Power Ranking the top 10 players in the SEC after Week 5
Week 5 of this most surreal of college football seasons is in the books and with it, at least a handful of SEC programs see their 2020 season hit the halfway point. If Week 4 in the SEC was about an elite Alabama program making a statement, Week 5 was about programs that appeared to be turning the corner taking a step back.
Tennessee, so close to upsetting Alabama a season ago, was flattened by the Tide this year, with the offense stuck in the mud despite a bevy of NFL talent at the line of scrimmage. Is it just the quarterback, or should we be asking questions about Jim Chaney’s conservative scheme, too? However you evaluate the situation in Knoxville, Jeremy Pruitt has to be frustrated with the way his team has performed over the last 2 weeks.
At South Carolina, a win over Auburn appeared to be a positive inflection point for Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks program. Naturally, the Gamecocks had their doors blown off by LSU, quickly reigniting the various GoFund Me campaigns to pay Will Muschamp’s buyout.
We thought we knew who Kentucky was: a tough, physical football team with a salty defense that was over the early-season disappointments against Auburn and Ole Miss and was poised to push Georgia and Florida in the SEC East down the stretch. Nope. Missouri bullied Kentucky, possessing the ball for 43 minutes and battering the Wildcats with the ram that is Larry Rountree III. Before the season, there was chatter that perhaps we were sleeping on Mark Stoops’ program once again. Now it looks like the Wildcats, with an inept offense devoid of any passing game, are one of 2020’s bigger disappointments.
As for individual performances, Mac Jones rolled on, Auburn has a powerful Tank, Seth Williams reemerged from his slumber, all Terrace Marshall Jr. does is score touchdowns, Nick Bolton is a monster in the middle for Mizzou, South Carolina’s Kevin Harris is quietly having a brilliant season and I’m pretty sure guys like Owen Pappoe, Jamin Davis and Ernest Jones could tally double-digit tackles playing against air.
This list gets harder to compile every week, but a reminder that this list is not a list of the top 10 NFL Draft prospects. Tim Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and could have easily won 2 but didn’t last long in the NFL. Trent Richardson was a Heisman finalist but made little impact in the league. History is full of defensive All-Americans who never adjusted to Sunday football. What we want here is the 10 best college football players in the best conference in America — or at least a list that is a conversation starter about who those players are. You can see last week’s list here.
Here are the best 10 after Week 5, with Honorable Mentions first.
Honorable Mention: Alabama OL; Dylan Moses, LB (Alabama); Christian Harris (Alabama); DeVonta Smith, WR (Alabama); Grant Morgan, LB (Arkansas); Feleipe Franks, QB (Arkansas); Tank Bigsby, RB (Auburn); Seth Williams, WR (Auburn); Smoke Monday, DB (Auburn); Zakoby McClain, LB (Auburn); Kadarius Toney, WR (Florida); Monty Rice, LB (Georgia); Azeez Ojulari, LB (Georgia); Nakobe Dean, LB (Georgia); Jamin Davis, LB (Kentucky); Jamar Watson, LB (Kentucky); DeAndre Square, LB (Kentucky); Derek Stingley Jr., CB (LSU); JaCoby Stevens, S (LSU); Larry Rountree III, RB (Missouri); Jerrion Ealy, RB (Ole Miss); Elijah Moore, WR (Ole Miss); Emmanuel Forbes, DB (Miss State); Kevin Harris, RB (South Carolina); Ernest Jones, LB (South Carolina); Kingsley Enagbare, DE (South Carolina); Henry To’o To’o, LB (Tennessee), Isaiah Spiller, RB (Texas A&M); Kellen Mond, QB (Texas A&M); Dayo Odeyingbo, DE (Vanderbilt).
10. Owen Pappoe, LB (Auburn)
There’s a factory somewhere, maybe on the Georgia or Alabama plains or nestled in the Appalachian foothills, where all they make are linebackers. Every time I see Owen Pappoe play football, I’m convinced he’s a product of that factory.
The sophomore had 14 tackles to lead the Tigers over Ole Miss last Saturday, and while he doesn’t lead Auburn in that category on the season (fellow southern linebacker factory mate Zakoby McClain does), he does rank 2nd on the Tigers with 45 on the season. He’s also done a little of everything: defending multiple passes, recovering a fumble, collecting 2 sacks and adding an interception.
9. Nick Bolton, LB (Missouri)
This Missouri defense was battered and bruised early in the season by great offenses and bad offenses alike, surrendering over 400 yards and at least 35 points to the likes of Alabama (understandable), LSU (fine) and Tennessee (woof). This was a unit with wounded pride, and they played proud football against Kentucky last week, limiting the Wildcats to just 145 yards and 8 first downs.
At the heart of everything Missouri does on defense? The outstanding middle linebacker Nick Bolton, a preseason All-SEC selection who has been the one constant on a defense taking some lumps over the season’s first month.
How good is Bolton? His 43 tackles lead the team by … 18 tackles. Only 4 other Missouri players even have 18 tackles this season. Bolton also leads Missouri in fumbles recovered, passes defended and is 2nd in tackles for loss. The junior can flat out play.
8. Richard LeCounte III, S (Georgia)
The best football player on the SEC’s best defense, LeCounte III shares the SEC lead in interceptions with 3 and while his other numbers aren’t gaudy, that’s more about how his ability limits opponents schematically than it is an indict of his on-field performance. Kirby Smart’s single-high system requires an NFL caliber safety to function; LeCounte III is the best one Smart’s had since he came home to Athens.
7. Jalen Catalon, S (Arkansas)
Catalon has spent much of the season on this list, and while Arkansas fans are right to point out that the likes of Grant Morgan (see honorable mention), Hudson Clark (see last week), and the perfectly named Bumper Pool have been marvelous as well, they haven’t been as consistent as the freshman Catalon, who is 2nd on the Hogs in tackles, tackles for loss, passes defended and leads the team in forced fumbles. Catalon is a huge reason this Arkansas defense has been one of the most pleasant surprises in college football in 2020. He belongs here.
6. Kyle Trask, QB (Florida)
How effective has Kyle Trask been? He hasn’t played a game in almost 3 weeks and he still leads the SEC in passing touchdowns (14) by 2 over Mac Jones. Trask ranks 4th in the nation in passing efficiency entering this weekend’s tilt with Missouri.
5. Kyle Pitts, TE (Florida)
Like Trask, Pitts hasn’t played since Oct. 10, and Florida’s football program was shut down for 2 weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Pitts not being able to play is probably the best way to defend him.
4. Mac Jones, QB (Alabama)
Mac Jones didn’t throw a touchdown pass against Tennessee. He did lead the Crimson Tide to a 31-point win and throw for 387 yards on a near-perfect 25-for-31 night. Ho hum. Jones leads the nation in passing efficiency as the Tide ready for the second half of the season.
3. Terrace Marshall Jr., WR (LSU)
This was a tweet from opening week:
Terrace Marshall Jr. basically lives in the end zone. pic.twitter.com/sk6BPlgooB
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 26, 2020
It remains true. Marshall has scored at least twice in each of LSU’s first 4 games. He has 9 TD catches this season, which ranks 2nd in the nation and leads all Power 5 players. As South Carolina learned last weekend, it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, either, and it doesn’t matter if you put a future NFL corner on him. Here’s Marshall giving Jaycee Horn an education on route-running:
This is just pretty offense. Well-executed rub route gets Terrace Marshall wiiiide open. TJ Finley hits him for his first career passing TD. It’s Marshall’s 8th this season.#LSU leads 17-7. pic.twitter.com/RaCSePka2c
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) October 24, 2020
2. Jaylen Waddle, WR (Alabama)
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that this space would likely include one of Alabama’s marvelous duo of Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith all season. Last week, Smith made the list for the first time, but I fully anticipated Waddle returning in Week 5. Unfortunately, Waddle was lost for the season in the win over Tennessee.
The junior finishes his 2020 season averaging 22.3 yards a reception (2nd in the country, behind teammate John Metchie) with 4 touchdowns. The sky was the limit for his numbers and NFL potential had he remained healthy; hopefully, with modern medicine and time, his NFL potential will remain boundless.
The depth in Metchie and Smith helps, of course, but the loss of Waddle does change how you can scheme Alabama, and it will be interesting to see how Steve Sarkisian deals with his loss, both offensively and in the return game.
1. Najee Harris, RB (Alabama)
The SEC’s best football player added 3 more touchdowns to what is becoming an obscene total for the 2020 season: Harris leads the SEC with 14 touchdowns through 5 games. Harris has also added 14 receptions, putting him well on his way to eclipse the 27 he had as a key figure in the Tide’s short passing game a season ago. Harris’s 595 rushing yards also lead the SEC, and the Tide have a staggering 61% success rate on plays that involve Harris, per Stats Solutions (for perspective, LSU’s record-setting offense had a 58% success rate as a team in 2019).
Another player might make the top spot interesting this season (Kyle Pitts? Mac Jones?). But for now, it’s Najee’s world and we’re just enjoying the ride.