Chris Kirschner/SEC Country
Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough during the Tide's Peach Bowl win over Washington.

SEC football countdown: 30 most interesting players

Alec Shirkey

In 20 days, Arkansas will host Florida A&M in what amounts to the soft opening of the 2017 SEC football schedule. The real action begins two days later, with an 11-game slate set for Saturday, Sept. 2.

College football is close. So close.

As we inch through fall camp toward Week 1, SEC Country will post a weekly roundup packed with news, storylines, players to watch, game previews and more that’ll interest football fans.

Here’s what you need to know this week.

Rank ’em: The SEC’s 30 most interesting players in 2017

There are many elite talents throughout the conference that narrowing this list to 30 players became a Herculean task. Quarterbacks feature prominently here, of course, as do skill position players, but we also tried spreading the love to as many positions as possible.

30. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa: You know the Crimson Tide are in an interesting spot when they have a quarterback who led them to a national championship and the freshman backup is generating this much attention. How offensive coordinator Brian Daboll uses Tagovailoa, a coveted prospect from Hawaii, will be a point of Alabama intrigue this fall.

29. South Carolina RB Ty’Son Williams: While the Gamecocks need offensive line improvement first and foremost, the program’s addition of Williams — a 6-foot, 220-pound running back who transferred from North Carolina — is worth following in fall camp. He signed with the Tar Heels as a 4-star prospect out of Sumter, S.C.

28. Texas A&M LB Anthony Hines: As mentioned in last week’s countdown, the in-state linebacker signee seems on track to start for the Aggies — possibly Week 1. For all the talent Texas A&M has at the position, its linebackers have under performed under Kevin Sumlin’s watch, so it’ll be interesting to see if Hines will reverse that trend.

27. Arkansas RB Devwah Whaley: With Rawleigh Williams gone, sophomore running back Whaley will have a heavy load to carry in 2017. But he showed flashes of greatness as a freshman, logging 602 yards rushing on 110 carries.

26. Auburn DTs Dontavius Russell and Derrick Brown: Big, bad Montravius Adams is off to the NFL, and for all the deserved attention Carl Lawson received, you could argue Adams was more important to Auburn’s defensive success. The Tigers have high expectations on that side of the ball this year, and blue-chippers Russell and Brown will be counted on to fill the void up front.

25. Texas A&M QB Nick Starkel: With Kevin Sumlin’s job hanging in the balance, Starkel seems poised to take over an offense that lost most of last year’s receiving talent. What’s interesting is, unlike Trevor Knight, Kyler Murray and Johnny Manziel before him, Starkel is much more a big-armed pocket passer than his predecessors.

24. LSU LB Devin White: The Bayou Bengals have produced two high draft picks at inside linebacker in back-to-back years (Deion Jones and Duke Riley). White is the next man up in the middle of Dave Aranda’s defense, and he’s already assuming a leadership role within his position group despite never starting a game — which will change soon.

23. Arkansas DE McTelvin Agim: It’s not every year the Hogs land a 5-star recruit, but that’s what they got in Agim, who saw the field as a freshman last year (2.5 sacks) and could be poised for a breakout season in 2017.

22. Arkansas TE Jeremy Patton: Austin Allen needs a new favorite target, and Patton might be the guy. Rated the nation’s top junior college tight end — and its No. 8 prospect overall among the JUCO ranks — he joins a program with a rich recent history at the position: Two of the last seven Mackey Award winners played at Arkansas. Patton aims to be the next.

21. Georgia WR Riley Ridley: He didn’t dominate the SEC as a freshman like his older brother, Calvin, but Georgia’s Ridley did flash big-play ability with the Bulldogs last season. Another offseason of working with Jacob Eason could be what he needs to take the next step.

20. Kentucky ATH Lynn Bowden: Rarely has Kentucky signed a talent like Bowden, who is on campus and getting a crash course in Eddie Gran’s offense after missing the first few practices of camp. He has a “high football IQ,” according to his position coach, and could do big things for the Wildcats with the right approach.

19. South Carolina DB Jamyest Williams: Another tantalizing freshman, Williams arrived in Columbia, S.C., amid lofty acclaim in recruiting circles. Reports already have the standout defensive back living up to the hype.

18. Florida DB Marco Wilson: Is Wilson the next in a long line of elite Gators defensive backs? The freshman is working with the first-team defense at nickelback, so that’s a sign he’s on track.

17. Tennessee DE Jonathan Kongbo: The JUCO product received lots of attention leading up to his signing day decision, but he was invisible in his first season with the Vols. With Derek Barnett out of the picture, Kongbo will have to step up as a pass rusher.

16. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst: He emerged as one of the most productive tight ends in the country last season (48 catches, 616 yards) after putting his professional baseball career in the rearview mirror. Seeing how Hurst improves with another offseason under his belt — and a good quarterback throwing to him — will be fascinating.

15. Missouri LB Eric Beisel: Beisel has brought the WWE-style smack-talk back to the SEC and became one of the stars at SEC Media Days. The Tigers might not be good, but Beisel is talented and he’ll have something interesting to say every week.

14. Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb: Playing for the Commodores doesn’t grant you much of a spotlight, but Webb deserves to be an exception: The accomplished senior is chasing SEC history, and that’s always worthy of our attention.

13. Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy: Najee Harris garnered a ton of recruiting buzz, which is understandable, but Jeudy has a chance to see playing time this fall given the Crimson Tide’s lack of proven receiving commodities (Calvin Ridley excluded).

12. Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson: This isn’t what Patterson was expecting when he signed with the Rebels, but the sophomore seems determined to make the most of what many would call a lost season. He’s an elite talent with Manziel-like escapability and weapons at wideout. At the very least, Patterson will be fun to watch, even as Ole Miss burns up in the background.

11. LSU LB Arden Key: It’s anyone’s guess how soon Key will be able to see the field after a tumultuous offseason that included shoulder surgery, but the junior pass rusher might be the SEC’s best on a talent basis. He recorded 11 sacks in 11 games last year, and you can bet Tigers defensive coordinator Aranda has cooked up unique ways to unleash Key.

10. Alabama DL Da’Shawn Hand: Another touted pass rusher who hit offseason trouble, Hand won’t miss any playing time following his DUI arrest, which is good for the Crimson Tide because he’s filling giant shoes. Alabama loses talent every year, but the defensive line was hit especially hard this winter. Hand has a lot to prove.

9. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley: Nobody expected Bentley to be as good as he was, and were it not for the freshman phenom, Jalen Hurts, South Carolina’s signal caller would’ve gotten much more attention. One could argue the Gamecocks have a better array of receiving targets for Bentley to hit, and a full offseason as the starter can only benefit him further.

8. Florida QB Malik Zaire: The SEC changed one of its rules so Zaire could join the conference. If he is the guy at Florida this fall — and that’s not a sure thing yet — he’ll be leading a team with College Football Playoff talent. Quarterback has been the missing piece at Florida since Will Grier’s suspension; have the Gators found an answer in Zaire?

7. Georgia QB Jacob Eason: Bentley was better than his SEC East counterpart, but Eason has the higher ceiling and — fittingly — higher expectations. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned for their senior seasons, as did most of Georgia’s defensive starters. This is a deep team poised to make a run at the division crown. Can Eason get them there?

6. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley: Speaking of expectations, Ridley fell somewhat short of his after a 1,000-yard freshman campaign. The elite wide receiver disappeared at times, to the benefit of teammate ArDarius Stewart, and he only registered 42 yards across both playoff games. Daboll has to get Ridley more involved.

5. Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk: The Aggies have plenty of pieces to replace on offense, but Kirk remains one of the most dynamic talents in the country. Whether he’s running routes out of the slot or fielding returns on special teams, the NFL-bound junior is fun to watch on Saturdays.

4. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough: People forgot about Scarbrough for most of last season, but when a healthy Scarbrough emerged against Auburn, the world couldn’t look away. With 454 yards rushing over his final four games, the ceiling is high if he can stay on the field.

3. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald: My favorite Fitzgerald stat might be this: He’s one of six SEC quarterbacks to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 900 in the same season; the other five are Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Dak Prescott and Hurts. Fitzgerald’s dual-threat abilities makes MSU dangerous, and Dan Mullen is a quarterbacks wizard. We will be following closely.

2. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts: He had Alabama 1 second away from a national championship. He tallied 3,700-plus total yards and 36 touchdowns. He won 14 games as a freshman. He turned 19 years old this week. Hurts will be back, and almost certainly better, which is a frightening prospect for the rest of the country.

1. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham: He is the SEC’s biggest X-factor, and it’s not close. If Stidham is who Tigers fans expect him to be — and that’s getting harder as the offseason hype builds — Auburn is in great shape to compete for the College Football Playoff. If not, look no further than how Auburn fared under Sean White last year.

Opening week spotlight: Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech

  • Kickoff time: Monday, Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. ET (Broadcast: ESPN)
  • Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, Ga.)
  • Last meeting: Oct. 24, 1987 (Tennessee won 29-15 in Knoxville)

Tennessee player to know: Kahlil McKenzie. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound defensive tackle appeared on track for a big 2016 season before a torn pectoral muscle cut it several games short. Tennessee will need big things from the junior this season, and especially against Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. Four quarters of cut blocks isn’t what most consider a fun time.

Georgia Tech player to know: Matthew Jordan. Three-year Yellow Jackets starting quarterback Justin Thomas is gone, and Jordan is in line to replace him. But Jordan suffered a setback this spring, when he had to undergo surgery for a foot injury. How ready he’ll be by the time Tennessee and Georgia Tech kick off is unclear, but a healthy Jordan is dangerous: He rushed for 121 yards in a road upset of Virginia Tech last year.

Key matchup: Georgia Tech O-line vs. Tennessee D-line. Our bet is the Vols struggle here.

Quote of note: “We have zero continuity on offense, and we have to step it up there. I trust that we will, but it’s not to our exceptions, so the next few practices are monumental.” — Butch Jones, via SEC Country’s Mike Griffith.

Two freshmen to watch: Wide receiver

Devonta Smith, Alabama: We already mentioned Jeudy, but Smith is another candidate for early playing time. The 4-star receiver from Amite, La., signed with the Tide after a long dalliance with home state power LSU, and he’s earned the respect of top teammates like Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M: Like his Aggies roommate, Kellen Mond, Ausbon spent his senior year at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) and was among the higher-profile signees to join the program this spring. Texas A&M has to replace four of its top five receivers from last season, so the opportunity is there for Ausbon to contribute early, and Kevin Sumlin seems high on the new offensive addition.

Hitting the links: SEC Country news you don’t want to miss

SEC BBQ spot of the week: Pulaski Heights BBQ

Andy Staples highlighted this Athens, Ga., joint in a piece published this week titled “America’s Best College Town Meals.” I can also vouch for Pulaski, which is perched next to old train tracks just up the street from downtown Athens. The food and its presentation might fall a bit more on the elevated side, compared to your typical BBQ shack, but it’s a dang good bite.