O'Gara: On Thanksgiving, 1 thing I'm thankful for with each SEC team in 2023
I know for many, it’s been a long year.
Unless you’re a fan of Alabama or Georgia, you’re not going to watch your team compete for a national championship. At best, you’re either hoping to improve your bowl game or you’re trying to make it to the postseason.
Then again, if you’re Arkansas or Vanderbilt, you’re just thankful that the year is over.
Here’s 1 thing I’m thankful for with each SEC team in 2023:
Alabama — The development of Jalen Milroe
Go back to USF. The questions that were being asked about the Alabama quarterback room were not exactly filled with optimism. Milroe sat that USF game and watched Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson look overwhelmed against a bad Group of 5 team. Over the past 2 months, Milroe developed into one of the best quarterbacks in America. He’s No. 4 in quarterback rating, has only thrown 6 interceptions after a turnover-heavy start and he leads all FBS quarterbacks with 12 rushing scores. Tommy Rees figured out how to build the Alabama offense around Milroe and even without a future first-round receiver, Milroe is thriving at the best time. It’s far more watchable than whatever that was in Tampa.
Arkansas — Hunter Yurachek’s faith in Sam Pittman
Some Arkansas fans will push back on this, and I’m not saying that they should just accept demoralizing home performances. But Pittman has the program in a far more competitive place than Chad Morris did, and let’s not forget that it was Pittman who brought the Hogs out of the Morris basement. Giving him a prove-it Year 5 isn’t a disastrous move. Yes, it comes with risk. But so does paying Pittman $16 million to leave and starting over with another coach. Pittman is the most likable coach in America, and there’s no denying that he brought a ton of pride back to Fayetteville when nobody believed he could get the job done. Maybe that happens again.
Auburn — Hugh Freeze bailed on the 2-quarterback system
I realize that saying this post-New Mexico State debacle might sound bad, but at one point, Auburn and that 2-quarterback system looked like they were heading toward some historic SEC passing marks. And not the good kind. Robby Ashford has a unique skill-set, but swapping out Payton Thorne after a few series to run an entirely different offense didn’t help anyone. Sticking with Thorne gave Auburn its first 3-game winning streak in SEC play in 3 years, and it helped clinch bowl eligibility.
You know. Before New Mexico State happened.
Florida — The underrated Ricky Pearsall
He won’t be a first-team All-SEC receiver because depth is insane this season, but Pearsall might have a strong case for being one of the most valuable players this season. The former Arizona State transfer made one of the best catches you’ll see on a football field:
OH MY!!!! WHAT A CATCH @S1ickSzn ?
? ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/4zzupSxOfJ
— Florida Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 23, 2023
Pearsall needs 52 yards against FSU to hit 1,000 for the season, and more important than that, he’s been the reliable veteran pass-catcher that the Gators desperately needed. I disagreed with his omission as a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist for the simple fact that I don’t believe 10 receivers played the position better than he did this season.
Georgia — Brock Bowers is less human than ever
Wait, but didn’t he suffer an ankle injury and miss time? Yeah, but less than 4 weeks removed from the tightrope procedure that some expected would end his season, Bowers returned to action and looked like his usual self. Forget the “best tight end in college football history” discussion. It’s over. What the Georgia tight end has done in his 3-year career should put him among the “best offensive players in college football history” discussion. It’s not just that he’s the best pass-catcher on a team that hasn’t lost a regular-season game in over 3 years. It’s that he blocks like his job depends on it. Bowers epitomizes “football player” in every way, and his continued dominance of the tight end position proves that.
Kentucky — Ray Davis did what UK hoped he would
That is, step in and fill those big shoes left by Chris Rodriguez. Davis had a frustrating November in an offense that’s been mostly disappointing, but consider this: The Vanderbilt transfer is 10 yards from hitting 1,000 on the season, and among Power 5 backs, he’s:
- No. 15 in rushing yards (990)
- No. 15 in rushing yards vs. currently ranked AP teams (255)
- No. 12 in total scrimmage yards (1,256)
- T-No. 8 in rushing TDs (12)
Davis should finish as an All-SEC running back with Cody Schrader looking like the only tailback who has been better. Instead of watching UK’s offensive line look like the Big Blue Gate that it was last year, it opened up more running lanes for Davis, who is also No. 3 in the SEC with 583 yards after contact (via SECStatCat). There have been major issues in the disappointing Kentucky passing game all season. Davis’ presence has been one of the few bright spots of the UK offense.
LSU — Jayden. Freaking. Daniels.
Where do I start? How about with the fact that in 11 games, he has accounted for 46 touchdowns? What about the fact that the guy leads the country in QB rating (208.3), touchdown passes (36), yards/pass attempt (11.8) rushing yards by a quarterback (1,024) and total yards/game (417.4). Daniels is averaging 81 more scrimmage yards per game than any player in the sport. It’s absurd what he’s done this year. And no, while it didn’t come for an SEC Championship-caliber team, it’s still been incredible to watch. In many ways, LSU’s disappointing defense has both taken away from and added to Daniels’ gaudy statistical season. If Daniels thanked the Tigers’ defense during his Heisman Trophy speech, I wouldn’t be mad at it. We should all thank him for making LSU far more enjoyable to watch than it could’ve been.
Mississippi State — Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson still exist
I know that it’s been a mostly disastrous year for Mississippi State, which needs to beat Ole Miss to avoid its first postseason-less season since 2009. But guys like Johnson and Watson, who have seemingly been there forever, has been everything that Mississippi State hoped they would be. They gave that inexperienced defense a much needed presence. How unselfish is Johnson? Go back to that interception he made against Southern Miss last week, wherein he handed the ball off to teammate Marcus Banks, who scampered in for the defensive touchdown.
Johnson and Watson are currently leading not just Mississippi State, but the entire SEC in tackles with 117 and 116, respectively. If it feels like they make every stop for the Bulldogs, well, that’s why. Assuming that they’re somehow finally out of eligibility, they’ll be extremely difficult for the next coaching staff to replace.
Mizzou — Eli Drinkwitz hired Kirby Moore
For all the offensive-minded coaches who cling onto play-calling duties too long, I present to you, Mizzou. Like, the team that’s in the midst of its best season in a decade and is heading toward a New Year’s 6 Bowl. Why? Brady Cook has taken the next step, and Mizzou has All-American stars in Cody Schrader and Luther Burden III. Both of those guys have been unlocked, and one can’t help but think that Drinkwitz nailing his offensive coordinator hire has a ton to do with that.
Mizzou fans would be especially thankful of Drinkwitz can prevent Moore from leaving for a bigger job. That might be easier said than done with an offense that’s averaging 33 points per game.
Ole Miss — Quinshon Judkins overcame that sophomore slump
I wondered if Judkins would be able to do that after he got off to a rough start in those first 4 games. Between being a bit banged up and working through some issues on the offensive line, he failed to rush for more than 60 yards and his longest run was 14 yards. He played through a rib injury and for the most part, he looked like his 2022 self. Judkins has 933 rushing yards and an SEC-best 14 rushing scores. While he won’t finish anywhere near the SEC-best 19 runs of 20 yards that he had last year — he’s at 5 heading into Rivalry Week — he’s still been the bell-cow back that Ole Miss needed him to be. Unlike freshman sensations Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Marcus Lattimore, Judkins avoided a significant multi-game injury and avoided that true sophomore slump.
South Carolina — The Spencer Rattler-Xavier Legette connection is legit
Week after week, I find myself asking the same question that I’m sure plenty of South Carolina fans have been asking this year. Where would this team be without Rattler and Legette? Juice Wells has basically missed the whole season with that foot injury, the offensive line hasn’t been up to SEC standards, the running back room is as thin as it gets, and the defense has mostly been a disappointment. Meanwhile, all Rattler and Legette have done is look like the best quarterback-receiver connection in school history. Legette is at No. 2 on the program’s single-season receiving list with 1,187 yards, and Rattler (3,074) needs 133 passing yards to move into No. 2 on the single-season list. They’ve been worth the price of admission. Without that duo, this might be a 2-9 team instead of a 5-6 team with a bowl berth at stake against Clemson.
Tennessee — James Pearce Jr. became that guy in Year 2
He’s a force, man. The Vols needed that game-wrecker off the edge, and since the jump in 2023, Pearce has been just that. On the season, he has 11.5 tackles for loss, 13 QB hits, 8 sacks and 1 forced fumble. While his TFL pace fell off a bit in the latter half of the season, Pearce is still bull-rushing his way toward an All-SEC season. PFF has him with the No. 4 pass-rushing grade among FBS edge-rushers even though he only played 35 snaps in 5 of Tennessee’s 11 games. The second-year defensive lineman will be one of the top returning defensive players in the SEC in 2024.
This is a weekly thing at this point. James Pearce Jr. continues to show why he’ll be a first-rounder in the 2025 NFL Draft. And make no mistake about it, he’s not just a pass rusher… ? pic.twitter.com/wsWw8sBgqW
— Benjy ? (@benjyvol) October 15, 2023
Texas A&M — Money is just a number
I argued that A&M would never pay $76.8 million to fire Jimbo Fisher and that the Aggies were in college football hell with a coach buyout north of $50 million until after 2026. Mind you, the richest buyout ever paid to a head coach before 2023 was Gus Malzahn at $21.5. To think that the Aggies paid 3.5 times that is just insane. The irony is that the offense was 12 points per game better with Bobby Petrino calling plays for a group that’s now on to its 3rd-string quarterback. But whether it was the conservative nature against Alabama and Tennessee, the under-developed offensive line or the inconsistent defense, Fisher didn’t lead A&M to a significant enough improvement to save his job. And so A&M waved goodbye to a coach who had at least 4 losses in 5 of 6 seasons … and received 9 figures to do so.
Vanderbilt — At least we got half a season of CJ Taylor?
Here’s all you need to know about Vandy’s season. Taylor, who could’ve left Vandy for NIL money at Tennessee, was easily the Commodores’ best defensive player this year in that “Anchor” do-it-all position. So naturally, when he delivered the biggest play of Vandy’s season — a 4th-quarter interception of Carson Beck in a 30-14 game against Georgia — Taylor made a move to try and get in the end zone. Instead, he took a shot by Beck, twisted his knee, and hasn’t played a down since. The crazy thing is that Taylor is still No. 3 on the team in tackles (52), No. 2 in TFLs (7.5), No. 2 in sacks (3) and he’s tied for No. 1 in both interceptions (2) and forced fumbles (2). Vandy could’ve used an entire season of Taylor, and perhaps 10 more defensive players just like him.