10 things I learned about the SEC in 2016
Needless to say, 2016 didn’t go as planned.
No season season ever does. There are always pleasant surprises, unexpected disappointments and lessons to be learned. That’s why we watch.
Here are 10 things I learned about SEC football in 2016.
1. True freshman QBs are ready from Day 1: Jalen Hurts absolutely redefined the possibilities for true freshman quarterbacks in the SEC, becoming the first to win an SEC Championship Game, but Jake Bentley’s rise was even more improbable.
It certainly will be more trend-setting.
Just as Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston blew up the traditional 4-year college model for NFL-bound quarterbacks, Bentley skipping his senior year of high school and still being a difference-maker in the SEC will lead to more prep juniors making the same choice. That’s not necessarily a good trend, but barring a rule change, it’s an unstoppable one.
2. If Nick Saban likes him, ignore the recruiting rankings: There was a stretch early in the season when unheralded, 3-star running back Joshua Jacobs’ was Alabama’s most valuable offensive player.
Jacobs was the No. 464 player in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports.com. Remember that on signing day. This too:
Saban gets more than his share of 5-stars and 4-stars, but he’s also made the most of some 3-stars. Eddie Jackson being the ultimate example.
3. Elite QB recruits wait for no man, nor should they: We’ve seen QBs leave immediately after a season and before a season. This year, Blake Barnett left Alabama during the season. That’s rare. But rare doesn’t mean wrong.
If a coach can jump ship during a bowl run, of course a player has the same right. These 4- and 5-star QBs enter school expecting to play immediately. In their mind, thanks to guys like Manziel and Winston, they have a 3-year alarm clock set for the NFL Draft.
4. There’s more than one way to play quarterback: Nick Fitzgerald reminded us of this lesson this year. He’s not even an above-average passer, but he more than makes up for that with his running ability. At the end of the game, points matter more than QBR — and Mississippi State averaged 31.5, a mere field goal less than last year and more than eight SEC schools.
5. The featured back is overrated: As much fun as it would have been to watch Leonard Fournette get another 300 healthy carries this year, doing so wouldn’t have dramatically impacted LSU’s season.
Last year, six backs got more than 250 carries, led by Heisman winner Derrick Henry (395) and Fournette (300).
This season? Nobody touched it 240 times, yet there’s still a good chance we’ll end the bowl season with 15 1,000-yard rushers. Last year there were just nine.
Lesson? There’s more than one way to move the ball.
6. Washington shouldn’t even try to run on Alabama: Forget trying to stay balanced. Running into their brick wall front only led to more 3rd-and-longs. Alabama allowed two teams — Ole Miss and Texas A&M — to reach 100 yards rushing. And both needed a lot of help from their quarterback to get there.
Washington should take notice. The Huskies ran it 500 times this season — fourth-most in the Pac-12.
The one time the Huskies lost? They ran 27 times for 17 yards against Southern Cal’s physical front.
Washington’s only chance in the Peach Bowl semifinal is to put Jake Browning in the shotgun and let him throw 50 times. That would be dramatically out of character for this offense, but every carry over 15 against Alabama a wasted opportunity.
7. Dan Mullen is a better offensive coach than Jim McElwain: Much has been made about the Gators’ QB woes since Tim Tebow, but Mullen had to start over, too. Worse, he had to start over in the SEC West. He found a way to build an offense around Fitzgerald, a 3-star recruit who was the No. 1,548 prospect in the 2014 class.
McElwain got a pass last season. The Will Grier suspension was a crushing blind-side hit. But he had all offseason to figure out a way, and the Gators don’t look any more dangerous this December than last December.
8. No league will have better QBs in 2017: Fans and analysts tend to complain a lot about quarterback play, but the SEC’s future is bright. Fifteen SEC QBs threw for 1,000 or more yards this season, and 11 will be back next year.
The top half will be particularly plush, headlined by Heisman hopeful Jalen Hurts and fellow potential April 2019 NFL Draft-mates Jacob Eason and Shea Patterson.
Not to be overlooked, next year’s QB crop won’t have to deal with as many dynamic defenders, either. We knew coming into 2016 that this would be the year of the defensive end — and it was.
Of the top 20 players in sacks, 16 were draft-eligible juniors or seniors.
9. Greg Sankey showed impressive leadership during Hurricane Matthew: Hurricanes and other weather events, unfortunately, are part of the SEC’s history. The SEC should have had a weather policy years ago to deal with postponements and makeup dates.
With two domes generally available, one in each division, the SEC has options on moving games.
Thanks to Sankey, the SEC soon will have a plan, which will include potentially using neutral sites. That’s even better. Leaders solve problems. The best ones identify potential problems and proactively prevent them from becoming an issue.
Credit Sankey for stepping in and not only solving the short-term issue of when and where LSU and Florida should play but also creating policy to ensure we won’t be in this situation again.
10. The SEC isn’t dead: The rest of the country is sick of us. I get it. But the SEC isn’t going anywhere. Injuries had more to do with Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU not living up to preseason expectations than this global thought that other leagues finally have caught up.
Twelve SEC teams qualified for a bowl, remember?
The Big Ten had a good year. Terrific. The SEC has had a good decade. And Alabama is about to punctuate it with its fifth national championship.
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.