Back Who’s the Best Duo in the SEC?

Back To SEC

Who’s the Best Duo in the SEC?

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

There are a number of dynamic duos returning to the SEC this year, but which one is the best of the best?

Everyone loves a good duo -- Michael and Scottie, Batman and Robin, Mick and Keith, apparently some people like peanut butter and jelly even though the former is gross. Football is no different. A dominant tandem, at any position, is always a nightmare for opposing coaches and the partnership, at its best, usually heighten one another’s devastation. So, with programs across the country participating in spring practice or preparing to do so, what will be the top returning twosome in the SEC, in 2018?

As a starting point, I combed through my post-2018 ranking of the Top 100 players in the league and listed any returning selections from the same position group on the same team. However, as we are partly projecting, too, I included some close misses from the ranking that could be poised for breakout seasons in 2019.

Here are the thirteen eligible duos we’ll be picking from:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Tua Tagovailoa and RB Najee Harris
- Alabama receivers Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle
- Alabama defensive backs Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter
- Auburn defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Nick Coe
- Florida cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- Georgia safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte
- Georgia offensive linemen Andrew Thomas and Solomon Kindley
- LSU defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton
- Mississippi State linebackers Erroll Thompson and Leo Lewis
- South Carolina defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw and DJ Wonnum
- Texas A&M receivers Quartney Davis and KENDRICK ROGERS!
- Vanderbilt pass catchers Kalijah Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney

Now, rather than just do a basic evaluation of each duo and then rank them in the most boring way ever, I’ve devised a rubric of four prerequisites that must be met to filter out the best of the best from the best of the rest.

1. No Terrific Trios or Fearsome Foursomes

Sometimes certain position groups are just too good and/or deep to be considered a duo. It feels wrong to punish teams for that, but it’s a necessary evil in preserving the integrity of our pursuit to find the best returning duo in the Southeastern Conference. For example, Missouri’s pass catchers were eliminated when we did this a year ago because you couldn’t just talk about Albert Okwuegbunam and Emanuel Hall without bringing up Johnathan Johnson’s contributions from the slot. However, even though Gerri Green was a solid contributor for Mississippi State, let’s be honest, that was the Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat show -- the duo that ultimately came out on top of the exercise, and rightfully so based on what happened the following season.

So, in that spirit of intellectual honesty, our first cut has to be the Alabama receivers. Jerry Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to college football’s best receiver, and yet, at least according to Pro Football Focus, he wasn’t even the best pass catcher on his own team. That distinction went to freshman Jaylen Waddle who posted the fourth highest WR grade in the country. Oh yeah, and then there’s Henry Ruggs, maybe the only player in the country that’s faster than Waddle, and Devonta Smith, Tua Tagovailoa’s top target during the College Football Playoff. All four of them rank in the top eight among returning SEC pass catchers in yards per reception and touchdowns. This group less resembles a duo than it does the four horsemen of the apocalypse, except their arrival doesn’t herald the end of the world, simply the end of opposing defensive backs.

We could probably take out Alabama’s defensive backs here, too, since, aside from the listed duo of Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter, Patrick Surtain is clearly awesome and only going to get better, plus Trevon Diggs at full strength is scary, but whatever, we’ll let them stick around.

Alas, I can not extend that same courtesy to Auburn’s defensive line. Derrick Brown probably made a good decision in returning for his senior year. He may well could’ve been a first round pick this year, but the class is historically loaded with interior defenders. He will, no question, be a day one selection in 2020, and in all likelihood be the best defensive linemen in the country. As stubborn a run stopper as you’ll find, he is perfectly complemented by Nick Coe’s pass rushing prowess. Unfortunately for them, and offensive linemen all over the southeastern United States, Marlon Davidson, a sort of versatile hybrid between the two, is back as well.

Florida’s secondary also has to go. CJ Henderson was the fourth highest ranked cornerback in the SEC last year, according to those post-2018 rankings, after not surrendering a single touchdown catch on the season and holding quarterbacks to 44.0 passer rating on throws into his coverage. With Deandre Baker and Greedy Williams off to the NFL, that puts him neck and neck with Kristian Fulton for the title of best cornerback in the conference going into 2019. Although, Marco Wilson might have something to say about that. Henderson was thrust into the CB1 role after Wilson was sidelined for almost the entirety of the campaign due to injury. If he returns to his freshman form, Florida might have the best pair of cornerbacks in the country. That said, with not one, not two, but three all-conference caliber safeties returning, this can hardly be called a duo.

Continuing the trend of eliminating one rival’s duo to the next, we move from the Iron Bowl to the Cocktail Party, or whatever we’re supposed to call it now. Barring a catastrophe, Georgia is going to have the unquestioned best offensive line in the nation in 2019, led by Andrew Thomas, who will almost assuredly be the best individual offensive linemen in the game. In 2018, they ranked 7th in the country in line yards and 12th in percentage of 5+ yard carries, despite battling a slew of injuries, including to Thomas. Only one starter, center Lamont Gaillard, is gone, and though he was a bastion of consistency and will be missed, they’ve recruited so well that there are still somehow ongoing position battles for a couple of the interior spots. According to the post-2018 SEC Top 100, Solomon Kindley was the league’s third best guard and best returning guard. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson is a sure thing to make the preseason ranking, which will be released in the summer. Ben Cleveland, at right guard, would have made it last year if not for all the injuries, and will be among the best in the nation of he looks the way he did during the early going of the 2018 season. And that still leaves, like, another full starting O-line’s worth of former blue chippers on the bench. However it shakes out, this is way more than a duo.

Let’s go ahead and take out Mississippi State’s linebackers while we’re at it. Albeit on a smaller scale than the above, you can’t really just say Erroll Thompson and Leo Lewis or Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay. Plus, as Thompson was the only one ranked in the postseason Top 100, they weren’t going to win anyway.

Remaining 8 Duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Tua Tagovailoa and RB Najee Harris
- Alabama defensive backs Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- Georgia safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte
- LSU defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton
- South Carolina defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw and DJ Wonnum
- Texas A&M receivers Quartney Davis and KENDRICK ROGERS!
- Vanderbilt pass catchers Kalijah Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney

2. No member of the duo can be engaged in a (fairly) serious position battle.

If it wasn’t the offensive line, then the strength of Georgia’s entire team last year was the secondary. It was certainly the strength of the defense. Despite a lackluster pass rush that finished 76th in sack rate, Georgia ranked first in the country in pass defense S&P+. Obviously, having the best cornerback in the country helps with that sort of thing, but the play of J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte at safety were integral in allowing the Bulldogs to play as bend-don’t-break as they did.

Reed continued to prove himself as one of the nation’s best safeties, and was right up there with Deionte Thompson and Grant Delpit in the SEC last season. Nevertheless, his partner’s job may not be as secure as one would think.

Reports out of Athens have it that sophomore Otis Reese could be in contention to take some of LeCounte’s snaps. With all due respect, that seems like a mistake. The main knock on LeCounte is his tackling, despite being the team’s leading tackler. And even aside from that, his range and instincts in the defensive backfield allow him to make those “wow” plays that most guys just can’t. LeCounte’s purported deficiencies are coachable -- his athletic upside is not. There’s a role for Otis Reese in that defense, but replacing LeCounte with him just isn’t it.

Still, there’s too much smoke there to ignore it. There are other guys on this list that are ostensibly in position battles, too, but, frankly, not beyond the typical coach speak lie of “everybody has a chance to earn the job.”

Remaining 7 Duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Tua Tagovailoa and RB Najee Harris
- Alabama defensive backs Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- LSU defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton
- South Carolina defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw and DJ Wonnum
- Texas A&M receivers Quartney Davis and KENDRICK ROGERS!
- Vanderbilt pass catchers Kalijah Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney

3. Obviously, the best duo in the SEC must be the best on its own team.

As Alabama is the only team with two remaining eligible duos, this decision comes down to Tua Tagovailoa and Najee Harris versus Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter. As you recall, we probably could’ve eliminated the latter with Rule #1. We didn’t, and we could spend some time here debating the merits of one against the other, but that feels almost patronizing. I know the backfield duo is moving on. You know the backfield duo is moving on. The backfield duo is moving on. Next.

Remaining 6 Duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Tua Tagovailoa and RB Najee Harris
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- LSU defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton
- South Carolina defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw and DJ Wonnum
- Texas A&M receivers Quartney Davis and KENDRICK ROGERS!
- Vanderbilt pass catchers Kalijah Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney

4. The duo actually has to have an argument as the best.

This rule used to be about contending for titles, but I’m scrapping that. Maybe I need to reevaluate my own arbitrary rules, or the order in which they appear, but too often a less-than-deserving pair of players slips to the final round. No more.

The easiest way to do this is to take out any remaining pair that didn’t have both players ranked in the post-2018 Top 100, because although we are projecting, it’s generally safer to bet on something that has happened to continue happening than to assume one or both guys are going to make a substantial leap.

Javon Kinlaw showed flashes of dominance, but wasn’t super consistent last year, while D.J. Wonnum, who was much the same in 2017, missed over half the year due to injury. If those two stay healthy and are a little steadier from one week to the next, South Carolina will have one of the more formidable defensive fronts in the SEC, but I need to see it first.

Quartney Davis, KENDRICK ROGERS!, Cameron Buckley, and Jhamon Ausbon are all back for Texas A&M, giving the Aggies a receiving corps that could rival that of Alabama’s. However, I’m not even sure I picked the right two to represent them. I guess they could’ve been eliminated by Rule #1, too, but we can just do it here. It’s fine. Davis led the group in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, while KENDRICK ROGERS! was second in touchdowns. Then again, all but one of KENDRICK ROGERS! touchdowns came in two games -- Clemson and LSU. Now, those were two high profile games, to be fair, but two games nonetheless, and he was relatively quiet otherwise, perhaps with the exception of the bowl game. Buckley actually led the team in yards per reception, and Ausbon was right behind Davis in receptions per game, but missed some time. This isn’t a duo, and even if it was it wouldn’t win. It is going to be a force in 2019, though. Oh, and if you’re wondering why I keep referring to KENDRICK ROGERS! as KENDRICK ROGERS!, it stems from my ranking of all 14 overtime possessions in the Texas A&M-LSU game. I will never type, speak, or think of his name another way.

Kalijah Lipscomb, according to the post-2018 Top 100, projects as one of the SEC’s top three receivers in 2019. He’s second among the league’s returnees in yards and third in touchdowns, but tight end Jared Pinkney just doesn’t quite give the ‘Dore duo enough juice to compete with the remaining three twosomes. With departures from Jace Sternberger, Irv Smith, CJ Conrad, and Isaac Nauta, Pinkney is in line to be the second best tight end in the conference next season, but I can’t justify putting these guys alongside the names to come. If it’s any consolation, they will, along with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, make Vandy one of the more intriguing offenses in the league, no matter who’s behind center.

Remaining 3 Duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Tua Tagovailoa and RB Najee Harris
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- LSU defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton

The Case for Tagovailoa and Harris

Sorry Trevor Lawrence, but until proven otherwise over the course of a full season, Tua Tagovailoa is the best returning quarterback in the country, fresh off of one of the most impressive individual campaigns ever, regardless of how it ended. Since the turn of the century, 20 other quarterback had as many passing yards and touchdowns as Tagovailoa, but none did it in as few attempts, and only two with as many or fewer interceptions. He posted the highest passer rating of all time. And even though he had a relatively hard time against Georgia and Clemson down the stretch, those were two of the five best pass defenses in the sport, at worst.

Meanwhile, as Damien Harris climbed into the top ten of Alabama’s school rushing leaders for a career, and Josh Jacobs broke out as one of the nation’s premier multidimensional threats, Najee Harris was actually the most efficient ball carrier on the team, averaging almost a full yard per carry more than the other two. Both Damien Harris and Jacobs are off to the NFL, meaning, despite a plethora of young talent waiting in the wings, an increased workload for the 6’2”, 230 pound freak of nature is all but assured.

The Case for Fromm and Swift

There were a couple of weeks last season where I thought that, given the strides Elijah Holyfield made in the offseason, that he had supplanted Swift as the ‘Dawgs’ best running back. “Sure, Swift was playing hurt, but how much was that really holding him back?” I asked myself, stupidly. A lot. A lot is the answer. It was holding him back a lot.

Over the first half of the season, which included games against Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and two of the SEC’s three worst rushing defenses -- South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- he averaged 5.1 yards per carry with a 5.63% touchdown rate. Over the next seven games, among which were two top 20 S&P+ run defenses -- Alabama and Auburn -- not to mention Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry with 6.52% touchdown rate. Somehow, the visual disparity was even more striking than the statistical one. He committed a handful of truly unspeakable atrocities against would-be tacklers in that three game stretch of Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn. Factor in his ability as a pass catcher, and, if he stays healthy, Swift will be the best running back in the SEC next year.

The guy handing him the ball is the second best quarterback in the conference, and that distinction doesn’t even begin to do him justice. He’s arguably a top three quarterback in the entire nation, just behind Tagovailoa and Lawrence. Fresh off of a second consecutive top ten finish in passer rating. Only twelve other quarterbacks this century have thrown at least 24 passing touchdowns and seven or fewer picks in back-to-back seasons, as Fromm now has. That shortlist includes the likes of Heisman winners Tim Tebow, Marcus Mariota, and Baker Mayfield. Assuming he does it again, which feels like betting on the sun to rise, he will join Geno Smith as the only other one to do it thrice in a row.

The Case for Delpit and Fulton

Going into the season, last year, one of the biggest questions surrounding LSU was who would emerge as the second cornerback alongside Greedy Williams. After sitting out the 2017 season, Kristian Fulton successfully appealed a staggering two-year NCAA suspension for tampering with a drug test sample. Those sanctions behind him, his on-field performance quickly assuaged any concerns about the Tigers’ CB2, and he ultimately comprised one half of arguably the best cornerback duo in the nation. He saw a lot of action as teams, by and large, tried to stay away from Williams, but still managed to allow a filthy 39.5% catch rate on targets into his coverage.

Williams is gone, but Fulton is back, as is the best returning safety in college football, Nagurski Award finalist Grant Delpit. A rare combination of size and raw athleticism, Delpit is a force in every facet of defense. He led the SEC in interceptions and was second in passes defensed, had half a tackle for loss less than Dylan Moses, more sacks than Derrick Brown, and more QB hurries than Rashard Lawrence. In the modern era of college football, versatile chess pieces like Delpit have never been at a greater premium, and Dave Aranda deploys this one beautifully.

Winner

I don’t know, folks. It’s really close. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what each of these three duos average ranking was in the post-2018 Top 100. Delpit and Fulton came in at #17.5, followed by Fromm and Swift at #20.5, and then Tagovailoa and Harris at #24.5. Then I removed all the graduates and early entrants to the NFL Draft, to get a rough projection as to what the preseason ranking will look like. The actual preseason projected rankings will probably be a little different, but it went Delpit and Fulton at #6.5, Fromm and Swift at #7, then Tagovailoa and Harris at #8.

Those averages will hardly be the deciding factor, but I did find it interesting as my gut reaction would have been the inverse.

Now, when I actually do those rankings, I put players into tiers before I do the actual rankings. The readers do not have the benefit of seeing the tiers, but they generally resemble a bell curve, with more players per tier as you get closer to the mean. Tua was the only top tier player of the three duos, while Fromm and Delpit were both second tier, Fulton and Swift in the third tier, and Harris in the fourth. Basically, any sort of ranking based decision is useless.

This is partially a projection so I’m going to go ahead and take Delpit and Fulton out since we haven’t yet seen Fulton as a CB1. Coming into the year, I expected Auburn’s Jamel Dean to be the third best cornerback in the league, behind Deandre Baker and Greedy Williams. However, after Carlton Davis left, he had a relatively quiet campaign in his new role. A similar trajectory for Fulton is not out of the question. I don’t anticipate that being the case, but it’s possible.

That leaves the starting quarterback and running back from each of what I believe will be the two best teams in the country next season.

Tua is the best quarterback in the SEC, and will probably be the best in the country. Fromm is the second best quarterback in the SEC, and potentially top three in the country. The running back group around the nation is a little deeper, and Swift is higher right now, but Najee has all the potential in the world. He could do what Derrick Henry did in his Heisman year if given the opportunity.

We’re splitting the thinnest of hairs here, but I think, due to both positional value, and the fact that Tagovailoa is the best individual player from either pair, I’ll lean Alabama.

The best duos aren’t just a pair of great players. They’re pairs of great players that make each other better. They’re gifted talents that complement one another.

All three of the aforementioned duos fit that criteria, and that’s part of why each of their respective teams will continue to be among college football’s best.

But, for now, Alabama’s backfield duo of Tua Tagovailoa and Najee Harris are the best of the best in the SEC.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP