SEC Football: Top 10 Contenders for 2015 Offensive Player of the Year
In every other season since 2007, the Southeastern Conference's offensive football player of the year award has gone to a running back.
That trend is a good bet to continue this season as many of the SEC's playmakers in 2015 will take handoffs from the quarterbacks.
Last year's once-in-a-generation crop of runners recruited into the SEC already have begun to make its presence felt. Will one of them take home some hardware to go along with the considerable buzz?
A season after Alabama's Amari Cooper was decorated as the league's top player and a Heisman Trophy finalist, there's another duo of star pass catchers who have the skill set to make it a receiver repeat.
Or will a year seemingly slim on quarterback talent produce a surprise contender for the SEC player of the year, marking the first time since Johnny Manziel won the award in 2012?
While the SEC isn't as full of guaranteed future stars as it has been in recent years, there is more talent and potential than anywhere else on the college football landscape. The players on this list were chosen based on past performance, dynamic talent and importance to their respective teams.
Let's take a look at 2015's top 10 candidates for the SEC's offensive player of the year award.
Nick Chubb, Georgia Running Back
To call Nick Chubb's freshman season at Georgia "special" would be an understatement.
On a Bulldogs team that lost Todd Gurley for half the season, the first-year workhorse wound up with more than 40 percent of the team's carries. What those carries produced wound up eclipsing another UGA great you may have heard of: Herschel Walker.
Chubb finished with 1,760 total yards, including 1,547 rushing yards, 213 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. He had eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.
For a comparison study, Walker—widely regarded as one of the top freshman runners in college football history—had 1,686 offensive yards, including 1,616 on the ground and 70 more through the air to go along with 15 touchdowns.
Simply put, the freshman from Cedartown, Georgia, had the greatest first year running the football in the history of a university known for producing elite running backs.
Now, with the Dawgs heading into a season filled with uncertainty at the quarterback position, head coach Mark Richt and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will likely lean on the muscular shoulders of Chubb to carry the offense.
That could mean huge numbers, and coupled with Chubb's "it" factor and playmaking ability, he has to be considered a favorite to earn the SEC's ultimate individual award as a sophomore.
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee Quarterback
When Tennessee inserted 6'3", 216-pound sophomore Joshua Dobbs into the starting lineup at quarterback last year, the Vols blossomed into an offensive force.
A once-stagnant unit piled up an average of 36.7 points per game and an average of 431 yards per content while going 4-1 down the stretch to finish 7-6 with a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa.
Dobbs racked up 1,793 total yards of offense and 17 touchdowns in six games. The only game UT lost with him at the helm was against eventual SEC East champion Missouri.
Though the Alpharetta, Georgia, native is still a bit raw, he possesses elite skills, which is why he's drawn enough buzz to earn consideration on an early Heisman Trophy list, according to Phil Steele.
Dobbs—much like the other quarterbacks who'll appear later on this list—needs to work on his accuracy and decision-making, but he has shown an innate ability to make gains when plays break down.
He has to take a large leap before his junior season, but UT coach Butch Jones told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown he has seen that from his leader this fall.
"Josh is a very prideful young man," Jones said. "He takes great pride in his performance, pride in his preparation. I've seen a little bit different spark in his eye. I've seen a little more determination. You're going to see Josh continue to mature, continue to develop."
That's big news for the Vols, who really need to see Dobbs play better against quality defenses. He'll have plenty of opportunities in 2015, and if UT really is the sleeper for a championship run some are predicting, that means Dobbs is playing well enough for awards.
Leonard Fournette, LSU Running Back
The hype that followed former 5-star running back Leonard Fournette into his LSU career would have been hard for anybody to handle.
Despite some inconsistency that plagued the 6'1", 230-pound freshman's first year on the Bayou, he still impressed, amassing 1,034 rushing yards and scoring 10 touchdowns.
Though Fournette had some clunkers such as an 18-yard performance against Wisconsin, a 38-yard performance against Mississippi State and a 9-yard sputter in a 17-0 loss to Arkansas, he also showed flashes of brilliance.
He closed the year with 146 yards against Texas A&M followed by a 143-yard performance against Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl that was capped by a season highlight 89-yard touchdown scamper.
All of that was accomplished in the wake of the Tigers' abysmal quarterback situation.
Now, with quarterback questions still looming, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told The Times-Picayune's Ron Higgins about Fournette's ever-expanding role:
The best way to phrase it is his role will always be significant. Here's why I give you that: When I coached with the Chargers, I put a number like that one year on LaDainian Tomlinson. Everybody in the stadium was like, 'There's 1 touch! There's 2!…he only got 18 touches today! Here's what we're not going to do—run a system that the defense dictates we have to throw the ball instead of handing it to Leonard. We're never going to put ourselves in that position in critical games, in critical situations.
This is Fournette's team. How he goes, the Tigers will go, and Cameron is going to give him ample opportunities to shine.
If LSU can find any semblance of a passing game, Fournette will surge to stardom.
Derrick Henry, Alabama Running Back
At times throughout his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Derrick Henry's path to playing time and putting up the huge numbers he seemed destined for were blocked by T.J. Yeldon.
No matter how much potential the mammoth 6'3", 241-pound physical freak of a running back showed, Yeldon's steady production was a staple in some very good offenses put together by Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin.
Still, once the Tide reached the postseason, they relied on the big-bodied sophomore. He shredded Missouri and its smallish defense in the SEC Championship Game to the tune of 141 yards and two touchdowns on a 7.1 average.
Then in the playoffs against Ohio State, he carried the ball 13 more times for 95 yards and a touchdown and should have been handed the ball more in Bama's loss that cost them a shot at another national title.
Now, Yeldon is gone to the NFL. While UA still has plenty of talent in the offensive backfield, you have to think an offense looking for stability at quarterback and for the next playmaker to follow Amari Cooper in the passing game will funnel through Henry.
It's time for the rising junior from Yulee, Florida, to be the centerpiece of Bama's offense. That could mean huge numbers for Henry and an early ticket to the NFL.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee Running Back
Another member of the SEC's "All Tall" team at running back to go along with Alabama's Derrick Henry is Tennessee's 6'3", 227-pound freshman Jalen Hurd.
As a first-year player, Hurd became an early-season staple for a Tennessee team desperately needing weapons.
Despite running behind one of the worst offensive lines in all of college football and battling nagging injuries that limited him in two games, the Hendersonville, Tennessee, runner wound up with 1,120 total yards and seven touchdowns.
When the offensive line struggles continued, UT coach Butch Jones looked for any way to get him the football such as a 21-yard, fourth-down conversion against South Carolina that kept the Vols' hopes alive in what eventually became a season-defining 45-42 overtime win.
Hurd proved to be a gamer. Though his rushing totals weren't as hefty as those of Nick Chubb or Leonard Fournette, he found other ways to make his presence felt.
With Joshua Dobbs emerging to aid Tennessee's passing game, a stable of talented receivers healthy and JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara to spell him in the backfield, things are lining up for a huge sophomore campaign for Hurd.
Jeremy Johnson, Auburn Quarterback
Sticking with the wild card theme, Auburn rising junior Jeremy Johnson hasn't been a regular starter yet for Gus Malzahn's Tigers, but he certainly possesses the skill set to be elite.
At 6'5", 230 pounds, Johnson is much more of a pure dropback passer than dual-threat Nick Marshall was. But with many receiving weapons, led by senior D'haquille Williams, the Montgomery native will have ample opportunity to put up big numbers.
With Marshall testing the NFL waters as a defensive back, AU's offense is going to rely much more on Johnson's big arm to lead the passing game much more than during Malzahn's first couple of seasons.
Co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig told AL.com's Brandon Marcello of the shift in offensive focus:
We're definitely going to emphasize the pass game more. That means the ball will be spread out a little bit more than it has in the past. I think the receivers will prosper from Jeremy Johnson's emergence as quarterback next year. I'm excited about it, the receivers are excited about it and I think the fans are excited about this new era in Auburn football.
In spot starts and in passing situations, Johnson has displayed plenty of reason for excitement during his first two years on the Plains. Athlon Sports' Steven Lassan pegged the junior as one of his college football quarterbacks on the rise for 2015.
With Marshall gone, this is Johnson's offense, and he'll still have plenty of talented runners such as Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson to hand off to as well.
It's a little bit of a stretch to put a largely unproven player such as Johnson on this list, but Malzahn has proven to be a mastermind when it comes to tailoring his offense to match his quarterback's strengths.
Johnson has plenty strengths from which to choose.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State Quarterback
For a large portion of the 2014 college football season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were one of the talks of the nation, and quarterback Dak Prescott was atop the Heisman Trophy projections.
Reality hit hard for MSU, which eventually fell from grace, and the 6'2", 230-pound Haughton, Louisiana signal-caller had to settle for a breakout junior campaign without any hardware. He finished with 3,449 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 986 more rushing yards.
Those are still exceptional numbers despite his struggles with throwing accuracy. Even though a three-interception performance in a loss to Alabama derailed his Heisman hopes last year, they're alive and well since he elected to return for his senior season.
It isn't a stretch to consider Prescott one of the league's top two contenders for national awards along with Georgia running back Nick Chubb.
The things Prescott can do with the ball in head coach Dan Mullen's offense are reminiscent of Mullen's days coaching Tim Tebow at Florida.
The buzz surrounding Prescott's Heisman Trophy campaign this year already has begun. Given that his name was being mentioned for the award last year as well could bode well for his chances.
Regardless, there's nothing to suggest the Mississippi State star wont' have a massive final season in Starkville.
Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi Wide Receiver
Despite suffering a gruesome leg injury in a heartbreaking late-game play in a loss to Auburn, Ole Miss star junior receiver Laquon Treadwell is expected to be back for spring practice.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Hugh Kellenberg that the star will return after spring break, which will complete a remarkable recovery for Treadwell, who broke his leg and dislocated his ankle against the Tigers in November.
Before getting injured, Treadwell had 48 catches for 632 yards and five touchdowns last year following a 72-catch performance as a freshman.
Though the Rebs must replace quarterback Bo Wallace, the former signal-caller wasn't the best thrower in the league, and incoming JUCO transfer Chad Kelly may enhance Ole Miss' passing game.
Treadwell's combination of size and speed made him one of the most heavily recruited receivers in the nation a couple of years ago, and he has starred for the Rebels ever since.
It's a gamble to put him on the list because of the injury, but the quickness of his recovery leads you to believe he'll be full-strength by the time the season starts.
Along with Auburn's D'haquille Williams, he's among the most physically gifted pass-catchers returning, and if a receiver can win the award for the second consecutive year, Treadwell is a good bet.
D'haquille Williams, Auburn Wide Receiver
D'haquille "Duke" Williams emerged immediately for the Auburn Tigers as their biggest offensive threat last season after coming in from junior college, and he got better as the year progressed.
He wound up with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns even while missing games with injury. The 6'2", 216-pound target also shined in some of the team's biggest games, registering 100-yard performances against Arkansas, Kansas State, Mississippi State and Alabama.
He torched the Tide for 121 yards on seven catches and teamed with Sammie Coates for a strong 1-2 punch for Nick Marshall.
With Coates gone, this is Williams' time to shine. If he can stay out of Gus Malzahn's doghouse, he has as much ability as anybody in the conference.
Williams elected to return for his senior season even after being suspended for the Outback Bowl. ESPN NFL analyst Mel Kiper said in a conference call last year (via the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea) that Williams needed to work on his game before turning pro, anyway:
The talent level's there. The smaller corners in the NFL are going to have trouble with him but he's got to round off his game. He's got to become more complete. He's got to understand the intricacies of playing the receiver position. It's not just running down the field and making a play; there's a lot more into it and they'll all have to learn that but I think he more than any other, he's only had one year at the major college level. If he comes out I'd say second round.
Now that AU will have a more developed passing game with dropback quarterback Jeremy Johnson at the helm, it could mean huge numbers for Williams.
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas Running Back
Either of Arkansas' talented duo of 1,000-yard rushers are talented enough to go on this list, but the nod here goes to Jonathan Williams.
The rising senior elected to return for one more year to team with Alex Collins to try to lead the Razorbacks back into the SEC picture. He rushed for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, narrowly edging out Collins' 1,100.
Williams' total was good enough to make him the fourth-leading rusher in the league. With the offensive line talent returning, there's no reason to believe head coach Bret Bielema's running game again won't be among the nation's best.
ESPN's Edward Aschoff recently ranked the Hogs' running backs as the best in the league; high praise considering Georgia returns Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall and Sony Michel.
Williams is a vocal offensive leader, and his production on the field has been exceptional as he's rushed for 900 or more yards in each of the past two seasons.
With the Hogs being a darkhorse in the SEC West, Williams could get a lot a lot of national exposure this season, and the college football world will see what kind of talent he is carrying the football.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.