News & Analysis

College Football: The highest-graded SEC player at every position through Week 9

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) throws during Alabama's game with Texas A&M Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, in Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.] Alabama Vs Texas A M

Year after year, the SEC finds itself looking for the next set of stars to shine on Saturdays after the conference’s top players take their talents to the NFL. And this year, players such as Joe Burrow, Jerry Jeudy, Tua Tagovailoa and 60 others left vacant spots for the next crop of talent to emerge.

Here are the highest-graded SEC players at each position heading into Week 10:

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Quarterback: Mac Jones, Alabama — 93.5

For most teams, when a former starting quarterback gets selected fifth overall in the NFL Draft, there tends to be a drop-off in quarterback play. Well, that is not the case for Alabama, who now has another Heisman front-runner at the helm.

Mac Jones has lit the world on fire with his play so far in 2020. Not only is he the highest-graded quarterback in the SEC through Week 9, but he is also the highest-graded quarterback in all of college football.

Jones has been one of the better deep-ball passers in college football, leading the SEC with 15 big-time throws on targets 20-plus yards downfield while only having one turnover-worthy play on such throws.

Running back: Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky — 87.5

Rodriguez has made the most of his opportunities while not necessarily holding on to a typical bell-cow role. Rodriguez is handling 38% of all rushing attempts for the Wildcats, while fellow running back Asim Rose and quarterbacks Terry Wilson and Joey Gatewood combine for 55% of the team’s carries.

Despite splitting carries with two dual-threat quarterbacks and another running back, Rodriguez ranks as one of the more efficient backs in the SEC. The redshirt sophomore has recorded either a first down or touchdown on 40.0% of his carries, the highest rate among all SEC running backs. Since Week 5, 55% of his carries have gained 5-plus yards, and he has averaged an SEC-leading 6.1 yards per carry.

Wide receiver: DeVonta Smith, Alabama — 92.3

DeVonta Smith’s 92.3 PFF grade not only ranks first among all SEC wide receivers but all receivers in college football. He has been on another level and has stepped into the No. 1 receiver role for the Crimson Tide with ease.

Smith is fresh off the second four-plus touchdown game of his career, where he was on the receiving end of all four of Jones’ deep completions. The senior receiver has tallied 16 receptions that have gained 15 or more yards since the SEC kicked off in Week 4 — second in college football.

University of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) reaches out to catch a ball over his shoulder during a game against the Missouri Tigers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Oct. 31, 2020. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Tight End: Kyle Pitts, Florida — 96.1

The highest-graded player in the FBS is none other than Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. The junior tight end has spearheaded a Gators passing attack that ranks seventh in the FBS in expected points added (EPA per play) in 2020.

Pitts started hotter than any other player, catching four touchdowns for 170 yards in his 2020 debut. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Pitts is a mismatch for whoever is lined up against him. He uses that big frame to dominate in the red zone and has caught seven passes on 13 targets for six touchdowns so far this year.

Offensive tackle: Darian Kinnard, Kentucky — 90.5

Darian Kinnard leads a Kentucky offensive line that grades as the top offensive line unit in the SEC and seventh nationally. Kinnard has been consistent while pass blocking, giving up only one sack on 156 pass-blocking snaps this season.

Center: Landon Dickerson, Alabama — 88.1

Alabama has a history of dominant offensive linemen, and Landon Dickerson is just another name to add to that long list. Dickerson is the best run-blocking center in college football. His 88.1 PFF grade and 90.8 run-blocking grade both rank first among all centers in the NCAA.

Offensive Guard: Ben Cleveland, Georgia — 78.7

Ben Cleveland is the only SEC guard to rank in the top five in both pass-blocking grade (85.2, second) and run-blocking grade (78.1, third). Cleveland has given up three hurries on the year but has yet to allow a quarterback hit or sack.

Alabama defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis (48) closes on Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens (7) at Davis Wade Stadium. © Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Interior defensive line: Phidarian Mathis, Alabama — 84.9

Despite the shortened season, Phidarian Mathis is well on his way to a career year. Along with being the highest-graded interior defensive lineman, Mathis has shown a big leap in production from his past two years with Alabama. In only six games in 2020, Mathis has already set career highs in total pressures, sacks and pass-rush win rate.

Mathis’ pass-rushing ability has been his biggest strength this season, recording an 89.4 pass-rush grade (first in SEC and third in all of college football). The duo of Mathis and Christian Barmore rank first and second in pass-rush grade among interior defensive linemen, becoming one of the deadliest interior duos in football.

Edge Defender: B.J. Ojulari, LSU — 87.1

Ojuari has been a menace rushing the passer. He leads all edge defenders in PFF grade and pass-rushing grade (86.8). The true freshman has recorded 16 total pressures with a 29.3 win rate — the highest win rate among edge defenders who have played at least 40 pass-rush snaps.

Linebacker: Jamin Davis, Kentucky — 79.8

In his first season starting full-time at linebacker, Jamin Davis has proven that he belongs among the conference's best. The redshirt junior ranks first in PFF grade and run-defense grade while ranking third in coverage grade among SEC linebackers.

Davis contributes to all facets of the game for Kentucky. He has picked off two passes in coverage, recorded 15 defensive stops and ranks second in total tackles among SEC linebackers.

Oct 3, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain II (2) breaks up a pass intended for Texas A&M tight end Ryan Renick (46) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated A&M 52-24. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback: Patrick Surtain II, Alabama — 89.2

Surtain was the sixth-highest-ranked recruit in the country and No. 1 ranked cornerback coming out of high school, according to the 247Sports Composite, and he has all but lived up to the hype. In his junior season, Surtain is the highest-graded cornerback in the country. He is the fourth Alabama player on this list to be graded as the top player at their respective position in all of college football.

Surtain has performed very well in the conference-only schedule against some of the SEC’s top talent and has avoided giving up the big plays. On throws 20-plus yards downfield, he has been targeted eight times, allowed only one reception (a 27-yard touchdown) and forced three incompletions. Surtain's 27.3% forced incompletion percentage ranks third among SEC cornerbacks who have seen at least 20 targets.

Safety: Trevon Flowers, Tennessee — 74.1

Trevon Flowers is one of the few bright spots on a struggling Tennessee Volunteers team that has now dropped three straight. The junior out of Atlanta is the highest-graded defender on the Volunteers and has offered some sense of stability on the back end while also being an active participant defending the run.

Flowers is the tackle leader for the Volunteers, with 13 of his 37 coming against the run. And on the back end, Flowers has allowed only 47 yards on six receptions, and he's tallied one forced incompletion.

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