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Post Five top players from the SEC’s bottom four teams

Thursday April 19, 2007

While I’m in Top 5 mode, I was going through some of last year’s games on the Tivo. We all know that the SEC’s best teams are flush with talent. What makes it especially tough is that even the bottom teams have exceptional playmakers. Here are five players I consider to be some of the best in the conference from the teams we usually consider the bottom four of the league. They struggle for exposure as better teams get the good TV slots, yet they still turn enough heads for conference and even national recognition. Behind Burton and Woodson, Kentucky shed their usual bottom four status for third place in the SEC East last year. With those two back, can they stay out of the lower half of the division again and earn a second-straight bowl bid?

1. Earl Bennett, receiver, Vanderbilt. Vandy producing a talented player is nothing new. Jay Cutler notwithstanding, most of their star talent has been on defense – particularly at the linebacker and secondary positions. There has been the occasional offensive standout like Todd Yoder. But rarely have the Commodores had a weapon on offense like Bennett. He has had at least 75 receptions in each of his first two seasons – the first SEC player to ever do so in back-to-back seasons. His 82 receptions last year were an SEC-best, and I remind you that he increased his reception total without Cutler under center. He’ll surely be the focus of opposing defenses this year, and we’ll see if he can take advantage of a nationwide drain at the receiver position in order to pick up some national honors.

2. Andre Woodson, quarterback, Kentucky. A year ago, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks was in trouble. The program had slid from some modest success, and most assumed that Brooks was on his way out. The Wildcats’ turnaround in 2006 was one of the biggest stories of the year in SEC football, and it was topped off with wins over Georgia and Clemson. One of the biggest reasons for the turnaround was the maturation and improvement of quarterback Andre Woodson. Woodson’s own turnaround was just as dramatic. Kentucky passed for just 169 yards per game in 2005 and threw an incredibly low six touchdown passes. The situation was so grim that Woodson was in a battle with the unknown Curtis Pulley for the starting job. Woodson quickly ended the competition in 2006 by throwing nine touchdowns in the first three games of the season. He finished the year as the SEC’s leader in total offense. A lot of credit for his improvement belongs to position coach Randy Sanders, exiled from Tennessee. Woodson’s transformation was so complete that he now merits national attention.

3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, tailback, Ole Miss. Ole Miss is becoming Transfer U. Quarterbacks Schaeffer and Snead got the headlines, but Indiana transfer Green-Ellis in 2006 became just the third Ole Miss tailback to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. With Schaeffer settling in as a dual-threat quarterback, Green-Ellis might have a chance for an even bigger 2007 behind Michael Oher and a decent line.

4. Titus Brown, DE, Miss. St. Brown has been a solid performer on a defense that had been led on the front seven by guys like Deljuan Robinson, Michael Heard, and Quinton Culberson. Brown led the Bulldogs in sacks with 7.5 and was fifth in the SEC. He was third in the league in tackles for loss. It’s Brown’s defense now, and the second-team all-SEC performer will anchor the line as a senior. Without the presence of Robinson and Heard up front, it remains to be seen if Brown can remain as effective. He’ll be the focus of protection schemes. Derek Pegues might be the most exciting player on the MSU defense, but Brown is the difference-maker.

5. Keenan Burton, WR, Kentucky. Woodson’s improvement didn’t happen in a vacuum, and the reliable Burton was a big piece of the puzzle. His 77 receptions, 1,036 receiving yards, 1,845 all-purpose yards, and 13 touchdowns led the Wildcats in 2006. He ranked second in the SEC just behind Bennett in receptions per game and behind McFadden in all-purpose yardage. His 13 touchdowns last year were second-best in the SEC also behind McFadden. Burton, along with top tailback Rafael Little, decided to return for a senior season. Those two plus Woodson give Kentucky a lot of returning experience and talent at three key skill positions and should give Wildcat fans plenty of reasons for optimism on offense and a chance to do as well or better in 2007.

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