burden for somebody to have to hold on a surgically repaired knee. Especially considering he had to learn a new position this spring, lining up at defensive end in nickel situations.
The 6'3", 240-pound defender showed no signs of the injury once he shook off the rust and won the program's first Al Wilson Leadership Award, according to Alex Cate of UTSports.com.
There's no questioning Maggitt's immense talent. During his only true healthy season as a freshman in 2011, he showed signs of being a star. Memories of those flashes have caused some national pundits to project a breakout year for Maggitt.
ESPN.com's Chris Low ranked him as the league's No. 3 linebacker, saying he's a "dynamic playmaker and primed for a big season." If he isn't that kind of breakout star, UT probably won't make a bowl game again.
7. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina QB
At times throughout his five-year career in Columbia, Dylan Thompson has been brilliant. Others, he was so inconsistent that he couldn't even keep an injured Connor Shaw off the field.
Now with Shaw out of the way, this is Thompson's team.
Is he the player who shone against Clemson, UAB and in the Outback Bowl as a sophomore or the one who struggled against Missouri in 2013 before an injured Shaw came off the bench and dug the Gamecocks out of a 17-point hole?
Thompson has completed 55 percent of his career passes for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions. On the surface, those are strong numbers.
But his accuracy and leadership must improve for him to help secure the SEC Championship Game spot for Steve Spurrier's team. Developing an early rapport with his new receivers will be key as well, as Carolina has early-season matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia.
Anything short of representing the SEC East in Atlanta will be a disappointment.
6. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State QB
Mississippi State signal-caller Dak Prescott has gone from a part-time starter to a popular sleeper Heisman Trophy pick in less than a year.
It's a drastic leap for a player with immense ability who hasn't proven he can be consistently successful.
In Prescott's corner is a coach in Dan Mullen who knows how to use a dual-threat quarterback like the 6'2", 235-pound junior from Haughton, Louisiana. There are also several weapons in Starkville that Mullen has quietly placed around his quarterback.
Throughout his 23 career games, Prescott accounted for 33 touchdowns and was dynamic to close the 2013 season against Ole Miss and Rice.
But he does have accuracy issues, much like another dual-threat quarterback on the Plains that will be discussed later.
According to The Clarion-Ledger's Michael Bonner, Prescott struggled again passing during the spring game, completing just 13 of 31 passes for 249 yards.
That's an aspect of his game that Prescott definitely has to work on, not only to be considered for postseason awards but also to make Mississippi State contenders in the West.
5. Leonard Fournette, LSU RB
You may ask how an incoming freshman who has not yet played a college football game can have that much pressure.
Leonard Fournette—the 6'1", 224-pound former 5-star prospect—is perhaps the most-discussed recruit ever. He has been touted by virtually everybody who has seen him play and, according to The Times-Picayune's Jeff Duncan's story, the hype is justified.
Rapper Lil Wayne has tweeted about him. Everybody in the country recruited him, and ESPN's SportsCenter even asked whether he was "The Next Adrian Peterson?" in a headline, according to the article.
With Jeremy Hill gone, LSU's offensive backfield is wide-open. Fournette will have help with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard around, but starting should be his expectation.
It's obvious Fournette expects a lot of himself. According to this video from Sports Illustrated on YouTube, the running back said of his 2014 goals: "My expectations: Heisman candidate, All-American, national title," he said. "That's just my first year as a freshman, though."
LSU fans expect the same. The first time he looks like a freshman rather than a phenom (and it's probably going to come), questions will abound.
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn QB
Sometimes, players set high expectations based off prior performances that prove difficult to duplicate.
All Nick Marshall did as a first-year starting quarterback for Auburn was average 234.2 yards of total offense per game, account for 26 touchdowns and lead the Tigers to a narrow BCS national title game loss to Florida State.
He was the best player on the football field during most games.
Along the way, he had a Hail Mary prayer answered against Georgia and took down mighty rival Alabama in a magical first season for head coach Gus Malzahn.
Marshall's performance has some on the Plains thinking about a national championship run as an encore.
Auburn should be tough and talented once again, but living up to that stunning season is going to be a chore. For Marshall, there are some personal goals he wants to attain, such as completing 65 percent of his passes, according to Al.com's Joel A. Erickson.
Not known for his passing ability, Marshall organized twice-a-week throwing sessions this offseason. He surged in the spring game, and it looks like the extra work is paying off.
College football expectations in the state of Alabama can sometimes be overwhelming. Marshall is about to be under a national microscope once again, and if he can perform, he may just prove he's capable of being an NFL quarterback.
3. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss DL
Robert Nkemdiche shocked college football recruiting when he spurned the nation's top teams to join his brother at Ole Miss.
Heading into his sophomore season, the former consensus No. 1-ranked recruit is going to try to live up to the expectation that he would be a special defender. The 6'4", 277-pound lineman will have to do that from the interior, as Hugh Freeze is moving him inside to defensive tackle.
Nkemdiche has elite potential at the point of attack and the athleticism to play inside, but he isn't even the top-ranked sophomore at his position, according to ESPN.com's Chris Low's defensive tackle rankings.
Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson and Mississippi State's Chris Jones—both sophomores—are higher on the list than Nkemdiche.
He is part of one of the league's most talented defensive line classes in a long time, but Nkemdiche has a lot of potential to live up to. If he doesn't break out soon, he may be overshadowed by classmates.
2. Hutson Mason, Georgia QB
For years, Hutson Mason has stood on Georgia's sideline behind record-setter Aaron Murray and waited for his turn.
Finally, the Marietta, Georgia, native will be able to say the 2014 Bulldogs are his team, with Murray gone to the NFL.
It's tough sitting behind a rock like Murray. Mason's game action was extremely limited until Murray suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last year.
That's when Mason came off the bench to complete almost 61 percent of his passes for 968 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions—hardly world-class stats.
The pedestrian numbers haven't stopped some from anointing him as an able leader for the Dawgs.
With weapons like Todd Gurley, Chris Conley, Keith Marshall and others around Mason, Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee believes he has the experience and weapons to lead UGA to a national title.
Georgia hasn't won a national championship since 1980, so the expectations aren't going to be nearly as high for a first-year starter as they will be for the next guy on the list. But there is going to be plenty of pressure in Athens.
If Mason isn't mistake-prone, the Bulldogs stay healthy and Jeremy Pruitt's revamped defense shines, the pieces are present to make some noise. But reliable quarterback play is a necessity.
1. Jacob Coker, QB Alabama
Is Jacob Coker the talented, strong-armed quarterback that is the answer to Alabama's major question mark or just another product of the Crimson hype machine?
That's going to be answered fairly quickly in Tuscaloosa.
While it isn't official that Coker will be the man for UA (Blake Sims won the preliminary battle in the spring while Coker wasn't around, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press' David Paschall), it will be tough to keep the Florida State transfer off the field.
At 6'5" and 230 pounds, Coker has the size. He has the dual-threat capabilities. And he certainly has the talent surrounding him to be successful.
He just had his path blocked by a certain Heisman Trophy winner in Tallahassee.
Florida State quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders fueled the frenzy when he told CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman:
I've never had anybody with his size who throws it as well as he does. Jake has a really quick release with tremendous arm strength. Rarely does it not spiral or not go where he wants it to go… Coker's arm is kind of at a different level. Jameis has a very special arm, and this isn't any knock against Jameis, but Jake's probably the best I've seen in 25 years at throwing it.
Still, that talent is untapped. In mop-up duty in '13, Coker completed 50 percent of his 36 passes for 250 yards and an interception. Now, he could be leading a national champion contender on college football's biggest stage.
UA fans are passionate and demanding. So is Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide have won national championships without great quarterbacks, but being mistake-prone will not be tolerated in Tuscaloosa.
Is Coker ready for that level of scrutiny?
He'd better be.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: