Monday Down South: Bama's Big 3 rest their Heisman case. Is a verdict really necessary?
Weekly takeaways, trends, and technicalities from the weekend’s action.
Hand them all the Heisman
Alabama 52, Florida 46. There was a point late on Saturday night when CBS’ venerable play-by-play man, Brad Nessler, attempted to punctuate yet another touchdown pass by Alabama’s Mac Jones – his 5th of the game/32nd of the year, extending Bama’s lead to a comfortable 52-38 with 5 minutes to play — by marveling as the camera zoomed in on Jones, “that might be your Heisman Trophy winner.” Only to be forced, in the next breath, as the picture cut to DeVonta Smith basking in the end zone on the receiving end of the score, to issue a quick caveat: “If that guy isn’t.”
In a season when coming up with new ways to capture the Tide’s offensive brilliance only keeps getting harder, that inadvertent summary was about as succinct as it gets. No matter where you looked in the win over Florida, there was a guy you could easily imagine lifting the sport’s most hallowed hunk of bronze in every frame, putting his best foot forward for an attack in full bloom on the season’s biggest stage. Jones, the odds-on favorite coming into the game, set SEC Championship Game records for attempts (43) and yards (418) and joined Danny Wuerffel as the only quarterback to throw for 5 touchdowns. Pan to the right: Smith, the rising insurgent in Heisman straw polls, hauled in 15 receptions, another SEC Championship record, for 184 yards and 2 of Jones’ 5 TDs. Pan to the left: Najee Harris, the ostensible dark horse in the race, accounted for 245 scrimmage yards, 5 scores, and a newfound appreciation for just how much his freakishly consistent versatility brings to the table.
Pretty much a perfect play for Bama. pic.twitter.com/Auxh96MLZv
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 20, 2020
The net result of all that firepower was predictable: Bama wins in a bona fide shootout. But attempting to distinguish between the Tide’s Big 3 on a Heisman ballot? Good luck with that.
By conventional Heisman logic, Jones looks like a shoo-in by virtue of being the starting quarterback on the nation’s No. 1 team and hitting virtually all of the major statistical benchmarks — he ends the regular season as the national leader in completion percentage (76.5), yards per attempt (11.4), overall efficiency (202.3) and Total QBR and remains on pace to set single-season SEC records in each category.
On paper, he’s a Heisman-winning quarterback and then some. But then, this year is anything but conventional, and in the flesh it’s a different story. Jones doesn’t have any spectacular athletic feats or defining moments in the clutch on his highlight reel, and for all his success in his first season as the full-time starter, he still has the whiff of a “system quarterback.” His efficiency doesn’t capture the imagination in quite the way that Tua Tagovailoa’s downfield bravado did the past 2 years. For posterity’s sake, how many voters really believe Mac is worthy of the distinction of becoming the first Bama QB to bring home a Heisman when Tua wasn’t?
BET ON THE HEISMAN WINNER
Neither DeVonta nor Najee poses any such questions. Smith is in the midst of a legendary run in the wake of a midseason injury to Jaylen Waddle, a streak that’s already propelled him past Amari Cooper at the top of the all-time Bama list for career receiving yards (3,620) and touchdowns (40). He’s the best receiver in school history, arguably the best in SEC history, and the kind of player who sets the standard for the position — if DeVonta Smith can’t win the Heisman after wrapping up this kind of season with this kind of performance, then no other wideout stands a chance for the foreseeable future.
Najee, meanwhile, has played the role of steady, indestructible pro, accounting for more touchdowns (27) than any other FBS player this season while eclipsing 100 scrimmage yards 9 times in 11 games. (He and Smith rank 2nd and 3rd nationally in scrimmage yards, trailing only Iowa State RB Breece Hall.) His over-the-top output on Saturday night moved Harris to No. 1 on Bama’s career list for both rushing yards and total TDs, and alongside Shaun Alexander as the only Tide players with 1,500 scrimmage yards in consecutive seasons. He’s every bit as much the quintessential Bama workhorse as Alexander, Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry, in keeping with the massive hype that preceded him as the headliner of a 2017 recruiting class that’s going to go down as one of the best ever assembled.
In the long run, maybe the specific order of finish on Jan. 5 matters less than the simple fact than their collective presence. In the 85-year history of the Heisman, 3 teammates have finished in the top 5 in the final balloting just once: In 1946, when Army’s Glenn Davis (1st), Doc Blanchard (4th), and Arnie Tucker (5th) represented the academy at the height of its WWII-era dominance. In the modern era, no quarterback, running back, and wide receiver on the same team have ever finished in the top 10 in the same season. That’s guaranteed to change, and although the Heisman ceremony will be a virtual affair this year, there’s a better-than-even chance after Saturday night that Harris will join Jones and Smith among the finalists, officially cementing their place as a historic trio regardless of the winner.
They’ve earned it. And while balloting will close by the end of this week, if Alabama’s Jan. 1 semifinal date vs. Notre Dame goes anything like it’s expected to go — the Tide opened on Sunday as 19.5-point favorites over the Irish, easily a record for a Playoff game — nothing that happens there will diminish their status. Barring an unexpected, last-second surge in sentiment for Trevor Lawrence, Alabama is almost certainly about to anoint its 3rd Heisman winner of the Saban era, and (with all due respect to Ingram and Henry) arguably its most deserving. The fact that we can’t say with any certainty who it will be with the entire regular season and the SEC Championship Game in the books is just one more way that this offense is rewriting the code for what Crimson Tide football and college football offenses in general look like.
The best of the week year.
Offensive Player of the Year: DeVonta Smith
Alright, cornered and forced to choose only 1: Smith is the pick here in recognition not only of his absurd production in a shortened season, but also of the fact that he achieved most of his obscene output — 53 catches, 955 yards and 13 TDs’ worth — after Jaylen Waddle’s midseason injury, in what may be the greatest 6-game run by any college wide receiver in the sport’s history.
For most of his career, Smith was overshadowed on his own depth chart by the smoother route runner (Jeudy), the faster deep threat (Ruggs), and the more electric threat after the catch (Waddle) even as he continued to produce at a high level. When his moment arrived, though, Smith seized it in the most dramatic possible way, essentially absorbing Waddle’s absence all by himself on his way to breaking almost every relevant Bama receiving record on the books.
DEVONTA SMITH IS RIDICULOUS pic.twitter.com/NhCkPJAccB
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 6, 2020
Assuming Smith is a Heisman finalist — a very safe assumption — he’ll be just the 6th receiver to earn the distinction in the last 30 years, joining Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook (4th in 2016), Bama’s Amari Cooper (3rd in 2014), Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald (2nd in 2002), Marshall’s Randy Moss (4th in 1997) and the last wideout to actually win it, Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. Frankly, if Smith can’t bring it home after the season and career he’s had, it might not be possible for a receiver to win it again for the foreseeable future. Either way, as a college player he takes a backseat to no one on that list.
Defensive Player of the Year: Patrick Surtain II
Yes, Surtain was victimized on a long touchdown pass on Saturday night, the first TD he’s allowed this year in more than 700 snaps. (Thus equaling the number he scored himself.) No matter: Over the course of the season he was as solid as any cornerback in America, entering the weekend as the nation’s highest-graded DB according to Pro Football Focus and a virtual lock to become the 8th consensus All-American DB in Nick Saban’s tenure, not to mention the first CB off the board in next year’s draft.
True to his elite billing out of high school, Surtain’s length and effortless athleticism made him the ideal specimen to emerge as a true shutdown corner, and his relatively humble stat line as a junior — 31 tackles, 10 passes broken up, 1 INT — only reflects the extent to which opposing offenses wanted no part of putting that status to the test.
Most Valuable Player: Kyle Trask
Last year, Trask graduated from career backup to overachieving starter in his first season as Florida’s QB1. This year, he leveled up to full-blown stardom, accounting for nearly 75% of the Gators’ total offense while throwing an FBS-best/school-record 43 touchdown passes to 9 receivers. (His overall passer rating, 186.7, also set a school record.) No other quarterback carried more weight for his team: Trask led the nation in Expected Points Added, per ESPN, and, prior to his 408-yard, 3-TD performance in a losing effort in Atlanta, in PFF’s metric for Wins Above Average.
Most valuable players in CFB (PFF Wins Above Average):
1⃣ Kyle Trask, Florida
2⃣ Mac Jones, Bama
3⃣ Zach Wilson, BYU
4⃣ Sam Howell, UNC
5⃣ Dillon Gabriel, UCF
6⃣ DeVonta Smith, Bama pic.twitter.com/jgh9GAvaMn
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 18, 2020
In the end, he’s probably not going to get a statue erected alongside Spurrier, Wuerffel, and Tebow, which probably says more about Florida’s defense in 3 high-octane, down-to-the-wire losses than it does about Trask. But after a decade-long drought behind center – and after Saturday night, especially – no one will ever doubt his place among the Gator greats. He’s entrenched for life.
Freak of the Year: Kyle Pitts
The SEC has never seen another player quite like Pitts, whose official stat-sheet production this season (43 catches, 770 yards, 12 TDs in 8 games) belied his true impact. When he was on the field, Pitts was a spectacle, combining the burst and ball skills of a wide receiver with the muscle and unlimited catch radius of a man who has fully grown into his 6-6, 245-pound small forward frame. He looked like the next evolutionary phase of the tight end position sent from the future.
No college defender in 2020 had a prayer of dealing with him. Let them try at the next level.
Most Improved Player: Matt Corral
It’s impossible to know exactly what would have happened if Ole Miss had opted against a coaching change after its absurd loss in the 2019 Egg Bowl, or if it had hired anyone other than Lane Kiffin. But here’s a good bet: Corral would be somewhere else, and the Rebels’ offense would be much worse for it.
Matt Corral hit a NASA spaceship with this ball
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 28, 2020
As a redshirt freshman last year, Corral struggled out of the gate and was effectively benched in favor of the more athletic John Rhys Plumlee, a better fit in then-OC Rich Rodriguez’s spread-to-run scheme. On Kiffin’s watch, Corral has been entrenched from Day 1, accounting for 445 yards and 3 TDs in a season-opening loss to Florida, and has overseen one of the most prolific seasons in Ole Miss history. Altogether, Corral obliterated school records for total offense (384.9 yards per game) and pass efficiency (182.6) while accounting for multiple touchdowns in every game, at the helm of an attack that set the SEC record for total offense in conference play (562.4 ypg).
Yeah, but the turnovers, blah blah. Broken eggs en route to the omelet. The good vastly exceeded the bad – 11 of Corral’s 14 INTs came in just 2 games – and gave the Rebels a fighting chance every time out, including in the highest-scoring regulation game in SEC history against Alabama. Opposite anything other than another historically bad defense in 2021, the wins should follow and Corral should be on the short list of the nation’s best.
Breakout Player, Offense: Kevin Harris
Harris, a sophomore who played a minimal role in 2019 as a true freshman, was a footnote in South Carolina’s preseason RB outlook behind a pair of coveted recruits, MarShawn Lloyd and JUCO transfer ZaQuandre White. After a preseason injury to Lloyd, though, Harris assumed the lead role and responded with the best season by a Gamecocks back since Marshon Lattimore, finishing with a workmanlike 1,138 yards and 15 TDs on 6.2 yards per carry. He was the one reliable bright spot on an otherwise dismal SC offense, and at 5-10/225 pounds, he’s not about to get any easier to bring down next year when Lloyd returns to the fold.
Breakout Player, Defense: Jalen Catalon
No position group engineered a more dramatic turnaround as a unit than Arkansas’ secondary, which improved from the league’s worst pass efficiency defense in 2019 to its second-best in 2020, and no member of that group played a bigger role than Catalon, a redshirt freshman who finished as the team leader in solo tackles (51), passes defended (7) and interceptions (3) in his first season in the lineup while earning a reputation as a thumper well in excess of his 5-10, 189-pound frame.
PICK-SIX JALEN CATALON‼️‼️ pic.twitter.com/vqMBlknIgy
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 17, 2020
For his efforts, Catalon was tagged as a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award, given the nation’s best DB. He and Razorbacks fans can look forward to his name appearing on those kinds of lists for a few more years to come.
Comeback Player of the Year: Feleipe Franks
At Florida, Franks struggled to live up to his blue-chip recruiting hype, suffered a brutal injury that sidelined him for nearly all of 2019, and got put out to pasture by Kyle Trask. At Arkansas, he was exactly what the Razorbacks ordered: A steady veteran who oversaw the end of a 2-year conference losing streak and kept them competitive on a regular basis. His final efficiency rating (163.1) was the 2nd-best number in Arkansas history in conference play and very likely salvaged his potential as a draftable NFL prospect.
Overachiever of the Year: Grant Morgan
No player embodied the Razorbacks’ lurch toward respectability more than Morgan, the kind of guy for whom a 3-7 record in conference play qualifies as a feel-good story. A 5th-year senior listed at 5-11/222 pounds, he began his time at Arkansas as a walk-on with no FBS scholarship offers and spent the majority of it coming off the bench for some of the worst teams in school history. He’ll end it as the SEC’s leading tackler from his middle linebacker position, a semifinalist for the Butkus Award and a hometown favorite for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top walk-on.
Fat Guy of the Year: Landon Dickerson
Dickerson, a 5th-year senior, spent the first 3 years of his career battling injuries on one of the nation’s worst offensive lines at Florida State. After transferring from Tallahassee in 2019, he’s spent the last 2 years anchoring one of the nation’s best fronts at Alabama, and has clearly relished every second of it. A big man with a big personality, Dickerson emerged this season as a perennial favorite on O-Line Twitter, in part for the consistency with which he put opposing defenders on their butts…
Every. Single. Week. pic.twitter.com/lv8m91NQU9
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) November 29, 2020
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 6, 2020
Theatrics notwithstanding, Dickerson entered Saturday night as PFF’s 2nd highest-graded center nationally, and left on what can only be described as a joyous exit on an injury cart as his teammates gathered around him to pay their respects following a serious knee injury in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s SEC championship. He left the field just like he spent most of his time on it: With a smile on his face.
Rookie of the Year, Offense: Tank Bigsby
There are nicknames, and then there are sobriquets that seem destined from birth. “Tank” is the latter: At 6-0/204 pounds, Bigsby arrived at Auburn looking and playing quite literally like a heavily armored version of his position coach, Cadillac Williams, racking up more than 1,200 all-purpose yards while breaking at least one tackle on 42% of his carries, the highest rate in the SEC.
Everything else on The Plains is in flux, but when the new coach does arrive, he can be sure has 2 more years with one of the league’s best backs at his disposal. Don’t count on 3.
Rookie of the Year, Defense: Elias Ricks
Ricks was touted as an elite CB prospect out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and lived up to his 5-star billing right out of the gate, cracking LSU’s starting rotation from Day 1 and serving as arguably the steadiest member of the Tigers’ beleaguered secondary. Going into Saturday’s finale with Ole Miss, Ricks boasted an 82.4 coverage grade from PFF, best in the nation for a true freshman, and a team-best 4 interceptions, including a pair of pick-6s. Specifically, his 2nd-quarter score off Kyle Trask in an eventual upset win at Florida felt like the moment LSU’s season flipped from utter disaster in progress to a glimpse of a brighter future:
LSU freshman CB Eli Ricks baits this perfectly and Kyle Trask throws it anyway… house call and a 14-7 LSU lead. pic.twitter.com/D5QwC0hDPG
— Bobby Football (@RobPaulNFL) December 13, 2020
If they can stay on the field at the same time, Ricks and a healthy Derek Stingley Jr. have the potential to go down as one of the most imposing corner duos in recent memory at a program that has produced its share. Just one more reason 2021 can’t arrive in Baton Rouge fast enough.
Zen Moment of the Year: Marco Wilson flings Florida’s Playoff fate through the fog
Decades from now, Florida fans will still be talking about “The Shoe Game,” and you can bet the story will be just as dumb in the distant future as it was when it happened in real time.
Florida was flagged with unsportsmanlike conduct after this play: pic.twitter.com/BBsmOu64j9
— ESPN (@espn) December 13, 2020
Somehow, everything about the moment — the eerie fog that descended on the Swamp in the second half, the live SkyCam angle that ESPN resorted to in response, the mounting sense that this is really happening as a lame-duck, COVID-ravaged LSU outfit was inexplicably gifted a fresh opportunity to complete the upset of the year over a national contender — combined to create a surreal scene that will go down as an instantly indelible moment in SEC history.
The dramatic payoff came a few plays later, on a 57-yard, go-ahead field goal by Cade York that supplied the Tigers’ winning margin. But York, and possibly even the kick itself, are already footnotes in time. The shoe will remain airborne for as long as people around to remember it.
And now …: The Monday Down South All-SEC team
Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for 2020, based strictly on my observations and opinions over the course of the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the observations or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play quarterback, linebacker or cornerback — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than the format can accommodate.
Quarterback: Mac Jones • Alabama
Running Back: Najee Harris • Alabama
Running Back: Kevin Harris • South Carolina
All-Purpose: Kadarius Toney • Florida
Wide Receiver: DeVonta Smith • Alabama
Wide Receiver: Elijah Moore • Ole Miss
Tight End: Kyle Pitts • Florida
Line (T): Stone Forsythe • Florida
Line (T): Darian Kinnard • Kentucky
Line (G): Ben Cleveland • Georgia
Line (G): Kenyon Green • Texas A&M
Line (C): Landon Dickerson • Alabama
Honorable Mention: QB: Kyle Trask, (Florida); Matt Corral (Ole Miss) … RB: Tank Bigsby (Auburn); Larry Rountree III (Missouri); Eric Gray (Tennessee); Isaiah Spiller (Texas A&M); Ainias Smith (Texas A&M) … WR: John Metchie III (Alabama); Treylon Burks (Arkansas); Seth Williams (Auburn); Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU) … TE: Kenny Yeboah (Ole Miss); Jalen Wydermyer (Texas A&M) … OL: Alex Leatherwood (Alabama); Evan Neal (Alabama); Brodarious Hamm (Auburn); Trey Hill (Georgia); Drake Jackson (Kentucky); Trey Smith (Tennessee).
D-Line: Christian Barmore • Alabama
D-Line: Bobby Brown III • Texas A&M
D-Line: Malik Herring • Georgia
Edge (DE): Brenton Cox Jr. • Florida
Edge (OLB): Azeez Ojulari • Georgia
Linebacker: Nick Bolton • Missouri
Linebacker: Grant Morgan • Arkansas
Cornerback: Patrick Surtain II • Alabama
Cornerback: Kaiir Elam • Florida
Cornerback: Elias Ricks • LSU
Safety: Jalen Catalon • Arkansas
Safety: Smoke Monday • Auburn
HONORABLE MENTION: DL: Zachary Carter (Florida); Ali Gaye (LSU); Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina); DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M) … LB: Christopher Allen (Alabama); Will Anderson Jr. (Alabama); Christian Harris (Alabama); Bumper Pool (Arkansas); Zakoby McClain (Auburn); Owen Pappoe (Auburn); Ventrell Miller (Florida); Jamar Watson (Kentucky); Jamin Davis (Kentucky); Jabril Cox (LSU); Aaron Brule (Mississippi State); Henry To’o To’o (Tennessee); Buddy Johnson (Texas A&M) … CB: Josh Jobe (Alabama); Malachi Moore (Alabama); Roger McCreary (Auburn); Nehemiah Pritchett (Auburn); Eric Stokes (Georgia); Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU); Jaycee Horn (South Carolina); Myles Jones (Texas A&M) … S: Richard LeCounte III (Georgia); Yusuf Corker (Kentucky).
Kicker: Cade York • LSU
Punter: Max Duffy • Kentucky
Returner (KR/PR): Kadarius Toney • Florida
HONORABLE MENTION: K: Will Reichard (Alabama); Anders Carlson (Auburn); Harrison Mevis (Missouri) … P: Zach Von Rosenberg (LSU) … KR/PR: DeVonta Smith (Alabama); Kearis Jackson (Georgia); Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss).
Thank you for tuning in to another season of Monday Down South.