Is Tennessee back?

They are this year. That’s all that really matters.

Josh Heupel can scheme and move the football against any defensive mind in the country. The Vols’ offensive line isn’t dominant, but it is certainly good enough for Heupel and Tennessee to be multiple in their approach, and as a result, terribly difficult to defend. Is Tennessee a work in progress on defense? That’s hard to say. Facing good Anthony Richardson is different from what South Florida played the week before. Pitt’s offense was a top 10 outfit a season ago and is a top 25 unit this year. It could be that the Vols have simply played 2 quality offenses.

Whatever the case may be, Tennessee is “back” this season because they can beat anyone on their schedule with No. 5 playing quarterback. Hendon Hooker is that special. It will be fun to watch things unfold in Knoxville as the season turns to October.

Speaking of turning to October, the list of the 10 best players in the country’s best football conference always gets more difficult this time of year. There are more statistics and big-time performances to evaluate, which helps — but one bad week or one week missed due to an injury and suddenly, there’s a big shakeup with the ranking. This week? Plenty of changes, including another new No. 1.

Last week’s list is here. As always, honorable mentions first (limit of 2 per school).

Honorable Mention: Jahmyr Gibbs, Playmaker (Alabama); Will Reichard, K (Alabama); Drew Sanders, LB (Arkansas); KJ Jefferson, QB (Arkansas); Isaiah McGuire, DE (Missouri); Derick Hall, DE (Auburn); Kilian Zierer, OT (Auburn); Amari Burney, LB (Florida); Austin Barber, OT (Florida); Christoper Smith, S (Georgia); Broderick Jones, OT (Georgia); Jordan Wright, LB/Edge (Kentucky); Tayvion Robinson, WR (Kentucky); Jayden Daniels, QB (LSU); Sai’vion Jones, DE (LSU); Will Rogers III, QB (Mississippi State); Nathaniel Watson, LB (Mississippi State); Khari Coleman, Edge (Ole Miss); Isheem Young, S (Ole Miss); MarShawn Lloyd, RB (South Carolina); Layden Robinson, OL (Texas A&M); Chris Russell Jr., LB (Texas A&M); Cedric Tillman, WR (Tennessee); Cooper Mays, C (Tennessee); Anfernee Orji, LB (Vanderbilt).

10. Ty’Ron Hopper, LB (Missouri)

Hopper is the best player on a Missouri defense that quietly ranks 21st in the country in total defense and 17th in success rate (the number of plays in which they hold a team “behind the chains” or “off schedule” on an individual play, given down and distance). The Florida transfer was all over the field Saturday at Auburn, posting 9 tackles, a sack, 2 tackles for loss and 5 pressures in Mizzou’s 17-14 defeat.

On the season, Hopper grades out as a top 10 linebacker, per Pro Football Focus, and he has 23 tackles, including 5 for loss, 2 sacks, a pass deflection and an interception. This was a big-time get for the Tigers in the transfer portal and while Eli Drinkwitz’s offense continues to struggle, the Tigers are solid enough defensively to stay in the game on most Saturday afternoons.

9. O’Cyrus Torrence, OG (Florida)

Torrence lost his grip on the top spot in the Pro Football Focus offensive guard grades, but he remains the No. 2-rated offensive linemen in the country through September. He paces a potent Florida run game with a run block average of 90.2 (good for 5th in the country among all offensive linemen.) Torrence’s ability to move like a tackle while playing guard is why he’ll likely hear his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft this spring.

He was solid against Tennessee, as you’d expect, registering 3 pancake blocks and surrendering only 1 quarterback pressure. The Gators gained nearly 600 yards against Tennessee in the Vols’ 38-33 victory. On the year, Torrence has surrendered just 3 quarterback pressures.

8. Quinshon Judkins, RB (Ole Miss)

Sharing carries with Zach Evans, who easily could have made this list, Judkins leads the SEC’s best (and the nation’s 4th-best) rushing attack with 429 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns through Ole Miss’ first 4 games. As a result, Ole Miss is quietly unbeaten ahead of Saturday’s date in Oxford with No. 7 Kentucky. Judkins impacts the passing game a bit more than Evans, who has 365 yards himself through 4 games, which is how he edges his teammate to make the top 10. While Judkins does not have the numbers of bellcow primary backs like Arkansas’ Raheim Sanders, he still ranks No. 2 in the SEC in rushing yards after a month, a testament to taking advantage of his opportunities.

7. Antonio Johnson, S (Texas A&M)

Johnson can play safety or even nickel in a pinch (9 snaps this year at a corner position). His passer rating against, per Stats Solutions, in 1-on-1 coverage situations is my favorite statistic from September: 5.2. In other words, the preseason All-American has lived up to the hype. The co-defensive player of the week in the SEC after a 13-tackle performance in A&M’s upset win over Arkansas, the Aggies’ captain is also incredibly physical at the point of attack, and he leads the Aggies in tackling percentage.

On the season, Johnson has 38 tackles, ranking No. 2 in the SEC, along with a sack and that silly passer rating against number. This is one of the league’s most dominant football players.

6. Bryce Young, QB (Alabama)

Young has been terrific all season. He just hasn’t been “Heisman season” Bryce Young yet. He didn’t have to be for Alabama in September, except for the game against Texas, and he rose to the occasion to make plays in that game and keep the Tide undefeated. On the season, Young’s 1,029 yards rank 5th in the SEC, though he’s added 150 yards rushing to his offensive tally already in 2022, which is a career-high. Young’s 13 touchdown passes are on pace with his 47 TD total from 2021 as well, a testament to the reality that while Alabama’s downfield passing game appears less potent than in past years, Young is still finding paydirt in the red zone. Don’t be surprised to see him back in the top 5 soon.

5. Beaux Limmer, OL (Arkansas)

You know you are dominating football games when you are a hog mollie in the top 5 of this list. Limmer? He’s the highest-rated offensive linemen in the country, per Pro Football Focus. He’s also the highest rated run blocker in the country. Put plainly, there isn’t a better offensive linemen in America than Limmer. His prowess is a huge reason the Hogs rank 9th nationally in rushing offense and while Arkansas fell short against Texas A&M on Saturday night, it wasn’t Limmer’s doing. The junior had 5 pancake blocks and surrendered just 1 pressure, pacing a Razorbacks run game that tallied 244 yards at a 4.5 yard per carry clip in the loss.

4. Stetson Bennett, QB (Georgia)

Bennett falls out of the top spot, but he did throw for 272 yards and account for 2 Georgia touchdowns in the No. 1 Dawgs’ 39-22 win over Kent State on Saturday. On the season, the senior quarterback still slots in as a top 5 performer per Pro Football Focus, and his 1,224 yards passing trail only Will Rogers III in the SEC yardage rankings. Bennett has played beautifully all year, and while Georgia’s strenght of schedule to date is outside the top 50 — it still projects as a top-10 schedule in America, meaning bigger moments are ahead for Bennett to chase the Heisman Trophy and the coveted top spot on “The List.”

3. Brock Bowers, TE (Georgia)

The 2022 John Mackey Award winner (I am crowning him and the Mackey Award committee can email me about my vote already if they want) finds himself in the top 3 of this list after a monstrous performance against Kent State. When’s the last time you saw a tight end influence the outcome of a game in the run game? Never. Well, meet Brock Bowers.

When you run a 4.5, have “Fit him for a jacket in Canton” hands, and your offensive coordinator can ask you to do basically anything and you do it, you’re probably a generationally special football player. The SEC produced the first tight end taken in the top 5 of the NFL Draft in 2020. Bowers has the ability to join Kyle Pitts in that club. He’ll also join Pitts as a unanimous All-American selection this December, if there’s any justice.

2. Will Anderson Jr., Edge (Alabama)

Anderson has emerged from his 2-game season-opening “slump” in a big way over the past 2 weeks, and he’s doing it while getting much more rest from his head coach.

Anderson’s 5 sacks rank No. 2 in the SEC, as do his 7.5 tackles for loss (Drew Sanders of Arkansas — see Honorable Mention). Anderson finished No. 2 in “The List” last year; he’ll have every opportunity to finish No. 1 in the weeks to come this season.

1. Hendon Hooker, QB (Tennessee)

Look, as long as No. 5 is on the field in pumpkin orange, the Vols can win any game on their schedule. It’s really that simple. Take this absurdity:

Florida looked to have a momentum-shifting sack, and boom — Tennessee was all set up for another touchdown drive.

The Vols didn’t punt Saturday in their win over No. 20 Florida, and Hooker accounted for 451 of Tennessee’s 576 yards. He also produced 3 touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing). Hooker leads the SEC in total offense and passer rating, ranking 4th and 8th in both nationally. He also is 1 of only 6 quarterbacks in FBS in 2022 with 8 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions. He has thrown 213 passes without an interception, and thrown only 2 in his 13 games as Tennessee’s starting quarterback.

Are you starting to understand just how special a player we are dealing with? I hope so. This is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner — or should be — and currently the best player in the SEC.