In lieu of the NFL releasing its official list of underclassmen declaring for the draft, SEC Country offers 10 quick revelations from Friday’s announcement — detailing The Good, The Bad and The Meh from who’s going and who’s staying, as we look forward to the SEC’s 2016 season.
WINNER: Alabama @ LSU will be the nation’s biggest must-see game this fall
SUMMARY: The Tigers and Crimson Tide lost a grand total of four juniors to the draft — offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins, cornerback Rashard Robinson (LSU), defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (Alabama). That bodes really well for 2016, as both programs — blessed with elite-level athletes and NFL-caliber prospects — should be ranked in the preseason top 5 come August.
In fact, the Nov. 5 clash between the Tigers and Crimson Tide could rival the hype of the 2010 meeting in Tuscaloosa, when No. 1 LSU outlasted No. 2 Alabama in overtime. (The Tide would take the ultimate rematch in the BCS title game). The 2010 clash also took place on Nov. 5 … but this year’s matchup’s occurs in Baton Rouge.
DOWNER: Ole Miss’s SEC West title hopes
SUMMARY: In November 2014, what possessed the Rebels athletic department to add Florida State to the 2016 schedule, knowing offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche — all sophomore stars at the time — were prime candidates for the pros after the 2015 season? (All three could be top-15 picks come April.)
The FSU addition might have been more baffling, if Ole Miss officials knew head coach Hugh Freeze would have to navigate Alabama and UGA to open the SEC portion of the schedule … meaning the Rebels will encounter the Seminoles (Sept. 5 — Monday night), Crimson Tide and Bulldogs in a daunting 19-day span. D’oh!
MEH: Tennessee’s passing game stuck in neutral
SUMMARY: Raise your hand if you thought Vols receiver Marquez North — as a freshman — would be a star two years ago, after viewing the diving touchdown reception against UGA and then his follow-up performance against South Carolina, catching three balls for 102 yards in Tennessee’s upset victory (first landmark win of the Butch Jones era).
Well, with North giving the NFL a shot and Von Pearson (38 catches, 409 yards, three TDs) running out of college eligibility … the time has come for someone to rise to the top of Tennessee’s receiving depth chart.
Will it be Josh Malone? Josh Smith? Jauan Jennings? JUCO commit Jeff George? The receivers are essentially starting with a blank slate … which is a good thing for a program on the rise. By extension, it can also be a bad thing — unless tailback Jalen Hurd (1,475 total yards, 14 TDs in 2015) rolls for 250-plus yards/two touchdowns against Alabama (Oct. 15).
WINNER: Auburn hits the daily double
SUMMARY: We’ll praise the Tigers on two fronts:
1) Defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams — two down-the-road stars at the NFL level — have renewed their commitments to Auburn for the 2016 season. With the draft-eligible juniors hanging around campus for another year, the Tigers will be blessed with formidable depth along the front seven. It’s a happy consequence of Auburn racking up four straight top-11 recruiting classes (source: 247 Sports) — while never finishing lower than sixth among SEC powers.
2) Clemson could start next season at No. 1, thanks to its prodigious 2015 campaign (14-1, College Football Playoff finalists) and development of quarterback/Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, who torched Alabama for 478 total yards (405 passing) and four TDs in the national title game. But it’s also worth mentioning: Clemson lost seven substantial contributors to the draft (most notably CB Mackensie Alexander, DE Shaq Lawson, DE Kevin Dodd, safety T.J. Green) … meaning Auburn draws vulnerable Clemson at the perfect time — the home opener on Sept. 3.
DOWNER: Shea Patterson will likely have to wait until 2017 for SEC stardom
SUMMARY: Citing 247Sports.com’s rankings of pro-style quarterbacks for the 2016 class, Ole Miss commit Shea Patterson (Bradenton, Fla.) tops UGA commit Jacob Eason (Lake Stevens, Wash.) for the No. 1 overall spot. And yet, Eason has the more palatable path to starting at least six or seven games this fall.
With the Bulldogs, Eason needs to overtake Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey — two talented, but inconsistent passers — to garner serious reps as a freshman. With the Rebels, though, there likely won’t be any fall-camp battle between Patterson and incumbent QB Chad Kelly, the SEC’s most prolific passer in 2015 (4,042 yards passing, 41 total TDs).
The upside to that: If Patterson takes a redshirt year in 2016, he’ll undoubtedly have the keys to the Rebels offense for 2017-19 … just in time for Hugh Freeze’s next recruiting wave of playmaking dynamos.
MEH: Debating whether Alabama’s defense has lost its ‘aura’ of dominance
SUMMARY: The absence of a single player cannot bring down the effectiveness of an experienced and supremely talented Alabama defense (2015 rankings: 1st in rushing defense, 2nd in total defense, 3rd in scoring defense).
That aside, it’ll be hard to miss A’Shawn Robinson not plugging massive holes in the trenches next fall. The man is allegedly 6-foot-4, 312 pounds … and yet, when the lights are on, he cuts the figure of someone three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier.
Robinson’s early exodus might even be more pronounced, if the Crimson Tide have trouble adjusting to the notable losses of D-linemen Jarran Reed (a likely Round 1 pick), Darren Lake and D.J. Pettway. However, we’re guessing it’ll be a smooth transition for college football’s deepest and most fearsome D-line.
WINNER: Chris Jones’ NFL draft stock
SUMMARY: It’s hard to find fault with Jones’ early exit from rebuilding Mississippi State, which must move forward without Dak Prescott — the most decorated quarterback in school history.
At 6-foot-5, 308 pounds, Jones projects to be a Round 2 or 3 selection and one of the first 10 defensive tackles off the board. By extension, it’s easy to forecast Jones enjoying a 10-year career at the next level, given his immense size, top-notch athleticism, superb instincts and sterling college production (8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss).
Bottom line: If Jones had been with Alabama this season … it might have been difficult to discern the major differences between him and A’Shawn Robinson.
DOWNER: The Arkansas running game takes a short-term hit
SUMMARY: In 2014, the duo of Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards rushing, 14 TDs) and Alex Collins (1,109 total yards, 12 TDs) accounted for 2,364 total yards and 26 touchdowns, carrying a Razorbacks offense which stealthily averaged 32 points per game. They couldn’t repeat the feat in 2015, however, with Williams missing the entire campaign with a foot injury.
This opened the door for Collins to run wild against SEC foes, rolling for 1,577 rushing yards (1,672 total) and 20 touchdowns. For any other season, Collins might have been a candidate for conference player of the year. Instead, he’s merely a high-profile footnote in the SEC’s ultimate battle of Alabama’s Derrick Henry (2,219 rushing yards, 28 TDs) vs. LSU’s Leonard Fournettte (2,206 rushing yards, 23 TDs).
But that’s in the past. The 2016 Hogs will have to start from relative scratch, running behind a rejiggered offensive line on the left side (no longer featuring mammoth O-tackle Denver Kirkland). Luckily for Arkansas, it can start fresh with Devwah Whaley — the No. 3 running back in the 2016 class (247Sports).
MEH: Florida’s addition by subtraction
SUMMARY: The Gators’ five-man exodus comes in two phases: Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III could be a top-15 draft pick; but the other four early departures — receiver Demarcus Robinson, tailback Kelvin Taylor, free safety Keanu Neal, defensive end Alex McCalister — might end up as Day 3 selections (and beyond).
Put it all together … and the 2016 Gators might not feel the pinch of the early exits — especially with head coach Jim McElwain (SEC East title in Year 1) on the verge of collecting a top-five recruiting class next month.
And last but not least …
WINNER: The SEC’s Heisman legacy
The SEC has captured back-to-back honors with the Heisman Trophy only once since 1950, with Alabama tailback Mark Ingram (2009) and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton (2010) bringing home the bronze a few years ago.
But that distinction could change next fall, with LSU’s Fournette, Ole Miss’s Kelly, UGA tailback Nick Chubb (1,547 rushing yards, 16 TDs as a frosh in 2014) and Tennessee’s Hurd starting next season atop the expansive Heisman Watch list.
It’s good to be the best conference in the land, huh? The well of special talent never runs dry.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.