The SEC's top 10 candidates for Offensive Player of the Year in 2021
In just a few weeks the college football calendar will turn to Watch List SZN, where hundreds of players are mentioned as potential candidates for various season-ending awards.
It happens during the dead heat of every summer, so in the spirit of the season, we decided to spice up the exercise a bit by projecting the 10 likeliest winners for the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year award — broken down into 3 categories.
Some quick background on the award: Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith deservedly took home the honors in 2020, leading all of college football in yards (1,857), touchdowns (23) and receptions (117).
Smith became the 6th Crimson Tide player to win the award in the past decade. Meanwhile, no player from an East Division school has been named the SEC’s OPY since Tim Tebow in 2008.
So who do we expect to be among the top candidates this fall?
Alabama QB Bryce Young
While the sophomore quarterback has yet to be named the team’s official starter, Young has the 3rd-best preseason odds to win the Heisman Trophy.
Expectations are large.
Young won’t replicate Mac Jones’ absurd 2020 stat line, but he’s going to produce touchdowns in bunches — both passing and rushing.
The 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback is going to put up gaudy numbers as the dude on a title-contending team. That gives him a great shot at winning the award.
Georgia QB JT Daniels
Like Young, Daniels is expected to be among the best quarterbacks in the country this fall. He thrived in Todd Monken’s offense over the last 4 games of 2020, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt and throwing 10 touchdowns to just 2 picks.
Many are presuming that Georgia will continue to open up the offense this fall, especially with the team’s best collection of playmakers (Arik Gilbert, Jermaine Burton, James Cook, Kearis Jackson, Arian Smith, etc.) in a long time. If Daniels shoulders more responsibility and leads the Dawgs to glory, then plenty of accolades, including OPY, will come his way.
LSU WR Kayshon Boutte
You might’ve missed it amid LSU’s dysfunctional 2020 season, but Boutte was fantastic as a freshman, averaging a ridiculous 16.3 yards per reception — barely bested by Alabama wideout John Metchie III (16.5) for tops in the league among any wideout with at least 40 receptions.
The 6-foot burner finished the year with 45 catches for 735 yards and 5 touchdowns, much of his production coming the last few weeks of the season.
With Gilbert now at Georgia and Terrance Marshall Jr. off to the NFL, Boutte will have every opportunity to post monster numbers as the featured playmaker in LSU’s offense.
Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
You could absolutely make the case that Corral should be listed among “the front-runners,” especially since the junior is easily the most accomplished returning quarterback in the league.
But this award typically goes to a player in contention for an SEC Championship — and that ain’t Ole Miss.
Still, Corral could absolutely replicate — or best — his production from 2020, where he led the nation in total offense per game (384.3 yards).
He’s a wild gun-slinger (see: Arkansas, LSU games), but he’s never going to stop throwing it, so the raw stats will be there. If he can spearhead a couple of upsets, then perhaps he could take home the award.
Texas A&M WR/RB Ainias Smith
Too often, players in college football are given the “Swiss Army knife” moniker, but Texas A&M’s top playmaker is truly a versatile weapon all over the field.
Smith is dangerous as a runner (293 yards, 5.98 yards per carry), receiver (43 receptions for 564 yards and 6 touchdowns) and returner. He had 6 games with at least 98 all-purpose yards in 2020 and is expected to get more touches this fall.
Apologies to Isaiah Spiller, who is a fantastic tailback, but if an Aggie is going to win the award with a big season, it’ll be No. 0 in maroon and white.
Arkansas WR Treylon Burks
With a smooth combination of a wide catch radius and elite body control, the Razorbacks’ best receiver graded out as the top-returning wideout in the SEC, per Pro Football Focus, this offseason (82.6).
Despite playing in a clunky passing offense at times, Burks posted strong stats, catching 51 balls for 820 yards and 7 touchdowns. Mike Woods is now at Oklahoma, so Burks should see even more targets in 2021.
The fact he won’t play for a contender will dent his chances here, but with a really big year, he could have an outside shot.
The wild cards
Florida QB Emory Jones
This is the perfect place for Jones, who has a vast range of potential and expectations entering his first season as Florida’s starting quarterback. Some see the former blue-chip recruit as a future 1st-round draft pick, while others aren’t even sure if Jones should actually be UF’s starter in 2021.
Still, the raw tools — as a passer and runner — are there for Jones to post big numbers in Dan Mullen’s QB-friendly scheme. To suit Jones’ skill-set, the Gators are likely to pivot to a more to a QB-run heavy offense like what Mullen ran with Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.
Accuracy issues remain a real concern for the junior quarterback, but if he can get that cleaned up and UF gets back to Atlanta, then the former Peach State native could certainly claim OPY honors.
South Carolina RB Kevin Harris, Auburn RB Tank Bigsby and Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez
I’ve grouped the tailback trio together here because all three pretty much have the same exact (albeit long shot) path to winning the award: A transcendent season from a tailback.
Think Darren McFadden in 2007.
The Razorbacks went just 8-4 that year, but McFadden was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for over 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns and spurring an upset over the No. 1 team in the country.
That’s pretty much what it would take, and perhaps even a bit more, for Harris, Bigbsy or Rodriguez to see their name alongside Run DMC.
None play for a likely title contender, but they will all get ample carries in run-first offenses. Harris is 1 of just 2 returning tailbacks in the SEC to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season, while Bigsby (834 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Rodriguez (785 yards and 11 touchdowns) could both topple that threshold in 2021.