At this time of the year, it is not easy to predict who the most important football player of the year will be in any football conference, let alone that prime NFL feeder known as the Southeastern Conference.
But it is still worth a try.
The most important in the SEC last season wasn’t easily identified at the beginning of the season. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel came from nowhere to lead the Aggies to a Top 10 national ranking and won the Heisman Trophy.
Quarterback AJ McCarron led Alabama to another national championship, but he’s not always granted the same status with heavy credit going to head coach Nick Saban and another lot of NFL draft picks, including two first-round offensive linemen and All-SEC running back Eddie Lacy.
From unknown to college football’s best, the legend of Johnny Football is in limbo following a tumultuous offseason that creates doubt as to Texas A&M’s place in the SEC pecking order.
The NCAA is now looking into allegations that he was paid for autographing souvenirs. Although some think it looks bad, former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, another came-from-nowhere-in-one-year star, made it through similar issues the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
So, if he’s on the field, Manziel remains one of the 10 most important players in the conference. In order of importance, this list counts down how it may be played out:
10. Kentucky QB Maxwell Smith.
Smith has been highly productive when he has played, but injuries are a bugaboo he’ll need to shed if the Wildcats are to surprise in 2013. His accuracy rate has been impressive but the new coaching staff certainly has concerns over his inability to stay on the field. “He’s been productive when he’s healthy,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “Now, he has not been healthy a whole lot, which is an issue.” Kentucky’s passing production was meager after Smith suffered a season-ending ankle injury in 2012.
9. Tennessee DT Dan McCullers.
Tennessee ranked next-to-last in the SEC against the run last season, allowing an egregious average of 188.83 yards per game. McCullers is the key to reducing that statistic. The junior-college transfer ballooned to the cusp of 400 pounds in 2012, which prevented him from doing much more from plugging a gap during his first season. He also didn’t have the necessary conditioning and stamina to remain on the field for any prolonged stretch of time. McCullers was down to 352 pounds by the time fall camp opened, which has made him more nimble and allowing him to make more plays. The Volunteers’ coaching staff shifted McCullers from the nose to the three-technique, which increases his responsibilities as a gap-shooting pass rusher.
8. Arkansas C Travis Swanson.
A Rimington Trophy candidate as the nation’s top center, Swanson is the one constant on an offensive line that went through some shuffling in the spring. Line play is the cornerstone of first-year coach Bret Bielema’s system. Swanson’s leadership could prove to be a key factor in settling down a group that has to protect a new quarterback against a slew of top pass rushers. Swanson will be expected to open up holes for a young running back corps led by one of the nation’s top freshmen, Alex Collins.
7. Vanderbilt QB Austyn Carta-Samuels.
He started for two years at Wyoming, but the Mountain West obviously isn’t the SEC. Still, the fifth-year senior made few mistakes in practice, and completed passes at over a 70 percent clip in several August practices. With receivers like Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, the tools are there for success. Carta-Samuels will need to get rid of the ball faster, and not put too much pressure on himself to perform — both of which have been issues — in order to maximize his success.
6. Georgia QB Aaron Murray.
You could substitute running back Todd Gurley for Murray, but as a fifth-year senior, Murray will provide leadership to a balanced offense. Murray’s 95 career TD passes are the most in school history and his 64.5 completion percentage in 2012 was the best in his career. He surprised some when he chose to return to school, but Murray has a lot hanging in the balance. He not only is trying to guide Georgia to an SEC title, but his NFL prospects — former Colts coach Tony Dungy said he would’ve drafted Murray No. 1 overall in 2013 — are worth watching.
5. Florida QB Jeff Driskel.
Driskel had a health scare in August, undergoing an emergency appendectomy, but he returned to practice on Aug. 8 and will be ready in time for UF’s season opener Aug. 31 against Toledo. Coach Will Muschamp wants more balance on offense, which means Driskel will need to step up and improve a passing offense that finished last in the SEC last season (146.3 ypg). With backup Jacoby Brissett transferring to North Carolina State during the offseason, Driskel is clearly UF’s most indispensable player. Florida’s quality depth at QB is thin behind him (redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg).
4. LSU QB Zach Mettenberger.
The senior has a strong enough arm to stretch defenses, and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is more inclined to give him that opportunity. “We’re going to present ourselves differently,” Mettenberger said. “We’re going to run different combinations route wise. Hopefully we’ll be less predictable.” On the defensive side, keep an eye on defensive end Jermauria Rasco, who has been has been groomed behind Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo for two seasons and appears ready to be an impact player.
3. Alabama QB AJ McCarron.
A two-time national champion, McCarron has grown from a game manager into a game-changer while keeping his mistakes to an absolute minimum. McCarron boasted a brilliant 30-to-3 touchdown-interception ratio last year, improving his deep passing with the addition of speedier wide receivers such as Amari Cooper. He averaged nearly 14 yards per completion and hit on 67.2 percent of his attempts overall, a number that increased to better than 68 percent against SEC defenses. He’s the guy this team can least afford to watch go down with an injury.
2. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney.
It is virtually impossible for avid sports fan to go a day without hearing the junior All-American’s name or watching a video of a superhuman feat he’s performed. Although still not a vocal leader, he has become the soul of the team and leader of the defense simply because he normally draws double- and triple-teams which clears the way for teammates. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward plans to line his star up in several position to take advantage and both his strength and speed as the 6-6, 274-pounder was recently timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.46 seconds.
1. Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel.
There are no mulligans for Manziel, but he understands returning to the field is the shortest path to restoring his reputation as a game breaker. Forget all the controversy he created after winning the Heisman Trophy. Focus on how good he was last year, when he accounted for more than 5,000 total yards — while playing in the SEC. Focus on how he took what was supposed to be a mediocre team to 11 wins, a top 10 finish and a win at Nick Saban’s Alabama. Then drink in these words from ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who said Manziel will be an ever better thrower this year. And remember that if Manziel gets good news from the NCAA, there’s every reason to believe he’ll go back to being Johnny Football in September.