Monday Down South Postseason Awards: The envelopes, please
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s action.
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Well, we made it. Georgia is cruising into a Peach Bowl Playoff semifinal date with Ohio State, LSU is licking its wounds (along with most of the rest of the conference), and another regular season is in the books. This week’s column wraps up the 7th season (!) of Monday Down South, and before we turn the page to the postseason we’re going out the way we always do: With the annual MDS Awards Show. The envelopes please …
The best of the week year.
Offensive Player of the Year: Hendon Hooker
OK, so in retrospect were we flying a little bit too close to the sun when we started comparing Hooker’s unlikely ascent at Tennessee to Joe Burrow’s at LSU. November is cruel that way: Hooker’s brief lead in the Heisman race hit the wall that is Georgia’s defense in Week 10, and his torn ACL at South Carolina 2 weeks later was a grim ending to both his college career and the Vols’ run as national contenders.
Still, in the long run the exuberance he inspired over the first two-thirds of the season easily outweighs the eventual disappointment. On paper, Hooker averaged a school-record 324.1 yards per game, accounted for 32 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, and he led the conference in passer rating and Total QBR.
In real time, he lit up Florida, LSU and Alabama in a 3-game stretch that revitalized the program after 15 years’ worth of dejection. He made Tennessee football relevant again. For those few weeks alone, he’ll be an iconic figure in Knoxville for life.
Defensive Player of the Year: Will Anderson Jr.
It was always unrealistic to expect Anderson to measure up to his historic stat line in 2021, and it doesn’t count against him here that he didn’t. By any other standard, he remained arguably the most productive defender in America. He led the SEC in tackles for loss (17), sacks (10) and QB pressures (59), per Pro Football Focus, while posting the league’s second-best individual PFF grade against the run, behind only Georgia’s Jalen Carter. (He scored a touchdown, too, for good measure.)
Anderson is still a lock to become the first Bama’s first Saban-era edge rusher to go in the first round next spring, and possibly to be the first Saban player at any position to go No. 1 overall. Given the lack of obvious Heisman front-runners, if voters saw fit to redeem themselves for last year’s snub by sending him to the full ceremony New York, that would be A-OK by me.
Most Valuable Player: Bryce Young
Young’s numbers also declined relative to last year’s Heisman campaign, and for all of his gifts and accolades, he’s on his way out as just the second Crimson Tide starter since 2009 who didn’t contribute significantly to a national title. (He does have a ring from the 2020 season, when he was limited to mop-up duty behind Mac Jones.) Consider, though, where they would be without him. Put almost anyone else in his position, and the looming winter of Bama’s discontent would be a full-blown crisis.
WHAT A PLAY BRYCE YOUNG ?
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 10, 2022
All year long, the offense was one-dimensional and out of sync against the top half of the schedule, routinely pressing Young into playground mode in close games. Somehow, he routinely delivered.
Every time he touched the ball with Alabama trailing in the fourth quarter, he led a drive to even the score or take the lead. Against Texas, he rebounded from 2 miserable quarters to lead two go-ahead scoring drives in the fourth, culminating with the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds to go.
Against Tennessee, he overcame a 28-10 deficit (as well as the most sustained pounding of his career) to set up another potential game-winner in the final minute; this time, the kick sailed wide, Hooker got the last bullet, and the rest is history.
Against LSU, Young led 4 consecutive scoring drives on Alabama’s last 4 possessions, including an ad-libbed, 41-yard touchdown pass he created out of thin air, a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, and a touchdown in the top half of the first overtime; again, he was forced to look on as the opposing quarterback made the winning play instead in OT.
Against Ole Miss the following week, he rallied Bama from a 17-7 hole by leading 5 scoring drives on its last 6 possessions; for once, the defense held.
What does that season look like with a guy who’s not, well, Bryce Young? For all of the Tide’s issues — beginning with a grossly underachieving group of wideouts — when the game was on the line he was the equalizer. And as close as they came to another Playoff run, the real angst about the direction of the program stems from the reality that, even with Young, they were just as close to falling off the map. He almost singlehandedly saved them from that in 2022. In 2023? Stay tuned.
Freak of the Year: Jalen Carter
Freaky, dominant, terrifying: Whatever cliché you want to use, Carter is a singular specimen whose combination of size, power and explosiveness is off the charts even in the context of Georgia’s d-line. Last year, he was widely regarded as the best player on the front as a sophomore despite playing alongside 3 future first-rounders. This year, he’s widely regarded as the most unblockable force in the college game despite missing nearly half the season due to a knee injury, which might be the only thing that prevented him from emerging as a sustained Heisman candidate in a wide-open year for the award.
Regardless, when he’s healthy and dialed in, he’s performed jaw-dropping feats of strength on a weekly basis.
Jalen Carter: GROWN MAN ? pic.twitter.com/HQRvGWDX8L
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 3, 2022
Just a dominant performance by #Georgia DT Jalen Carter vs. Tennessee.
You want to see big time prospects have their best performances in big games and he was every bit of that. pic.twitter.com/gQHIAUrez6
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) November 8, 2022
— J.C. Shelton (@jc_shelton_) December 3, 2022
Jalen Carter just threw his man right out of the way to make the stop. pic.twitter.com/N9J0c2Rjwm
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 3, 2022
The closest you’re going to get to quantifying that is Carter’s 92.3 overall PFF grade, best in the nation among Power 5 defenders with at least 100 snaps. But in this case, resorting to numbers misses the point. He’s the type of athlete who has to be seen to be believed.
Fat Guy of the Year: O’Cyrus Torrence
When Florida tapped Billy Napier as its new head coach last winter, one of his first moves was convincing his best player at Louisiana to come with him. At 6-5/345, Torrence had always had the look of an SEC offensive lineman who’d somehow slipped through the cracks as a recruit, and in his first and only year in Gainesville he did to SEC defenders more or less exactly what he’d spent the 3 previous years doing to the Sun Belt.
His SEC-best 88.2 PFF grade this season was identical to his 2021 grade as a Cajun, largely on the strength of his run blocking in an offense that averaged more than 200 yards per game on the ground. As a pass blocker, he didn’t allow a sack or hit in PFF’s accounting, and wasn’t flagged for a single penalty.
Point proven, Torrence already has declared for the draft, where he has a chance to be first interior OL off the board.
Breakout Player of the Year, Offense: Jalin Hyatt
Hyatt was not a complete unknown to Vols fans after scoring 4 touchdowns in his first 2 seasons, including a 38-yarder against Alabama in 2020 as a true freshman. But no one, probably including Hyatt himself, was prepared for the bonanza that ensued in Year 3.
With the presumptive star of the WR corps, Cedric Tillman, on ice for much of the season, the Hooker-Hyatt connection thrived, serving as shorthand for the Vols’ surge up the polls. His 207-yard, 5-touchdown performance against Alabama, specifically, was an instant classic that elevated Hyatt overnight from hidden gem to household name.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 16, 2022
Altogether, Hyatt led the SEC in receptions (67), yards (1,267), and touchdowns (15) — that latter two categories by big margins — averaging 18.9 yards per catch in the process. He led the nation with 15 receptions of 30+ yards, including 5 that went for 60+ yards, often running comically wide open against secondaries that seemed to short-circuit at least once or (in Kentucky’s case) twice per game.
Georgia and South Carolina managed to keep the lid on in Tennessee’s only losses, which not coincidentally were also the only SEC games with Hooker in the lineup in which Hyatt failed to score a touchdown.
He’s yet to announce a decision on the NFL Draft, but assuming his rising stock over the second half of the season likely means he’s gone, his place in Vols firmament is secure.
Breakout Player of the Year, Defense: Drew Sanders
At Alabama, Sanders was just another blue-chip recruit who struggled to stay on the field due to injuries and a stacked depth chart at outside linebacker. At Arkansas, he’s on his way to becoming a star.
In his first season in Fayetteville, Sanders transitioned from the edge to a box linebacker role and proved to be a natural ball hawk, finishing among the SEC leaders in tackles (103), TFLs (13.5), QB pressures (39) and stops (43), defined by PFF as tackles that represent a “failure” for the offense based on down and distance. He also tied for the SEC lead with 4 forced fumbles. If he gets more comfortable in coverage, he has All-America potential and a chance to play on Sundays for a long time.
Most Versatile: Brock Bowers
Georgia lists Bowers as a tight end, which only goes about halfway toward describing his actual role — closer to 30%, actually, which is about how often he’s lined up as an inline TE or H-back this season. Although he has the size and blocking chops of a traditional tight end, his natural home is in the slot, where he lines up about 60% of the time and has the full range of his skill set at his disposal: As a possession receiver over the middle, a dynamic run-after-catch option on screens and speed sweeps, an elite red-zone target, and a reliable perimeter blocker.
He is surely the only player ever to be nominated simultaneously for the Biletnikoff Award (best receiver) and the Lombardi Award (best lineman), which even if he is far more the former than the latter reflects the sentiment that there’s almost nothing on a football field he can’t do in a pinch as well as anybody doing it full-time.
Most Underrated: Ty’Ron Hopper
Hopper never quite lived up to his top-100 recruiting billing at Florida, where he spent his first 3 seasons under Dan Mullen from 2019-21. At Missouri, he emerged quickly this season — and quietly, unless you’re a Mizzou fan — as one of the SEC’s most active defenders, period. Among off-ball ‘backers, he led the conference in TFLs (14) and overall PFF grade (82.6) while picking up a well-earned reputation for always being around the ball.
Ty'Ron Hopper with the good-ole Peanut Punch pic.twitter.com/Ql9UZUvIgA
— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) October 1, 2022
Nick Bolton, he is not: At 6-2/224, Hopper is on the lighter side where the next level is concerned, which could be enough to convince him to pass on the draft for a 5th year on campus in ’23. The Tigers’ best offensive player, sophomore WR Dominic Lovett, has already announced his plans to portal out. Losing their best defensive player to a likely Day 2 projection, at best, would be a very discouraging start to a pivotal offseason for the program.
Most Improved: MarShawn Lloyd
Lloyd lost his freshman season in 2020 to a torn ACL, and didn’t seem right in ’21, finishing with just 228 yards on 3.6 per carry. In Year 3, he leveled up, accounting for 749 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns in 9 games while reminding Gamecocks fans why he was so highly recruited in the first place.
Hurdle button: Useful. pic.twitter.com/21XbrMynDB
— Mike Gillespie (@MikeABCColumbia) September 25, 2022
Lloyd’s health was still an issue at the end of the year, when he missed 3 games (including Carolina’s resounding upset over Tennessee) with a quad injury. If he’s back and healthy next year, baseline expectations should start at 1,000 yards.
Overachiever of the Year: Stetson Bennett IV
Bennett largely vanquished the underdog narrative during last year’s national championship run, which Georgia could not have completed without him. This year, he’s rendered the premise mostly obsolete. While running hot and cold a times, in the Dawgs’ 3 biggest games, against Oregon in the season-opener, Tennessee in a midseason blockbuster, and LSU in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, Bennett was nearly flawless, averaging 10.5 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns (8 passing, 2 rushing) and no interceptions.
His QBR scores in those games: 98.1 vs. the Ducks, 97.6 vs. the Vols, 96.7 vs. the Tigers.
As a 6th-year senior, he’s been in command of the offense rather than having to be protected by it, and whatever remains of the notion that his size, arm, or athleticism is holding the offense back in high-stakes situations is getting even more irrelevant by the week.
Patrick Willis Award for Best Player on a Bad Team: Devon Achane
From beginning to end, Achane was the one part of a dysfunctional A&M offense that consistently worked, and it’s the end that A&M fans will remember. A junior who’s likely bound for the NFL Draft, Achane could have easily called it a career and opted out of the Aggies’ season finale against LSU, no questions asked: He’d missed the previous 2 games with a bum ankle, and nothing was at stake against the Tigers except his health.
Instead, he suited up and went harder than ever, carrying 38 times for a career-high 215 yards and 2 touchdowns in a career-defining effort. Per PFF, Achane generated 161 yards after contact against the Tigers and forced 19 missed tackles — the most the site’s database has credited to any FBS back in any game this season.
How about that start ⚡️
— Texas A&M Football (@AggieFootball) November 27, 2022
That was only a slightly exaggerated version of his role throughout the season. Achane ultimately accounted for 30% of the team’s total offense on the season despite missing 2 full games. Add in his contributions as a return man, and his 170.6 all-purpose yards per game vs. FBS opponents led the nation. For all the raw young talent returning to College Station next year, if Achane isn’t part of it he’ll be sorely missed.
Rookie of the Year, Offense: Quinshon Judkins
Judkins, a relatively obscure recruit from outside of Montgomery, Ala., is also the runaway winner of this year’s “How Was This Guy Only a 3-star?” award, defying expectations from pretty much the second he touched down at Ole Miss. He easily led all freshmen nationally in scrimmage yards (1,590, a school record) and touchdowns (17, also a school record), accounting for at least 95 yards in all but 1 game and scoring in all but 2. PFF credited him with an SEC-best 74 missed tackles forced and 872 yards after contact, or roughly 59% of his total output. He led the league in first downs (75) and runs of 20+ yards (17).
The only 2 true-freshman SEC backs with more rushing yards in their first season on campus: Herschel Walker in 1980 and Nick Chubb in 2014, who not coincidentally also happen to sit atop the list for career rushing yards. Judkins may or may not be up for 2 more healthy seasons at that pace. But the fact that he’s already being measured in that lofty context should tell you all you need to know about how good he can be.
Rookie of the Year, Defense: Harold Perkins Jr.
Perkins was Brian Kelly’s first big recruiting win at LSU, flipping his commitment from Texas A&M at the 11th hour, and it was obvious very quickly that the Tigers hit the jackpot. At 6-2/220 pounds, Perkins is a classic ‘tweener, with the caveat that his athleticism actually allows him to succeed at multiple positions rather than be caught between them.
For most of the season he’s split his time fairly evenly between edge, box and nickel roles, an unusually broad range of responsibilities for a player still just getting his feet wet. At this stage, he’s flashed most consistently off the edge, including arguably the season’s most electric performance at Arkansas in Week 11. Coming on the heels of a breakout game against Alabama the previous week, his 4-sack effort in Fayetteville entered directly into SEC lore in real time.
Harold Perkins. Again.
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/0KZbc9ihfT
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) November 12, 2022
The really frightening part is how much room Perkins clearly has to grow beyond the “my god, a freshman” phase, in every sense. He is 18 years old. Based on his listed weight, he’s still relatively light in the pants to play in the box, much less on the edge, and reliant on raw speed to blow past blockers before they can engage; he might be a couple of years and a couple hundred hours in the weight room from consistently holding up as a complete, take-on linebacker rather than strictly a “see ball, get ball” style chaser. The light hasn’t come yet in coverage. And to the extent that he’s taken opposing offenses by surprise, he certainly won’t anymore.
Double teams and Perkins-proofed game plans await, as he’s already seen in LSU’s subsequent losses to Texas A&M and Georgia.
But the list of players who arrive at that point in their career this early is a short one. Even with the phenoms and freaks, the schedule for emerging as a next-level difference-maker is Year 3. If he gets there in Year 2, he’s ahead of the curve. If he gets there in 2 months, he’s a born star. Perkins is there, right now, with barely 300 college snaps under his belt. And unfortunately for everyone on LSU’s schedule through 2024, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Best Position Group: Georgia’s Offensive Line
Georgia’s everything-by-committee philosophy makes it notoriously difficult to single out individual stars at the skill positions, but it’s perfect for the o-line, where toiling in obscurity is almost always better than the alternative. Among the starting five — LT Broderick Jones, LG Xavier Truss, C Sedrick Van Pran, RG Tate Ratledge and RT Warren McClendon — there are at least 3 future pros and no weak links: PFF hasn’t singled out an individual o-lineman for allowing a sack all season. Stetson Bennett IV has faced pressure on just 18.1% of his dropbacks, the lowest rate in the Power 5, and hasn’t been sacked since mid-October. Combine that with a ground attack averaging an SEC-best 5.6 yards per carry, and you have a portrait of a unit imposing its will nearly every time out.
Coach of the Year: Shane Beamer
Two weeks ago, South Carolina looked like a demoralized outfit headed for a 6-6 record and a 6th-place finish in the East. Instead, with historic upsets over Tennessee and Clemson, the Gamecocks eliminated 2 Playoff contenders in as many weeks, snapped a 7-game losing streak against their blood rival, broke even in conference play, improved their win total for the second year in a row, and ended the regular season as the only SEC team outside of Athens, Ga., with no caveats, complaints or regrets about where the 2022 campaign ultimately set them down.
Nothing beats coming home to the BEST fans in the nation! pic.twitter.com/cDgOgkjmYP
— Gamecock Football (@GamecockFB) November 27, 2022
“Momentum” heading into the offseason is overrated in a sport defined by its unpredictability from one week to the next, much less one season to then next, and that goes especially for a team that stands to lose resurgent QB Spencer Rattler to the NFL Draft. Nothing about South Carolina’s baseline talent level or track record prior to its last two games suggests it’s on the verge of becoming an ascendant contender. But then, who knows? The offseason is all about possibilities, and if you’re only as good as your last game, Beamer’s positivity is well on its way to winning over plenty of willing converts.
And now: The Monday Down South All-SEC team
Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for 2022, based strictly on my own observations and opinions over the course of the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the observations or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally, and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than the format can accommodate.
Quarterback: Hendon Hooker | Tennessee | Sr-6th
Running Back: Rocket Sanders | Arkansas | Soph.
Running Back: Devon Achane | Texas A&M | Jr.
All-Purpose: Jahmyr Gibbs | Alabama | Jr.
Wide Receiver: Jalin Hyatt | Tennessee | Jr.
Wide Receiver: Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. | South Carolina | Jr.
Tight End: Brock Bowers | Georgia | Soph.
O-Line (T): Broderick Jones | Georgia | Jr.
O-Line (T): Darnell Wright | Tennessee | Sr.
O-Line (G): O’Cyrus Torrence | Florida | Sr.
O-Line (C): Ricky Stromberg | Arkansas | Sr.
O-Line (C): Sedrick Van Pran-Granger | Georgia | Jr.
Honorable mention – QB: Bryce Young (Alabama) … Stetson Bennett IV (Georgia) … Jayden Daniels (LSU) … KJ Jefferson (Arkansas) … RB: Quinshon Judkins (Ole Miss) … Chris Rodriguez Jr. (Kentucky) … Kenny McIntosh (Georgia) … Tank Bigsby (Auburn) … Zach Evans (Ole Miss) … WR: Jonathan Mingo (Ole Miss) … Malik Heath (Ole Miss) … Dominic Lovett (Missouri) … TE: Darnell Washington (Georgia) … OL: Emil Ekiyor Jr. (Alabama) … JC Latham (Alabama) … Seth McLaughlin (Alabama) … Warren McClendon (Georgia) … Austin Barber (Florida) … Dalton Wagner (Arkansas) … Beaux Limmer (Arkansas) … Nick Broeker (Ole Miss).
D-Line: Byron Young | Alabama | Sr.
D-Line: Jalen Carter | Georgia | Jr.
D-Line: Jaquelin Roy | LSU | Jr.
Edge: Will Anderson Jr. | Alabama | Jr.
Edge: Derick Hall II | Auburn | Sr–5th
Linebacker: Drew Sanders | Arkansas | Jr.
Linebacker: Harold Perkins Jr. | LSU | Fr.
Cornerback: Kool-Aid McKinstry | Alabama | Soph.
Cornerback: Emmanuel Forbes | Mississippi State | Jr.
Nickel: Antonio Johnson | Texas A&M | Jr.
Safety: Jordan Battle | Alabama | Sr.
Safety: Christopher Smith | Georgia | Sr-5th
Honorable mention – DL: Colby Wooden (Auburn) … Mekhi Wingo (LSU) … Gervon Dexter Sr. (Florida) … Deone Walker (Kentucky) … Zacch Pickens (South Carolina) … Tonka Hemingway (South Carolina) … Edge: BJ Ojulari (LSU) … Isaiah McGuire (Missouri) … Dallas Turner (Alabama) … Tyrus Wheat (Mississippi State) … Byron Young (Tennessee) … Nolan Smith (Georgia) … LB: Ty’Ron Hopper (Missouri) … Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama) … Jamon Dumas-Johnson (Georgia) … Nathaniel Watson (Mississippi State) … Troy Brown (Ole Miss) … Anfernee Orji (Vanderbilt) … CB: Kelee Ringo (Georgia) … Dwight McGlothern (Arkansas) … Cam Smith (South Carolina) … Marcellas Dial (South Carolina) … Jason Marshall Jr. (Florida) … Keidron Smith (Kentucky) … S: Demani Richardson (Texas A&M) … Brian Branch (Alabama) … Javon Bullard (Georgia) … Hudson Clark (Arkansas). … Malaki Starks (Georgia).
Kicker: Will Reichard | Alabama | Sr.
Punter: Kai Kroeger | South Carolina | Jr.
Returner (KR/PR): Lideatrick Griffin | Mississippi State | Jr.
Honorable mention – K: Harrison Mevis (Missouri) … Jack Podlesny (Georgia) … P: Nik Constantinou (Texas A&M) … Oscar Chapman (Auburn) … KR/PR: Barion Brown (Kentucky) … Kool-Aid McKinstry (Alabama) … Devon Achane (Texas A&M) … Xavier Legette (South Carolina) … Dee Williams (Tennessee).
Moments of Zen of the Year
Man this had me rolling ? dude just took a brisk walk to the 10 in the middle of the game pic.twitter.com/utcV0Ec0a7
— Seth Lewis (@SethLewisInc) September 11, 2022
— Karen Howell (@karenehowell) October 16, 2022
— MattHasTweets (@MattHasTweets_) October 23, 2022
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Thank you for tuning in to another season of Monday Down South