Several SEC players had impressive regular season performances, but the dynamic completely shifts for bowl season.
This is a clean slate for new players to force their way into the rotation or earn a job heading into next year. Just look at how O.J. Howard was able to improve his stock in the national title game, or Derek Barnett asserted himself as the SEC East’s best player in 2015.
Here are five SEC football players who could break out in bowl games:
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
Matchup: vs. Kansas State in the Texas Bowl
Season stats: 21 catches for 325 yards, 2 TDs
Aggies fans have been waiting for Noil to live up to his potential for years, but standing apart against quick SEC defenses is difficult. Really, Noil hasn’t been exceptional since his 583-yard true freshman season. The bowl game is a big opportunity.
Kansas State is one of the most disciplined teams in the country, but the Wildcats don’t have an athlete that can stick with Noil’s size and speed. Of course, this depends somewhat on Trevor Knight being able to get him the ball, but Noil should reassert himself against KSU in a virtual home game.
RB Sony Michel, Georgia
Matchup: vs. TCU in the Liberty Bowl
Season stats: 137 carries for 753 yards, 3 TDs; 20 catches for 110 yards
Michel really broke out in 2015 after Nick Chubb went down, but the Bulldogs have another shot here against TCU. Gary Patterson is typically an adept defensive coach, but the Horned Frogs struggled mightily staying true in the front seven. Georgia’s run game might finally be able to get free against the Horned Frogs.
The junior got double-digit carries in eight games this year. With the pace of TCU’s offense, that should almost be a certainty. The three games he received 17 or more carries, Michel rushed for 100 yards, including a 170-yard performance against Georgia Tech. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney should make scheme adjustments to take advantage of his multiple running backs.
LB Courtney Love, Kentucky
Matchup: vs. Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl
Season stats: 68 tackles, sack
Mark Stoops talked about Love as one of the leaders of the defense before the year, but he fell into the middle of the rotation as the season went on. However, linebackers are tremendously important going against option offenses. Love will have his shot to shine.
Georgia Tech had 560 rushing attempts in 2016 and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt. Kentucky’s defense ranks No. 87 nationally in the S&P+ advanced analytical defensive rankings, and a paltry No. 105 (out of 128) against the run. The former Nebraska transfer Love will need to play one of his best games.
DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
Matchup: vs. No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl
Season stats: 27 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, sack
Washington is better than people think it is, but the Huskies have one clear weakness against the Alabama Crimson Tide: the trenches. UW’s defensive line is pretty good and might be able to cause some issues, but the offensive line will be a huge issue going against Alabama’s dynamic defensive front.
Football Outsiders’ offensive line metrics rank Washington the No. 36 unit in the nation. That’s fine; only issue is Alabama’s defensive line ranks No. 1. Payne is typically an afterthought next to Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, but he could change the game by creating havoc up the middle. If the Crimson Tide can get all three players working in unison, Washington is in big trouble.
WR Darius Slayton, Auburn
Matchup: vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl
Season stats: 14 catches for 236 yards, TD
Auburn’s passing game has been relatively ineffective, which means the team’s leading receiver has only 466 receiving yards. However, the Tigers have a big opportunity against Oklahoma. While the Sooners might be the best offense in the country, their defense is porous.
Like Noil, Slayton’s breakout capability is completely dependent on whether Sean White can get him the ball consistently. However, Slayton has mismatch potential against an Oklahoma defense that’s more worried about speed than his 6-foot-2 size. This would be a good chance to assert himself in the rotation.