Biggest reason for hope for every SEC team
Alabama finished the 2015 season as national champions, and they have to be among the favorites to win it all once again in 2016, with PFF’s Steve Palazzolo ranking them No. 1 in our spring Top 25. That being said, and as much of a cliché as it might be, everyone starts at 0-0.
While there are obviously teams that are much more talented on paper, every team in the SEC has at least one reason for optimism heading into 2016. With that in mind, here are our picks for each:
Florida: Jalen Tabor graded higher than Vernon Hargreaves in 2015
It’s never good to lose a player as talented as Hargreaves, but fans in the swamp should be excited about the potential of Tabor, who actually graded better than him a year ago. He had the ninth-highest grade in coverage of all returning cornerbacks in 2015, allowing just 26 receptions for 231 yards and a touchdown. Even better, he made plenty of plays on the ball, intercepting four passes and breaking up 12 more. His 12 pass breakups last year were tied for third-most of cornerbacks still in college and with two very impressive seasons under his belt, he has the potential to be the best cornerback in the nation if he can continue to improve.
Georgia: Nick Chubb is one of the most exciting players in the nation
2015 was the year of the running back, but the vast majority of the top players at the position are still in school, meaning that we are treated to a big group of players who can change a game with a single carry in 2016. A knee injury ruined Chubb’s 2015 season which was off to an incredible start, averaging 8.1 yards per carry, 744 yards and seven touchdowns before going down on his first carry of the game against Tennessee. He forced 23 missed tackles on just 92 carries, after forcing 63 in 2014. With 86 missed tackles on 311 carries over the past two seasons, he averages a missed tackle forced once every 3.6 carries. He got his first taste of stardom when he replaced the injured Todd Gurley, and now he gets the chance to prove that he can be every bit as good as him as he returns from his own injury.
Kentucky: Running back Stanley Williams has flashed big-time potential
Kentucky have a lot of holes on their roster but at running back, Stanley Williams has shown that he can be an exciting player with the ball in his hands. He’s not been consistent enough, and didn’t get enough of the ball to develop some consistency with 18 carries being his 2015 season high. That being said, he did showcase some big play ability, and averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in all but two games last year. His elusive rating of 104.8 was the 13th-best of any running back returning to college in 2016. He forced 31 missed tackles on 121 carries, and three on 13 receptions, but it was his yards after contact where he really impressed, averaging 4.13 yards, tied for third most among returning players.
Missouri: Charles Harris is the next great Missouri defensive end
In the past few years we’ve seen several high-profile defensive ends at Missouri, with Michael Sam and Kony Ealy being followed by Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Three of those players have made an impact in the NFL, with Ealy having his best game in the Super Bowl recently. It’s very possible that Charles Harris might be better than all of them. With the fourth-highest overall grade among returning 4-3 defensive ends, Harris made the switch from part-time player to full-time starter with relative ease last year, racking up seven sacks, 14 hits and 33 hurries. With 54 total pressures from 331 pass rushing snaps, that gave him a pass-rushing productivity rating of 12.8, tied with Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett for the eight-best among returning players. He saw his grade jump from +5.3 in 2014 to +42.4 in 2015 — what more can he achieve this year?
South Carolina: A talented defender is ready for full-time production
Defensive lineman Kelsey Griffin demonstrated last season that he has the potential to fill a much bigger role for the Gamecocks. Griffin graded at +8.7 — the second-highest grade among their defensive linemen — and he did it on just 123 snaps. Rushing the passer just 39 times, he came away with three sacks, a hit and a hurry, and he graded higher against the run. For a player who didn’t play more than 23 snaps in a single game last year, there’s a chance that we see a big jump from him in his senior season.
Tennessee: Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are the most talented running back duo in the nation
With so many talented running backs in college football right now, plenty of teams have a guy who they can feature their ground game around. Not many teams have two though, and that’s where the Volunteers have an edge. Jalen Hurd is the obvious name that everyone knows, rushing for 1,286 yards and forcing 65 missed tackles on the ground, but Alvin Kamara was even more impressive last year, albeit in a limited role. He carried the ball just 106 times, but racked up 702 yards and forced 28 missed tackles. He also added 13 missed tackles forced as a receiver on 35 catches, compared with Hurd’s five from 23 receptions. This isn’t about trying to argue one is better than the other though, this is about pointing out just how talented the Tennessee backfield is, and just how big an impact they can make in 2016.
Vanderbilt: Zach Cunningham is one of the best linebackers in the nation
With the third-highest grade of any returning linebacker in 2015, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham has set a solid base to build upon heading into 2016. After a solid 2014 season where he graded positively in run defense and as a pass rusher, but negatively in coverage, he improved across the board in 2015. Five sacks, a hit and four hurries saw him contribute on limited work as a blitzer, while his coverage grade improved from -2.8 to +3.7. It’s against the run where he is at his best though, with 45 tackles resulting in a defensive stop giving him a run stop percentage of 13.4 percent, the seventh-highest mark among returning inside linebackers.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide defense is still loaded
Alabama heads into the 2016 season ready to compete for another national championship because of how ridiculously talented they remain on defense. After losing A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Reggie Ragland and Cyrus Jones to the NFL — a combined +126.6 in PFF grading — you’d think they’d be expected to take a big step back. That’s less likely when you remember that the Crimson Tide had all but one of their defensive linemen finish 2015 with a positive grade, with players like defensive end Jonathan Allen — who had produced a PFF grade of +57.3 on 903 snaps over the past two seasons — ready to see even bigger roles. Allen had 13 sacks, six hits and 17 hurries a year ago, and isn’t even the best pass rusher on the team.
That title goes to Tim Williams, who bordered on unblockable as an edge defender a year ago, racking up 11 sacks, eight hits and 33 hurries on just 148 pass rushing snaps. He has played just 256 snaps over the past two seasons, but is poised for a full time role in 2016, and has the potential to be the best pass rusher in the nation if he can match his production in a much bigger role. He’s not alone on the edge though, with Ryan Anderson coming into 2016 with the fourth best run stop percentage among returning 3-4 outside linebackers at 10.0 percent. Read more about the devastating duo here.
Arkansas: A deep roster at the wide receiver position
The Razorbacks lost arguably their four best players on offense in 2015, with quarterback Brandon Allen (+30.7), running back Alex Collins (+17.7), guard Sebastian Tretola (+22.0) and tight end Hunter Henry (+14.3) all heading to the NFL. All is not lost though, as they return a talented group at wide receiver. It starts with Drew Morgan who, at +16.0, had the ninth best receiving grade among returning wide receivers. He caught 63 passes for 845 yards last year, forcing 13 missed tackles and scoring 10 touchdowns. While he was the best player at the position for them, both Jared Cornelius and Dominique Reed were solid in limited duty, averaging 16.4 and 19.1 yards per reception respectively. There will likely be some drop off going from Brandon Allen to Austin Allen at quarterback, but there is enough talent at receiver to help with the transition.
Auburn: Sean White’s huge game against Arkansas
There’s always development needed from a young quarterback, but if Sean White can win the starting job in 2016, there’s a big time performance from 2015 to look back on and get Auburn fans excited. White completed 19-of-34 that day, which by itself might not seem that impressive. When you consider that of his 15 incompletions, six were dropped passes, two were spikes, one was a throwaway, and another was a pass where he was hit as he threw the ball, his adjusted completion percentage of 79.2 percent looks much better. White was the team’s highest-graded quarterback in 2015, and was the only quarterback on the team with a positive grade as a passer. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can win the job, after some shaky performances to end the season, but it’s not like he hasn’t flashed some very good play in the past.
LSU: Leonard Fournette is the best pure runner in the nation
It’s going to be really interesting when we get to evaluating this group of running backs as draft prospects, because we’re going to get into some fascinating discussion about positional value and how much being a one dimensional superstar is really worth. Leonard Fournette isn’t the best receiver out of the backfield in the nation, but he is the best pure runner. He forced 85 missed tackles on 300 carries in 2015, and saw 1,094 of his 1,964 yards come after contact. People often point to that Alabama game where he rushed for just 31 yards as the game where he lost the Heisman trophy, and they might be right, but it’s worth noting that of his 31 yards in that game, 30 came after contact, with his offensive line barely giving him an inch to work with. 2016 will almost definitely be his final year in college, and it’s not unrealistic to expect him to be even better than the dominant force he was a year ago.
Mississippi State: Nick Fitzgerald can replace Dak Prescott
There’s a quarterback competition this spring to see who will replace Prescott as the Bulldogs signal caller in 2016, but based on PFF grades in 2015, Fitzgerald deserves a shot. He played just 70 snaps a year ago, but was fairly impressive when he did, grading at +6.2. At his best as a downfield passer, he completed all five of the passes of 20 yards or more he attempted, going for 199 yards and three touchdowns. It helps that he is good as a runner too, forcing six missed tackles on 23 carries, helping him rack up 137 yards and three touchdowns. He has a long way to go to replace Prescott, who ran for 751 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago, but he has shown the potential to impressive with big plays on the field, both with his arm and his legs.
Ole Miss: Chad Kelly ended the 2015 season on a hot streak
There was a fleeting moment in 2015 where Chad Kelly was a Heisman trophy candidate. He’d started the season off with a +12.2 grade in the first two weeks of the season, and then the Rebels had picked up a huge win over Alabama. Suddenly he was the quarterback for the best team in the SEC. He graded at +0.0 in that Alabama game though, and failed to finish a game with a positive PFF grade again until the seventh game of the year against Memphis. The wheels well and truly came off the season for both Ole Miss and Kelly, but to his credit, he turned it around after the game against Texas A&M. Over the final five games of the year only Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Southern Miss’ Nick Mullens had a higher PFF grade, and if he can keep that up, he can power Ole Miss to a strong 2016 campaign.
Texas A&M: Myles Garrett could be the best edge defender in the nation
Only Tennessee’s Derek Barnett had a higher grade among returning edge defenders in 2015, with Garrett grading positively as a pass rusher in all but one game a year ago. He’s been incredible as a pass rusher over the past two seasons, grading at +92.1 between 2014 and 2015. Heading into his junior year he needs to step up somewhat to be as good a player as Joey Bosa was at Ohio State, but there’s no reason to think he’s not capable of that after an 11 sack, 11 hit, 24 hurry season for the Aggies last year. He had one of the most impressive single game performances of any player in college football in the season opener against Arizona State, racking up two sacks, two hits and five hurries, and we expect to see him be even better in 2016.