True (freshman) greatness: Top 10 debut seasons in SEC history

True (freshman) greatness: Top 10 debut seasons in SEC history

First impressions are almost always lasting, in life and in SEC football, whether good, fair, forgettable or absolutely astounding.

The SEC, which likes to call itself the best conference in the country and tends to back it up each fall, not surprisingly has had a ton of the astounding batch. Through the years, many incoming SEC gems just couldn’t wait to become great and took off during their first fall on campus, recording remarkable true freshman seasons that left their ecstatic fan base wanting three encores.

This past winter, the SEC did what it usually does, reeling in a nation-high 11 5-star recruits. Alabama got six of them. Georgia snagged two. Tennessee, LSU and Auburn bagged one each. These are the young men who’ll most be expected to add to the SEC’s legacy of true freshman excellence, along with a slew of those highly touted 4-star guys.

Will any of them live up to the standards set by our exclusive club of the 10 finest true freshman seasons in conference history? We’ll check back in December on that. For now, jump in the SEC time capsule and appreciate what these 10 did before they were even sophomores. Our list is in no particular order of excellence — all 10 of these seasons can stand on their own.

Herschel Walker, Georgia, 1980

Most lists of SEC football elite usually include Walker (above, at an NBA game in 2016) somewhere, but when it comes to first impressions you can’t merely put Walker somewhere. You have to put him first. The galloping legend of Athens signed with Georgia on Easter Sunday 1980, and every football Saturday for the next four years was a holiday for Bulldogs fans.

A sophomore running back named Carnie Norris started the first game of the 1980 season at Tennessee. By the end of that afternoon in Knoxville, Walker had gone from fourth-stringer to leading the Bulldogs back from a 15-2 third-quarter deficit with two touchdowns that left one Volunteers safety named Bill Bates wishing he hadn’t gotten in Walker’s way. But Bates could take solace. It was only the beginning of Walker’s season-long onslaught. The beginning of Walker’s amazing beginning at Georgia, you might call it.

And by the end, Walker had racked up 1,616 yards rushing on 274 carries, ripping off 5.9 yards per carry, with 15 touchdowns. He was named an All-American for the first of three consecutive seasons, won the SEC Player of the Year award for the first of three straight years and led the Bulldogs to a 12-0 record and a national championship. He might have belonged in the College Football Hall of Fame with that dizzying freshman campaign alone. “Nobody in that day and time — or in today’s day and time for that matter — was a one-on-one matchup for Herschel,” then-Tennessee defensive coordinator Bobby Jackson said.

Nick Chubb, Georgia, 2014

Fast forward 34 years from Walker and you come to another Georgia bruiser who took Athens by storm in his first season. Chubb still has one more chapter yet to write in his college career, but the prologue was one about sudden dominance that came by unexpected opportunity. Future pro Todd Gurley was supposed to be the starter that season. But Gurley got suspended, Chubb got his chance, and SEC defenses were left defenseless as he rushed for 143 yards in his first game and 202 yards in his next game.

Chubb didn’t win SEC Player of the Year like Walker did, but he was SEC Freshman of the Year and was a first-team All-SEC selection. Chubb didn’t lead the Bulldogs to a national title like Walker did, but he rumbled for 266 yards and was named Belk Bowl MVP. And Chubb nearly matched Walker in rushing yards, gaining 1,547 despite only starting eight games. He scored 14 rushing touchdowns. Gurley’s midseason suspension created a freshman monster in Athens.

Jalen Hurts, Alabama, 2016

You don’t have to go back too far to remember Hurts’ magical freshman year. It came last fall, and it fell one play short of ending with a national championship. No, Hurts (above) didn’t go down hand-in-hand in history with Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, who is the only true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national title. But the dual-threat dynamo did just about everything else one could do, against SEC competition, playing for the demanding Nick Saban and for an offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who didn’t even last the season.

Hurts threw for 2,780 yards. He tossed 23 touchdowns and he kept his interceptions down to nine, not easy to do for a true freshman against those cat-quick SEC defensive backfields. Hurts completed 62.8 percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 139.12. He rushed for 954 yards, a single-season school record for a QB, and had 13 rushing touchdowns. He was the SEC Freshman of the Year, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and, most importantly, an SEC champion, leading the Tide over Florida.

It was all pure magic, the havoc he created, from September through December. All that was missing was that one win at the end, not that it was his fault and not that it came close to keeping him off this list.

Bo Jackson, Auburn, 1982

Jackson (above, at an NFL game in 2015) had a stellar football — and baseball — career along The Plains, but the signature moment of his college glory years came as a true freshman, against hated Alabama in the Iron Bowl in Birmingham, when Bo went “Over the Top” of the Tide defense from a yard out on fourth down in the final minutes to lift the Tigers to a 23-22 victory. Jackson converted a fourth-and-1 to keep that drive alive and rushed 17 times for 114 yards in the game, which literally vaulted him into Auburn legend status.

Jackson rolled up 829 yards in 1982 on just 127 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per burst to go along with nine touchdowns. He could have only scored that one touchdown to beat Bama and his freshman season would have been a success. Bo was a first-team All-SEC selection, leading the Tigers to a rock-solid 9-3 season — and that victory for the ages over Alabama, of course. He topped it all off with two touchdowns in a Tangerine Bowl victory over Boston College. The legend of Bo was born.

Eric Zeier, Georgia, 1991

Zeier might be the most surprising name on our list, but he’s on it because he belongs. The gunslinger didn’t even make his Georgia debut until the first Saturday of October in ’91, but once he got in the lineup, he never left. Zeier started the final seven games of his magnificent freshman season — and every game for the three years after that, by the way.

He nearly hit the 2,000-yard passing mark despite joining the fray late as a freshman, and like Hurts he kept his interceptions to a minimum, throwing only four. Zeier finished his brilliant career with 67 school records and 18 SEC marks, and that long list of achievements was born during his top-notch work as a freshman. He capped that first season by leading the Bulldogs past Arkansas in the Independence Bowl, throwing two touchdowns in a 24-15 victory. Zeier, of course, was only getting started.

Peyton Manning, Tennessee, 1994

You had to know a Manning was going to show up somewhere on our countdown, and it’s Peyton (above, at Pebble Beach in February) who gets the nod. Manning wasn’t gifted the Volunteers’ starting quarterback job. Far from it. He started his freshman year as the third-stringer. But a season-ending injury to starter Jerry Colquitt in the season opener changed everything, and then another injury to fill-in starter Todd Helton (yeah, that Todd Helton) gave Manning his shot. He started the following week against Washington State and the rest is legendary Tennessee history.

The Vols won 10-9 in Manning’s first start, and they only lost one more game the rest of the season. Manning threw for 1,141 yards despite the limited time and completed 62 percent of his passes, tossing 11 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He had a 145.2 quarterback rating that told Tennessee’s fandom and the rest of the SEC that this tall, skinny kid with the famous name and the rocket arm was here to stay. And he still hasn’t left — the locker room at Neyland Stadium is named in his honor.

Emmitt Smith, Florida, 1987

Smith (above, with sister Marsha) stepped onto the field at The Swamp and began a crusade that lasted from Gainesville to Dallas. He didn’t start the first two games of his storied freshman season, but his 109-yard effort in Week 2 against Tulsa earned him the start in the SEC opener the following week at Alabama. All Emmitt did with his golden chance was break UF’s 57-year-old single-game rushing mark with 224 yards on 39 carries, with two touchdowns, to lead the Gators to an upset of the Tide.

By the seventh game Smith was over 1,000 yards, the fastest any running back had ever reached that mark to begin a college career. He finished with 1,341 yards and captured SEC and national Freshman of the Year honors. Smith also finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander wrote that Smith “didn’t look especially fast or powerful or blindingly deceptive, yet he couldn’t be stopped.”

Matthew Stafford, Georgia, 2006

Stafford has been lighting up the scoreboard for almost a decade as a Detroit Lion, and that consistent production with the dare-devil style began when his college career began, in 2006 in Athens. Stafford became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs since Quincy Carter in 1998 and the first out of high school (Carter played a couple seasons of minor league baseball) since Zeier. And 15 years after Zeier blossomed, Stafford took the reins and never let go, rolling up 1,749 passing yards and topping it off by leading a 31-24 comeback victory after the Bulldogs trailed 21-3 against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Yes, Stafford had 13 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes as a freshman, which really did tell everyone how he liked to take chances. But Stafford also was named SEC Freshman of the Week twice. He was named to the SEC Coaches’ All-Freshman Team. And he was named Offensive MVP of that incredible bowl victory.

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M, 2014

OK, we could hear the screaming: Where are the defensive players? And we should offer that this list could be 30 players long. So here is our defensive gem, a player whose collegiate dominance ended with him being picked No. 1 in this year’s NFL Draft and started with him breaking Texas A&M’s freshman sack record of 5 1/2 in only six games and smashing Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record of 8 in just nine games.

Garrett (above, at Browns’ mini-camp) finished his monstrous coming out in 2014 with 11 1/2 sacks (which ranked second in the SEC), 53 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and a blocked kick that was returned for a touchdown. Garrett was rewarded by being named a consensus Freshman All-American and earning a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team. His three-year punishment of SEC backfields had officially begun.

Chris Leak, Florida, 2003

The estimable Leak often gets overshadowed by that current New York Mets minor-leaguer who played with him and then followed him at Florida. But it was Leak who spearheaded that national title victory in 2006, and three years before that it was Leak who took over the starting quarterback position and made memories on that same day in Lexington by leading the Gators back from oblivion against Kentucky.

Leak, using his soft touch and quick feet, went 6-3 as a starter as a freshman, beating rival Georgia and eventual national champion LSU. He was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team and the Rivals Freshman All-America Team, displaying the same leadership qualities his successor had, just in a more understated way. Leak threw for 2,435 yards and 16 touchdowns, and ran for two scores as a brilliant college career that would end with a title took flight.

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