The longest and most painful offseason in sports ended last week as college football returned to our living rooms and a college campus near you. The first tailgate of the year is always a time for abundant gratitude, whether you celebrate the beginning of a championship season, breaking bread with an old friend, a day with a son or daughter or Mom or Dad, or, in the rarest of special seasons, all of these at once.

SEC football is different, though.

It’s an irony free zone where when we say every game matters more, we mean every game matters more. It’s the place where you truly find the best barbeque down south, and if you don’t believe me, walk around the Grove in Oxford or any number of fraternity lunches in Tuscaloosa and you’ll find it. It’s there, I promise. It’s a place where they build statutes and name cathedrals for coaches who win while simultaneously remaining haunted by the spirits of coaches who do not.

It’s a subject of song and sermons.

SEC football isn’t just different than football elsewhere in the United States. It’s different from the rest of the south, and that doesn’t change just because Utah beat Florida, North Carolina dominated South Carolina, and Florida State routed LSU on the season’s opening weekend.

In William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, the hero returns from the University of Virginia, a southern locale that has the misfortune, I suppose, of being an ACC school (and this weekend had the misfortune of getting in Tennessee’s way). At a party, he alleges he “learned to drink like a gentleman” in Charlottesville. This type of allegation is a miscalculation in the SEC.

They learn to lose like gentlemen in the ACC, too. In the SEC, you hold your liquor and you lose angry.  I think “Don’t lose your first game, even if it is on the road to the back-to-back Pac-12 champions,” is in the book of Isaiah somewhere.

What isn’t in the book of Isaiah but has been a true joy, especially when the readers ask if I finished 4th grade or ever played sports in the comments section, is the weekly SEC top 10 player rankings I’ve  done for 3 seasons. Let’s start season 4, shall we?

A reminder is helpful: This top 10 list is not a NFL Draft board and it does not rank the top 10 pro prospects. Plenty of sites do that. I suggest google, but bing if you must. It is also not a list of the top 10 players in the preseason. We care about results, what a player does to an opposing coordinator from a game-plan standpoint, and how a player impacts winning. We don’t care as much that Phil Steele tabbed the player an All-American, even if we love Phil Steele. Finally, if your favorite player is on here, or a player you think should be on here isn’t on here, that’s because your favorite player is terrible or I am not good at this job. There is no in between, and you are correct to think it is quite simple to rank the 10 best football players in the best conference in the sport.

As always, honorable mentions come first, and we rank up to 2 per school.

Honorable Mention: Darrian Dalcourt, OL (Alabama); Deontae Lawson, LB (Alabama); Raheim Sanders (Arkansas); Beaux Limmer, C (Arkansas); Jaylin Simpson, CB (Auburn); Avery Jones, C (Auburn); Shemar James, LB (Florida); Amarius Mims, OL (Georgia); Mykel Williams, DE (Georgia); Devin Leary, QB (Kentucky); Kahlil Saunders,  DL (Kentucky); Jayden Daniels, QB (LSU); Jay Bramblett, P (LSU); Cody Schrader, RB (Missouri); Xavier Delgado, OL (Missouri); Will Rogers, QB (Mississippi State); Creed Whittemore, WR (Mississippi State); Jaxson Dart, QB (Ole Miss); Zxavian Harris, DT (Ole Miss); Xavier Legette, WR (South Carolina); Dylan Sampson, RB (Tennessee); Tyler Baron, Edge (Tennessee); Evan Stewart, WR (Texas A&M); Shemar Turner, DL (Texas A&M); CJ Taylor, LB (Vanderbilt); Julian Hernandez, C (Vanderbilt).

10. James Pearce Jr., Edge (Tennessee)

Did Tennessee find a Byron Young replacement in Week 1? It sure looked like James Pearce Jr. is ready to fit that bill after Tennessee’s 49-13 demolition of Virginia. Pearce Jr. was all over the field and he was marvelous when the game was still close, registering 2 3rd-down sacks in the first half to keep Tennessee in control while Joe Milton and the offense worked out the rust offensively. Virginia was breaking in 4 new offensive linemen, but Pearce was the most active and explosive of the Volunteers’ defensive linemen, and that bodes well for a Tennessee defense looking to improve in 2023.

9. Conner Weigman, QB (Texas A&M)

Weigman picked up where he left off at the end of last season, when he led the Aggies to a 38-23 upset of LSU. The sophomore threw 5 touchdown passes and averaged an impressive 10.3 yards per attempt in Texas A&M’s blowout win over New Mexico. His rapport with wide receiver Evan Stewart, a fellow 5-star recruit, is frighteningly good, as Stewart piled up 115 yards and 2 touchdowns on 8 targets. The Aggies’ new offense looked sharp under Bobby Petrino, but a better test comes this week, when A&M visits Miami at Hard Rock Stadium.

8. Quinshon Judkins, RB (Ole Miss)

The first-team All-SEC running back looked the part, powering his way to 2 touchdowns in a 73-7 Ole Miss rout of Mercer. The competition wasn’t fierce, but Judkins looked ready for a season where defenses will key on stopping him after a surprising freshman season that saw him run for 1,567 yards and score 16 touchdowns. A tougher test awaits next week at Tulane.

7. Josh DeBerry, CB (Texas A&M)

The Aggies landed DeBerry, who was an All-ACC corner at Boston College, in the portal this summer and he made an immediate impact, collecting 10 tackles, registering 2 pass breakups, getting home on a corner blitz for a sack and looking sharp in run support.

DeBerry graded out as one of the best run-support corners in college football in his final 2 seasons at Boston College. He looked the part in his Aggies debut, and his ability to be effective in coverage and against the run makes him the most versatile — and indispensable — of Texas A&M’s defensive backs in 2023.

6. Jo’Quavious Marks, RB (Mississippi State)

Mike Leach called Marks “one of the hardest working young men I’ve ever been around,” high praise from the gone far too soon Pirate, but worth remembering as Marks shined in a big State win. Marks had 127 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns, then flashed his versatility in the passing game, adding 59 yards receiving in the 48-7 win over SE Louisiana. The former 4-star recruit has been a 3-down back for multiple seasons in the SEC, and he appeared quicker and twitchier than ever in Week 1. A huge season from Marks would relieve pressure on Will Rogers, and make the first full season under Zach Arnett much easier for State to swallow.

5.  Tre Harris, WR (Ole Miss)

I don’t care if Ole Miss was playing Mercer or Mary’s Sisters of the Poor, anytime you do what Tre Harris did and score 4 touchdowns in 1 game, you’ll find yourself mentioned in this column.

Harris will get plenty of opportunities to add to his tally this season in Lane Kiffin’s offense, but a 6-catch, 133-yard debut is the kind of start that lands you in the top 5 of “The List” week one. Sustaining that success as the season continues? That’s tougher.

4. Jalen Milroe, QB (Alabama)

Just as everyone expected, Milroe is one of the top 2 quarterbacks in the SEC after Week 1. OK, no one expected that. But seriously, when do we stop doubting Nick Saban’s decisions about quarterbacks? The sophomore quarterback produced 242 total yards and 5 touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing) to pace a 56-7 Crimson Tide win over Middle Tennessee. His 10.8 yards per completion was impressive, as was his ability to distribute the ball: 7 players caught a Milroe pass. It’s early, and Texas is next, but what a promising beginning for the man with the impossible task of replacing Bryce Young.

3. Will Sheppard, WR (Vanderbilt)

The first appearance by a Vanderbilt football player in the top 10 comes in The List’s 4th season, but seriously, who is going to argue with this with any conviction? Or, stated differently, who would disagree with this if Sheppard played at Georgia and not Vanderbilt?

Sheppard has 4 touchdowns this season in Vanderbilt’s first 2 games, and his ability to use his length and body to catch tough 1-on-1s has caught the attention of the NFL, where he is rocketing up mock draft boards. A season after catching 60 passes for the Commodores, he’s on pace to catch 80 this season, which would be the largest haul for a Vanderbilt receiver since Jordan Matthews (who was pretty darn good). A date with Wake Forest, and a shot at a 3-0 Vanderbilt start, looms next.

2. KJ Jefferson, QB (Arkansas)

The Arkansas star opened his 2023 account producing 4 touchdowns (3 passing, 1 rushing) in a 56-13 win over Western Carolina. The arm looked accurate, too, as Jefferson connected on 18 of his 23 throws, averaging 10.7 per attempt, in pacing the blowout. On the ground, Jefferson ran only when he needed to, as Dan Enos sought to limit the called runs. Arkansas will work on the passing game again Saturday against Kent State, as Jefferson gets acquainted with a new receiver corps. That should mean big numbers again for Jefferson, and staying power on “The List.”

1. Brock Bowers, TE (Georgia)

Bowers is a matchup nightmare and Tennessee-Martin had no answer for him, which you’d expect. You wouldn’t expect the relatively pedestrian numbers (5 receptions, 77 yards, 1 rushing touchdown), but then again, maybe you would, as Mike Bobo was likely (possibly?) trying to work on getting Carson Beck comfortable with other weapons. Bowers in the open field is when you see his true freak: fast, agile, powerful, elusive.

It’s too early to draw sharp conclusions about Beck or Bobo, but you can bet that when Georgia needs to lean on Bowers this season, they will, and he’ll respond in a big way. A surefire first-round draft pick, Bowers might be the SEC’s best player, and he begins the season ranked No. 1.