There was a time when college football fans could have reasonably hoped to see two of the best receivers in the nation — Alabama's Jaylen Waddle and LSU's Ja'Marr Chase — star in the same game next month, when the Crimson Tide visits the Tigers.
But from fall camp through the first half of this pandemic-altered season, a combination of injuries, opt-outs and other factors unique to 2020 have prematurely ended the season for a number of prominent players across the Southeastern Conference.
Waddle's ankle injury last weekend, which required surgery that probably has ended his college career — was just the latest high-profile example.
It bothered LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who tried to recruit Waddle.
“It made me sick,” Orgeron said, adding it that he wouldn't be surprised if it made Chase feel somewhat relieved that he opted out a few weeks into fall camp.
“I didn’t think of it that way, but I’m sure that Ja’Marr Chase and his family thought of it that way,” Orgeron said.
Like Chase, Waddle could have opted out of his junior season. Now he has an injury that might affect his stock in the 2021 NFL draft, in which he and Chase are expected to be top prospects.
In some cases, such roster losses have created opportunities for others to thrive.
Orgeron noted that since Chase left, junior receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. has taken full advantage of being the go-to target for QB Myles Brennan, and more recently, Brennan's injury replacement, freshman TJ Finley.
Marshall has 27 catches for 512 yards and nine TDS in just four games, and LSU's offense has continued to put up prolific numbers this season without Chase.
Before his injury, Waddle had 25 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns and also has been one of the nation’s most electric return men.
Alabama sophomore Slade Bolden is first in line to attempt to take over those roles. Bolden had two catches in his first 18 college games but had six against Tennessee.
Quarterback Mac Jones can relate to replacing a star player after taking over for Tua Tagovailoa late last season.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, to come in not knowing that you’re really going to play a lot,” Jones said. “Slade hadn’t been playing as much as he probably would want to, and he came in and I told him, ‘It’s a game, and you’re ready to roll, so just do your job,’ and he did exactly that and some.”
A mass exodus — or perhaps a purge — appears to be taking place at Mississippi State, where Mike Leach is in his first season as coach.
While Leach stopped short of declaring top running back Kylin Hill off the team, he noted, “What I heard is he was opting out, preparing for the NFL. ... We wish him the best.”
Hill was productive as a receiver out of the backfield in Leach's “Air Raid” offense. He was tied for the team lead with 23 catches and second with 237 yards receiving. However, he'd rushed just 15 times for 58 yards.
NCAA rules put in place during the coronavirus pandemic not only allowed players to opt out, but also allowed them to attempt to play this season without losing a year of eligibility. That meant there would be little consequence if players suited up for a good chunk of the season before deciding to opt out or transfer.
Leach said Wednesday that receiver Tyrell Shavers and defensive ends Tre Lawson and Jamari Stewart have formally left his program, adding, “They’re into another chapter in their life, and so are we.”
At Vanderbilt, coach Derek Mason said earlier this month that about 10 players have opted out.
That group includes kicker Oren Milstein, a Columbia graduate transfer, four offensive linemen and starting linebacker Feleti Afemui whose decision was announced days before the season opener.
The Commodores had only 56 players available in a 41-7 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 10 due to what Mason called a combination of injuries and COVID-19/tracing issues. Two days later, the SEC postponed Vanderbilt’s game at Missouri from Oct. 17 to December because the Commodores couldn’t meet the 53 players required by the league to play a game.
Auburn has been without its star linebacker and team leader K.J. Britt, who had thumb surgery and is out indefinitely. He had 23 tackles through two games.
Georgia entered fall camp anticipating that Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman would start at QB, only to see him opt out a few weeks before the season.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M can only wonder how much better its offense might be if Jhamon Ausbon, the Aggies' top receiver in 2019, hadn't opted out.
For coaches, managing the roster is difficult during a typical football season because of injuries, academic trouble or various other infractions which can lead to suspensions. But it's been even more challenging in 2020.
“Obviously, it's a little different," Orgeron said. "There's a lot of uncertainties. ... It's just something you've got to deal with.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Teresa Walker, Paul Newberry, Gary B. Graves and Kristie Rieken contributed.
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