Debate: Who is the SEC's Most Valuable Offensive Player in 2016?
Nobody’s rushing for 2,000 yards in the SEC this season.
Nobody’s passing for 4,000, either.
As numbers go, we won’t reach the Derrick Henry or Chad Kelly-like levels from 2015, but that doesn’t mean the SEC is lacking for playmakers in 2016.
There are plenty. This week, we’ve been debating which one is the SEC’s Most Valuable Offensive Player in 2016?
Answer: If Chad Kelly had stayed healthy all season — even if he had a couple of mediocre starts down the stretch — he’d be my pick. Nobody did more to carry an otherwise bad team on his back. But with Kelly missing a quarter of the schedule, I don’t think I can go in that direction.
Instead, I have to go with Jalen Hurts. He’s been so good, he has completely changed the Alabama offense, which is particularly remarkable because it was already a winning offense. But Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin have completely bought in to the spread and the Crimson Tide looks like Auburn or Oregon now.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Who would have thought the day would come?
And not only is Alabama running the spread stuff, the Tide runs it well, certainly not like a team trying the offense for the first time with a true freshman quarterback. With his over 2,000-yards passing and over 600 yards rushing, Hurts pushes all the right buttons.
— Gary Laney, LSU beat reporter
Answer: I’ll go in a different direction and pick Austin Allen. Arkansas is tied for 12th in the league in allowed sacks after giving up 25 so far and currently has the nation’s No. 103 rush defense. Without the steady play of the Razorbacks’ first-year starter under center, no way this team is 6-4 with wins at TCU and over Ole Miss and Florida at home.
If you watch Arkansas closely this season, you would have noticed Allen is routinely picking himself off the turf after defenses land hit after hit on the junior signal caller. And yet, Allen refuses to stay down or wilt to the pressure in the pocket.
Allen’s contributions started early, as Arkansas faced a fourth-quarter deficit to Louisiana Tech, but thanks to a game-winning drive, in the first start of his career no less, the Razorbacks avoided what could have been a season-defining loss to Tech. Allen had another game-tying drive the next week at TCU and caught a two-point conversion in the first overtime.
Without Austin Allen, Arkansas would likely not be going to a bowl game this season, but with him, the Hogs are looking at potentially winning eight regular-season games in 2016.
— Michael Wayne Bratton, news editor
Answer: The way I interpret valuable for this question is how much a player contributes to wins that may have otherwise not been there if he weren’t on the field, and I have to go with Jalen Hurts in this respect.
There’s a very strong likelihood that Alabama would’ve picked up a loss right now if it wasn’t for Hurts, whose made big plays — unique plays — against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU in particular that changed the game.
In Death Valley, he accounted for 75 percent of the Tide’s total yards against the Tigers in the second half and 91 percent of its first downs (10-of-11!). It was his third down conversions late in that game that proved to be too much.
What he’s done at this early of a stage in his career is remarkable, second only to Philip Rivers in 2000 in points responsible for among true freshmen (15.6) since the turn of the century.
Going into the season, Alabama’s backfield was a big question mark, but Hurts has made up for that weakness with his legs, something Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett wouldn’t have been able to do to the same effect.
— Talal Elmasry, managing editor
Answer: Somewhat dubiously, it appears that former Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd is the SEC’s most valuable offensive player.
Apparently, his value lies in his absence. Since Hurd quit the team due to the offense not being specifically catered to him, the Volunteers have snapped a three-game losing streak and won twice by a combined score of 104-36.
Coincidence or not — and minus Hurd’s 3.7 yards per carry — UT’s ground assault has been as productive as we’ve seen all season. John Kelly ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on only 7 carries in the Tennessee Tech game. Alvin Kamara followed that effort with 128 yards and 2 TDs on just 10 attempts against Kentucky.
And then there’s quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who is the ultimate team player. In those two outings, he completed 76.7 percent of his passes, averaged an even 10 yards per rush and accounted for 8 total scores.
Dobbs has too much class to tell the media that Hurd being gone is a weight off his shoulders. The Vols are playing that way, though.
— John Crist, senior writer
Answer: The obvious answer is Hurts. In July, I picked Alabama to go 6-2 in the SEC, losing to Ole Miss and LSU. That’s when it seemed certain Blake Barnett or Cooper Bateman would be directing the Tide’s offense, not the true freshman Hurts. I had zero confidence that Barnett or Cooper and the raw backfield behind them could run the table. I’m even more convinced now that they wouldn’t have.
(Given how Hurts single-handedly saved the Tide against the Rebels and Tigers, that 6-2 pick without him looks pretty spot on.)
But other picked Hurts, so I’ll make another case for offensive MVP.
There are two absolute job-savers in the SEC this season. Dobbs is one. Given Tennessee’s Murphy Law of a season, without his leadership and play-making, the Vols might be 3-7 right now instead of 7-3 and still vying for the East title — and Butch Jones might be comparing resume designs with Les Miles.
But I’m going Kamryn Pettway, the accidental star of 2016 who saved Auburn’s season, and Gus Malzahn’s job despite the fact Malzahn dismissed him as an offensive afterthought.
With all of its quarterback issues, why Auburn didn’t build around Pettway from the get-go is the biggest head-scratcher in the SEC this season.
No matter. Fate and injuries forced Malzahn’s hand. Soon, Auburn had no other option than to put the pig in Pettway’s belly and let the big man rumble.
Remember the season-opener against Clemson, a 19-13 loss in which Auburn played three quarterbacks? Pettway got exactly 0 carries.
“We just went with (Kerryon Johnson) and that’s what we decided to do,” Malzahn told reporters afterward.
The next week, Pettway ran for 152 yards, his first of six 100-yard games. He leads the SEC with 1,106 yards despite playing in two fewer games (and not getting any carries in a third) than the No. 2 rusher, Kentucky’s Stanley Williams.
As much as the raw numbers show his value, nothing hammered home the point of just how reliant the Tigers have become on him more than last week against Georgia.
Pettway was injured and couldn’t play. As a result, that vaunted Tigers’ rushing attack gained all of 127 yards, the second-lowest total of the season. The lowest? Against Clemson.
The common demoninator? Pettway didn’t touch the ball in either game.
He makes Auburn go, and the Tigers haven’t gone anywhere without him.
— Chris Wright, executive editor
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.