GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference championship game features two of the nation’s top playmakers, and neither is a quarterback.
Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts are the real stars of the league’s most potent offenses. They are widely considered college football’s best at their respective positions, generally projected as top-10 picks in next year’s NFL draft and undoubtedly the guys opposing defenders need to be aware of before every snap Saturday night in Atlanta.
Stopping them has been nearly impossible all season. Even slowing them down has seemed unrealistic. Man-to-man coverage? No chance. Zone scheme? Try again. Double- and triple-team? Maybe, but that just opens the field for second and third options.
“There’s a lot of great players on my team that make me look a lot better than I am,” Alabama quarterback Mac Jones said. “That’s probably a good, accurate description of what type of quarterback I am.”
It sums up Florida’s Kyle Trask, too.
Neither QB is overly athletic, but both are unbelievably accurate, patient in the pocket, great at reading defenses, and not only do they know what’s supposed to happen on every play, they know why. It’s the kind of abstract thinking that allows them to understand their offense as well as their coaches.
It’s also why Jones and Trask will be among the Heisman Trophy finalists announced on Christmas Eve.
But as great as their seasons have been — Jones has completed a staggering 76.4 % of his passes while Trask has a nation-leading 40 touchdown throws — neither is close to being the most dynamic player in their huddle. And they know it.
That distinction belongs to Smith and Pitts, two speedy guys with ridiculous body control and even better hands.
Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior from Amite, Louisiana, could have turned pro after last season and might be tearing up the NFL like former LSU standout Justin Jefferson. At the very least, he would have been an instant millionaire like former Crimson Tide teammates Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy.
Instead, Smith opted to stay in school. The decision could end up getting him drafted higher than any of those three. He has 83 receptions for a nation-leading 1,327 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games — all against SEC opponents.
Smith is one of three SEC receivers — along with Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews — to post 1,200 yards in multiple seasons. And his 38 career TD catches are seven more than the previous SEC mark held by former Alabama star Amari Cooper (2012-14).
“Definitely explosive player, fast,” Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller said.
Everyone says the same about Pitts, who raised eyebrows in the season opener. He caught eight passes for a career-high 170 yards and four touchdowns at Ole Miss in late September, establishing himself as the best tight end in the nation.
He’s backed it up nearly every week since.
The 6-foot-6 junior from Philadelphia has 36 catches for 641 yards and 11 touchdowns in 6 ½ games. He missed 10 quarters following a vicious hit against Georgia in early November that knocked his helmet so sideways that his facemask fractured his septum. He had surgery and sat out two full games.
He returned and scored three times against Kentucky, including a 56-yard reception early in which he ran away from a starting cornerback.
“He’s a big-body guy that creates separation through using his body,” Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “He’s great at the point of attack.”
Added Smith: “Pitts, he just makes unbelievable plays.”
Pitts was in the middle of a cautious and costly decision last week. Florida’s medical staff decided to hold him out of the LSU game, a 37-34 loss in the fog in which the Gators had three turnovers in the second quarter and three three-and-outs in the fourth.
Florida said Pitts was dealing with a lingering injury from the previous week. He watched helplessly from the sideline as the Gators ruined any chance they had of turning the SEC title game into a would-be CFP quarterfinal matchup.
He lobbied to play but was ultimately overruled, with his health and his future as the main considerations. There’s little doubt, though, that Pitts could have made a difference.
“I just had to deal with it,” Pitts said. “It’s not something I kind of beat myself up about. I trust their judgment.
“That was a big part I had to realize: they’re looking out for the future, not just this one game. Although we do have more games to play, I have more football to play after I leave the university.”
Pitts and Smith have promising pro careers ahead. They also have awards to accept before moving on. Pitts is a lock for the Mackey Award given annually to college football’s top tight end. Smith is the favorite for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s most outstanding receiver.
Smith might very well also be a Heisman finalist, where he would share the virtual stage with Jones and Trask. But anyone who has watched even a little bit of Alabama and Florida this season knows who the real stars are.
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