By Ethan Burke
After waiting eight long months and going through an offseason with plenty of uncertainty, SEC football is back this Saturday, and fans around the country cannot be more excited to see programs in the best conference in college football go up against each other. As the season kicks off this weekend, now seems like a good time to highlight some key names that we should look out for. Whether these players are top recruits coming out of high school, coming off a strong 2019 season, or another one of many situations that might have taken place, the SEC is loaded with talent. Here are 10 players that we should keep an eye out for this Saturday when watching the games.
QB Bo Nix, Auburn
Auburn fans have every right to be excited, as the 2019 SEC freshman of the year will be returning as the leader of their offense. As a freshman, Nix was capable enough to sling a 26-yard touchdown pass to beat Oregon in his first college game and was strong enough to lead Auburn to an Iron Bowl victory against No. 5 Alabama. During his freshman campaign, Nix completed 217 of 377 passes for 2,542 yards with 16 touchdowns and looks to only improve on that as sophomore year approaches. Although Nix is a promising young quarterback, his development is going to be a crucial storyline for the Auburn Tigers, as he finished 88th in completion percentage and 84th in pass efficiency a year ago. However, in Nix’s defense, he had a brutal schedule to face as a 19-year-old going up against Clemson, Oregon, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Alabama, and LSU, who went on to win the National Championship. I would think of the 2019 season as kind of an experimental year for Nix and the Auburn Tigers, but there is no doubt in my mind that with his ability to make plays, see the field, and be a good leader, Nix will grow and become one of the more elite quarterbacks in the SEC and the FBS. Nix will begin his sophomore campaign against the Kentucky Wildcats this Saturday.
RB Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
Rakeem Boyd’s college career is definitely one to call a roller coaster and, in my opinion, one of the more interesting stories in college football. Boyd started his college journey at Texas A&M as a redshirt freshman before ultimately having to transfer due to poor grades. Boyd then arrived at Independence Community College, where his talent was highly featured on the netflix hit show “Last Chance U.” After just one year at JUCO, Boyd was able to get an offer from the Arkansas Razorbacks. During Boyd’s junior season, he was able to vault himself into the conversation as one of the more premier running backs in the SEC. However, Boyd’s 2019 campaign got the SEC on notice, as he rushed for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns. Coming into his senior year, Boyd is poised to expand on his success and take more of a leadership role as he hopes to lead this team to more success, considering the Razorbacks went 2-10 both years he’s been there so far. Although we shouldn’t expect too much from the Arkansas Razorbacks this year, we can still look forward to seeing Boyd as he looks to improve his NFL draft stock and play a big role in first-year head coach Sam Pittman’s future success at Arkansas for years to come. Boyd kicks off his senior season in front of his home crowd against the Georgia Bulldogs.
OL Charles Cross, Mississippi State
For Mississippi State fans, these last couple years have been tough for sure. And, while this program is in rebuilding mode as they just welcomed former Washington State coach Mike Leach, fans should expect a few more bumps and bruises on the in dealing with an entirely new system. However, there is some good news to look forward to, as redshirt freshman offensive lineman Charles Cross will expand his role with the Bulldogs. Cross was definitely a big pickup for Mississippi State and has lots to prove after he was the No. 8 overall prospect in the class of 2019 and had a strong performance in the All-American Bowl. With Cross’s determination and dedication, I have no reason to doubt that he will be successful this year. A year ago, Cross weighed just 205 pounds and now he weighs 240. Cross definitely still needs to gain more weight since he’s going up against some huge SEC defensive linebackers but, with limited reps and team lifting days, Cross will have plenty of opportunities to continue building himself up. Cross may also be even a better fit for Mississippi State than before for Mike Leach’s offense, which prioritizes pass protection. Cross has earned himself the starting job, so expect to see him in action a lot early on as the Bulldogs open up their season against the LSU tigers.
RB Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
One thing Lane Kiffin knows how to do is develop running backs, and with someone as talented as Jerrion Ealy, I have reasons to believe that Kiffin will find more success in that area. As a freshman, Ealy rushed for 722 yards and six touchdowns, and the freshman All-American will look to build off that as the 2020 season approaches. Ealy is one heck of an athlete, as he went on to forego the MLB draft in order to enroll at Ole Miss in 2019. Although Ealy is only 5’9, he has a muscular body along with a physical temperament which allows him to demonstrate speed and explosiveness. With the combination of Ealy and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, this young backfield will be fun to watch and should be able to make some noise during SEC play. Ealy will continue his strong college career as he faces off against the Florida Gators at home this Saturday.
CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Derek Stingley Jr. is sure making a name for himself. Stingley is arguably the best cornerback in the country and only looks to continue and build off that reputation as he enters sophomore year. As a true freshman, Stingley recorded 31 solo tackles and six interceptions which helped shape up the Tigers defense into national championship caliber. Although Stingley still has another two years left in college, it has been reported that NFL teams are already “freaking out” when they see him play and is also getting compared to star NFL cornerback Jaylen Ramsey. I also believe that it is important to mention that Stingley is getting high praise from big names in the football world, such as his former teammate and first-round draft pick Joe Burrow, who said “I think he’s one of the top five cornerbacks in the country. He would get drafted in the first round this year as a true freshman,” and former Oklahoma wide receiver and first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb, who mentioned “honestly, he’s definitely going to be by far the best DB I go against.” Stingley is without a doubt a force to be reckoned with and definitely worth watching this weekend as the journey for him and the LSU tigers to defend their crown will begin Saturday against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
S Demani Richardson, Texas A&M
Heading into sophomore year, Demani Richardson is poised for a breakout season after being named to the SEC All-Freshman Team a year ago. I expect Head Coach Jimbo Fisher to utilize Richardson a lot this season after recording 71 tackles as a true freshman. Although Richardson is only a freshman, there is no reason for fans to doubt his experience, as he put up eight tackles against Clemson, 11 tackles and an interception against Alabama, and eight tackles against Georgia. In my opinion, it’s scary how much Richardson can still develop and how the sky’s the limit for him to reach his true potential. With great coaching from Fisher and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, there’s hope for Aggie fans that the A&M defense will rise to the occasion if Richardson takes on more of a leadership role. Overall, Richardson is an exciting young player to watch and could be among the SEC’s elite safeties this season. Make sure to look out for Richardson as the Aggies take on the Vanderbilt Commodores this Saturday night.
DL Monty Rice, Georgia
After leading the strong 2019 Georgia Bulldogs defense in tackles, defensive linebacker Monty Rice will be looking to continue his leadership role as the Bulldogs look to contend for a National Championship. The linebacker is especially known for his ability to make plays in the box and out on the perimeter and looks to expand on that coming into his last season. With the departure of Tae Crowder, you can expect Rice to have an even bigger impact on the Georgia defense this fall and rise up the draft board. Rice definitely will be a quality linebacker on Sundays and was talented enough to go a year early, but with his decision to come back, it should give the coaching staff and Bulldog fans a lot of hope that they could finally win the National Championship. Make sure to watch out for Rice as the Georgia Bulldogs travel to Arkansas to take on the Razorbacks this Saturday.
QB Myles Brennan, LSU
To me, this might be the most interesting one. Quarterback Myles Brennan will finally get his opportunity to start for the Tigers after waiting four years. Brennan has been waiting patiently for his time to shine after spending one year behind Danny Etling and two years behind Joe Burrow. After losing the starting job to Burrow in 2018, most quarterbacks probably would’ve transferred, but not Brennan. Instead, Brennan decided to stay back and learn everything he could from Joe Burrow and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Over the course of his three years so far, Brennan completed 42 of 70 passes for 600 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions. Brennan will be facing a lot of pressure following a historic season from Burrow, but he’s been with the program long enough where he should be ready. Make sure to pay close attention to Brennan this Saturday when the LSU Tigers take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle sure is something special. Waddle has been a nightmare for SEC defenses and is poised for an epic season coming into what will likely be his last year with the Crimson Tide. During the 2018 season, Waddle exploded with 848 receiving yards and seven touchdowns which resulted in getting him named SEC Freshman of the year. During his sophomore season, he didn’t get as many opportunities at the wide receiver position, but Waddle was second in the SEC and fifth nationally for punt return average. With the departure of Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy, I would expect Waddle’s minutes at the wide receiver position to increase, as he is now one of the more experienced receivers on the team and will be becoming more of a leader. Make sure to check out Waddle in action this Saturday as the Crimson Tide take on the Tigers of Missouri this Saturday night.
TE Arik Gilbert, LSU
Arguably the top freshman in the country, TE Arik Gilbert will look to have an impact early for the defending National Champs. The Marietta, Georgia native is listed at 250 pounds, which is very uncommon for a tight end or wide receiver. Gilbert is known to be long, athletic, fast, and possess good hands. Gilbert’s teammates said “he has a chance to be the best tight end to ever play college football.” Experts are also saying that he has a chance to be a real game changer during his time at LSU. With all this hype surrounding Gilbert, I’m not sure who wouldn’t want to see him play. Make sure to look out for Gilbert as he begins his college journey this Saturday as the LSU Tigers take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Edited by Emma Moloney