The greatest feat Johnny Manziel ever pulled off wasn’t beating Alabama, his slew of spectacular plays or winning the Heisman. It was getting everyone to care about a villain.
Manziel was one of the greatest villains the SEC, and college football, has ever seen. Everyone had an opinion about him. You either loved him because he wasn’t the typical quarterback or you hated him for his cockiness.
College football runs on villains. Sure, you like seeing your team win, but you like seeing Jameis Winston get blown out by Oregon just as much. It’s a big deal when Alabama and Ohio State lose because it’s fun to see “bullies” like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer get knocked down a peg.
Heading into the 2016 season, several excellent candidates in the SEC could emerge as the next villain of college football.
Some qualifiers before going any further. First, for a player/coach to qualify for villain status, they have to be able to win big. Eventually people get bored seeing someone lose all the time. Secondly, just because they are on the villain list does not make them a bad person. A villain, in 2016, just has to be someone you don’t like, rationally or irrationally. Third, if these guys win for their teams, their fans won’t care who hates them.
Georgia: Quarterback Jacob Eason. Villain comparison: Tom Brady
Eason and Brady have the looks. They have fan bases worshiping them as saviors. And if Georgia wins early, with Eason as the starter, the hate will start to mount against Eason. They’ll call Eason a pretty boy and quickly point to Kirby Smart as the reason for Georgia’s success. If Eason plays at a Brady-esque level, Georgia fans won’t care about what other fans think about their quarterback. Bulldogs fans just have to hope that Eason doesn’t mess with the air pressure in the footballs.
Ole Miss: Head coach Hugh Freeze. Villain comparison: Bill Belichick
You thought that Nick Saban, Belichick’s former defensive coordinator, would’ve drawn the comparison? Too easy and unoriginal. While more fans have a disdain for Saban, Freeze is more like the New England head coach. Sure, Freeze hasn’t won as much and isn’t as grumpy, but the two have been caught for cheating. And, above all else, that is why people detest Freeze and Belichick. They aren’t the only two coaches who have tried to bend the rules, but they are the ones who got caught. If Ole Miss can continue to beat the likes of Alabama, the hate on Freeze is only going to mount.
Alabama: Inside linebacker Reuben Foster. Villain comparison: LeBron James
Foster stands to be the next great senior linebacker for Alabama. He’ll follow in the footsteps of All-Americans C.J. Mosley and Reggie Ragland. What separates Foster from those two is that Foster once had an Auburn logo tattooed on his forearm. Foster attended Auburn High School during his senior year and was at one point committed to the Tigers. But he ultimately “left” Auburn and went to Alabama, where he has since won a championship. His move is akin to that of LeBron James when he first left Cleveland to pursue a championship in Miami. Unfortunately, Foster won’t be coming back to Auburn to win a title.
LSU: Running back Leonard Fournette. Villain comparison: Russell Westbrook
Fournette is nowhere near as polarizing as Westbrook. They are dominating forces in towns where they are the biggest ticket. They have a flair for making statements with fashion and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. But what makes the two so dominating is what also might hurt their teams. Westbrook has been prone to play hero ball in big situations. Fournette has struggled in LSU defeats, and the Tigers’ reliance on Fournette probably has hindered the development of their passing attack.
Westbrook wasn’t able to lead his team to a championship this year, and it was part of the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder lost Kevin Durant. If Fournette can’t bring a championship, SEC or national, to Baton Rouge this year, could that cost Les Miles his job?
Tennessee: Quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Villain comparison: Russell Wilson
Both have similar off-field personalities. They each have quirks that separate them from other quarterbacks: Wilson being under 6-foot and Dobbs studying aerospace engineering. Both have routinely had their football abilities questioned. They play with great defenses, and people are quick to discredit their success because of that. They are both capable runners, but questions exist about their passing ability. Wilson was able to quell some of the hate last year with a breakout season.
If Dobbs can progress like Wilson, Tennessee fans will gladly take a championship over a few more haters.
Florida: Cornerback Jalen Tabor. Villain comparison: Richard Sherman
This one is a little too easy. Both are two of the top cornerbacks in their respective leagues. Both may not have been the best player in their own secondaries, as Tabor had Vernon Hargreaves and Sherman has Earl Thomas. And both love to talk trash. Of course, Tabor will get to prove how good he really is now that Hargreaves is in the NFL.
Tabor will get the best shot from every receiver he’ll line up against. They will think all week about how they can get the best of Tabor. But if the opposing wide receiver is thinking about how to defeat Tabor, he’s not thinking about beating Florida. And that’s already a win for Tabor.