The All-Opponent Team: The Best Player at Each Position on Tennessee’s Schedule
Survival might be an overused term. Traditionally, we’ve used “survival” to describe someone overcoming or outlasting extreme circumstances — being lost at sea, cheating death, etc. Making it through a seven-month period without watching your beloved football team probably shouldn’t count as survival, nor should waiting four years for Frank Ocean’s newest album. However, the Twitter Rulebook tells me making it through these events unscathed counts as survival of the highest order. We’ll roll with it.
The great news about your winter, spring, and summer survival is your reward: FBS college football starting on Friday, August 26th, at 10 PM Eastern. The bad news is that the survival still has several days to go for Tennessee, albeit down to a single-digit day countdown. To tide fans over and to provide more opponent video education similar to what I did for Appalachian State last week, I thought it might help to know the names of Tennessee’s likely enemies this season. You’ll know a lot of them and their direct and profound effects on a game’s outcome — the Chubbs, Garretts, Ridleys, and Tabors of the world — but you might not know about some of the others.
To make this as fun as possible, I’ve constructed First-Team All-Offense and All-Defense for this exercise. Some of these positions were very easy to develop and pick; some were not. The number of players from each of Tennessee’s opponents placed on this list is as follows:
Appalachian State: 2
Virginia Tech: 1
Texas A&M: 3
South Carolina: 0
Tennessee Tech: 0
Do note that the number of players on this list is not in direct correlation with how tough the team is, but it’s probably a decent indicator. (Though I have many issues with Georgia being of theoretically equal difficulty as Appalachian State.) Also, no offensive line GIFs — they’re kind of unnecessary for most fans. And now, on with the show.
QB: Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
Let it be known that Tennessee’s schedule is so devoid of good quarterbacks that the toughest QB they’ll face is one I spent multiple paragraphs deconstructing in a video review just a week ago. Based on ESPN’s very helpful advanced stats library for QBs, Lamb ranked 35th of 128 qualified QBs last year in Expected Points Added (+50.4; as a comparison, Joshua Dobbs ranks 31st at +52.3). He was 31st in Total QBR (ESPN’s QB Rating adjusted for schedule difficulty) and is pretty easily the best QB on Tennessee’s schedule by available statistics. But, again: the competition level is a severe hindrance, he isn’t a great passer (45th in Passing EPA; Dobbs 44th), and to borrow a basketball stat term, the anticipated game flow will force him to have a much higher Usage Rate than he’s used to (76th of 128 in Action Plays, or plays in which he had a direct hand in the outcome. This is an unfair way of saying I’ll like Lamb a lot more when he’s playing Old Dominion.
HB: Nick Chubb, Georgia
You remember this guy, right? He’s still great and still the second (or third) best halfback in the conference. Georgia will be relying on him a lot this year, as they still hasn’t decided between starting a true freshman or Greyson Freaking Lambert at quarterback. Here is a fun stat for you: Greyson Lambert played five teams with winning records last year. He completed 63 of 118 passes (an average of 12.6 a game; 53.4% completion rate) and never attempted more than 32 passes in a game. Chubb might top 400 carries. Of course, how much he plays really depends on whether he is completely healthy or not and Kirby Smart is yet to say that his star running back is good to go.
WR: Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Calvin Ridley has played college football for exactly one season and may already be the best receiver in America. If nothing else, he’s the most consistent receiver on the most talented team in the country: from the October 3rd beatdown of Georgia to the national championship victory over Clemson with a meaningless 56–6 win over Charleston Southern excluded, Ridley never recorded less than 5 receptions and 51 yards in any game. He’s not much for big plays — despite ranking 15th in total receptions in 2015, he only ranked 55th (34 of 89 receptions or 38.2%) in catches over 10 yards — but he’s targeted so often and is so reliable already that he’s the closest thing to college football’s Antonio Brown.
WR: Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
In contrast to Ridley, 45 of Isaiah Ford’s 75 receptions (60%) went for 10 yards or more. Honestly, I had a ton of fun watching his highlights from last year. It’s ridiculous how often the best player on Virginia Tech’s bad offense could get open and even more ridiculous how often he bailed out their extremely pedestrian quarterback play. I suppose what you really care about are the stats (75 receptions, 1,164 yards, 11 TDs, 15.5 YPC), but watching him is even more of a delight. Cameron Sutton will have his hands full, as this is the toughest deep threat on Tennessee’s schedule (T-9th in receptions of 20+ yards in 2015 with 20). Ridley can be contained between the sticks (depending on Alabama’s quarterback play) and Kirk’s athleticism can be matched by Tennessee’s defense as a whole; figuring out if Todd Kelly can help slow down the deep balls to Ford is another question. In the meantime, here, have another!
WR: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Kirk represents the third critical WR matchup issue for Tennessee in 2016: a quick and extremely shifty player who was that good as a freshman in 2015 and is likely to only get better with more consistent quarterback play this year. Last year’s stats, as a true freshman: 80 receptions, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs. He also performed nearly the same against teams with winning records as those without (76.9 yards per game vs. 78.5). Only time will tell if he can show up big in every game A&M needs him to, though. Kirk registered 90.1 yards per game in wins and 57.6 in losses.
TE: O.J. Howard, Alabama
You know him as the guy who came out of nowhere to win Alabama their fourth national championship in seven seasons in January. (If not, you were asleep, like a lot of sane people who don’t stay up for games that end at 12:30 Eastern on Tuesday mornings.) You also probably asked yourself: “why wasn’t he doing this before?” Well, two things: 1. Nick Saban noticed Clemson had a massive matchup issue with tight ends like Howard; 2. Howard disappeared for long stretches of the 2015 season. Example: he had seven receptions against Tennessee on October 24th then had seven receptions in his next six games combined. Then he exploded for 208 yards in the Clemson game. This happens with him; the issue is figuring out what Howard shows up on Saturday.
T: Cam Robinson, Alabama
G: Parker Collins, Appalachian State
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
G: Greg Pyke, Georgia
T: Avery Gennesy, Texas A&M
These are all exceptional linemen who are likely to get professional football contracts of some sort in the near future. You likely know Cam Robinson as the excellent left tackle at Alabama who will be anchoring a rebuilding defensive line. I GIF’d Parker Collins last week. Jon Toth is a solid, reliable center on an otherwise mediocre Kentucky line. Greg Pyke was a bright spot on a bad Georgia offensive line last season. Avery Gennesy is very reliable for A&M and went to East Mississippi CC, which you might know from the Netflix documentary Last Chance U. That’s all I can muster on offensive line play, which takes forever to GIF and even longer to write about.
DE: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
It is truly too bad for Derek Barnett, who would be the runaway best defensive end in the SEC if it wasn’t for someone as amazing as Garrett, who is the closest thing to a lock for the #1 pick in any of the next three drafts. No one other than Jadaveon Clowney from the last decade of SEC defensive lines has possessed the individual ability to change a game quite like Garrett. He necessitates double teams and seems to possess more drive than Clowney ever did. He averaged slightly more than a sack per game (8.5 in 8 games; 1.06) against teams with FBS winning records in 2015. Assuming that Drew Richmond holds on to the left tackle position, this will be an incredibly difficult test for him.
DT: Caleb Brantley, Florida
I could have used several different versions of the GIF above to tell the same story. Brantley’s ability to shed his blocker is almost unmatched in the SEC, and he’s hell to deal with if you have a younger or smaller offensive line. The stats aren’t all the way there (6.5 TFL, 3 sacks in 2015), but he played a large role in Florida’s run defense being the third-best (Alabama and Missouri) in the SEC last year as you’ll see above.
DT: Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama
Tomlinson isn’t very quick or light on his feet, but his vision is remarkable. In this Wisconsin game alone, he batted down two Joel Stave passes in quick succession; Stave barely looked at Tomlinson for the rest of the game in an effort to keep him from altering his passes any further. He was also solid and effective as a run-stopper. Tennessee doesn’t currently have any elite defensive tackles on the schedule, but I can see Tomlinson developing into one by the end of the season, as he’s got the physical tools necessary to be a constant threat.
DE: Charles Harris, Missouri
Remember how miserable it was to watch Missouri play football last year before the November scandals and Gary Pinkel’s retirement broke out? I feel pretty safe in assuming that a lot of Tigers fans kept watching solely for Charles Harris, who was an incredible player on a wasted defense last season. He’s got a great shot at being the next first-round pick from Pinkel’s defenses, though Barry Odom will take over his talents this year. Also, he did that to Will Grier. Isn’t that fun to watch? Let’s watch that a few more times together. (Harris in 2015: 18.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and a lot of scared quarterbacks.)
OLB: Tim Williams, Alabama
Continuing the tradition of terrifying Alabama linebackers who get to the backfield at will is Tim Williams. Here’s a stat from Pro Football Focus that blew me away: Williams had 148 pass rush opportunities in 2015. He pressured the quarterback on 52 of those, or one pressure every 2.8 attempts. If you’re curious, Joey Bosa just went in the top five of this year’s NFL Draft with a pressure rate of one every 4.9 attempts. Tim Williams is utterly ridiculous, though this season will be a good test for him being able to keep it up in a full-time role and also specializing in stopping the run.
ILB: Reuben Foster, Alabama
Heralding each new Alabama middle linebacker as the greatest MLB to date under Nick Saban is perhaps the newest tradition among SEC media. Each one is fantastic, more skilled than the previous contender, and more certain to be the next Brian Urlacher. I have two qualms with this: 1. People really forgot how good Rolando McClain was in college; 2. Reuben Foster is likely not better than this predecessor, Reggie Ragland. However, saying one Alabama MLB isn’t on the level of his last one is similar to describing The Sleeping Beauty as a lesser composition than The Nutcracker: who really cares? They’re both outstanding.
OLB: Jarrad Davis, Florida
Let’s use Pro Football Focus again to tell the tale: “At the linebacker level, Antonio Morrison receives the hype, but it’s Jarrad Davis who has turned heads this season as his +11.6 mark leads the way for the Gators. He leads the team with 34 stops, including 12 in the passing game, good for 12th in the nation among linebackers.” Davis posted 72 tackles last season (46 solo, 52 assisted), 11 for loss, and 3.5 sacks. He tied for the team lead with Alex McCalister in QB hurries (7). Along with a certain cornerback coming up next, he’ll be one of the cornerstones of a still-strong Florida defense.
CB: Jalen Tabor, Florida
Oh look, it’s this guy. The one everyone hates because of bad Tweets — there are maybe two college football players with good Tweets and I guarantee you Tabor has never created one. I personally really enjoy Jalen Tabor as the SEC Heel. Although, he could actually benefit from going more evil and eventually being drafted way too high by the Oakland Raiders then subsequently floating into total obscurity. Tabor’s QB rating allowed of 16.7 is the lowest in the nation per Pro Football Focus, and Tennessee won’t have the benefit of him being suspended for their game against Florida…as of now.
CB: Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
A common theme amongst a fair amount of the Alabama entries on this list is that they’re very good players who haven’t played a ton of snaps due to youth. Humphrey breaks this trend — he’s a young player who did play a ton of snaps last year. He’s also really, really good at football. Quarterbacks had a 50% completion percentage against him (31 for 62 with the 8th-highest coverage grade among CBs), which is remarkably low for a redshirt freshman. He’ll be eligible for the draft after this season as a redshirt sophomore, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him stick around for what’s technically a fourth season in 2017 to improve his draft status. Getting open against him will be especially tough for Tennessee’s receivers.
FS: Marcus Maye, Florida
Let me say this with as little hyperbole as possible: Marcus Maye is awesome. He possesses insanely good vision and football IQ, with an ability to jump passes at seemingly any time. As Pro Football Focus notes, he’s oddly excellent in coverage of slot receivers and tight ends, very rarely allowing large plays and more often jumping passes out of nowhere. He has a great chance to play himself into the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft this season.
SS: Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Eddie Jackson is great at football. ‘Nuff said.