Every fan knows their team’s best returning players. But think a little further…
Who is the one player on your respective squad that is absolutely critical to the team’s success? The one athlete that could make or break a season?
Some teams are harder than others, but SEC Country took a shot at naming each team’s “franchise player:”
Alabama: Calvin Ridley, WR
Analysis: The Crimson Tide lost running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. They don’t have a starting quarterback. Neither of those two things are anything to freak out about. Alabama churns out talented running backs and has managed to get by with an average quarterback. All they need is someone who can throw a spiral to Ridley because nobody could defend the explosive wideout last season. He finished the year with 1,045 yards and 7 touchdowns … as a freshman.
Auburn: Carl Lawson, DE
Analysis: The Tigers finished last season at No. 13 in the SEC in sacks and No. 11 in rush defense. A healthy Carl Lawson can help remedy both of those blemishes. The defensive end played in just seven games last season while dealing with a hip injury, picking up 17 tackles and 1 sack on the season. Lawson showed his potential in 2013 when he accumulated 20 tackles, 4 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. His decision to bypass the NFL draft this season could be huge for the Tigers.
Arkansas: Jeremy Sprinkle, TE
Analysis: Sprinkle has some big shoes to fill. Former Razorbacks tight end Hunter Henry led SEC tight ends in receptions (51 catches) last season, and finished in the top three among the conference’s tight ends the previous two seasons. The position holds great value in the Arkansas offense, and Sprinkle could serve as a nice safety net for quarterback Austin Allen. The signal caller was a possible selection here, but the Razorbacks always find a way to grind out games without an elite quarterback behind center. Sprinkle caught 27 passes for 389 yards and 6 touchdowns last season as Arkansas’ No. 2 tight end.
LSU: Brandon Harris, QB
Analysis: If running back Leonard Fournette goes down, the Tigers possess 2015 SEC All-Freshman running back Derrius Guice. If Brandon Harris goes down … things get a bit dicey. LSU is regarded as one of the top teams in the country next season, and it will need to become more than one-dimensional in 2016. Harris is the guy that can make that happen. The Tigers posses a talented receiving corps, and if Harris can get them the ball, LSU should be OK.
Mississippi State: Richie Brown, LB
Analysis: Quarterback would be the obvious selection here, but since we don’t know who the starter will be just yet, we’ve moved over to the defensive side of the ball. With defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback Will Redmond both being selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bulldogs are left looking for an anchor on its defense. Brown is your guy. The rising senior collected 109 tackles last season, good for the fifth-most in the conference. With a loaded SEC West returning next season, the Bulldogs will need a run-stopper in the front seven.
Ole Miss: Chad Kelly, QB
Analysis: The Rebels like to throw the football. Chad Kelly threw the ball 458 times last season, good for the 17th-most passing attempts in the nation last season. I’d expect Kelly to throw the ball as much or more this season, but he won’t have No. 1 on the outside. With Laquon Treadwell moving on to the NFL, Kelly will need to find another go-to target. He’ll get enough throws to try and figure it out.
Texas A&M: Trevor Knight, QB
Analysis: Trevor Knight has to make the most of his one year in College Station. The Aggies struggled to find consistent quarterback play last season, and saw Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transfer away from the program. Texas A&M possesses several weapons on the outside and way have the best wide receivers group in the SEC. To display that talent, they need someone to hawk them the ball. Knight has shown his ability in the past at Oklahoma, and it will be crucial that it follows him to the Lone Star State in 2016.
Florida: Antonio Callaway, WR
Analysis: Callaway is a game-changer. You saw it last season when he racked up 678 yards and 4 touchdowns as a freshman. The Gators are still trying to figure out their starting quarterback situation, but things are made much easier when you possess a receiver with blazing speed in Callaway. The rising sophomore is dealing with some discipline issues right now and has recently been allowed to attend classes and use team facilities.
Kentucky: Boom Williams, RB
Analysis: Kentucky needs Williams to bring the boom (I’ll see myself out). If you can get by that horrible joke, let me explain my decision. Williams is one of the most underrated weapons in the SEC, and rushed for 855 yards and 6 touchdowns in just 10 games last season. Establishing a successful running game behind Williams will be key for the Wildcats, who will start rising sophomore Drew Barker at quarterback. Working off of a strong rushing attack and implementing some play-action passes could make things easier on Barker.
Georgia: Terry Godwin, WR
Analysis: Yes, the Bulldogs do have running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both have proven their ability to carry the Georgia offense, but somebody is going to have to catch the ball from whoever starts at quarterback. The Bulldogs picked up 10 wins last season without a great signal-caller, so we went with the team’s No. 1 playmaker at receiver. Expectations are high this season for the former 5-star recruit. No other returning Bulldogs receiver caught more than 12 passes last season (Godwin has 35 catches), and Godwin will be crucial for the Bulldogs to add some diversity to the game plan.
Missouri: Drew Lock, QB
Analysis: The Tigers have a handful of problems, but the team isn’t going to succeed without improved play from quarterback Drew Lock. The rising sophomore tossed 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions last season in 12 games. Missouri does return its leading rusher in rising junior Ish Witter, but the 5-foot-10, 190-pound back isn’t the type of player who takes over games. He did not record a single 100-yard rushing performance last season, and Lock will have to make the Tigers’ offense go.
South Carolina: T.J. Holloman, LB
Analysis: Holloman was going to a key piece to the Gamecocks defense next season, but became THE piece when coach Will Muschamp announced that linebacker Skai Moore will be miss the entire season after undergoing successful neck fusion surgery in early June. Moore led South Carolina with 111 tackles last season, and Holloman will be left to pick up the slack. The rising senior collected 63 tackles last season, and will be the teams top returning tackler next season with Moore out of the fold.
Tennessee: Joshua Dobbs, QB
Analysis: Some of you may have thought Jalen Hurd for the Vols. But the truth is Hurd and Alvin Kamara are going to get their yards. The duo should be one of top running back tandems in the nation, but for Tennessee to live up to high expectations this season, Dobbs will be the key piece. At some point teams are going to load the box if a team becomes one-dimensional, and Dobbs is going to have step up. The rising senior passed for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and played his best ball against Georgia where he threw for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. Tennessee wouldn’t mind a few performances like this year.
Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb, RB
Analysis: No one is really going to make or break Vanderbilt’s season, but Ralph Webb can certainly make it year more palatable. The rising junior is the Commodores best returning player, and rushed for 1,152 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. He finished fifth among SEC running back in rushing yards and tied for third with 277 carries. If Webb isn’t going to produce, who will? I rest my case.