As teams fade from contention, these 10 SEC things are still worth national attention
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
It’s a fair question. Not in a normal sense. Obviously the answer is “yes.”
Often times in mid-November, I feel like there are a bunch of performances that go unnoticed. They are that tree that falls in an empty forrest. It happens for various reasons, but usually, it’s because a team isn’t completing for a conference or national title. They get put on the national back burner.
Well, I’ve got news for you. I was in that forest, and I watched those trees come down.
(That’s just my way of saying I watch all the SEC games. I’m not some creep who stands in a forest and waits for trees to fall. I’ve usually got better things to do with my time.)
The goal today is to highlight the feats that perhaps aren’t getting enough attention on a national level. For today, we’ll leave Alabama and Georgia out of this. There’s plenty of time to talk about the top 2 teams in the country.
These are 10 SEC things that are worthy of national attention, even if their teams aren’t in Playoff contention:
1. Tyler Badie is having a better year than you realize
Here’s the list of running backs with 200 carries and 50 catches this season:
- Tyler Badie
Yep. That’s the list.
Badie has been a revelation in Columbia. Sure, we knew he could catch passes and be a nice change-of-pace back for Larry Rountree, but nobody, not even Eli Drinkwitz, envisioned this type of role for Badie. He’s No. 4 in FBS in rushing, he has 1,576 yards from scrimmage and he has 4 games with 200 rushing yards. By the way, Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette are the only SEC backs to have done that in the past 15 years.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 15, 2021
He’ll run past you, he’ll run through you. Doesn’t matter. Badie just finds a way. You could make a legitimate case that he means more to his team than any single SEC player. Where would Mizzou, with that struggling defense, be without Badie? Certainly not at 5-5.
2. The LSU defense is playing its tail off
The record isn’t going to show what Damone Clark, Neil Farrell Jr., Jay Ward and Cordale Flott have been doing. It’s too bad because LSU’s defense played well enough to beat Alabama. I mean, the Tide had 6 rushing yards and its record-setting streak of 35 consecutive games with 31 points came to an end. And then a week later, the Tigers held Arkansas to 3.5 yards per carry and future first-round wideout Treylon Burks was held to 4 catches for 16 yards.
We wondered how LSU would look in the wake of Ed Orgeron’s firing following the Florida win. The answer? Darn impressive. Daronte Jones deserves a lot of credit for keeping that side of the ball totally engaged, even though it’s been without roughly half of its Week 1 starters. Nobody can accuse that group of quitting.
3. Wan’Dale Robinson is looking like one of the better SEC 1-year wonders of recent memory
I say “1-year wonder” because my guess is that he’s off to the NFL at season’s end. He’s a junior having spent his first 2 years at Nebraska, where he was misused by Scott Frost because of a lack of depth at running back. At slot receiver, Robinson already has more receiving yards than any wideout in the Mark Stoops era. He’s 114 yards from becoming the first Kentucky wideout to hit 1,000 yards in a season since Randall Cobb in 2010. He needs just more 14 catches in the final 3 games to break the program’s single-season receptions mark, too. Considering he’s averaging 7.7 receptions per game, that feels like a lock, health permitting.
Robinson would get my vote for the SEC’s first-team all-purpose slot. He can catch passes anywhere on the field, though he’s been at his best lined up against man coverage in the slot. To put it simply, there’s no way Liam Coen’s offense would be working without Robinson making the decision to transfer back to his home state. Robinson isn’t necessarily a Cam Newton-type of 1-year wonder, but he’s perhaps more like a Jon Greenard, who transferred from Louisville to Florida and was the heart and soul of that defense in his lone season in Gainesville in 2019.
It’s possible that Robinson returns for another season to truly master the art of the position, but either way, Kentucky fans should (and do) appreciate that guy as much as any individual player in recent memory.
4. Sam Williams and Chance Campbell have become a force for Ole Miss’ defense
No play better exemplified that than on Saturday night, against a top-15 team who was backed up on its own goal line, Williams forced Isaiah Spiller to the inside, where Campbell was ready and waiting:
🚨 OLE MISS SAFETY 🚨 pic.twitter.com/MlorLKnSUs
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 14, 2021
Williams turned into one of the best pass rushers not just in the SEC, but in all of college football. He has 10.5 sacks already, which is a program record. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a 3-man rush. Williams can get home as well as any defensive end not named Will Anderson.
Campbell is as good of a spy as there is in the SEC, which we knew would be a strength when he transferred from Maryland to reunite with DJ Durkin this offseason. What an addition he’s been. He and Jake Springer have both provided the glue that last year’s defense lacked. Campbell is a major reason why Ole Miss went from being one of the worst defenses in FBS to No. 66 in the country (that’s tied with Mississippi State). He and Williams are both playing at an All-SEC level for a team closing in on a New Year’s 6 Bowl berth.
5. Alontae Taylor staying at Tennessee was monumental
And not just because every time he picks off a pass, he gets the Tennessee faithful free cookies. I mean, how can you not root for that guy? He was one of the few key defensive players from the Jeremy Pruitt era who stayed for the new regime. Tim Banks has to be thanking his lucky stars each and every day. The guy who came to Tennessee as a receiver has developed into one the SEC’s top lockdown corners.
“You don’t lose to Kentucky.”
– Alontae Taylor, King pic.twitter.com/XcslfNHzRy
— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) November 7, 2021
Besides being a ball-hawking cover man on the outside, Taylor is also excellent taking down tailbacks. Antonio Johnson is the only SEC corner with a higher PFF grade against the run. As a result, Banks isn’t afraid to move Taylor into the box (34 snaps) or he’ll even put him at the line of scrimmage (27 snaps). The Vols’ defense surpassed my low expectations because of guys like Taylor, Tyler Baron and Matthew Butler. Tennessee wouldn’t be in position to potentially have an 8-win season without them sticking it out.
6. And the same goes for Jaylan Foster staying at South Carolina
Foster’s story is awesome. The guy had 1 FBS offer coming out of high school (Eastern Michigan), so he started off at Gardner-Webb, then transferred and walked on at South Carolina. He spent 3 years grinding his way on scout team and as a reserve defensive back before finally getting put on scholarship just before the 2020 season. Instead of calling it a career with the coaching staff change, Foster decided to take advantage of the free year of eligibility and run it back for Year 6.
What’s he doing now? Oh, you know. Just tied for the national lead with 5 interceptions.
You can’t make this stuff up. The guy bet on himself at every turn, and now, he (and South Carolina) is getting rewarded. You love to see it. Foster is a major reason the Gamecocks are 1 win from clinching bowl eligibility in Year 1 with Shane Beamer. I’m just saying that if Foster were to help South Carolina lock in a bowl bid by hauling in a game-sealing interception, well, I call dibs on the rights to that movie script.
7. Dameon Pierce is Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded back in America
As any Florida fan will tell you, Pierce has been one of the few bright spots all season. Consider that all the more reason it’s baffling that he has yet to record double-digit carries in a game. Yep. And sure, getting the ground game going hasn’t really been an issue for the Gators this year, and there are plenty of mouths to feed. But come on. He’s 215 pounds and with all due respect to his fellow backfield mates, he has a different kind of burst than anybody in the Florida backfield.
He has scored 13 touchdowns on just 86 touches this year, too. That’s 1 score for every 6.6 touches from scrimmage. Just for a little perspective on that, the aforementioned Badie is having an incredible year, and he’s only averaging 1 score for every 15.6 touches from scrimmage. It’s pretty simple. Good things happen when Pierce is on the field. His lack of usage is a frustrating piece to this 2021 mess because when given the opportunities, he’s been everything Florida fans could’ve hoped for.
8. Antonio Johnson is a stud who should get all the preseason 2022 buzz
I was trying to come up with a way-too-early list of the SEC’s best returning defensive players for 2022. Keep in mind, that’s just among the guys who won’t be draft-eligible until 2023. Will Anderson and Jalen Carter were the first 2 that came to mind. After that, though? Give me Johnson. In 2021, he became the Swiss Army knife for Mike Elko’s defense. He’s PFF’s No. 2 graded corner in FBS, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Look at his snap count:
- Slot corner: 502
- Box: 132
- D-line: 42
- Wide CB: 18
- Free safety: 2
That’s what I call “an elite football player.” Johnson does everything you’d want a 6-3 defensive back to do. He can blow up a wide receiver screen, he can rush off the edge and get home and he can make the key pass breakup on third down. Not bad for a second-year player who changed positions from safety to nickel in Mike Elko’s defense. That group is going to lose a ton of talent to the NFL this offseason, but Johnson’s return will be worthy of first-team All-SEC love.
9. KJ Jefferson’s upside is ridiculously high
I’m not saying that Jefferson deserved the Cam Newton comparisons that Gary Danielson threw out there in the Texas A&M game, but if you’re in Arkansas fan, you have to be excited about the future with Jefferson. He makes plays that only few quarterbacks in the country can. He’s brutal to bring down both in the open field and when he’s buying time to make a throw. He makes at least 1-2 plays every week that are unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory at Arkansas.
You can’t teach this type of stuff:
KJ JEFFERSON FINDS DOMINIQUE JOHNSON.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 14, 2021
Jefferson’s accuracy has steadily improved, and that pass was an example of him learning how to find ways to manufacture offense when Treylon Burks can’t get loose. He boasts a 17-3 touchdown-interception ratio and among Power 5 signal-callers, he ranks No. 8 in quarterback rating and No. 9 in rushing. Any Arkansas fan gladly would’ve taken that type of year from the durable first-year starter.
Even if Jefferson doesn’t become the first Arkansas quarterback to earn All-SEC honors in a decade, there’s still plenty of reason to be excited about his future. He technically has 3 years of eligibility left after this one — he redshirted in 2019 and 2020 didn’t count against anyone — though given his skill set, I wouldn’t expect him to stay at Arkansas for the remainder of that. Still, he’s proving to be a nice fit in Kendal Briles’ offense despite the fact that he was recruited by the previous staff.
10. How many Power 5 quarterbacks are playing better than Will Rogers and Hendon Hooker?
That number is in single digits. Maybe 5? Hooker probably gets knocked unfairly because of the Georgia game, though I didn’t necessarily think he played a bad game against that all-world defense (he missed on some overthrows). Hooker and Rogers both went from being spring coin flips to earn their respective starting jobs to being legitimate All-SEC caliber players. Both of them earned the last 2 SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Hooker is No. 5 in FBS in quarterback rating while Rogers is No. 2 in passing.
Yes, it helps that they play in quarterback-friendly systems. Getting to work with offensive minds like Josh Heupel and Mike Leach surely give them a favorable boost. But where would their respective teams be without them? There’s no way Tennessee’s offense would have this much buzz if Heupel didn’t switch from Joe Milton to Hooker, and Mississippi State doesn’t win road games at Texas A&M and at Auburn without Rogers’ brilliance. They both emerged into stars in the last month.
You could do a whole lot worse than building your offense around Rogers and Hooker.