SEC Football 2011: Ranking the 10 Best Players in the Conference

Jeremy HillmanContributor IAugust 25, 2011

SEC Football 2011: Ranking the 10 Best Players in the Conference

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    The SEC is literally stockpiled with football talent. There are future NFL starters littering rosters all over the conference.

    The question is...of all of these stars, which players will prove to be the best-of-the-best in 2011?

    This projection is not like the Heisman race. It isn't necessarily the most popular players or the players from the best teams. It is a list of who, I believe,  the most elite players in the conference are, regardless of the team's success.

    The good thing for these guys is when you are considered one of the best in the SEC, you are considered among the best in the nation.

    Click through to see my ranking of the top 10 players in the Southeastern Conference heading into the upcoming season.

10. LB Chris Marve, Vanderbilt

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    Chris Marve is the leader and on-the-field manager of the Vanderbilt defense.

    He is a sure tackler and hard hitter. NFL scouts consistently agree that Marve is a future NFL starter.

    After missing the Eastern Michigan game last season and being limited versus Georgia in 2010, he still was able to accumulate 80 tackles on the season. Although he missed making 100 tackles for the first time in his college career (105 tackles in 2008, 121 tackles in 2009), he consistently made his presence felt all over the field.

    On top of the tackles, Marve racked up eight tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and even broke up two passes in 2010. 

    He is healthy and ready to have a big senior campaign. Look for 2009 tackle numbers for Marve in 2011 and look for him to continue to be the best player wearing a Vanderbilt uniform...and to be one of the best players in the SEC overall.

9. QB Stephen Garcia, South Carolina

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    Mental mistakes, on and off the field, are the first thing that come to mind when you hear the name Stephen Garcia.

    However, if he can get his head straight, he has the arm strength and accuracy to have a huge season in 2011 (he finished 2010 with an impressive 64 percent completion percentage).

    With all-world wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to throw to and star running back Marcus Lattimore running to help open up the passing game, Garcia has a solid shot at another 3,000-plus passing yards season (he threw for 3,059 yards a year ago).

    All he needs to do is avoid mental errors and decrease the amount of turnovers that have plagued him in the past (Garcia had 14 interceptions and costly fumbles last season).

    Look for the focus to be there for this senior quarterback with one last chance to prove his critics wrong. That should lower the turnovers a bit and place Garcia in position to be considered a top player in the conference.

8. WR Greg Childs, Arkansas

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    Last season, Greg Childs appeared in eight games for the Razorbacks, before suffering a season ending injury against Vanderbilt.

    In just eight games, Childs had 46 receptions for 659 yards and six touchdowns.

    If his season had continued injury-free, his stats (through all 13 games) should have projected out to be around 75 catches, 1,060 yards and 10 touchdowns and been more than enough for him to earn him first team All-SEC honors.

    The 6'3" 217 pound receiver is said to be recovered from his injury and ready to play.

    With a pass friendly offense, if Childs can stay healthy in 2011, he could realize those projections from a year ago.

7. QB Aaron Murray, Georgia

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    When you look at Aaron Murray's performance and stats from a year ago, it is hard to remember that he was a freshman.

    In 2010, Murray threw for over 3,000 yards and had an impressive 24 to eight touchdown to interception ratio.

    When you take into account that he was missing his number one receiver, ultra-talented A.J. Green, for the first part of the season, these numbers are even more solid.

    The only concern is that he had some games where he looked a bit lost in the offense, such as his 198 passing for zero touchdowns and two interception performance in the bowl loss to Central Florida. I will choose to chalk that up to being a freshman first year starter.

    Look for another step up for this young quarterback and look for him to continue to improve in 2011 and beyond.

6. RB Michael Dyer, Auburn

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    Michael Dyer started at running back last season as a freshman for the national champion Auburn Tigers.

    Along the way, he broke Bo Jackson's lofty freshman rushing yards record at Auburn.  Dyer ended the 2010 season with 1,093 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

    Even more impressive was his average of six yards per carry last year. Because he shared the load with fellow Tiger running back Onterio McCalleb (810 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last season) and the SEC rushing leader (QB Cam Newton), he didn't get as many carries as some other backs. However, he took advantage of the touches he did get.

    Look for this super sophomore to get a few more touches now that Newton has left the Plains, even as he continues to share carries with McCalleb, and once again gain over 1,000 yards on the season.

    Furthermore, look for him to get many more carries at the goal line and greatly increase his number of visits to the end zone.

5. RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

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    Now that Mark Ingram has graduated to the NFL, running back Trent Richardson will get his shot to be the featured back in the Alabama offense.

    In the past, he has done well as a starter, such as his 144 rushing yards and touchdown against Penn State last season while Mark Ingram was out with an injury.

    Last season, Richardson averaged 6.25 yards per carry and impressed coaches and scouts with his agility and strength.

    The only question is if Richardson can carry load for an entire season without injury or wear and tear slowing him down.

    If he does stay healthy, Trent Richardson has every opportunity, behind a solid offensive line, to be at the top of this list by the end of the season.

4. LB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

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    Dont'a Hightower contributed greatly to the Alabama defense as a freshman in 2008 and coaches had huge expectations for him in 2009.

    Unfortunately, his 2009 season was cut short with a torn ACL.

    Battling through rehab, he was able to play at almost full strength in 2010, although he seemed a step slower and more timid than he played in his freshman season at Alabama.

    Through all of this, he still finished second on the team in tackles last season (69 stops) and became the leader of a tough defense.

    Although the riskiest pick on my list because of health concerns (along with the ACL issue, he broke his hand this off-season), Dont'a Hightower has been moved from Middle Linebacker to Will Linebacker and should be around the ball very often.

    Look for big plays and over 100 tackles from Hightower this season, if his body holds up.

3. RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

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    Marcus Lattimore burst onto the SEC scene as a highly touted true freshman last season.

    He ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ridiculous numbers in the SEC for a freshman back.

    He did all of that without playing against Vanderbilt (the worst rushing defense in the conference) and only getting one carry in the bowl game against FSU.

    The sky is the limit with Lattimore. He has a bit of an injury concern, after missing some time last season with nagging injuries. However, he is healthy and has looked strong in offseason practices. 

    Look for Lattimore to lead the SEC in rushing in 2011 and battle teammate Alshon Jeffery for SEC Offensive MVP.

2. LB Danny Trevathan, Kentucky

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    What? A Kentucky player near the very top of the list?

    Yes, and he deserves to be here. He actually may be the very best player in the SEC.

    Consider that last season Trevathan racked up 144 tackles. That is more tackles than anyone in the past five seasons. Even more than star Ole Miss (and now star NFL player) LB Patrick Willis had in 2006 to lead the conference (137 tackles).

    On top of that, Trevathan recorded 16 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, two sacks and batted down two passes on the season. He is a play maker on a team that needs big plays.

    He runs to the ball and makes tackles without fail.

    Look for Danny Trevathan to win the SEC Defensive MVP award and enjoy being a first round draft selection in 2012.

1. WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina

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    Alshon Jeffery may be the best college football player in the nation. If not, he is certainly in the discussion.

    Last season, the wide receiver hauled in 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns and is looking for even bigger stats in 2011.

    He is a model of consistency. In 12 of South Carolina's 13 games last season, Jeffery caught at least five passes. In the one game where he missed five catches, he had a respectable four catches for 36 yards and touchdown.

    He also had 97 yards receiving, or more, in 10 of South Carolina's 13 games a year ago. Incredible.

    The tall (6'4") and big (230 pounds) receiver is very hard for defenders to out jump or out muscle for a ball. Smaller corners have trouble covering him and he is faster than you expect for a big guy.

    Look out for a huge season from Alshon Jeffery in 2011. His name and Heisman could be said in the same sentence, more than once, as the season rolls along.

7 More That Could Break into This List

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    7 Players that could break into the top 10 as the season progresses:

    1. RB Vick Ballard, Mississippi State (20 touchdowns in 2010)

    2. RB Taureen Poole (1,000-plus yard rusher last season)

    3. S Mark Baron (Three interceptions, 75 tackles in 2010)

    4. RB Brandon Bolden, Ole Miss (1,300-plus all purpose yards last season)

    5. LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (Seven sacks in 2010)

    6. CB Stephen Gilmore, South Carolina (Three sacks, three interceptions and 66 tackles last year)

    7. QB Tyler Wilson (new QB for Arkansas' prolific offense)