Ranking the SEC's Top 25 offensive players for 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Top 25 week continues with the ranking of the best offensive players in the SEC.
Can we agree on something?
The SEC is the premier conference in college football. When you win 10 of the past 14 national titles and you’ve won the NFL Draft every year since the George Bush administration, you have the right to flex.
With that in mind, if I’m saying that someone is “an elite SEC player,” I need to have, you know, seen them be elite in the SEC. I’m not going to assume that someone is going to be elite based on what they did in high school or what they did in another conference. I could have a lot of confidence that the likes of Jamie Newman and K.J. Costello are going to have plenty of success, but there’s still a part of me that needs to see it to believe it. It’d be different if they were already All-Americans.
The 25 guys who made this list, I have seen and I now believe. Some admittedly took me longer to believe in than others (shoutout to Kyle Pitts). That’s OK. This list is about the players who I feel best about stepping on an SEC field tomorrow and dominating regardless of the competition. Only those playing are eligible. Ja’Marr Chase was No. 1, for instance, but no longer is included after opting out.
You’ll notice that this is simply a ranking of the SEC’s best offensive players. How does one compare a left tackle to a receiver? Well, much if this is how well they do their jobs. If you’re getting preseason All-America love, yes, that’s a sign that you’re doing your job well. There are, as you could guess, a lot of players who do their jobs very well. A lot of studs didn’t make this list.
But sorry, I couldn’t bring myself to rank a punter/kicker ahead of someone who plays dozens of snaps. Just know that if I did, Max Duffy, you would have been my guy.
So, let’s get to a ranking that surely we won’t be able to agree on.
25. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M QB
Mond is as polarizing a player as there is for SEC fans. If you want to come up with a narrative as to why he’s good or bad, well, you can. He’d be higher on this list if those opinions were a bit more unanimous. Like how he took the 2nd-most sacks among SEC quarterbacks each of the past 2 seasons, or how he averaged just 6.9 yards per attempt last year. There’s also his 2-6 record in true road games under Jimbo Fisher. But there’s also the fact that he’s on pace to become the 9th SEC player to record 100 career combined touchdowns, and he’s on pace to finish 4th among the SEC’s career leader in yards from scrimmage. Mond is on this spot because while the lack of season-to-season progression is frustrating, there’s still more good than bad. There’s also still throws like this:
Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond: Highest graded QB returning to the SEC in 2020.pic.twitter.com/BRwa94axN8
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 30, 2020
24. Trevon Grimes, Florida WR
Big, big things are expected of Grimes in Gainesville in 2020. Like, real big. The 6-5 wideout gave Gator fans a scare when he initially didn’t report to practice, but he said he’s good to go for this season. That’s fortunate because there are few players in all of college football who should be able to test corners on the outside like Grimes. Oh, and he can make home-run plays like this:
Trevon Grimes went 66 yards to the house 😤 pic.twitter.com/lnTEw6toCZ
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 9, 2019
Grimes might not be a 60-catch guy in Dan Mullen’s offense, especially not in this shortened season. That’s OK. But what he brings to the table is unique and incredibly important for helping out Kyle Trask. The Gators lost a lot with Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland and the underrated Freddie Swain. But Grimes and Kyle Pitts are going to be a matchup nightmare for smaller secondaries in the SEC.
23. Landon Young, Kentucky OT
What’s a crazy thought? Young is the first of 3 Kentucky offensive linemen who made this list. Yeah, that’s right. Young was a key part of Kentucky’s SEC-best ground game, and he also was the top-graded pass-blocker among SEC tackles last year. Of course, Kentucky didn’t throw the ball very much last year. That’s why he didn’t get as much love as some of the other offensive linemen in Lexington. Young returned to form after his torn ACL in 2018, and there’s no question that his decision to delay the NFL Draft was among the biggest for Kentucky.
22. Deonte Brown, Alabama OL
If you think that Alabama offensive linemen are overrated, sorry, this might not be the list for you. Actually, this might not be the season for you. Brown is the first of several Alabama offensive linemen who are, without question, among the best offensive players in the conference. The 350-pound senior provided a major boost in the ground game when he returned after missing the first 4 games of 2020. Alabama might not have had a historically dominant ground game, but it averaged 5.5 yards per carry and was plenty effective, especially in the latter half of 2019. With Brown, Landon Dickerson and Alex Leatherwood all back, the Crimson Tide are loaded with experience up front.
21. Zamir White, Georgia RB
I admit that I’m doing a slight bit of projecting here, but I still feel strongly about White’s ability to make plays from the jump. Without D’Andre Swift in the Sugar Bowl, we saw the former 5-star recruit flash the potential that folks in Athens have been raving about since he committed. White’s health delayed the start of his much-anticipated college career, but without Swift and Brian Herrien, this ground game is his for the taking (James Cook will also have a significant role). We saw what Nick Chubb did last year as a breakout star in Todd Monken’s offense (with the Cleveland Browns). Nobody — and I mean nobody — would be surprised to see White become the breakout star of the SEC in 2020.
20. Elijah Moore, Ole Miss WR
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Was Moore’s last impression in 2019 a good one? Obviously not. The fake dog pee celebration that poured gasoline on the Egg Bowl fire certainly earned him an infamous spot in the great history of the rivalry. But don’t overlook the fact that in an offense that wasn’t really based on airing it out in Rich Rodriguez’s system, Moore had 850 receiving yards and 6 scores. What will Moore do in Lane Kiffin’s offense, you ask? A lot. Moore is a good dark horse candidate to lead the SEC in receiving in 2020.
19. Landon Dickerson, Alabama OL
It’s probably not ideal for the rest of the SEC when Alabama has several offensive linemen listed on a preseason Top 25 list of the conferences best offensive players. Just a thought. Dickerson is certainly part of that group. The 5th-year senior was a second-team All-SEC selection last year at right guard (he also started 9 games at center). He only missed 4 assignments in 727 snaps for an Alabama offensive line that was better than advertised. Nobody has to tell Dickerson to play with a mean streak. It’s certainly there. Nobody will ever accuse Dickerson of not playing to the whistle:
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 29, 2019
His emergence last year after transferring from Florida State was huge for an Alabama offense that broke all sorts of program records. Alabama’s return to a national title is dependent on that offensive line making another step in 2020.
18. Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M WR
Ausbon quietly averaged 5.7 catches in his first 11 games last year as Mond’s clear go-to target. He might not make the same flashy downfield plays that some of the receivers ahead of him make, but make no mistake, Ausbon is one of the SEC’s best. He can line up on the outside, he can make people miss in screens and he can catch balls in traffic. That’s exactly what Mond needs. A&M’s offense isn’t always going to scheme receivers open like an LSU or an Alabama, but it helps to have a reliable target like Ausbon, who will no longer share the spotlight with Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers. Ausbon’s first 1,000-yard season should be on the way.
17. George Pickens, Georgia WR
Am I excited to see Pickens in Georgia’s new offense? Uh, yeah. Of course. If we get Pickens and Jamie Newman at full strength for the duration of 2020, that’s going to be must-see TV. But do I have questions about Pickens’ ability to consistently get separation against elite corners? Yeah. As much as he stole the show in the Sugar Bowl, it’s easy to forget that in the regular season, he had 37 catches for 552 yards. He might have as much upside as anyone in the conference, but we still need to see that consistently. That’s why he’s not as high as some of the other more proven receivers on this list. But if Pickens does put it all together in 2020, he’ll be as fun to watch as anyone.
16. Terrace Marshall, LSU WR
Friends don’t let friends tell each other that Marshall is just a system receiver. Not too many guys can suffer a midseason foot injury and still catch 13 touchdowns. Marshall might have benefited from Justin Jefferson and Chase taking up so much attention, and sure it helps when you’ve got the Heisman Trophy winner throwing you passes. But don’t get it twisted. Now that he’s finally healthy after ankle, shoulder and fibula injuries, Marshall is ready to be a star in this league. With Chase opting out, he has to be just that. Even if he doesn’t match those 13 touchdowns, those reception and yardage numbers are going up. Get ready for more plays like this:
Terrace Marshall Jr : 3 catches for 46 yards & a TD pic.twitter.com/ZfuUdsuxfJ
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) January 14, 2020
15. Trey Hill, Georgia OL
So this is … impressive:
Fewest QB pressures allowed by power-five OL with 400+ snaps:
1. Trey Hill, Georgia – 2
2. Donell Stanley, SC – 4
3. Blake Brandel, Oregon St – 5
4. Marquel Harrell, Auburn – 6 pic.twitter.com/uLQhd0wmhL
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 10, 2020
Hill might not have had the versatility of Cade Mays, and he wasn’t held in the same regard as Andrew Thomas, but his presence was extremely important for Georgia in 2019. He’s one of the lone returning starters in Todd Monken’s offense. His leadership will be crucial what’ll be largely a new-look unit. So much of what Georgia wants to be able to do is going to be predicated on keeping the quarterback upright whether they’re throwing or running. With the exception of the quarterback position, there might not be a single player on the Georgia roster whose health is more important than Hill’s.
14. Seth Williams, Auburn WR
We take for granted how easy guys like Williams make it look. That is, have the ability to get position on a corner and have the skill go to up, make a play and come down inbounds. Williams is as good as anyone in the SEC at doing just that. In Chad Morris’ offense, I have no doubt that he’ll be called on to do that a lot more. To have 830 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns with such an inefficient passing offense is impressive. Williams and Anthony Schwartz have potential to be a special combination given their complementary skill sets. If there’s a guy who can prevent one of the favorites (Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith) from getting first-team All-SEC honors, it’s Williams.
13. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss RB
I do want to say that Snoop Conner doesn’t get enough love, and I’m guilty of that. Ealy is the 5-star, multi-sport weapon who I’m giddy to see in Lane Kiffin’s offense. I don’t think Ealy has the size to ever be a 250-touch guy in the SEC, but that’s OK. He makes the most of his opportunities both as a back and as a kick returner. Not many SEC freshmen backs average 6.9 yards per carry and catch 20 passes. I think there’s a 1,400 scrimmage-yard season in Ealy’s future, especially if he continues to make home-run plays.
Ya’ll Jerrion Ealy is really, really good at this whole football thing pic.twitter.com/6l66Sp89Xm
— Nathanael Gabler (@nategabler) October 6, 2019
12. Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M TE
There’s a lot of youth on this list. Why? SEC true freshmen like Wydermyer made a lot of noise on 2019. He broke out with a 2-touchdown game against Alabama, but Wydermyer was certainly more than a 1-game wonder. He had 447 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns, but equally impressive was the fact that he forced more missed tackles than all but 2 returning tight ends. At 6-5, 260 pounds, Wydermyer is a huge target with major downfield ability (he had 5 catches of 20-plus yards in 2019). Kyle Pitts is going to get a lot of the preseason love for the SEC’s best returning tight end, and understandably so, but Wydermyer isn’t very far behind him.
11. Kyle Trask, Florida QB
I know the Pro Football Focus numbers hate Trask. They say he can’t throw deep and that he doesn’t make big-time throws. While I think Trask can improve his downfield accuracy, anyone who says he’s an average quarterback at best clearly didn’t watch him very much last year. So what if he isn’t a prototypical fit in Dan Mullen’s offense? It’s irrelevant that he was the lowest-ranked signee offered in Florida’s 2016 class … or that he didn’t start post-freshman year of high school (in case you haven’t heard). You don’t complete 67% of your passes (he finished below 60% in 1 game all year) and score 29 touchdowns in essentially 10.5 games of work for a New Year’s 6 Bowl champ unless you know what you’re doing. He’s the best returning quarterback in the league until proven otherwise.
10. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas RB
This still blows me away:
Consider this a reminder that Rakeem Boyd averaged 6 yards per carry in multiple Chad Morris offenses at Arkansas, which I’m not sure many human beings could’ve done. pic.twitter.com/AFl1nSnmoA
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) July 24, 2020
Yes, he deserves a medal for that.
The fact that Boyd returned was a surprise considering how much he did with that aforementioned disastrous Chad Morris offense. He should be the focal point of Kendal Briles’ offense. If Sam Pittman can work his magic on the offensive line, Boyd will be better for it, as well. Boyd is up there for “the best running back that nobody outside the SEC talks about.” I don’t know if there’s a running list, but if there is, the former “Last Chance U” star is high on it.
9. Drake Jackson, Kentucky C
So remember how Kentucky essentially ran the ball with the volume of a service academy and led the Power 5 with rushing? Oh, and remember how that happened with a receiver essentially running the wild cat? Well, Jackson was a huge part of that. Pro Football Focus graded Jackson as the most valuable returning center in America. He only missed 2 blocking assignments in 845 plays last year en route to first-team All-SEC honors. If you’re wondering how Kentucky has had such a successful interior running game for the last couple years, look at the guy who has a streak of 33 consecutive starts at center. And even if Kentucky does pass more this year — it definitely will — Jackson has allowed just 1 snack in 974 pass-block snaps.
8. Kyle Pitts, Florida TE
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There’s not an SEC weapon more intriguing than Pitts. I’m a believer that the Florida “tight end” should really just be called “a large dude who catches passes at an elite level.” Too wordy? We’ll workshop that. In the meantime, I’ll appreciate how Pitts caught 54 passes for 649 yards as a first-time starter last year. That’s why he’s widely considered one of the top returning tight ends (if not the top returner with Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth not playing fall football). Pitts is simply a matchup nightmare. He can improve as a blocker, but it’s hard to imagine him being a more perfect weapon in Dan Mullen’s offense.
Kyle Pitts getting a brick in 2020 pic.twitter.com/w8RlAuG9GR
— No gimmicks, Just turnovers (@AshGotJuice) December 1, 2019
7. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky OL
Not familiar with Kinnard? SEC fans should be after the year he had helping pave the way for the leading rushing attack among Power 5 teams. The giant offensive tackle (345 pounds) started every game for the Wildcats last year and was easily the highest-graded returning SEC offensive lineman (PFF). Why? Well, he only committed 1 penalty in 706 snaps, he had 32 knockdowns and Kentucky successfully ran the ball against defenses … despite the fact that they knew exactly what was coming.
Darian Kinnard is a hoss. If he’s not first team preseason All-SEC we riot. pic.twitter.com/0i0pedAOru
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) May 1, 2020
A team can’t do that without offensive linemen who impose their will at the point of attack like Kinnard. He’s the best player on that experienced group of returning starters up front, which is saying something. If you’re wondering why people are high on Kentucky, it’s because of guys like Kinnard.
6. Najee Harris, Alabama RB
Harris does things that sometimes make me think I’m watching Adrian Peterson. The anger in which he runs with is evident. When he makes plays in the open field like he did in South Carolina, you can’t help but think about his next-level potential. I mean, Harris tried to hurdle a guy in a spring game. He’s got a competitive switch that doesn’t get turned off. His only weakness — if you can really call it that — is his vision. Could that improve as a senior? Absolutely. But even if Harris, who is no longer working alongside the best passer in Alabama history, doesn’t get a major volume increase (236 scrimmage touches) just repeating last year’s production would be a win. He was the first Alabama back with 1,500 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns since Derrick Henry in 2015. Alabama is fortunate to return a proven, potential All-American tailback.
5. Kylin Hill, MSU RB
I give Hill credit for what he did last year. He took on 8-men boxes and carried that often dormant MSU offense. Like Harris, it was a surprise to see Hill return after his big junior year (260 scrimmage touches for 1,530 yards). Unlike Harris, Hill returned to play in an entirely new offense. Watching him in Mike Leach’s Air Raid is going to be fascinating on a variety of fronts. Hill could finish the season with half as many carries per game that he had in Joe Moorhead’s offense, but he could catch upwards of 45-50 passes in a 10-game season. His rushing numbers won’t be up there with the likes of Harris, Boyd and others, but Hill could still be in for a big year, just in a different way than we’re used to seeing from elite SEC backs.
4. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama WR/RET
What does it say that a team’s No. 4 receiver from last season is a borderline top-5 returning player in the conference? For starters, it says that those receivers were historically good. Waddle would’ve been a No. 1 receiver at the vast majority of Power 5 programs last year. But despite the fact that his numbers took a dip with so much talent around him, Waddle is still an All-American weapon. We certainly got a reminder of that against Auburn, when he had 4 total touchdowns (3 receiving, 1 kickoff return). He’s the most slippery player in college football, and I’m not sure it’s close. Nobody is a bigger threat to take a 15-yard pass and turn it into a home-run play against a secondary who’s a step too late. The nation’s best return man is going to find new ways to amaze. Waddle is a clear favorite to win the Paul Hornung Award.
3. Alex Leatherwood, Alabama OL
Leatherwood turned down a potential 1st-round payday to return to Alabama. That doesn’t happen that often in Tuscaloosa. Leatherwood is able to play any position on the offensive line, which is important in a year like this one when there could be more non-injury absences than ever. Leatherwood didn’t allow a single sack in 440 pass-protection snaps last year (PFF). Not enough was made about the fact that Alabama allowed only 12 sacks all year, which was the fewest per game among Power 5 teams. Leatherwood was charted by Alabama for missing just 7 assignments in 752 snaps. There’s a reason why he’s a preseason All-American everywhere you look. The Crimson Tide are relying on that offensive line to be the steadying force after losing a stunning 4 offensive players in the first 15 picks (!) of the NFL Draft. Leatherwood is the most important piece of that puzzle.
2. Trey Smith, Tennessee OL
Smith has been at Tennessee long enough to remember what the offensive line used to be. It was a porous, ineffective unit that used to be the clear weak link. Now, it looks like the strength of the team, and Smith is a major reason why that’s the case. Smith, who started at left guard in a healthy 2019 season, didn’t allow a sack all year. And while the Vols’ ground game could’ve been much better, Smith was a major reason why it found its stride in the latter half of 2019.
Tennessee guard Trey Smith:
🏈 0 QB sacks allowed in 2019
🏈 Highest-graded interior run-blocker returning to the SEC pic.twitter.com/2BNzkFKzvH
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 14, 2020
Smith is a remarkable story having dealt with the blood clots issue that once threatened his career. But he’s more than just a feel-good story during Tennessee’s rebuild under Jeremy Pruitt. Smith is the type of player that Tennessee lacked for far too often during the last decade. Especially with Oregon’s Penei Sewell not having a fall season, the preseason All-American now has as good a shot as anyone to win the Outland Trophy.
1. DeVonta Smith, Alabama WR
Yes, this spot would’ve gone to Chase. Duh. But Smith is by no means a bad option for No. 1, either.
The catch radius is absurd, the production is remarkable and the next-level potential is overwhelmingly obvious. Well, I think that just about covers it! If you think Smith is just a product of the offense, consider this. In a group that included top-15 picks Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy with the aforementioned Waddle, Smith had 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. Mercy. I feel like Smith led the nation in demoralizing defenses who thought they had him contained. That’s not a thing? It should be. This play, against Derek Stingley Jr., is exactly why Smith is widely considered a preseason All-American and a future Round 1 pick:
Devonta Smith is really good at this football thing pic.twitter.com/LNr7PiXezy
— Carter Donnick (@CDonnick3) November 9, 2019
Come on. That’s not fair. Making massive plays against Stingley was just about the most impressive thing that one could do on a football field in 2019. Smith, even without Tagovailoa, should be in for another huge year with Jeudy and Ruggs off to the NFL. Heads up, Amari Cooper.