SEC Football: Power Ranking Top 15 Players Heading into 2014 Season
Pads are popping, depth charts are being sorted out and the 2014 season is almost upon us.
But before toe meets leather and we begin the most exciting three months in sports, let's take a look at some of the stars in the nation's top football conference.
Quarterback turnover from a year ago has diminished the star power around the SEC, but there's plenty of talented players returning—many of whom will be in the thick of the discussion for the Heisman Trophy.
Who are the top stars in the SEC? We rank the top 15 based on past performance and future potential in this slideshow.
Just Missed the Cut
You can't have 20 players in a ranking of the top 15, so some stars just missed the cut.
No, it isn't because I hate your team or am out to get your favorite player. Most of the players on the outside looking in haven't proven themselves in one aspect of their games or simply were bumped by players who were more deserving.
Who just missed out?
Mississippi State WR Jameon Lewis
Auburn C Reese Dismukes
Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell
Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson
Mississippi State DT Chris Jones
Arkansas RB Alex Collins
Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche
LSU CB Tre'Davious White
Auburn WR Sammie Coates
South Carolina OG A.J. Cann
15. Kentucky DE Alvin "Bud" Dupree
If you don't know the name Alvin "Bud" Dupree, it's because he plays in relative anonymity at Kentucky.
That's a shame, because the senior defensive end for the Wildcats is one of the most explosive and complete defensive ends in the SEC.
He has 173 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks during his first three seasons in Lexington and passed up a chance at the NFL for one more shot at getting Kentucky back to its first bowl game since 2010.
"Bud is extremely versatile," head coach Mark Stoops said at media days. "He's very good with his hand in the dirt playing defensive end, but you can also stand him up and move him around a little bit in the 3‑4 and play some linebacker. Very versatile player. Very instinctual."
That versatility is what lands him on this list, and what ultimately will keep him around on Sundays at the next level once he moves on from the Kentucky program. But before then, he and fellow defensive end Za'Darius Smith have some work to do and will create one of the SEC's most dangerous pass rushes in 2014.
14. Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil
Laremy Tunsil came to Ole Miss last year with 5-star hype and lofty expectations.
He lived up to them.
The 6'5", 305-pounder from Lake City, Florida earned second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press last year, joining fellow Rebel Evan Engram (TE) as the first two true freshmen in program history to earn All-SEC honors.
Despite the strong debut in 2013, Tunsil is still hard at work.
"I just don't pay attention to that stuff," Tunsil said according to the Associated Press (h/t GulfLive.com). "I keep working and I stay humble. I've still got a lot of things to work on."
He's a force at left tackle in pass protection and can get push in the running game, which makes him a tremendous asset in head coach Hugh Freeze's offense. He has some work to do to become more consistent in as a run-blocker, but he showed in his first season in Oxford that he is on the brink of superstardom with just a few minor tweaks.
13. Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
There's no denying Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon's production over his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2012 in a reserve role, then followed it up with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns as the featured back in 2013.
But fumbling issues—five on the year with four lost—and with the emergence of Derrick Henry and his power running game have Yeldon fighting for carries during fall camp.
He's elusive in space, can hit the jets at the drop of a hat and has legitimate home run-hitter speed. If his offensive line can be consistent in zone-blocking schemes, it will make Yeldon even better. He was changing directions behind the line of scrimmage too much last season, and if that offensive line can get itself worked out he's in line for another impressive season in 2014.
12. Georgia LB Ramik Wilson
Georgia's defense was more punch line than power in 2013, but it wasn't due to lack of effort from the linebackers—particularly middle linebacker Ramik Wilson.
Wilson led the SEC with 133 tackles, 20 more than the man who finished second: Missouri's Andrew Wilson. At 6'2", 237 pounds, Wilson flies to the football, is a devastating hitter and is physical enough to shed blocks and get to the ball-carrier.
He has been absent for the majority of fall camp recovering from concussion symptoms but should be available for the Bulldogs' opener vs. Clemson.
Richt says Ramik Wilson “will be fine” and expects him to play for the first game.— Logan Booker (@LoganBooker_BI) August 6, 2014
They're going to need him. He's the quarterback of that defense, and having his experience in the middle of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's defense is crucial for the defense to have a turnaround and get back to a competitive level.
11. Alabama DE A'Shawn Robinson
There's really no other way to say it: Alabama defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson is a freak.
At 6'4", 320 pounds, Robinson is big enough to play nose tackle but quick enough to be a force at defensive end in head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's 3-4 scheme.
He's been battling a sprained knee early in fall camp, but when he's healthy Robinson provides the Alabama defense with the size and versatility to be a force against every offensive scheme. He had 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as a freshman in 2013 and showed the quickness to track down mobile quarterbacks and rushers off the edge.
He's similar to former Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus, who helped the Tide claim the 2009 national championship with his ability to shed blocks and get to the football. Robinson's ability to force pressure behind the line of scrimmage will be invaluable to this Crimson Tide defense.
10. Auburn QB Nick Marshall
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall wasn't as polished in the passing game as head coach Gus Malzahn would like, but Marshall made it work. He passed for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns, rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, and came within 13 seconds of leading Auburn to its second national title in four years.
The best is yet to come, too.
Marshall showed tremendous touch during Auburn's spring game, hitting new receiver "Duke" Williams over the middle over the linebackers, tight end C.J. Uzomah on a timing route and then Williams in the corner on a fade all in the same drive.
These aren't things we saw much from Marshall in 2013, which will put a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses.
"Our big goal offensively is balance," Malzahn said at media days. "We want to be more balanced. We were very good at running the football. We really worked hard on making defenses pay for rolling an extra safety down and taking chances."
If spring was any indication, Marshall will make them pay early and often in 2014.
9. Ole Miss S Cody Prewitt
There's no denying who the leader of the Ole Miss defense was in 2014: safety Cody Prewitt.
The native of Bay Springs, Mississippi finished the season with 71 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and an SEC-best six interceptions and returns in 2014 as the star of the Rebels' deep and talented secondary. The 6'2", 217-pounder is so good that he may see his role change a little bit in the future.
"I do feel his future, if he continues to mature, is as an outside linebacker for the next level," Freeze told B/R in March. "But he's a pretty good safety, too. You'll see him roll down some, but he won't do it full-time."
He's a magnet to the football, is not afraid to stick his nose in and help out in run support and is the guy who gets the rest of that talented and young secondary in the right place.
8. Florida DE "Buck" Dante Fowler, Jr.
The best way to describe Florida "Buck" Dante Fowler, Jr. is that he's "scary."
The 6'3", 277-pounder from St. Petersburg, Florida notched 50 tackles, 10.5 of which were for a loss, and had 3.5 sacks during the Gators' 4-8 season of 2013.
"Dante Fowler is an explosive rusher, a guy you have to account for in the protection," head coach Will Muschamp said at media days. "We need to create as many one‑on‑ones for Dante as we can. I think he has a chance to have a great year."
Those one-on-one matchups are dependent on the coaching staff putting him in position to thrive and the rest of the Gators' defensive line and front seven living up to their potential.
They will, and as a result Fowler will own quite a bit of real estate in the opposing backfield in 2014.
7. LSU OT La'el Collins
LSU is going through an offensive overhaul since wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, running back Jeremy Hill and quarterback Zach Mettenberger all moved on from the program after last season. But the foundation remains largely intact, and left tackle La'el Collins is the centerpiece of that foundation.
At 6'5", 321 pounds, Collins proved to be a complete tackle last season, protecting Mettenberger in pass protection and blowing defenders off the line of scrimmage against the run.
What's scary is that he's gotten even better, according to offensive line coach Jeff Grimes (via Ross Dellenger of the Baton Rouge Advocate):
#LSU OL coach Jeff Grimes says that La'el Collins has improved just as much, if not more, than anyone on the line since he arrived in Feb.— Ross Dellenger (@DellengerAdv) August 11, 2014
He already proven during his time in Baton Rouge that he has the ability to be a star, and he's incredibly important to the 2014 Tigers. His ability to pass-protect will help either Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings stay comfortable in the pocket and help running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette get the offense into advantageous situations.
6. Alabama WR Amari Cooper
Who's going to be the best friend to either Jacob Coker or Blake Sims this fall in Tuscaloosa? Wide receiver Amari Cooper.
The 6'1", 210-pound junior has the speed to stretch the field vertically, the size to present matchup problems over the middle and the moves to be dangerous in the screen game. Simply put, he's the best wide receiver in college football.
On top of that, he has progressed as a leader after battling through nagging injuries including a turf toe last fall.
"I've learned how to handle adversity in a better way," Cooper said. "I think I could have handled my injury better last year and could have done more for my teammates. I've become a better leader, just listening to the things that coach [Nick] Saban tells us. Every time he talks, you want to listen because he knows what he's talking about."
He has 1,736 yards and 15 touchdowns during his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa and will be the go-to guy this year for whoever wins the quarterback job.
5. South Carolina RB Mike Davis
There's only so many times a player can be called "underrated" before he becomes properly rated. South Carolina's Mike Davis is properly rated...as a stud.
At 5'9", 223 pounds, Davis is a bowling ball between the tackles, sneaking up on defenders and laying them out before they even see him. He also possesses breakaway speed that makes him incredibly dangerous in space.
He's a sure-fire star in the NFL, and that could come sooner rather than later.
South Carolina RB Mike Davis didn't come out and say it, but it seems almost certain this will be his last year in college— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) August 3, 2014
He rushed for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and will be running behind a veteran offensive line in 2014. Barring injury, an encore performance should be expected.
4. Alabama S Landon Collins
Landon Collins started out the 2013 season as a contributor who can play nickel and provide depth for the Alabama Crimson Tide, but a suspension to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and a season-ending injury to Vinnie Sunseri forced the 6'0", 222-pounder into a very prominent role at both strong and free safety.
It worked out. Collins had 69 tackles, four for a loss, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and one fumble recovery last season.
Now he's a starter at strong safety full-time and has a full season of very important experience under his belt.
"Being a student of the game, definitely [look forward to] stepping into the [leadership] role and having guys look up to me and ask me questions the same way I asked my teammates when I was young," Collins said. "I'm definitely ready to do that."
He has the body to be a force against the run, but don't be fooled by his size. He's quick, fast and an asset in coverage, which is a huge benefit to a Crimson Tide defense that's replacing its other three starters.
3. Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Life without quarterback Johnny Manziel will be challenging for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, but whether it's sophomore Kenny Hill or freshman Kyle Allen taking the snaps, the winner of the quarterback job will have quality protection.
First it was Luke Joeckel, and then it was Jake Matthews, and the next in line of top-tier offensive tackles in College Station is Cedric Ogbuehi—who like Matthews moved over to left tackle from right tackle prior to his senior season. Ogbuehi is quick off the line and gets downfield in the running game and is quick enough to step out and handle fast defensive ends in passing situations.
He is tremendous in all aspects of his game and was projected as a first-rounder (13th overall) in next year's NFL draft by B/R's Curt Popejoy earlier this month.
"If Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi is still available at this point in the first round, the Kansas City Chiefs should run to the podium," wrote Popejoy.
First, though, the talented group of Texas A&M running backs led by Tra Carson should have a field day running behind Ogbuehi, who is more than capable of accepting the challenge of stepping in for two legends at left tackle for the Aggies.
2. Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III isn't just one of the top players in the SEC; he has a case for being the best defensive player in all of college football.
He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2013, notching 38 tackles, breaking up 11 passes and picking off three en route to third-team Associated Press All-American honors.
Hargreaves, who's the son of a coach, knows the game well, is physical at the line of scrimmage and sticks to receivers like glue in one-one-one coverage. He's the kind of player who eliminates half of the field, which is a huge advantage for the defense in passing situations.
"He has the tools, he has the athletic ability and he's a great student on and off the field, with film," "Buck" Dante Fowler told ESPN.com's Sam Khan, Jr. "Also, just being a leader, being a coach, being able to teach guys, he's helping himself become a better player."
Hargreaves, who injured his knee early in fall camp but should be back soon, is a huge asset for this Florida defense. Expected to be one of the best in the SEC, if Hargreaves and his mates in the defensive backfield can grab some turnovers and put the offense in a good position, it might be all Florida needs to become a contender in the SEC East.
1. Georgia RB Todd Gurley
When Todd Gurley suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the LSU game last year, it was a sign of things to come. No, the Bulldogs didn't lose to the Tigers. In fact, they won a shootout and survived in overtime the next week at Tennessee without their star running back.
Things went south in a hurry.
They lost back-to-back games to eventual division champ Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out October, and when Gurley came back at less than 100 percent for the Florida game, injuries around the program had transformed Georgia from a national title contender to a team that needed boatloads of help to have a chance in the SEC East.
Gurley's health is imperative to Georgia's success.
"If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it," head coach Mark Richt said at media days. "Hopefully he stays healthy. I see that he's getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky's the limit for him."
The 6'1", 226-pounder has rushed for 2,374 yards and 27 touchdowns over his first two seasons in Athens, has the power to run through opposing defenders, is a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game and has a track-star pedigree that makes him a pure home run-hitter when he gets into the open field.
Simply put, he's the total package at running back.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.