Amari Cooper, Shane Ray, Landon Collins, Senquez Golson, Benardrick McKinney and La’el Collins are just a few of the many big-name players that the SEC waved goodbye to this offseason. However, as is always the case with college football’s most talent-stocked conference, no matter how much talent the league loses in a given year, there are always new stars waiting to be born next season.
After a two-year championship drought, the SEC is an unfamiliar position heading into the 2015 season. The most talked-about league in college football will be looking to reassert its dominance this fall. Luckily, there’s plenty of star power sprinkled throughout the conference once again.
So who will be the spotlight standout players on each of the 14 teams?
Here’s a look at every SEC team’s most valuable player for 2015.
Alabama Crimson Tide: RB Derrick Henry
Alabama has managed to produce quite an impressive lineage of running backs throughout Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. Glenn Coffee passed the torch to 2009 Heisman-winner Mark Ingram, who handed off the rushing reins to Trent Richardson, who handed them to Eddie Lacy, who then stepped aside and let TJ Yeldon soak up the spotlight.
Like his predecessors Ingram, Richardson and Lacy, Yeldon made the decision not to stick around at Alabama for his senior year, opting instead to declare early for the 2015 NFL draft.
Losing Yeldon is a tough blow for the Alabama offense, but luckily, there’s no need for panic this offseason. That’s because the the Tide welcome back Derrick Henry, a powerful, physically imposing and intimidating young rusher who has all the skills needed to be the program’s next prolific ball-carrier.
After leaving his mark on the Oklahoma defense with a dazzling performance in the 2014 Sugar bowl last January, Henry entered this past season as a candidate to become a breakout star.
Although he had to split carries with Yeldon, the 6’3’’, 241-pound sophomore still left quite an impression as well as plenty of bruises on would-be-tacklers. He led the team with 990 rushing yards on just 172 touches (5.7 yards per carry) and scored 13 total touchdowns.
Henry will now enter the 2015 season on the short list of early Heisman favorites.
Arkansas Razorbacks: RB’s Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams
Arkansas features the only co-mvps on this list. That’s because the Razorbacks just so happen to have two running backs: Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who are equally as talented and are equally as important to the team’s overall success.
The duo of Williams and Collins proved to be one of the most effective backfield tandems in college football in 2014. The two put up nearly identical numbers, ranking fourth and fifth in the SEC in total rushing. Both totaled over 1,100 yards on the ground and each scored 12 rushing touchdowns.
The two talented backs compliment each other extremely well, and they’ve both proven that they can get the job done when called upon.
You won’t a find a better 1-2 rushing punch in college football in 2015 than the one residing in Fayetteville.
Auburn Tigers: WR D’haquille Williams
Preseason NFL draft prospect rankings always need to be taken with a large grain of salt. Still, when a prominent analyst like Mel Kiper makes the declaration about a prospect being the No. 1 overall player at his position, that certainly means something.
Kiper has already made that proclamation about D’haquille “Duke” Williams being the No. 1 WR prospect in the 2016 NFL draft class. Kiper said, “”When you look at Duke Williams, he’ll be the No. 1 guy. Next year, he’ll go into the season right there at the top.”
It’s hard to argue that kind of high praise isn’t warranted. This past season, Williams asserted himself as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the country. The former standout JUCO recruit proved to be a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense, as he reeled in 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns.
Possessing the complete combination of size, speed, strength and natural playmaking instincts, the 6’2’’, 216-pound junior is truly a cornerback’s worst nightmare.
Florida Gators: CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Vernon Hargreaves III set the bar as high as it could go during his first season at Florida in 2013, when he earned Freshman All-American honors and numerous accolades for his brilliant debut performance.Heading into the 2014 season, Hargreaves knew that the pressure was on to produce another stellar showing as a sophomore.
He did just that.
Though quarterbacks were reluctant to test the ball-hawking corner, VHIII still found a way to make a huge impact for the Gator defense. He totaled 50 tackles, picked off three passes and broke up another 13 throws, which earned him a spot on the first-team All-SEC defense.
New head coach Jim McElwain will spend this offseason trying to figure out what his new players have to offer. However, McElwain already knows that he has a special talent leading the way in the secondary
Georgia Bulldogs: RB Nick Chubb
With Todd Gurley returning to the Georgia backfield for the 2014 season, it didn’t appear that there would be much room for freshman Nick Chubb to make a notable impact in his first season. As it turned out, however, it was Chubb who ended up stepping up and becoming the unstoppable force that many had initially projected Gurley to be.
The former 4-star recruit from Cedartown, Georgia stole the show from his more heralded teammate, as he turned out to be one of the top overall freshman performers in the country. Chubb finished the season ranked 19th nationally with 1,547 rushing yards. His 18 runs of 20 yards or more ranked first in the SEC, and his 14 rushing touchdowns tied for first in the conference.
The 5’10’’, 228-pound powerhouse was rewarded with the SEC Freshman of the Year award.
Losing a player the caliber of Todd Gurley would normally be a crushing blow for most programs. But Georgia’s offense should be able to not only survive without Gurley, but thrive with Chubb carrying the load in 2015.
Kentucky Wildcats: QB Patrick Towles
Inconsistent would be a good word to sum up Patrick Towles’ first season as a starter at Kentucky in 2014. The tall, big-armed gunslinger had plenty of moments that gave Wildcat fans a reason to get excited about the future. However, there were also plenty of instances that reminded them that Towles was still in the beginning stages of his maturation process.
The 6’5’’, 238-sophomore finished the 2014 campaign with a 57 percent completion percentage, 2,718 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, 303 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
They’re not great numbers, but they’re encouraging to see from a young first-year starter who wasn’t surrounded with a great deal of talent.
After leading the Wildcats to five wins in 2014—which is more victories than the team had accumulated in the previous two season combined—Towles now has the chance to show that he’s ready to take the next step and lead Kentucky to the postseason in 2015.
LSU Tigers: RB Leonard Fournette
Going into the 2014 season, LSU’s backfield boasted two solid senior rushers: Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. The only Tiger back that anyone really wanted to talk about, though, was freshman Leonard Fournette.
The anticipation surrounding Fournette in the preseason was understandable, considering the fanfare and acclaim he received as a senior at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. Many analysts considered the highly touted 5-star prospect to be the best rushing recruit to emerge from the high school ranks since Adrian Peterson.
The powerful 6’1’’, 230-pound bulldozing back wasn’t able to duplicate Peterson’s fantastic freshman feat and make it to the Heisman ceremony in just his first year. Still, Fournette did leave quite an impression on the SEC, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, while displaying plenty of flashes of potential greatness.
With Magee and Hilliard now out of the picture, Fournette will be counted on to be the bell-cow rusher that carries the Tiger offense on his back in 2015.
Ole Miss Rebels: WR Laquon Treadwell
On the edge of the red zone, down 35-31 to No. 3-ranked Auburn with less than two minutes to go, Ole Miss made the wise decision to get the ball in the hands of its go-to playmaker: WR Laquon Treadwell on a receiver screen. Treadwell took the ball and did what he does best with it—tear through the opposing defense on his way to the end zone.
As he raced toward the goal line on his way toward scoring the go-ahead touchdown, it looked as if the star wide out was about to become the hero of the night. Unfortunately, however, a freak occurrence of events led to Treadwell breaking his leg, and subsequently fumbling the ball just before he could cross the line.
The play is one Rebels fans would surely love to forget. But the Ole Miss faithful certainly haven’t forgotten about Treadwell, who was recently spotted running at nearly full speed just four months after experiencing the nasty injury.
If he can return to his pre-injury form in 2015, the speedy 6’2’’, 229-pound pass-catcher will once again be one of the most feared wide receivers in not just the SEC, but in all of college football.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: QB Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott was college football’s biggest breakout star of the first half of the 2014 season. After leading the Bulldogs to a 9-0 start—which included huge wins over three straight top 10 teams: LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn—and a No. 1 national ranking, Prescott sprinted out in front of the competition and became the early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.
Unfortunately, Dak’s dream of winning the sport’s most prestigious award fizzled out following late-season losses to Alabama and Ole Miss.
Still, it’s hard not to appreciate what the exciting dual-threat signal-caller was able to accomplish in 2014. Prescott finished the season with over 3,400 passing yards, over 900 rushing yards and he accounted for 42 total touchdowns.
The 6’2’’, 230-pound junior made the wise decision to bypass the chance to enter the 2015 NFL draft in order to return to Starkville for one more season. Prescott is a prototypical fit for Dan Mullen’s spread offense. He’ll once again be one of the sport’s must-watch stars in 2015.
Missouri Tigers: LB Kentrell Brothers
2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Shane Ray was the undisputed premier player on the Missouri defense this past season. But it was LB Kentrell Brothers who was truly the unit’s unsung hero.
Though he was overshadowed by his more heralded teammate Ray, Brothers still had a 2014 performance that was worthy of accolades. The 6’1’’, 240-pound weakside ‘backer led the Tigers with 122 total tackles, including 64 solo stops.
Missouri’s defense is going to have a very tough challenge trying to replace Ray, fellow DE Markus Golden and DT Matt Hoch in the trenches. But at least the Tigers will have Brothers back to lead the way in the front-seven.
South Carolina Gamecocks: WR Pharoh Cooper
Going into the 2014 season, most South Carolina fans were hoping that Shaq Roland would finally step up and be the leader of the team’s receiving corps. Instead, however, it was Pharoh Cooper who followed in the footsteps of predecessors such as Bruce Ellington, Ace Sanders and Alshon Jeffery and emerged as the Gamecocks’ latest breakout star pass-catcher.
Cooper earned first-team All-SEC honors after totaling 69 catches for 1,136 yards (16.4 yards per catch) and nine receiving touchdowns. His 20 total catches of 20 yards or more ranked second in the conference behind only Alabama’s Amari Cooper.
The versatile 5’11’’, 201-pound sophomore proved to be a dynamic all-purpose weapon. He also added 200 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns on 27 carries, and even threw two touchdown passes.
Steve Spurrier may be worried about replacing QB Dylan Thompson and RB Mike Davis, but at least he can get excited about creating schemes to exploit Cooper’s explosive playmaking ability in 2015.
Tennessee Volunteers: DE Derek Barnett
Three SEC players finished the 2014 season with at least 20 tackles for loss and at least 10 sacks. Two of them were Missouri’s dangerous defensive end duo of Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The other was Tennessee DE Derek Barnett.
As one of the standouts of the Vols’ 2014 recruiting class, the former 4-star recruit from Brentwood, Tennessee had high expectations to live up to as a freshman. Luckily, he was up for the challenge.
The 6’3’’, 267-pound DE proved to be a havoc-wreaker in the trenches, as he totaled 10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
Though he may only be just a sophomore, Barnett has already elevated himself to be the key leader for Tennessee’s improving defense.
Texas A&M Aggies: DE Myles Garrett
Following a hot 5-0 start to the 2014 season, Texas A&M fell apart during conference play, finishing the regular season with a disappointing 7-5 record. However, one Aggie who managed to shine against SEC competition was DE Myles Garrett.
The former blue-chip 5-star recruit from Arlington, Texas lived up to his lavish high school hype during his debut campaign. Garrett was a true freshman phenom, totaling 11.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries and 14 tackles for loss.
Defense has been the Aggies’ Achilles heel during Kevin Sumlin’s tenure. but with players like Garrett leading the way, Texas A&M should see a definitive improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2015.
Vanderbilt Commodores: TE Steven Scheu
There wasn’t a whole lot that went right for Vanderbilt in new head coach Derek Mason’s first season at the helm. The Commodores managed to eek out just three victories in 2014 over less-than-stellar squads such as UMass, Old Dominion and Charleston Southern.
Mason has a long offseason ahead of him, as he and his staff will have to search long and hard to find some positives from this past season.
Luckily, TE Steven Scheu will give the struggling offense a key facet to build around. Scheu was one of the most productive tight ends in the country in 2014, catching 39 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns.
Scheu will be in a heated battle with Arkansas’ Hunter Henry and Mississippi’s Evan Engram for the title of SEC’s best tight end in 2015.