My 5 biggest gripes with the 2021 preseason All-SEC teams
Lost in the shuffle of a wild week in college football was the announcement of the preseason All-SEC teams.
Like, really lost in the shuffle.
To be fair, it’s not every day that we get to talk about the idea of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC and essentially blowing up the basic concept of the Power 5. There were some big fish to fry.
But nonetheless, the preseason All-SEC teams did indeed come out, and they weren’t without plenty of eyebrow-raising selections. I filled out a ballot and compared it to the one that was released Friday.
For today’s sake, we’ll just focus on individuals. I’ll dig into the predicted team standings another time (our annual Crystal Ball game predictions series starts in mid-August).
As for specific SEC players, I had a lot of thoughts on that. To be clear, I believe a preseason all-conference team is about who you’d want to have on your team if you had to play a game tomorrow. It isn’t necessarily projecting who will put up the biggest numbers by season’s end. I won’t put a true freshman on that team because if we haven’t seen them at this level, why are we rewarding them?
This is more about past performance than future performance. Also, I’m not gonna get overly worked up about a guy I had on second-team who got first-team love (Isaiah Spiller, Cade Mays, Kaiir Elam, etc.). In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t really matter.
What does have at least some significance is which players are being overvalued and which are being undervalued.
These are my 5 biggest gripes:
1. Bo Nix, Auburn QB
Preseason All-SEC: Third-team
Where I had him: Not listed
Sorry. At best, Nix is a middle-of-the-pack SEC quarterback. It’s pretty simple — he’s been solid at home and horrendous on the road. In 2 seasons, he has yet to finish in the top 8 in the SEC in quarterback rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage. A guy who has yet to have a season-long average of 7.0 yards per attempt OR 60% accuracy would be excusable if he was prolific as a runner. But Nix has yet to hit 400 rushing yards in a season. Nix has mechanical flaws that haven’t been corrected, despite the fact that he’ll enter 2021 with more experience than any returning SEC quarterback.
If we’re being honest, experience is why Nix got this preseason honor. Yes, it was a brutal year for preseason All-SEC quarterbacks. That’s why only 3 SEC quarterbacks were in attendance, including the 2 others who got preseason All-SEC love (Matt Corral and JT Daniels). I’d rather give that to Connor Bazelak, who was better than Nix in 2020, and with less talent around him.
I’d even rather give it to Myles Brennan or Max Johnson, both of whom showed more potential in their limited starts than Nix has in 2 seasons. Of course, quarterbacks in a battle don’t get that type of preseason love. Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t a preseason All-SEC quarterback in 2018 despite the fact that he delivered one of the best moments in college football history a few months earlier.
If you’re wondering why Bryce Young didn’t get that recognition, it’s because hasn’t started yet, though his bank account surely doesn’t reflect that. The same probably goes for Emory Jones, though he at least has half a season’s worth of snaps as a decent SEC quarterback.
Nix is a familiar name, and in a year in which there aren’t many of those, he stood to benefit the most.
2. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky RB
Preseason All-SEC: Third-team
Where I had him: First-team
Yep. I’m a C-Rod believer. If you aren’t, consider this your last chance to buy his stock low.
Wait a minute. Let me back up. Didn’t I say that preseason All-SEC awards are about what we’ve already seen a guy do? Yes. I’ve already seen Rodriguez be an absolute force in this league. Last year, Javonte Williams was the only FBS running back who had a higher PFF grade than Rodriguez. Why? In each of the past 2 seasons, Rodriguez led the SEC in average yards after contact (via @SEC_StatCat).
Besides leading the SEC back-to-back years in YAC average against conference defenses, C-Rod also rocks the nation’s highest returning PFF Rushing Grade from 2020, EPA/run, and 1D+TD Rate among RBs.
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) July 13, 2021
And even though he has yet to start a game, he had 8 games getting double-digit carries against Power 5 competition. In those games, Rodriguez averaged 112 yards on 15 carries. That’s 7.4 yards per carry in an entire season’s worth of games. That’s for a guy who has a career average of 7.1 yards per carry. Rodriguez might not have that initial burst that some freakish backs do, but stick him on the field with Kevin Harris, Isaiah Spiller and Zamir White, and I’d rather take the Kentucky junior.
If we really want to get into the weeds, Rodriguez’s average yards before first contact ranking was No. 17 in the SEC last year compared to No. 2 for Harris. That’s more confirmation that the Kentucky back wasn’t a product of his offensive line. Rodriguez is a nightmare to bring down, he can make the home run plays and at 7 yards per carry against SEC competition, he’s a proven player in this league. I mean, he hit 108 yards against Georgia’s No. 1 run defense.
For my money, Tank Bigsby is the only other SEC back I’d want ahead of Rodriguez. Buy that stock now.
3. Henry To’o To’o, Alabama LB
Preseason All-SEC: First-team
Where I had him: Not listed
I was ready to be all in on To’o To’o heading into his sophomore year. I was all in during the preseason, and I thought he was a future All-American (more likely by his junior year). Before this turns into an argument against him, I’ll acknowledge that playing in that Tennessee defense had to be brutal when the offense couldn’t sustain drives. Playing defense last year, in general, had to be hard with such limited time to go live in practice. A linebacker like To’o To’o is going to have some tough moments if he’s trying to cover up holes in the defense.
Having said that, it was ugly last year. PFF graded To’o To’o among SEC inside linebackers:
- No. 31 overall
- No. 12 vs. the run
- No. 33 as a pass-rusher
- No. 34 in coverage
I mean, To’o To’o had a 38.2 PFF grade on 315 coverage snaps in 2021. In this era of high-powered passing attacks, that’s a problem. How much of that were the circumstances? I don’t know. We’ll see. He’s a 2-year starter and he was a tackling machine for the Vols, even when things fell apart down the stretch.
When To’o To’o transferred to Alabama, my first thought was “well, he’s not even the best inside linebacker on his new team.” That’s Christian Harris, who was 1 of 3 Alabama linebackers along with To’o To’o to get first-team All-SEC love.
I thought Grant Morgan was significantly better than To’o To’o last year, and even though the snaps have been limited for Georgia’s Adam Anderson, the pass-rushing numbers are remarkable so far. Any argument for To’o To’o praises his tackling, but if that’s what’s being valued, shouldn’t Zakoby McClain get the nod there after he racked up 113 tackles in 2020?
To’o To’o has a lot to prove this year if he wants to finish with the same type of love he’s getting in the preseason.
4. George Pickens, Georgia WR
Preseason All-SEC: Second-team
Where I had him: Not listed
Um, what am I missing here? Putting a guy with a torn ACL on the preseason All-SEC team is strange, to say the least. Maybe Pickens will return in November? As talented as Pickens is, he ranked No. 20 in the SEC in receiving yards last year and was No. 19 among SEC wideouts in PFF grade.
Before Pickens went down, I made the case that Kearis Jackson would be UGA’s most valuable returning receiver in 2021. Don’t get it twisted. I was excited to see Pickens at full strength in this offense, especially with it being his pre-draft year. I look forward to hopefully watching him in November, and we’ll see if he put it all together as a route-runner.
I just thought there were several healthy players more worthy of that second-team All-SEC honor than a guy who is still out indefinitely.
Ainias Smith was a third-team selection who could’ve been there. His route-running and ability to make plays after the catch is second to none, but I’m guessing he didn’t get as much love because some still think of him as more of a running back … even though he’s a slot receiver this year. And I’d rather give Kentucky receiver Wan’Dale Robinson second-team All-SEC honors than Pickens, too. He was Nebraska’s best player the past 2 years, though like Smith, he probably got dinged because he was in a bit more of a hybrid role with tailback duties.
The reason Pickens got that love was the first 3 selections (Treylon Burks, John Metchie and Kayshon Boutte) were a slam dunk. After that? It’s a bit more debatable. The possibility of Pickens returning probably enticed some to vote for him, no matter how small a sample size it ends up being.
5. Martin Emerson, MSU CB
Preseason All-SEC: Not listed
Where I had him: Second-team
I knew that defensive back was loaded this year. The way it was grouped in the voting process was with both cornerbacks and safeties. We were asked to list 8. Here’s how mine broke down:
- Derek Stingley, LSU CB
- Eli Ricks, LSU CB
- Jalen Catalon, Arkansas S
- Jordan Battle, Alabama S
- Martin Emerson, MSU CB
- Malachi Moore, Alabama CB
- Kaiir Elam, Florida CB
- Roger McCreary, Auburn CB
I wanted to lay that out to show just how difficult it was to settle on defensive backs. Still, though. Emerson deserved a spot.
Nobody had a better single coverage grade in college football than Ricks, and he did that as a true freshman (via PFF). Emerson wasn’t very far behind. Don’t let Emmanuel Forbes’ interception numbers fool you into thinking who the top corner in Zach Arnett’s defense was. Emerson was tremendous last year.
He graded out better overall than Battle, Moore and McCreary. Turn on the film. You can line up Emerson on the outside — he played 680 snaps there in 2020 — and he’ll make plays against a team’s No. 1 receiver. He forced 11 incompletions, which was good for No. 11 among Power 5 corners.
Yeah, the Seth Williams play happened. It was a tough look for Emerson, who got beat after talking trash (Williams finished with 3 catches for 57 yards that game … so yeah). But more times than not, Emerson looks every bit as good as former MSU star and second-round NFL Draft pick Cam Dantzler. MSU has quietly developed an impressive pipeline of lanky, outside corners who progress into legitimate NFL prospects.
Oh, and did I mention that Emerson is actually physical and has no problem taking on ball-carriers in the open field?
Martin Emerson: Pro Football Focus All-American 😤
Emerson has been a dog since stepping on campus.
— Tru Maroon Nation (@TruMaroonNation) December 23, 2020
Emerson isn’t as popular of a preseason name as guys like Stingley, Ricks, Elam and the Alabama guys. But he made a monumental step last year for an MSU defense that wildly surpassed expectations.
Even in a year in which defensive back talent is loaded, not putting Emerson on preseason All-SEC was a major oversight.