B/R College Football Staff's Preseason SEC Awards
The SEC will be playing a 10-game conference-only football schedule beginning on Sept. 26.
Hopefully. Fingers crossed. And masks on, y'all.
Yesterday, we put together our projected SEC standings; today, it's individual awards time.
Between the strength of the league and these unique circumstances, opinions on the SEC are bound to vary. B/R brought together the college football crew—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—to cast a preseason vote for each of eight individual conference honors.
For both Defensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year, the decision was unanimous. For the other six, not so much.
Spoiler: There's going to be a lot of Alabama discussion within.
Head Coach of the Year: Kirby Smart and Nick Saban
Fun fact: A different SEC coach has been named coach of the year in each of the last 10 seasons. In fact, if you look at both the AP vote and the coaches vote, there have been 13 unique coaches with no duplicates over the past decade.
That's largely because there's no agreed-upon criteria for such an award. Does it go to the coach who accomplished the most with the least amount of talent? To the one who most exceeded preseason expectations? Or simply to the best one / best team?
In the preseason, you almost have to default to the latter option. And considering Alabama and Georgia are projected to meet in the SEC championship, it makes sense that we're torn between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart for the league's preseason coach of the year.
Each coach is looking for redemption after a 2019 season in which he suffered two losses and was humbled by a Joe Burrow-led freight train from Baton Rouge. Each coach also faces the challenge of breaking in a relatively new starting quarterback during an offseason like no other.
They'll battle during the regular season, but expect this competition to be settled in the SEC championship.
Others receiving votes: Dan Mullen, Florida
Offensive Player of the Year: DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris, Alabama
Another split vote, but this time it's between two players on the same team.
Alabama's rushing star is Najee Harris. With limited exceptions (Trent Richardson's junior year; Derrick Henry's junior year), Nick Saban has typically divvied up rushing attempts somewhat evenly between two or three backfield phenoms. However, Harris was clearly the Crimson Tide's bell cow in 2019, and their reliance on him figures to only increase now that they aren't quite as loaded in the passing game.
Harris averaged 117.5 yards from scrimmage and 1.5 touchdowns per game last year. It would hardly be a surprise if those numbers spiked to 150 and 2.0, respectively.
And despite losing Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith's presence at wide receiver will ensure that Alabama still does a lot of damage through the air.
Smith led the Crimson Tide with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last year, and most of his best work came against SEC secondaries—an interesting data point in advance of a conference-only season. He lit up both Ole Miss and LSU, but he also had impressive performances against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn.
Smith will likely be covered differently this year now that he is clearly Alabama's No. 1 wide receiver, but he's plenty gifted enough to thrive in spite of that increased attention.
Others receiving votes: Ja'Marr Chase, LSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
True freshman defensive backs aren't supposed to thrive like Derek Stingley Jr. did.
Even when coaches opt to put a first-year player in the secondary, it's usually an "OK, where is this guy least likely to hurt us?" type of situation. With Stingley, though, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron immediately felt comfortable leaving him alone on an island with some of the best receivers in the nation.
It occasionally backfired. The most glaring example was Alabama's DeVonta Smith having a field day against Stingley on a night when he didn't break up a pass and only recorded one tackle. But the more typical outcome was frustration for the likes of Clemson's Tee Higgins, Texas' Collin Johnson and, well, Georgia's entire passing attack in the SEC championship.
Stingley finished his debut year with six interceptions and 15 other passes broken up.
Given the sheer amount of LSU's 2019 talent that is now in the NFL, opponents will probably be able to avoid Stingley better in 2020. But try not to misinterpret decreased numbers as diminished skill. This star has already established that he can make you pay dearly for testing him.
Others receiving votes: None
Special Teams Player of the Year: Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
I was the only panelist who didn't vote for Jaylen Waddle in this spot, and that's simply because I'm anticipating he will be less involved in the punt-return game now that he's the projected No. 2 wide receiver.
If he remains Alabama's primary return man, though, he should be the best in the nation.
Waddle led the nation in long punt returns last year, and it wasn't even close. Despite only returning 20 punts, he took 11 of them back the other way for at least 20 yards. Per CFB Stats, no other player had more than six returns of that length in 2019, and Waddle was the only player in the past four seasons to have at least nine such returns.
Suffice it to say, this man is deadly in open space.
He garnered a lot of national attention with his 77-yard touchdown return in the first quarter of the marquee showdown with LSU, but he was already well-established as one of the best long before that. He had a 63-yard touchdown against Louisiana in 2018, had a big return at the beginning of the 2018 SEC championship—which had to have been weighing on Kirby Smart's mind when he made that terrible fake punt decision in the fourth quarter—and had returns of 15, 28, 42 and 43 yards in a single game against Texas A&M last year.
Others receiving votes: Brent Cimaglia, Tennessee
Jacobs Blocking Trophy: Trey Smith, Tennessee
With a gigantic honorable mention to Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood—the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2017 class and a likely first-round draft pick next April—give us the left guard from Tennessee who was a freshman All-American in 2017, missed much of the 2018 season due to blood clots and came back bigger and stronger than ever to earn first-team All-SEC honors last year.
Trey Smith was barely even allowed to practice last season because of the blood clots concern, but he inexplicably continued to dominate as an interior offensive lineman in a league full of future NFL defensive linemen and linebackers.
The rest of Tennessee's offense left something to be desired, cycling through options at both quarterback and running back without ever quite figuring out the best candidate at either position. The Volunteers ended up with one of the most anemic offenses in the SEC as a result of all that turmoil. But at least they knew they didn't need to worry about the left side of their O-line.
Others receiving votes: Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
True Freshman of the Year: Arik Gilbert and MarShawn Lloyd
As previously mentioned many times this offseason, LSU lost a lot from its national championship roster. Replacing QB Joe Burrow, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, WR Justin Jefferson and TE Thaddeus Moss certainly won't be easy.
At least Arik Gilbert gives the Tigers an excellent option for filling that latter void.
Moss made 47 receptions for 570 yards last season, and three of his four touchdowns on the year came against Oklahoma and Clemson in the College Football Playoff. But Gilbert is the highest-rated tight end in 247Sports history, so at least the Tigers are literally in good hands there. Don't be surprised if this big-bodied target (6'5", 249 lbs) immediately plays a bigger role in the offense than Moss did.
If Gilbert isn't the biggest star among SEC true freshman, it'll only be because South Carolina's MarShawn Lloyd makes an even bigger splash.
To put it lightly, the Gamecocks running game hasn't been great lately. In the past half-decade, they haven't had an individual put up 800 yards or more than six rushing touchdowns. With the exception of Tennessee, every other Power Five team has had at least one player reach 800 rushing yards or seven rushing touchdowns within the past two years. Tennessee got there three years ago. So this is quite the unusual drought for Will Muschamp's club.
Lloyd should be the man to break that dry spell, though, even in an abridged, conference-only season. Not only is he a top-50 overall recruit in the 2020 class, but both of SC's top rushers from last year (Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle) ran out of eligibility. There's a great chance he'll be the starter.
Others receiving votes: Chris Braswell, Alabama
Transfer of the Year: Jamie Newman and K.J. Costello
Jamie Newman led Wake Forest to a 5-0 start and its first AP ranking in more than a decade. And now the dual-threat quarterback will be running Georgia's offense.
Or, at least that was the plan until USC transfer JT Daniels chose UGA and was ruled immediately eligible for this season. Now the Bulldogs have a good old-fashioned quarterback battle on their hands with (perhaps) no wrong answer. Daniels is recovering from a torn ACL and needs to prove he's back to full strength, but it may well be Newman's job to lose regardless.
For my part, if I could have simply voted for "Georgia's Starting Quarterback," I would have. Assuming either Newman or Daniels locks down the job for the full season and leads the Bulldogs at least into the CFP hunt, that quarterback will likely be the most noteworthy transfer in the SEC.
In lieu of having that information, though, give me the new quarterback of Mike Leach's offense, as that quarterback always puts up big numbers.
Anthony Gordon threw for 5,579 yards and 48 touchdowns last season under Leach's tutelage at Washington State after previously attempting just five passes in his college football career. K.J. Costello has already thrown for more than 6,000 yards and 49 touchdowns in his college career at Stanford, and now he gets to partake in Leach's Air Raid offense. Mississippi State might only win five games, but at least Costello will throw a ton of passes.
Others receiving votes: Jabril Cox, LSU
Comeback Player of the Year: Dylan Moses, Alabama
Comeback player of the year isn't one of the SEC's official awards. Neither is transfer of the year. But I thought they would make for fun debates.
This one was no debate whatsoever, though. It was Dylan Moses across the board.
The Alabama linebacker led the team in tackles as a sophomore in 2018 and was one of five finalists for the Dick Butkus Award. That award is given annually to the nation's best linebacker at the pro, college and high school levels. It's an award that Moses won in high school in 2016 and an award that he was a no-brainer preseason candidate for this past season.
Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL) just days before Alabama's 2019 season opener.
Despite missing the entire year, Moses probably would have been the first or second linebacker taken in the 2020 draft if he had declared for it. Instead, he'll be back with the Crimson Tide to prove that he's healthy and worthy of a top-five pick next spring.
Linebacker was arguably Alabama's biggest weakness in 2019. But with Moses back in the fold, it may well be the Crimson Tide's strong suit this year.