Finding an MVP doesn’t always mean you’re finding a team’s best player. The most valuable players keep things together and don’t always have to enjoy the limelight. Sometimes they do, but they don’t have to.
Important players come in all shapes and sizes, but what remains constant is that their play will always be crucial to influencing the win-loss column for their respective teams.
Earlier today, fellow SEC writer Edward Aschoff examined the most important players from the East. Now it’s the West’s turn.
Cam Robinson, LT: You’re looking at a new starting center, a new starting quarterback and a new starting running back at Alabama. And you could overlook all of that if Robinson was in the starting lineup. Robinson, after all, is one of the most talented offensive linemen in college football, someone draft experts predict could go in the top five picks next year. An excellent pass-protector and a road-grader in the running game, he’s the key to the offense. What’s more, Nick Saban went as far as to call him the "alpha dog" this spring. So in terms of skill and leadership, he’s someone Alabama can’t afford to lose for an extended period of time, which could very well be the case in light of a felony charge he faces after last week's arrest.
Brooks Ellis, LB: Offense wasn’t the problem last season, and it doesn’t figure to be again this season with a deep and talented group of receivers to lean on. Instead, it’s the defense that needs to hold up its end of the bargain after getting shredded by the likes of Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State last year. And the man to help lead the turnaround is Ellis, the team’s leading tackler at linebacker with 102 stops. If he can help stabilize the front seven, the Hogs should be in good shape. If not, we’ll be looking at a repeat of 2015.
Carl Lawson, DE: This one is easy. We don’t have to guess what Lawson’s absence would mean to Auburn’s defense, because we’ve seen it before. Injuries have plagued his career, and every time he’s been forced off the field we have watched as the defense has crumbled. The line can’t get consistent pressure without him, and the ripple effect is felt from the linebackers to the secondary. An already average defense gets much, much worse. But when he’s healthy, he masks Auburn’s deficiencies. A top-tier pass-rusher with first-round talent, he gives his defense a puncher’s chance.
Leonard Fournette, RB: Now I know everyone is going to point to Derrius Guice and say that LSU’s running game would be in good hands without Fournette. Though that might be true, and Guice does deserve a ton of credit, it doesn’t take away from the main point. Yeah, LSU would be fine without Fournette, but the Tigers wouldn’t be special. Fournette isn’t called a generational talent for nothing. He’s not the presumptive Heisman Trophy front-runner for nothing. Guice is good, but he’s not 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns good. He’s not take-over-the-game good. He could help LSU to 8-9 wins, but Fournette gives the Tigers championship hopes.
Fred Ross, WR: Receivers don’t generally fall into the "most important player" category, because they’re inherently dependent on someone else to get them the football. But when you look at the case of Mississippi State and Ross, it’s hard to imagine what that offense looks like without him. Not only do you have four players vying to replace Dak Prescott at quarterback, you have to break in a new starting tight end, three new starting offensive linemen and replace the production of De'Runnya Wilson and Fred Brown at receiver. Without a strong running game to lean on, Ross, who led the league in receptions per game last season, is the lynchpin to the offense.
Chad Kelly, QB: As soon as Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil announced their intentions to leave school early and declare for the NFL draft, the spotlight shifted to Kelly. The former transfer instantly became the face of the program, and with good reason. He is, without question, the top returning quarterback in the SEC with more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. Yeah, he had his ups and downs and showed that he can be somewhat turnover-prone, but he also showed the ability to take over games, putting on performances like that of the Sugar Bowl, where he threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in a win against Oklahoma State. With very little in the way of a running game, and a defense that’s somewhat in flux, the pressure is on Kelly to do more of the same this season and lead the Rebels to an SEC West title.
Trevor Knight, QB: Johnny Manziel, Knight is not. But he doesn’t need to be. He just doesn’t need to be Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray. In other words, the goal for Knight is to be reliable. A veteran quarterback who won his fair share of games at Oklahoma before transferring, he needs to offer A&M the stability at quarterback it’s missed for a few years now. If the Aggies get that, then the offense could do well with talented receivers like Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. If not, we’re looking at another year of the program failing to meet expectations and talk of Kevin Sumlin on the hot seat.