The SEC's 25 best players: No. 1

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
11:00
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The No. 1 player in our countdown seemed to have it all: the production, the highlights, the nickname, the hardware (at least from 2012) and more media coverage than one can fathom. He left an indelible mark on college football and his sophomore season did not disappoint.

No. 1: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, Soph.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's Johnny Manziel's ability to beat teams passing or running made him the SEC's most dangerous weapon.
2013 summary: Manziel was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, finishing fifth in the voting. He finished the season with 4,114 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He completed 69.9 percent of his passes and averaged 9.59 yards per attempt. When running the football, Manziel averaged 5.3 yards per carry, racking up 759 yards and nine touchdowns on 144 carries. His adjusted QBR of 86.3 was the best in the SEC and No. 3 nationally behind Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.

Most recent ranking: Ranked No. 2 in the 2013 preseason countdown.

Making the case for Manziel: Whenever he played, Johnny Football was must-see TV. But that's not why he's No. 1. He probably was the single-most difficult player to defend in recent memory. Ask Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was all smiles and most of all, relieved, when the Crimson Tide survived Manziel (562 total yards and five touchdowns that day) and the Aggies on Sept. 14:

"You can't prepare for him because he makes so many plays when you've got him on the run and everything else breaks down," Saban said. "And then you think, 'OK, we're going to make him throw the ball from the pocket,' and he has a lot stronger arm and is a lot more accurate than anybody gives him credit for. He made some damn good throws against us the last two years.

"His instincts, though, are what make him so difficult to defend. It's like he has eyes in the back of his head."

Though he won the Heisman Trophy in 2012, he saw improvement in his passing statistics in most major categories, including completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns. He progressed significantly as a passer as a sophomore after being known as mostly a scrambler in his freshman season.

What's more is that he showed improvement in his game despite coming into the year with a ton of scrutiny (many would argue self-inflicted). His highly publicized, turbulent offseason included an NCAA investigation that wasn't resolved until the week of the season opener and incessant chatter about his on-field behavior in the season opener. Eventually, Manziel was able to shove it all aside, focus and perform at a high level. He also showed his toughness, battling a throwing shoulder injury as well as thumb and ankle injuries down the stretch, but almost never came off the field.

It's hard to argue with his performance when you see what he did against Alabama or Auburn (502 total yards and five total touchdowns) or the way he willed the Aggies to comeback wins against Ole Miss and Duke or the numerous highlight worthy plays he orchestrated (seriously, who else can do this?). The season didn't go quite the way he or the Aggies expected, but that can be attributed to several factors, many of which are out of Manziel's control. Bottom line, if we were picking a team, playground pickup basketball style, out of the pool of players in the SEC to win a football game today, Manziel's probably the first pick.

"I've coached against a lot of great ones -- Brett Favre, Tom Brady, both Mannings, Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Tajh Boyd, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, and I hope I didn't leave anybody out," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "But when you start talking about somebody who athletically and individually can just step out there and beat you, Manziel's right up there in the top three, in my opinion, along with [Cam] Newton and [Michael] Vick."

The rundown:

Sam Khan | email

Texas A&M/SEC reporter

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