SEC East's Most Indispensable Players for 2014 College Football Season
For a team to reach the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, it has to have a little bit of luck and keep its stars healthy. One injury, even for a few games, could derail an entire season.
The injury bug bit Georgia and Florida hard last season, including Bulldog running back Todd Gurley, who missed three games in the middle of the season with an ankle injury that lingered for the final month of the season once he came back.
Is he Georgia's most indispensable player? Who are the other indispensable players in the SEC East? Our picks are in this slideshow.
Florida Gators: QB Jeff Driskel
Before you sprint to the comment section and complain about Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, think about this for a second.
Here's a quarterback who's finally in an offensive scheme that suits his dual-threat abilities, back at 100 percent from an ankle injury and distanced himself from last year's third-stringer Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman early enrollee Will Grier this spring.
"He’s a guy who understands how to play the game and made plays in the run game and pass game," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said in quotes released after Florida's spring game. "You can see he’s a highly functioning SEC quarterback.”
We already saw what Mornhinweg was, and in a make-or-break year for head coach Will Muschamp, he doesn't want a true freshman early enrollee to hold his coaching career in his hands—especially with a five-game stretch like Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Missouri and Georgia in the middle of the season.
Driskel is the guy who will make this Florida team tick in 2014. If he succeeds, Florida will be competitive. If he fails, Muschamp will be looking for work.
Georgia Bulldogs: RB Todd Gurley
Georgia running back Todd Gurley missed three games with an ankle injury last season and wasn't 100 percent down the stretch. Despite the injury, he still managed to run for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He's the guy who makes this offense tick. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason looked like he can handle the transition to the full-time starting quarterback position, and he'll have plenty of help at wide receiver. But head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo predicate their offense through the running back.
That's how they control tempo, that's how they wear down defenses and that's how they set up their wide receivers to get open off play action.
Sure, Keith Marshall is a solid backup and incoming freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are talented. But none of them are Todd Gurley. Without Gurley, it'd put more pressure on Mason and change the entire offense. Georgia could still win games in that case, but it wouldn't be consistent.
Kentucky Wildcats: DE Alvin "Bud" Dupree
Kentucky sputtered to a 2-10 season last year, head coach Mark Stoops' first in Lexington. But it has reason for hope on defense, and Alvin "Bud" Dupree is a big reason for that hope.
Dupree passed on the NFL to come back to Kentucky for his senior season and will be the leader of a defense that's underrated up front. He finished last season second on the team with 61 tackles and notched a team-high seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss.
The 6'4", 267-pounder is the leader of a defensive line that also includes 6'6", 264-pound defensive end Za'Darius Smith. The duo provides Stoops with bookends at defensive end that can make life miserable for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. You can't chip them both, and if offenses leave two tight ends in, it limits what they're able to do offensively.
Smith needs Dupree, and Stoops needs them both on the field. If they are, then Kentucky's front four will be something to be reckoned with.
Missouri Tigers: QB Maty Mauk
This spot had been reserved for Dorial Green-Beckham, but the 6'6", 225-pound wide receiver was dismissed from the Missouri program last week, which has changed the dynamic of the entire Missouri offense.
As a result, all eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk to pick up the slack.
The 6'0", 200-pounder from Kenton, Ohio filled in admirably for James Franklin when Franklin was out last year. With his three leading receivers and leading rusher from last year gone, it will be up to Mauk to bring stability to a Tiger offense that still has talent, albeit unproven talent.
He's going to have to stay healthy and improve upon his efficiency (51.1 percent last season) if Missouri is going to contend for the SEC East title again. Behind Mauk, junior Corbin Berkstresser and several freshmen are vying for the backup job.
South Carolina Gamecocks: RB Mike Davis
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier came to Columbia with a reputation for slinging it around the field and lighting up scoreboards. But ever since Marcus Lattimore came to campus in 2010, the Head Ball Coach has evolved into an old-school, run-first approach.
Mike Davis picked up where Lattimore left off last season, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as the feature running back.
South Carolina is a lot like Georgia this season in the sense that they have a veteran backup quarterback taking over an offense that's predicated on the run. Take out the one consistent piece of that puzzle—the running back—and the entire offense would take a step back.
Spurrier needs a big season from Davis, because without him, all of the pressure would fall on senior quarterback Dylan Thompson's shoulders. He can handle it, but a perfect scenario for Spurrier would be to not go down that road.
Tennessee Volunteers: LB A.J. Johnson
Tennessee's offense shined during Saturday's spring game, but its biggest issue this spring is fixing a defense that has finished ninth or worse in the SEC in yards per play in each of the last four seasons.
With a whole new defensive line on Rocky Top, head coach Butch Jones will rely on the leader of that front seven. That leader is senior linebacker A.J. Johnson.
Johnson finished fifth in the SEC with 109 tackles last season and led the conference in 2012 with 138. It's his job to make sure the defense is in the right play and adjust accordingly on the field. With so many new faces up front, Johnson's presence in the lineup is huge to the Vols not only because of his ability as a football player, but as a coach on the field.
Flashy spring stats are nice, but if the Vols can't stop anybody, they're not going to be consistent. Johnson is the biggest piece of that puzzle.
Vanderbilt Commodores: RB Jerron Seymour
Sure, Brian Kimbrow is a solid running back, and freshman Ralph Webb had himself quite a day in Vanderbilt's spring game on Saturday, rushing for 114 yards according to Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean.
But this team is Jerron Seymour's, even with a new offense led by coordinator Karl Dorrell and first-year head coach Derek Mason.
The 5'7", 200-pounder led the Commodores with 716 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground last season. Is he that bruiser that a more pro-style offense typically thrives with? Not necessarily, but don't be fooled by his diminutive size. Seymour packs a mean punch and isn't just a changeup back.
There's depth at running back, but Seymour is the star. Without him, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Vandy's running game is consistent. If it's not, then the offense lacks its identity.