Monday Down South: Joe Burrow's bid for history, Georgia's offensive crisis, and the best of the 2019 regular season
What else could anyone possibly need to see at this point from Joe Burrow? The Heisman: Hand it to him.
Heisman Moment pic.twitter.com/V2Yw0bjiBT
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 7, 2019
Adjusting for the stage and the degree of difficulty, Burrow’s 349-yard, 4-touchdown masterpiece against the SEC’s best defense was arguably his most impressive of the year, which for a guy who has continued to impress literally each and every week throughout the regular season is saying something. His ascent from journeyman to shoo-in has been a straight line that only goes up — his production hasn’t wavered and his star just keeps getting brighter.
Of course, that could change in a few weeks when LSU graduates to even higher stakes in its first trip to the College Football Playoff, which is where Burrow’s legacy will ultimately be written. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With Burrow all but guaranteed to end the Tigers’ 60-year Heisman drought this weekend, the relevant comparisons aren’t so much to his peers in 2019 as they are to the most prolific seasons in history.
That can be a little tricky, because in an era when passing milestones are constantly being redefined upward, “history” in statistical terms amounts to “the past 15-20 years,” if that. Based strictly on the numbers, the complete list of major-conference quarterbacks with a) 4,000 passing yards, b) 40 touchdown passes, and c) an efficiency rating of 170.0 or higher in the same season remains exceedingly short, but is getting a little longer every year:
That’s it, that’s the list. By definition, that’s an exclusive one: Except for Haskins, the other 5 names on it all won the Heisman, led their teams to either the Playoff or the BCS tittle game, and went on to be the 1st or 2nd pick overall pick in the NFL Draft. (For the record, Baker Mayfield in 2016 and Tua Tagovailoa last year both passed for 40 touchdowns with sky-high efficiency but narrowly missed the 4,000-yard mark.) At his current pace, Burrow is not only the most efficient of that group; if LSU advances to the national title game — the Tigers opened as roughly 11-point favorites over Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, and early money has already bet the line up by almost 3 more points — he’ll move to the top of that list in terms of yards and touchdowns, as well. His combination of quantity and quality on the stat sheet puts him squarely in the most elite class there is, and he still has a chance to rise to surpass everyone else in it.
As with all the greats, though, the whole is more than the sum of his gaudy box scores. Burrow’s decisiveness in the pocket, his uncanny accuracy to all areas of the field, his underrated mobility and knack for making timely plays with his legs at 6-4, 216 pounds, his unprecedented growth compared to 2018, his general unflappability in big-game settings — it’s a combination reminiscent of… who, exactly? Andrew Luck comes to mind, although his college production wasn’t quite on par with Burrow’s this year. (In fairness to Luck, neither was the surrounding talent at Stanford.) Not many others.
The one other contemporary who might justify the comparison is a guy Burrow could ultimately wind up facing for all the marbles: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, still undefeated as a college starter and still generally considered (even more so than Burrow, who has rocketed to the top of 2020 mock drafts at record speed) the most complete pro prospect since Luck. After a slightly shaky September, Lawrence rounded into form over the last 2/3 of the regular season and strides casually into Playoff prep playing his best football of the year, much like last year when he easily stole the postseason glow from his more decorated Playoff counterparts, Tagovailoa and Murray. No one who watched his coming-out party in January will put it past Lawrence to make another compelling case for the Retroactive Heisman, actual Heisman be damned.
But again: Those arguments are for the coming weeks. For now, Burrow is allowed to bask in the aftermath of one of the great SEC Championship performances in the game’s history to cap one of the great regular-season performances on record, and to look forward to the chance to put his name on the Mount Rushmore of modern college QBs on an even bigger stage. Everything about this senior season through the first 13 games suggests he’s more than up to the task.
The curious case of Jake Fromm
Burrow’s opposite number on Saturday, Jake Fromm, approaches the end of his junior season in an entirely different place: Banged up, beaten down and facing the lowest point of his career in the wake of his team’s most sobering loss in his 3 years as a starter.
To be fair, in many ways Fromm was the least of Georgia’s concerns. The Bulldogs came in short-handed, with one starting receiver (Lawrence Cager) out for the game and another (George Pickens) suspended for the first half, and the rest of the lineup deteriorated quickly — RB D’Andre Swift was severely limited by a bad shoulder, relegating him to decoy status after a couple of perfunctory early touches; WR Dominick Blaylock tore his ACL in the first half; WR Kearis Jackson left early with an undisclosed injury; Fromm himself played most of the game on a gimpy ankle that he suffered in the second quarter. The closest the Bulldogs came to threatening LSU’s secondary deep was a dead-on throw by Fromm down the middle of the field that resulted in a flat-out drop by WR Tyler Simmons. From there, Fromm struggled to find a rhythm, missing open targets and getting picked twice by the Tigers’ freshman phenom, Derek Stingley Jr., after going INT-free in all 11 of UGA’s regular-season wins.
PICK FOR LSU! Derek Stingley finds it at the last second. pic.twitter.com/8oklULUqrV
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 7, 2019
All by itself, a painful afternoon against a plainly superior opponent. But in the context of Georgia’s season-long descent into offensive mediocrity, the effect was more like an existential crisis.
The Bulldogs’ inability to generate big plays has been a recurring issue throughout the season, bubbling over following the midseason loss to South Carolina and continuing to simmer in the meantime with each low-scoring, defensively driven win. In five games vs. ranked opponents, the Bulldogs averaged just 19.4 points, topping out with 24 in what seemed at the time like a turning-point victory over Florida on Nov. 2. Instead, the subsequent month played out as a weekly reminder of just how far behind the curve Georgia’s offense really is from the highly evolved, high-octane units at LSU and Alabama. Saturday was the 5th consecutive game that the usually reliable Fromm turned in a sub-50 percent completion rate; unlike the other 4, this time the defense and running game were in no position to bail him out, and the passing game was utterly devoid of answers.
This is the point where I go out of my way to note that Fromm’s former understudy, Justin Fields, is leading undefeated Ohio State into the Playoff at the helm of the highest-scoring offense in the nation, and not-so-subtly hint that if Fields was still in Athens that it could be the Bulldogs riding a blue-chip, Heisman-contending quarterback into the postseason instead. Just as likely, though, the situation would be the other way around: Stuck in the same offense, Fields would find himself stuck with the same problems.
Whether Fromm returns in 2020 — which, frankly, is looking more likely at this point than not — big changes are almost inevitable if his senior season is going to end any different from the past 2. One offensive assistant, OL coach Sam Pittman, is already on his way out for the head coaching job at Arkansas. Kirby Smart will face enormous pressure to move on from first-year offensive coordinator James Coley, whose close-to-the-vest approach gibes with Smart’s “don’t screw this up for the defense” sensibility but has felt hopelessly outdated for most of the season and generated diminishing returns.
Georgia has the athletes to make the same transition to an aggressive, pro-style spread passing attack that Alabama and LSU made, including (for one more year, hopefully) a potential 1st-round talent behind center. After Saturday, it has a clear mandate from the fan base and a clear picture of what the immediate future will look like against the league’s other elite contenders if it doesn’t figure out a way to shift into a higher gear. The only question is whether its head coach has Nick Saban and Ed Orgeron’s willingness to change.
Superlatives: Awards show edition
The best of the week year.
Offensive Player of the Year: Joe Burrow
Obviously. Exactly where Burrow’s season will fall in the pecking order of all-time great college campaigns depends on how it ends, but as far as the SEC is concerned he’s cemented his place among the legends.
Defensive Player of the Year: Derrick Brown
Brown stunned just about everyone last winter when he opted to pass on the draft to return for his senior season at Auburn, but the decision paid off for him and his team: Brown led all Power 5 defensive tackles with 12.5 tackles for loss in a dominant, Quinnen Williams-esque campaign that set him up as a no-brainer All-American and likely top-10 pick next April.
The big man was at his best in the Tigers’ biggest games – especially the Iron Bowl, where he wreaked havoc with 3.5 TFLs and multiple quarterback hits against Alabama – and consistently lived up to his billing as the league’s most irresistible interior force.
Derrick Brown is a TOUGH man to guard. pic.twitter.com/B8hS1ykwKX
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 5, 2019
Most Valuable Player: Lynn Bowden Jr.
The decision to convert Bowden, Kentucky’s leading receiver, to quarterback at midseason was supposed to be a temporary move for 1 game while starter Sawyer Smith nursed wrist and shoulder injuries, 2 at most.
Instead, it saved the season: The Wildcats went 5-2 with Bowden behind center, largely abandoning the concept of the forward pass for a full-time Wildcat attack that racked up more than 350 yards per game on the ground in Bowden’s starts and ended the regular season by breaking the single-game school rushing record 2 weeks in a row.
LYNN BOWDEN JR. TO THE HOUSE ‼️‼️ pic.twitter.com/HW5SuFVxyD
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 30, 2019
Nearly all of that ran in one way or another through Bowden, who finished as the SEC leader in both yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards per game despite only being handed the keys in mid-October. From that point there was never any doubt what was coming opposing defenses’ way. Most of them just never stood a chance of doing anything about it.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Jaylen Waddle
Teams were plainly terrified to put the ball in Waddle’s hands in the return game, for obvious reasons:
ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 9, 2019
His touchdown returns against LSU (77 yards via punt) and Auburn (98 yards via kickoff) made Waddle the only SEC player to hit paydirt in both categories, both coming at key moments in Alabama’s 2 biggest games of the season. And although he didn’t score at Texas A&M, his 128 punt-return yards in College Station were the most by any FBS player this year in a single game, helping to set up multiple short-field scoring drives for the offense in Bama’s most notable win.
Altogether, Waddle led the nation in both total punt return yards and yards per return – a fitting distinction for an electric playmaker who couldn’t get his hands on the ball nearly enough on offense in the Tide’s stacked receiving corps. Assuming some combination of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and/or Henry Ruggs III are on their way out, 2020 sets up as a huge year for Waddle in all phases.
Breakout Player, Offense: Ja’Marr Chase
For much of the season, Chase was just one member of a receiving trio that shared in the spoils of LSU’s revamped passing game more or less equally. By the end, he was undeniably the star, accounting more than 40 percent of Burrow’s passing yards in the last five games and nine of his 18 touchdowns. For the year, Chase enters the postseason as the FBS leader in receiving yards (1,498), touchdowns (18), and yards per catch (20.5) among players with at least 60 receptions – all as a true sophomore who’s only just realizing his potential.
Breakout Player, Defense: Jonathan Greenard
Greenard arrived at Florida as a relatively anonymous grad transfer who’d missed all of his final season at Louisville due to an injured wrist. He’s going out as one of the most productive pass rushers in the country, finishing as the SEC leader in sacks and TFLs despite missing multiple games. He started strong, finished strong, and (injury notwithstanding) rarely wavered along the way to making himself a whole lot of money in his lone season as a Gator.
Most Underrated: Nick Bolton
Missouri’s collapse over the second half of the season coincided with a season-ending pectoral injury to All-SEC linebacker Cale Garrett, who was sorely missed. Even in the course of a 5-game losing streak, though, the defense mostly held its own – as opposed to offense, which managed a grand total of 4 touchdowns during the skid – and Bolton, a true sophomore, was a big reason, finishing with a league-high 107 total tackles. Add to that 8 TFLs, 8 PBUs, and pick-6 vs. West Virginia, and you have another legitimate All-SEC candidate who’s still just getting started.
Nick Bolton With The Hammer On Jauan Jennings pic.twitter.com/MaM5VO47Vu
— GSH (@gman416) November 24, 2019
Most Overachieving: Kyle Trask
Before Feleipe Franks’ season-ending ankle injury, Trask’s college career was on schedule to end just like his high school career: With Trask sitting all 4 years behind a more touted starter. Once his opportunity arrived, though, he seized it, emerging as a steadier hand behind center than Franks had ever been, and eventually as Florida’s most productive quarterback since Tim Tebow for a top 10 team bound for the Orange Bowl.
That might not be enough to make him a coveted prospect at the next level, but it does make Trask the entrenched starter going into the offseason for the first time since he started playing organized football. (Franks is in the process of portaling out.) The Gators’ chances of surpassing Georgia in the East next year hinge largely on Trask’s arm and decision-making, both of which have inspired significantly more confidence than anyone back in September would have guessed.
Rookie of the Year, Offense: John Rhys Plumlee
As 4-star quarterback recruits go, Plumlee was an afterthought – a longtime Georgia commit who defected to Ole Miss after being spurned by UGA at the 11th hour, and who figured to be bound for a redshirt regardless. It didn’t work out that way: Pressed into action in September, Plumlee quickly emerged as a big-play threat in OC Rich Rodriguez’s spread-to-run scheme and supplanted Matt Corral as the Rebels’ primary signal-caller in short order. Even as he struggled as a passer, Plumlee ended the regular season as the only true freshman nationally to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, the majority of that output coming against Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and (most memorably) LSU.
His future is less certain. Matt Luke is out as head coach, along with Rodriguez; Lane Kiffin (!) is in, meaning a new scheme in 2020 that might be better suited to Corral’s talents as a pocket passer than Plumlee’s on the hoof. That will make for an interesting subplot in spring practice. For now, he’ll have to settle for being the most dynamic freshman playmaker in a year that featured surprisingly few of them across the country.
Rookie of the Year, Defense: Derek Stingley Jr.
Everything about Stingley’s debut season at LSU points to a Hall-of-Fame career in the making: 5-star recruit, Day 1 starter in a loaded secondary, rave reviews from the likes of Pro Football Focus, and a highlight reel worthy of a future 1st-rounder.
This one belonged to Derek Stingley. pic.twitter.com/fD0yOtfIho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 26, 2019
Sure, he took his lumps, too, notably on a long afternoon at Alabama opposite the Tide’s DeVonta Smith. Altogether, though, Stingley finished as the SEC leader in both interceptions (6) and PBUs (15) while earning the highest coverage grade per PFF of any Power 5 cornerback – a mark that will likely rise even more after his star turn on Saturday. If he were eligible, his length, ball skills, and freak show athleticism would put him at or near the top of 2020 draft boards right now. As it is, the fact that he has to wait two more years to cash in is almost as unfair to him as it is to the QBs and receivers who have to go up against him.
Game of the Year: LSU 46, Alabama 41
The 2019 edition of the Game of the Century was as different as it could be from the 2011 version, featuring 1,100 yards and 87 points in the highest-scoring game ever in the series. But if the SEC Defense era is a thing of the past, the dynamic that has emerged in its place is even more compelling: The shootout was no less intense than the slugfest, the stakes were every bit as high, and the spectacle of arguably the two most explosive offenses in the country ringing up touchdowns at the expense of two very gifted, very game defenses was infinitely more entertaining.
Taken with Alabama’s blowout loss to Clemson in last year’s national title game, LSU putting to bed a decade of futility against the league’s reigning Crimson overlords felt like another passing of the torch. Whether that turns out to be the case beyond this season or not, it deserves to stand as a landmark moment in SEC history.
Play of the Year: Auburn’s Iron Bowl Pick-6
In the retelling of Alabama’s 2019 season, the Crimson Tide’s Playoff chances will be undone by the combination of the LSU loss and the devastating injury to Tua Tagovailoa the following week. Not untrue. Let the record show, however, that if any single moment explicitly dictated Bama’s fate, it was the random path of a ball that traveled from Mac Jones’ right hand, to Najee Harris’ back, into the waiting arms of Auburn’s Zakoby McClain, and finally into the opposite end zone to put the Tigers in front.
THE BACK-PICK SIX pic.twitter.com/QuwSnjS6ho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
The pick didn’t decide the game, but it was a critical, 14-point swing in a game Alabama fairly dominated statistically and ultimately lost by 3. Any number of plays that went Auburn’s way in the Iron Bowl could have conceivably swung that outcome, but the difference between a touchdown to go up 38-30 midway through the 3rd quarter and a pick-6 that results in a 37-31 deficit instead was the most dramatic. (According to ESPN’s Win Probability metric, the INT singlehandedly flipped Bama’s likelihood of victory from 78.9 percent to 63.0 percent in favor of Auburn.) Heads, the Tide are likely gearing up right now for a semifinal rematch with LSU in the Playoff. Tails, they’re prepping for a second-tier consolation game that many key starters are likely to skip. For once it was a tails kind of year.
Moment of Zen of the Year: Ole Miss pisses away the Egg Bowl
People have been playing college football for many, many years in all sorts of unusual and chaotic circumstances. So I’m sure that somewhere, deep in the long, mostly lost annals of this frequently ridiculous sport, there is bound to be a game that ended in even more flagrantly stupid fashion than Ole Miss’ Thanksgiving-night loss to its arch-rival, a nationally televised event that was decided on a missed PAT to tie … with 4 seconds to play … after the Rebels’ Elijah Moore was flagged 15 yards … for celebrating the apparent game-tying touchdown … by pretending … bear with me here … to pee like a dog.
THE KICK IS NO GOOD!
MISSISSIPPI STATE WINS THE EGG BOWL! pic.twitter.com/Cf6JA3bAJg
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 29, 2019
Indeed. Not only did the Rebels lose the biggest game of their season in a burst of historic, internationally recognized self-sabotage: The win clinched bowl eligibility for Mississippi State, potentially saving MSU coach Joe Moorhead’s job, while Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was abruptly shown the door less than 72 hours later. Years from now, Moore lifting his leg isn’t just going to be an eccentric footnote — it stands to go down as a pivotal moment in the trajectory of both programs. You can’t make it up. And yet, somehow, it’s kind of exactly right.
Somewhere in the history books there’s another contender for the crown of Dumbest Ending to a College Football Game, I’m sure of it. I just don’t know what it is, and certainly never expect to see another one.
And now: The Monday Down South All-SEC team
Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for 2019, based strictly on my own 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 running back, wide receiver or defensive tackle — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.
Quarterback: Joe Burrow • Sr, LSU
Running Back: Clyde Edwards-Helaire • Jr, LSU
Running Back: Najee Harris • Jr, Alabama
All-Purpose: Lynn Bowden Jr. • Jr, Kentucky
Wide Receiver: Ja’Marr Chase • Soph, LSU
Wide Receiver: DeVonta Smith • Jr, Alabama
Tight End: Kyle Pitts • Jr, Florida
Line (T): Andrew Thomas • Jr, Georgia
Line (T): Jedrick Wills Jr. • Jr, Alabama
Line (G): Solomon Kindley • Sr, Georgia
Line (G): Adrian Magee • Sr, LSU
Line (C): Drake Jackson • Jr, Kentucky
Honorable Mention – QB: Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama); Kyle Trask, (Florida) … RB: D’Andre Swift (Georgia); Kylin Hill (Mississippi State); Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas); Ke’Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) … WR: Jerry Jeudy (Alabama); Henry Ruggs III (Alabama); Justin Jefferson (LSU); Jauan Jennings (Tennessee); Seth Williams (Auburn); Bryan Edwards (South Carolina) … TE: Thaddeus Moss (LSU); Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri); Jalyn Wydermyer (Texas A&M) … OL: Alex Leatherwood (Alabama); Isaiah Wilson (Georgia); Trey Hill (Georgia); Darryl Williams (Mississippi State).
Line (DE): Marlon Davidson • Sr, Auburn
Line (DT): Derrick Brown • Sr, Auburn
Line (DT): Justin Madubuike • Jr, Texas A&M
Edge (DE): Jonathan Greenard • Sr, Florida
Edge (OLB): Anfernee Jennings • Sr, Alabama
Linebacker: Nick Bolton • Soph, Missouri
Linebacker: K.J. Britt • Jr, Auburn
Cornerback: Derek Stingley Jr. • Fr, LSU
Cornerback: Trevon Diggs • Sr, Alabama
Safety: Xavier McKinney • Jr, Alabama
Safety: J.R. Reed • Sr, Georgia
HONORABLE MENTION – DL: Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina); Jordan Elliott (Missouri); Tyler Clark (Georgia); Benito Jones (Ole Miss); Dayo Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt) … LB: Terrell Lewis (Alabama); Monty Rice (Georgia); Jacob Phillips (LSU); K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU); David Reese II (Florida); Anthony Hines II (Texas A&M); Buddy Johnson (Texas A&M); De’Jon Harris (Arkansas) … CB: C.J. Henderson (Florida); Kristian Fulton (LSU); Eric Stokes (Georgia); Patrick Surtain II (Alabama); Cameron Dantzler (Mississippi State); Israel Mukuamu (South Carolina) … S: Jeremiah Dinson (Auburn); Nigel Warrior (Tennessee); Grant Delpit (LSU).
Kicker: Rodrigo Blankenship • Sr, Georgia
Punter: Braden Mann • Sr, Texas A&M
Returner (KR/PR): Jaylen Waddle • So, Alabama
HONORABLE MENTION – K: Cade York (LSU); Brent Cimaglia (Tennessee) … P: Max Duffy (Kentucky); Joseph Charlton (South Carolina); Jake Camarda (Georgia) … KR/PR: Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss); Richaud Floyd (Missouri); Christian Tutt (Auburn).
Thank you for tuning in to another season of Monday Down South.