Ranking top 15 SEC players entering 2018 season

The SEC often declares itself as college football’s preeminent league. Given the high level of talent on rosters and championship contenders in 2018, that trend will likely continue.

Sure, the powerful programs are reloading, but Alabama, Auburn and Georgia still boast an impressive collection of top performers. Each one has a proven star at quarterback — and Alabama even has two.

Previous production and 2018 expectations are the main factors of this list. NFL draft potential is also noted, though it’s not a major influence on the ranking.

But heed this warning: Tua Tagovailoa is coming for them all, and D’Andre Swift probably won’t be far behind.

15. Greg Little, left tackle, Ole Miss

Greg Little arrived in Oxford with a top recruiting ranking, and he’s mostly backed up the billing. In his first season, he gradually earned a spot in the starting lineup and ended the campaign with Freshman All-America honors. Last year, Little attained second-team All-SEC. The left tackle started all 12 games and posted a pass-block efficiency of 96.0, according to CFB Film Room. Heading into his junior season, Little is a highly regarded NFL prospect. If his pass protection improves from good to great, he should be a first-round pick in 2019.

14. Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Alabama

Yes, within a month, Jalen Hurts could be an afterthought on Alabama’s depth chart. To some degree, the rising junior already feels he is, given the offseason hype surrounding Tua Tagovailoa. But only one of Alabama’s quarterbacks has two years of starting experience, more than 6,500 yards of total offense and is responsible for more than 61 touchdowns. Put some respect on this man’s name. Hurts enters 2018 with a 26-2 record behind center for the Crimson Tide. Though his limitations are clear, he’s been a legitimate star in Tuscaloosa.

13. Drew Lock, quarterback, Missouri

Drew Lock presents a fascinating discussion. On one hand, his team’s performances opposite top competition are generally awful. But when the defense allows 40 or 50 points, how much can you expect a quarterback to do? After all, when Missouri has offered a shred of resilience, Lock has typically thrived. Last year, he posted an SEC record and Football Bowl Subdivision-best 44 touchdowns, completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 3,964 yards. Given that production, Lock will always be respected as a threat to pull off a major upset — if the defense helps a little.

12. Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, South Carolina

Although he captured part of the college football world’s attention in September 2017 prior to injury, Deebo Samuel isn’t simply a one-month wonder. The elusive wideout led South Carolina in receptions and yards as a sophomore. Then, last season, Samuel showed off his dynamic versatility in a major way. In only three appearances, he snared 15 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, returned two kickoffs to the house and scored on a 25-yard run. Now that he’s recovered from injury, Samuel will resume standing out as the SEC’s premier playmaker.

11. Nick Fitzgerald, quarterback, Mississippi State

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was one of the unsung heroes of college football in Week 3

Trapped in the SEC West, Mississippi State doesn’t garner many headlines because it struggles to match Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Nevertheless, in each of the last two seasons, Nick Fitzgerald has quietly extended the program’s longest-ever bowl streak. Thanks to the dual-threat quarterback, the Bulldogs have appeared in a postseason game for eight straight seasons. During his time as a starter, Fitzgerald has amassed 6,564 yards of total offense and accounted for 66 touchdowns. He’s a top-tier quarterback in a difficult situation.

10. Raekwon Davis, defensive end, Alabama

Alabama’s pipeline of NFL-caliber lineman is continuing with Raekwon Davis. One look at the D-end, and you understand, too. The 6-foot-7, 306-pounder entered the starting lineup in 2017 and excelled. En route to first-team All-SEC recognition, he collected 69 tackles with 10 for loss and 8.5 sacks. Davis even grabbed a game-changing interception against Georgia in the national championship. Since the Tide revamped their defensive personnel, they’ll be looking for Davis to provide a consistent impact up front. History suggests he will.

9. Mack Wilson, linebacker, Alabama

The term “hard-hitter” can be overused. Sometimes, a defender might actually be more of a good tackler than a punishing one. Mack Wilson is, uh, terrifying. As a freshman on special teams, he smashed Speedy Noil so violently that the Texas A&M kick returner lost a tooth. Yeah, pretty scary. Last season, Wilson served in a rotational role yet gathered 40 tackles and four interceptions — including a game-sealing pick-six opposite Clemson in the College Football Playoff. He’s a starter in 2018, and we preemptively feel badly for opposing ball-carriers.

8. Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn

Auburn’s defensive duo of tackle Derrick Brown and corner Jamel Dean deserve an honorable mention nod, but the roster’s star is Jarrett Stidham. Following his transfer from Baylor, the prized recruit immediately returned the Tigers to national contention. Stidham notched a 66.5 completion percentage with 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Auburn knocked off a pair of No. 1 teams — Georgia and Alabama — to finish 10-4. Stidham’s primary goal is a national title, but he could rise draft boards as the top quarterback of the 2019 class.

7. Jake Fromm, quarterback, Georgia

His numbers weren’t as flashy as Lock’s, and his experience doesn’t measure up to Hurts. However, Jake Fromm is already the SEC’s most polished passer — despite Georgia’s wise effort to simplify his workload in 2017. After taking over for an injured Jacob Eason, Fromm guided the Bulldogs to an SEC title and national title appearance. He tallied 9.0 yards per attempt, which tied for the sixth-highest clip in the country. Overall, Fromm threw for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns to seven interceptions. That he’s not draft-eligible until after 2019 is a nightmare for defenses.

6. A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Ole Miss

Slot receivers are usually small and elusive. A.J. Brown, conversely, is big and powerful. That hasn’t stopped the 6-foot-1, 230-pound target from producing at an elite level. As a sophomore, he snared 75 passes for 1,252 yards — the 10th-most in the nation — and 11 touchdowns. Brown logged six showings of 100-plus yards and had four multi-score games. Ole Miss has a rising star in D.K. Metcalf, and it’s possible the sophomore overtakes Brown as the Rebels’ most talented wideout. But entering the season, Brown is a proven, dominant force.

5. Greedy Williams, cornerback, LSU

Taking a redshirt is sometimes viewed as a negative, but Greedy Williams is a prime example of why it can be terrific for a player’s development. During his debut season, the young star snatched six interceptions and broke up 11 passes. Among returning corners, Williams’ 39.1 percent catch rate allowed is the 10th-lowest (best) mark, according to Pro Football Focus. Since he’s a third-year sophomore, LSU is at risk of losing Williams to the NFL following the 2018 campaign. In the meantime, he’ll be a miserable sight for SEC quarterbacks.

4. Jeffery Simmons, defensive tackle, Mississippi State

Jeffery Simmons is the rare interior player who’s also a defense’s cornerstone. That’s because he’s an elite run-defender and regularly impactful pass-rusher, which is a combination not often seen in college football. Simmons collected 60 tackles with 12 stops for loss and five sacks, and Pro Football Focus assigned 41 total pressures to the lineman. He attained first-team All-SEC recognition along with teammate Montez Sweat. Simmons is a difference-maker on every snap, and that versatility will make him a valued pro prospect.

3. Deandre Baker, cornerback, Georgia

Fromm is well-known, and running back D’Andre Swift has received Heisman Trophy attention at various points of the offseason. Neither player is Georgia’s marquee man. That honor goes to Deandre Baker, an absolute thorn for receivers last year. The cornerback allowed only nine completions on 34 targets, per CFB Film Room, also grabbing three interceptions. A likely 2019 first-round pick, Baker will be tasked with shutting down one side of a rebuilt defense. And we’re not the least bit concerned about him accomplishing it.

2. Jonah Williams, left tackle, Alabama

The battle between Hurts and Tagovailoa has created a little bit of uncertainty for the Tide, but there’s no doubt about the left tackle. A two-year starter, Jonah Williams returns to the offensive line after securing a third-team AP All-America spot last season. Not only does he possess the physical strengths NFL scouts covet, Williams has terrific awareness. That combination has placed the junior atop several draft boards at his position. And depending on which franchise is picking No. 1 overall, Williams might even be in that conversation.

1. Devin White, linebacker, LSU

He’s not perfect. Devin White might miss a tackle or two. But my word, LSU can hardly complain about a couple of mistakes when he provides such an enormous impact all over the field. White posted a team-high 133 tackles last season, registering 14 takedowns for loss with 4.5 sacks. Additionally, per CFB Film Room, he notched 15 hurries and eight hits on the quarterback. White is a run-stuffing, quarterback-scaring machine at his inside spot. Regardless of LSU’s performance in 2018, he should be a popular All-American selection.