1 bold prediction for every SEC offense in 2022
If you had told me at this time last year that Stetson Bennett would start the vast majority of Georgia’s games, I would’ve laughed you out of the room. If you had told me that he’d do that en route to ending the 1980 jokes, well, I would’ve kindly asked you to get your takes off my lawn.
Of course, that prediction wasn’t just bold; it was right. Bennett went from the third-string QB in spring to the guy who closed out a Disney movie script in a College Football Playoff National Championship.
I’ll be honest with you. If I nail a prediction of that magnitude in this column, hit me back and I’ll see if I can DM you the next Powerball numbers.
But bold predictions do have a purpose. They allow me to explain why I’m perhaps buying an individual player or an individual unit. They have context given the recent history of the team or league. Most importantly, they allow me to call my shot.
So here’s 1 bold prediction for each SEC offense in 2022:
Alabama — Jahmyr Gibbs will hit 2,000 scrimmage yards
Keep in mind that Brian Robinson was 361 yards short of that feat, and we know he was banged up down the stretch. Robinson’s usage and the lack of proven depth behind him is exactly why Gibbs should get a heavy workload in Bill O’Brien’s offense. He’s a true 3-down back who already catches passes out of the backfield at an NFL level. The Georgia Tech transfer has an incredibly high floor, and in the likely event that Alabama is playing for a national title, him averaging 133 scrimmage yards and hitting the 2,000-yard mark seems well within reach.
Arkansas — KJ Jefferson will be Arkansas’ first All-SEC QB since 2011 and finish as a top-10 Heisman vote-getter
I’m a believer. I loved what Jefferson showed in losses last year. Against Ole Miss and Alabama, we saw a young quarterback ascend to that next level. His competitiveness to make a play by any means necessary is somehow not reckless. He needs to take more chances and I do have some concerns about the post-Treylon Burks offense. But I’m also a believer that in Year 2 as a starter running Kendal Briles’ offense and having a better feel for it will allow him to put even more trust in the hands of his receivers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jefferson hit the 35-touchdown mark and become the Hogs’ first All-SEC quarterback since Tyler Wilson in 2011. And yes, I believe that would put him at least in the Heisman Trophy discussion.
Auburn — Robby Ashford will be QB1 (by Halloween)
A few things are worth remembering with the Auburn quarterback room. One is that nobody should be considered a lock-it-in starter. That includes TJ Finley, who struggled in limited action replacing an injured Bo Nix. While Finley was dealing with a bum ankle, I also can’t imagine a world in which he or Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada show that they can lead a top-15 team. I could see Bryan Harsin eventually turning to Ashford once one of those 2 options falters. Ashford flashed promise in the spring game, and if he continues to develop in the fall, I could see a scenario in which a desperate Harsin has no choice but to turn to someone who isn’t so dependent on his receivers to make plays.
Florida — Montrell Johnson will have Gators’ best single-season rushing total in a decade
That’s really not saying a whole lot, to be honest. The Gators’ lone 1,000-yard rusher in the past 9 seasons was Kelvin Taylor in 2015. Johnson could best Taylor’s total (1,035 yards) and approach the underrated Mike Gillislee, who ran for 1,152 yards in 2012. It was Johnson who followed Billy Napier from Louisiana, where he earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors after racking up 838 yards in 2021. Even though there’s a lot of buzz with former Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman, I think his role will be a bit more in special teams and in the passing game while Johnson should provide an ideal 1-2 punch with Anthony Richardson.
Georgia — Stetson Bennett will start every game of 2022 … and lead UGA to its first top-40 passing offense since Aaron Murray
It’s now bold to predict a quarterback who won a national title will return, start every game and lead a top 1/3 passing offense in FBS. That says a lot. But at the same time, I think there are plenty of UGA fans who are chomping at the bit to see Carson Beck and/or Brock Vandagriff. The second Bennett falters, those takes will be out in full force. What’s been lost in the shuffle of Bennett’s season was that unlike in 2020, he actually stayed healthy and executed Todd Monken’s offense. He stretched the field, he ran those keepers that Jake Fromm never seemed willing to do and UGA’s offense was incredibly efficient. Even when that UGA defense takes a step back, I think Bennett is asked to throw more and he does so even better than he did last year.
Kentucky — Tayvion Robinson will finish in the top 4 in the SEC in receiving
The Virginia Tech transfer isn’t getting talked about nationally. In fact, when he has his first big game, I anticipate some SEC fans will say “wait, I thought Robinson went to the NFL?” That’s true. Wan’Dale Robinson did go to the NFL, and go figure that another Power 5 receiver named “Robinson” who plays primarily in the slot will be catching a ton of passes from Will Levis. There’s a lot of talk that true freshman Dane Key will develop into that explosive playmaker, and Alabama transfer Javon Baker is expected to have a key role. But we saw last year that Levis loves throwing to the slot, and he’s not afraid to force-feed targets to a veteran who can get separation. That’s what (Tayvion) Robinson will be.
LSU — Kayshon Boutte won’t finish as the team’s leading receiver
I’m officially worried about Boutte. Pick your poison. He had the brief period where it looked like he was off to Alabama, Brian Kelly said that he “knew his last name” and just in case that wasn’t enough, Boutte needed not 1, but 2 ankle surgeries after his season-ending injury against Kentucky last year. Um, that’s not great. Meanwhile, LSU is absolutely loaded at the pass-catcher options. I love the idea of Jack Bech and Brian Thomas Jr. turning into stars, no matter who starts at quarterback. I fear that Boutte’s season has too many ways in which it gets blown up, and instead of him putting together an All-American pre-draft year, someone else in that room steps up.
MSU — Will Rogers will lead the nation in passing … and still get left off All-SEC
There are 2 parts to that. One is that I’m saying Rogers takes another step in Mike Leach’s offense and plays like the guy who was dominant for most of November. Even without key offensive staples like Makai Polk and left tackle Charles Cross, I see Year 3 Rogers blossoming into someone who has his most efficient season to date. Having said that, there seems to be a bit of an asterisk when it comes to the Leach offense and postseason accolades. So far, Cross is the only MSU offensive player to earn a postseason award, even though the Bulldogs had the No. 4 passing offense in FBS. Rogers had 4,739 passing yards (No. 3 in FBS) and Polk finished with an SEC-high 105 catches with over 1,000 receiving yards, yet neither earned All-SEC honors. I suppose that’s the pushback with an offense that attempts 50 passes a game.
Mizzou — Luther Burden won’t lead the team in receiving
Mizzou fans have every right to freak out about seeing the 5-star true freshman run routes against air. Really. But it’s super rare to see a true freshman walk into the SEC and lead the team in receiving. Outside of 2012 Amari Cooper, those cases are few and far between. Here’s the list of recent SEC pass-catchers who failed to have 500 receiving yards as true freshmen:
- Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
- Justin Jefferson, LSU
- DeVonta Smith, Alabama
- Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
- Terrace Marshall, LSU
- Treylon Burks, Arkansas
- Kyle Pitts, Florida
Even though Burden won’t necessarily be buried on the depth chart in the way that some of those other wideouts were, I still think it’s worth remembering that he’s at least going to share targets with the likes of Tauskie Dove and Mookie Cooper. Burden could flash some of that 5-star ability, but adjusting to getting separation against SEC secondaries usually takes more time than we realize.
Ole Miss — Ulysses Bentley earns the SEC’s “all-purpose” spot at season’s end
I think Bentley turns into what Jerrion Ealy was when he was healthy. That is, an explosive, do-it-all back who emerges into a fan favorite by season’s end. I say that as a Zach Evans believer, too. As we saw with Ealy, Snoop Conner and Henry Parrish, there’s plenty of volume available in Lane Kiffin’s up-tempo offense. Even if Bentley doesn’t establish himself as an All-SEC level kick returner, I think we see him utilized plenty in Kiffin’s offense. With all eyes on Evans, Bentley has plenty of games in which he looks like the best player on the field.
South Carolina — Spencer Rattler moves back into the Round 1 NFL Draft conversation by season’s end
Let’s break down what that would entail. It would essentially mean Rattler has a relatively drama-free season in Columbia. At the very least, he’s got an argument for All-SEC at season’s end. He masters the pro-style concepts that Marcus Satterfield wants to run and the heavier Rattler establishes himself as more of a force in the ground game. South Carolina has at least 1-2 games in which it wins as an underdog and Rattler makes a couple of highlight-reel throws that remind the world why he was getting all the hype at this time last year. Yes, he’s still considered polarizing entering the pre-draft process, but he has the bounce-back year he’s hoping for and South Carolina takes that next step in Year 2 with Shane Beamer.
Tennessee — Cedric Tillman leads Power 5 players in receiving
I don’t really think this is very bold, but if you aren’t aware of Tillman, this might warrant a Google search. Tillman was easily one of the best receivers in America in the latter half of 2021. The dude put up a combined 352 yards against Alabama and Georgia. He developed into Hendon Hooker’s go-to target, which is exactly why he’s got immense potential to go off in 2022. Both Tillman and Hooker got an offseason of working together as first-teamers in Josh Heupel’s offense, which specializes in high-paced, home-run plays. Tillman had 16 catches of 25 yards and he’s the best returning deep threat in the SEC. With all the attention on Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jordan Addison and Kayshon Boutte, it’s Tillman who emerges as the most productive Power 5 wideout in the sport.
Texas A&M — Devon Achane rushes for 1,600 yards
I love, love, love me some Achane. What’s the saying? You can’t teach speed? Achane is so much more than just a world-class track star. While I continue to bang the drum that A&M absolutely doesn’t deserve a preseason top-5 ranking, I do want to bang the drum for Achane to be a monster in 2022. In a post-Isaiah Spiller world with what should be an improved offensive line, I think it’ll surprise some to see Achane get a massive workload in Jimbo Fisher’s offense. It might not quite be 298 scrimmage touches like 2018 Treyveon Williams, but Achane is due for a major uptick in work. With his home-run play ability, Achane can hit 1,600 rushing yards en route to All-America honors a la Tyler Badie in 2021.
Vanderbilt — AJ Swann starts the most games of an SEC true freshman QB
I don’t mean that as a slight to either Mike Wright or Ken Seals. In fact, I think Wright would be my pick to start in 2022. Vandy’s offensive line is likely going to struggle, which is why I think Wright’s mobility could be more of an asset. Either 1 of 2 things could happen, though. We could see Wright struggle to stay healthy or we could see Vandy decide in November to give Swann a legitimate look. Swann was a borderline 4-star guy who can absolutely stretch the field at a high level. The spring game showed the good (he looked most comfortable throwing deep and over the middle) and the bad (he threw a bad interception into triple coverage). Once Swann has had a chance to grow a bit more and adjust to the speed of the game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start all of November and lead SEC true freshmen QBs in starts.