Round of 32: SEC’s best individual seasons of all time

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“Recency bias” is a real thing, especially when it comes to attaching all-time greatness to college football players.

In Round 1 of our March Madness bracket for the greatest individual seasons in SEC history, there were eight upsets with a lower seed taking out a higher seed. In six of the eight, the winner was the more recent performance.

While the Running Back and Defensive Player regions went almost straight chalk — a lone upset for each among eight first-round matchups — a bracket-busting grenade has already been thrown on the Wide Receiver region. Four double-digit seeds emerged victorious, including Julio Jones in 2010 as a 15-seed.

As a result, the conference’s single-season leaders for touchdown catches (Reidel Anthony in 1996 with 18) and yards receiving (Josh Reed in 2001 with 1,740) have been eliminated. The 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-seeds are gone.

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Your vote will determine who moves on to the Round of 16, so here’s a breakdown of all the battles from the field of 32.

QUARTERBACK REGION

1 Tim Tebow (2007) vs. 9 Archie Manning (1970)

Tebow dominated his Round 1 matchup with Vanderbilt’s Bill Spears, earning almost 92 percent of the vote. Manning pulled out a mild upset over Florida’s Rex Grossman, although he did capture nearly 77 percent of ballots cast.

Statistically, Tebow was about as dominant a player as the has league ever seen. However, the Manning name carries a lot of weight.


5 Tim Couch (1997) vs. 4 Johnny Manziel (2012)

Two of the three 4,000-yard passers in SEC annals duke it out in a battle of 4 vs. 5. Couch brushed aside Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway in the first round, while Manziel took care of another member of football’s first family, Eli Manning.

Couch slung the ball all over the yard before that was commonplace in this game. Manziel was a lot of fun to watch, though.


6 Peyton Manning (1997) vs. 14 Dak Prescott (2014)

Florida’s Steve Spurrier may have generated the headlines, but his on-the-field performance was outdistanced by Manning’s. Recency bias was at play in the region’s 3-14 matchup, as Prescott upset Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Danny Wuerffel, also from Florida.

Manning is arguably the No. 1 QB ever fielded by the conference when measured by NFL success, but what a rookie campaign from Prescott.


7 Aaron Murray (2012) vs. 2 Cam Newton (2010)

Murray, the league’s all-time leader in yards passing, had little trouble getting rid of Chad Kelly of Ole Miss with about two-thirds of the vote. Newton eliminated fellow Auburn product Pat Sullivan by collecting almost 81 percent of ballots cast.

While Murray’s consistency from freshman year through senior year was commendable, Newton’s single-season dominance was simply jaw-dropping.


RUNNING BACK REGION

1 Herschel Walker (1981) vs. 8 Tre Mason (2013)

Recency bias has no effect on Walker, who destroyed another Georgia back (Todd Gurley) by getting about 19 out of every 20 votes cast in their matchup. Mason moved on by defeating LSU’s Charles Alexander, albeit by a much slimmer margin.

Walker won a national championship with the Bulldogs. Mason came up just a few seconds short, but it certainly wasn’t his fault.


5 Mark Ingram (2009) vs. 4 Darren McFadden (2007)

This is football, not basketball, so Kentucky had no chance against Alabama — even in March. Ingram easily took out Moe Williams in Round 1. In a battle of Razorbacks, McFadden beat up Alex Collins almost as badly as Walker did so to Gurley.

Ingram was a between-the-tackles punisher and won the Heisman Trophy. McFadden could do it all for the Hogs, even if the Heisman ultimately eluded him.


6 Leonard Fournette (2015) vs. 3 Derrick Henry (2015)

With Fournette stepping over Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Henry moving past Georgia’s Garrison Hearst, once again the two will be compared. Fournette was considered the top back in America for most of 2015, until he ran into Henry and the Crimson Tide.

Henry went on to put together the most numbers-nuts year for a ball carrier in league lore. Fournette is perhaps the more talented of the two, though.


10 Emmitt Smith (1989) vs. 2 Bo Jackson (1985)

The one and only upset of the Running Back region, Smith got approximately twice as many votes as Cannon, the LSU legend and Heisman winner. Jackson didn’t have any issues with Georgia’s Nick Chubb and walked away with 88 percent of ballots cast.

Like with Walker, recency bias never seems to come into play for Jackson. Nevertheless, he’s going against another all-timer in Smith.


WIDE RECEIVER REGION

1 Amari Cooper (2014) vs. 8 Cobi Hamilton (2012)

Even as the top seed, Cooper didn’t necessarily have a field day with Florida’s Percy Harvin, who garnered a respectable 32 percent of the vote in defeat. Hamilton eliminated another ex-Gator in the first round, the one-season wonder Travis McGriff.

Cooper is the leading receiver in Alabama history, while Hamilton is the leading receiver in Arkansas history. You be the judge.


12 Jabar Gaffney (2001) vs. 13 Peerless Price (1998)

A pair of heavy underdogs survived Round 1 and will face each other in Round 2. Gaffney moved past a fellow ex-Gator, Carlos Alvarez. Price left another former UF standout on the cutting-room floor in the aforementioned Anthony.

Gaffney had the benefit of a Heisman-caliber Grossman throwing him the ball. Price went from Peyton Manning to Tee Martin yet still managed to excel.


6 Alshon Jeffery (2010) vs. 14 Odell Beckham Jr. (2013)

Jeffery’s breakout campaign with the Gamecocks was more than enough to move him past LSU’s Wendell Davis. Beckham won his showdown with Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews despite catching barely more than half as many passes in the same 2013 season.

Jeffery and Beckham are two of the more high-flying pass catchers featured in the NFL these days, but don’t forget that this bracket is measuring single-season greatness in college.


7 Mike Evans (2013) vs. 15 Julio Jones (2010)

Evans was Manziel’s favorite target at A&M, just like Craig Yeast was Couch’s primary option at UK. Still, about 85 percent of voters went with Evans over Yeast. Jones blew away Reed in a 2-15 affair despite recording 607 fewer yards receiving.

Similar to the Jeffery-Beckham matchup, Evans-Jones pits two of Sunday’s finest against one another. Jones had more catches, but Evans racked up more yards and TDs.


DEFENSIVE PLAYER REGION

1 Derrick Thomas (1988) vs. 9 Jadeveon Clowney (2012)

The furthest thing from a surprise, Thomas won by the largest margin in the Defensive Player region by obliterating Georgia’s Ben Smith nearly 9-to-1. Not really an upset despite being the lower seed, Clowney doubled up Auburn’s Tracy Rocker.

Maybe the best pure pass rusher to ever live, both in college and the NFL, Thomas is tough to beat. However, Clowney does have that YouTube clip from the Michigan game.


5 Jarvis Jones (2012) vs. 4 Wilber Marshall (1983)

In a matchup of former Dawgs, Jones eliminated the SEC’s all-time interception leader for a single season, Terry Hoage. With some Gator-on-Gator crime, Marshall threw Alex Brown overboard by getting close to 66 percent of the vote.

Jones did a little bit of everything for Georgia in 2012, but Marshall was named National Defensive Player of the Year for 1983 by ABC Sports.


6 Patrick Willis (2006) vs. 3 Reggie White (1983)

A pure tackling machine, one of the most prolific the conference has ever known, Willis did away with Florida’s Jack Youngblood. While both White and Champ Bailey of Georgia enjoyed Hall of Fame turns in the NFL, White got the benefit of the doubt in this bracket.

Willis may have been the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, but White was named the league’s overall Player of the Year in 1983.


7 Tyrann Mathieu (2011) vs. 2 David Pollack (2004)

A big play waiting to happen, either defensively or as a punt returner, Mathieu breezed past another LSU alumnus, Glenn Dorsey. Pollack took out a one-time Bayou Bengal great, too. He earned about 76 percent of the vote when matched up with Tommy Casanova.

Mathieu continues to excel at the next level. Pollack’s time in the NFL was brief, although we still get to see him regularly on ESPN’s College GameDay.



John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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COMMENTS

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  • Amari Cooper, Derrick Thomas, and Herschel Walker are automatic bracket champions if there is any justice in this poll. QB is the only real argument. Even though he is a punk, I would be tempted to say Manziel if A&M had won anything. As it stands, you probably put Newton and Tebow in a cage and let them fight it out. Let’s say Tebow because I like him better.

    • I agree with Thomas and Walker. I would debate Amari a bit before I declared him the winner. I would lean towards Tebow. Cam had the best season but Tebow had the best career.
      Thomas wins the final four in runaway fashion.

      • I doubt that. You can tell by the voting patterns so far that a lot of people don’t know who DT is. Unless someone was a star recently or is basically a legend, who knows how the voting will turn out. Julio Jones destroyed Josh Reed, and Reed should have won easily, but Julio is an NFL star now and Reed is retired.

  • The 42% of you that voted for Jadeveon Clowney over Derrick Thomas are either fools, children who didn’t watch Thomas play, or biased. DT was the greatest defender in NCAA History.

    • I would take Derrick Thomas as a freshmen over Clowney, but that last statement is debatable. Willis is probably the best defender I ever saw in person.

    • A coherent case could be made for Walker over DT. I was in school at AL when DT played, by the way. D Henry deserves honorable mention for breaking Herschel’s record. I was in the stadium when that happened, too. In truth, there are DT, Walker, Tebow, and Newton…then everyone else.

  • I just wanna know how Tre Mason got 11% vs Herschel.

    • I couldn’t have said it better myself… Walker: 1891 yards, 4.9 average, 16 tds… Mason: 1816 yards, 5.7 average, 23 tds… Should not even be close :)

      • Did you really create an SDS account just to reply to that?

        • Well since you have to make an account to comment, and I wanted to comment, sure I guess so.

        • Different era, different game – which is what makes long-view comparisons so tricky. Most fans get it, though (89% anyway). Herschel was a one man show on the ’81 UGA team, and still racked up more rushing yards than anyone in the country except the Heisman winner (Marcus Allen). By comparison, Tre Mason had a 1000-yard rushing quarterback to occupy defenses.

          The real perspective, though, is that Herschel’s 1891 yards stood in the SEC for 34 years before being broken. And we’re really not comparing apples to apples – Herschel did this in 11 games, before post-season numbers were included in season stats. Tre’s numbers covered 14 games, almost 30% more than Herschel’s game opportunities.

          Bo couldn’t do it. Emmitt couldn’t do it. Darren couldn’t do it. Thirty-four years of top-flight SEC RBs couldn’t break that record till Derrick Henry and LF7 went crazy in the same year.

        • Different Era, same game (football). The Era we live in today favors passing offenses also. 1. I am not trying to say Tre Mason is a better player than Hershel Walker (though I wouldn’t mind arguing for Bo), just trying to debate on who had the better season. 2. ( This isn’t an argument on Era or on the best player, it’s based on SINGLE SEASON production, so the only way to compare is to use stats) The basic question when asking who had the better season is this: without putting names next to numbers, which season would you want your teams running back to have this year. I don’t know about you, but I would like to win so I’ll take the more efficient (Mason). IF this was a pick between the better player I would pick Hershel hands down, but it isn’t. 3. Walker’s season was one of the SEC’S best, and that record holding for that long is outstanding. HOWEVER, please stop referencing all of these shorter seasons and blah blah blah. The amount of carries matter, not so much how many games were played Hershel Walker had way more chances to gain yards and touchdowns, yet he only had less than 100 yards more than Mason. 4. Back to Bo… Bo had 278 carries for 1786 yards in 1985. That’s 6.4 average yards per carry. He also had only 1 less rushing touchdown with 17. He did all of this with a little over 100 LESS carries (Walker had 385 carries in 1981)… by the way it was in the same Era so don’t pull that excuse out.

        • There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. Stats can be argued over endlessly. Regardless of how you parse it, I’ll take Herschel’s 172 YPG over Tre’s 130. Projected over 14 games, that would give Herschel 2400-plus yards. Especially in a lower-production era when traditional I-formation offenses were the norm versus the current spread and option. Like I said, different game.

        • Okay fair enough, but that gives me 173 more snaps to do something else with the ball, while only losing 600 yards of production.

        • We agree to respectfully disagree. The way it should be ;-)