Power ranking the top 10 players in the SEC after Week 1
The end of the longest offseason in memory finally came last Saturday, and goodness was it good to have SEC football back. What a week it was, as well. Mike Leach and Miss State threw 60 passes and upset No. 6 LSU in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss and Florida met in Oxford and a Big 12 game broke out, with 1,200+ yards of offense and 86 points. Alabama was, well, Alabama, steamrolling Missouri 38-19, though Eli Drinkwitz did manage a backdoor cover in his debut. Tennessee won its 7th consecutive game, defeating South Carolina in a game with the most Will Muschampian ending of all time. Auburn outlasted Kentucky in an old-fashioned rock fight. And Vandy and Arkansas both scared the heck out of top 10 opposition before talent won the day.
Speaking of talent, there was no shortage of tremendous opening day performances, from Kyle Trask becoming the 2nd SEC quarterback in the history of the conference to throw 6 TD passes in an SEC opener (some guy named Joe Burrow did it first, in 2019) to Seth Williams’ 2 astonishing grabs for touchdowns against Kentucky.
In this space, we’ll cover the best of those performances, power ranking the 10 best players in the SEC over the course of the 2020 season. We’ll be as equal opportunity as possible, ranking big-time defensive players, electrifying offensive playmakers, and even the occasional group of hog mollies up front.
Here are your 10 best football players in the SEC after Week 1 of the 2020 season.
Honorable Mentions: Dylan Moses (Alabama), Christian Harris (Alabama), Daniel Wright (Alabama), The entire offensive line (Auburn), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Nolan Smith (Georgia), Eric Stokes (Georgia), Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU), Kylin Hill (Mississippi State), Martez Manuel (Missouri), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss), Matt Corral (Ole Miss), Josh Palmer (Tennessee), Henry To’o To’o (Tennessee), Dino Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt).
10. Deandre Johnson, LB, Tennessee
Rightly so, the preseason accolades all went to the much more highly recruited Henry To’o To’o, the terrific Volunteer linebacker out of longtime California power De La Salle. But it was another sophomore, Deandre Johnson, out of longtime Miami football factory Miami Southridge, who stood out on Tennessee’s defense in Saturday’s win at South Carolina. Yes, To’o To’o had 6 tackles and a pick-6. Johnson collected 6 tackles and surged to the SEC lead in sacks with 2.5 in the Vols’ win. Johnson might not stay on this list all season, but he warrants the spot today.
9. Shi Smith, WR, South Carolina
Kicking off what will be a run of wide receivers in this week’s power rankings, Shi Smith caught 10 of his 14 targets for 140 yards and a touchdown Saturday night in Columbia, doing everything he could to keep Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks in the football game against Tennessee.
Smith has had a productive career, with consecutive seasons of 40 receptions or more. But this is the first season where he’s been undoubtedly “the guy” at wide receiver.
There was a big difference between South Carolina’s new-look passing game when Smith was on the field and when he wasn’t. In fact, late in the 4th quarter, Smith became heated with a Vols defender and Muschamp removed him from the game after a 2nd-down incompletion in the red zone. On the next play, Colin Hill had no one open and was sacked, and Will Muschamp elected to kick a field goal. The Gamecocks wouldn’t get the ball back, and lost.
8. Osirus Mitchell, WR, Mississippi State
Remember how much money Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense made Michael Crabtree? We remember.
As good as the Dan Mullen era was, Mississippi State never had a receiver under Mullen drafted to the NFL. In fact, it’s been 24 long years since Miss State has had a receiver taken in the NFL Draft, the longest such streak in the SEC by some distance.
Mitchell was a productive and somewhat underappreciated 3-star recruit out of Sarasota, Fla., a classic Mullen evaluation. He led the Bulldogs in yards and touchdowns receiving a season ago, and figured to make a nice leap in Mike Leach’s offense.
We just didn’t expect what we got Saturday, as he torched a school that fancies itself as DBU for 7 catches, 183 yards and 2 touchdowns. LSU had no answer for Mitchell, which begs the question: Who will?
7. Seth Williams, WR, Auburn
He’s 6-3, runs like a deer, has astounding athletic ability and is a 50/50 machine.
Kentucky, a really well-coached football team with plenty of good football players in the secondary, found that out the hard way Saturday. Williams made 2 ridiculous touchdown catches in helping Auburn win an old-fashioned rock fight on the Plains.
Expect Williams to linger on this list most the season.
6. KJ Costello, QB, Mississippi State
People laughed when SDS editor Chris Wright had the audacity to wonder aloud if KJ Costello could throw for 5,000 yards in the SEC. When Mike Leach landed the grad transfer from Stanford, we knew he’d have gaudy numbers.
We didn’t know he’d strafe “DBU” for 623 yards in Baton Rouge on opening day. I don’t know if 5,000 yards is happening, given the 10 game season. But Costello sure did get off to a good start.
By the way, Miss State won the game, too. How about that?
5. Richard LeCounte III, Safety, Georgia
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Georgia offense struggled Saturday. Perhaps worse, they struggled against an Arkansas defense that finished 121st in yards allowed per play last season and 107th in defensive efficiency.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before too: The Georgia defense was so nasty it didn’t matter. The best football player on that defense? Richard LeCounte III, the single-high safety who collected 2 big interceptions to keep the Bulldogs from ever losing control of the football game while the offense slowly figured things out.
It was the kind of opener I anticipated when I tapped LeCounte III as my preseason SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and a good start for the guy who leads the best defense in the country.
4. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Most programs would suffer mightily if they lost 2 first-round draft picks to the NFL at the wide receiver position. Alabama isn’t most programs.
Jaylen Waddle was not coverable Saturday, collecting 8 receptions in 10 targets for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns. He will be a fixture on this list, with his final location mostly dictated by how much Alabama elects to throw on any given week and how much he loses touchdown touches from the likes of another Alabama football player on this list.
3. Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
Do people still doubt Kyle Trask? I hope not, not after Saturday afternoon’s performance in Oxford.
Starting a season-opener for the first time since he was in the 9th grade, Trask equaled Joe Burrow’s 6 touchdown SEC opener feat from a season ago and threw for 416 yards, averaging about 10 yards an attempt.
Making the feat more impressive? Trask did that without the benefit of spring practice and while playing for the first time without the foursome of fantastic receivers he had a year ago, all of whom are off in the NFL. He also showed off his often questioned arm strength, making multiple brilliant back-shoulder throws for touchdowns, including the one below for a touchdown to Trevon Grimes.
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) September 26, 2020
A great start for a player who looks very much like a first-team All-SEC quarterback and perhaps more.
2. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Kyle Pitts is a problem and I’m not sure there’s a solution.
Do you hold him? Ole Miss tried that. Do you tackle him before the ball gets there? Ole Miss tried that too.
You can’t put a single safety on him. He’s too fast.
You can’t put a single corner on him. He’s too physical.
If you double team him, he’ll just use his strength and leaping ability to get the football anyway.
It’s a joy to watch him play football and Saturday, his 8 receptions for 170 yards and 4 touchdowns was national player of the week type stuff. Like Williams, Waddle, LeCounte III and Trask, expect him to stay on this list all season.
1. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Maybe the numbers weren’t gaudy, but anytime you collect 3 touchdowns on 20 total touches, you are going to find yourself high on a list of the most productive players in college football.
One thing that was really impressive Saturday from Harris was how he showed off his improved explosiveness through contact, on full display on his 3rd touchdown run.
Harris wasn’t used much in the passing game — a dramatic change, at least in Game 1, from season’s past. But with Trey Sanders very ineffective (9 rushes, 1 yard) and Brian Robinson’s touches limited, the gap in class between Harris and the rest of Alabama’s running backs is clear and for us, Harris remains a bona fide Heisman candidate and the best player in the SEC.