Imagine, if you will, your favorite SEC football coach sitting down at the poker table for a friendly game. In his hand rests cards he knows he’ll hold, and a few cards he knows he should fold. The difference between winning and losing? A little bit of good fortune with the wild cards he’ll draw from the deck.
Now bring your mind back to football, where that wild card is the difference between winning and losing a game in front of 100,000 rabid fans on a Saturday afternoon. In the cutthroat world that is SEC football, sometimes the outcome of the game really does rest in the balance of the performance of a handful of players breaking one way or the other.
Here’s a look at two wild card players for each SEC team who could make or break their coach’s hand in 2018:
Offense: Van Jefferson, WR
The return of Dan Mullen in Gainesville signals the return of a relevant passing game at Florida, right? Well, that's the plan anyway. If it's going to happen, Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson may be the wide receiver who can help make Florida elite again. Returning starters Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney are a solid foundation for the wide receiver corp, but the Rebels transfer has the experience of 15 starts in the league combined with a dose of untapped upside that Gators fans crave.
Defense: Cece Jefferson, OLB
Switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 look takes time, but that’s something Jefferson really doesn’t have. The senior was a productive defensive end for the Gators last season, accumulating 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for a loss for an uncharacteristically underwhelming Florida defense. With defensive coordinator Todd Grantham following new head coach Dan Mullen from Starkville to Gainesville, Jefferson has been challenged to change his approach as an outside edge rusher in a new scheme. That’s already a tough ask, but complicating matters is a shoulder injury suffered during Florida’s spring game that required surgery. His status is in question for the beginning of preseason camp.
Offense: Justin Fields, QB
Remember when Jake Fromm was seemingly buried behind Jacob Eason on the Bulldogs' quarterback depth chart going into the 2017 season? One Eason injury later, he's gone to Washington and we're talking about Fromm attempting to help Georgia repeat as SEC champions. But could history repeat itself with 5-star signee Justin Fields now on the depth chart behind Fromm? Fields has the talent to force his way onto the field immediately, and if he shows he belongs, could potentially shake things up for the entire Georgia offense this season.
Defense: Natrez Patrick, LB
Patrick may be the most "wild card" player on this list in the sense that the Bulldogs truly have no idea what they're going to get from this guy. When he's on the field, he's a dynamic playmaker who should be a tremendous asset to a unit that will feel the loss of first-round NFL draft pick Roquan Smith. But a pair of arrests in the last year has Bulldogs fans rightfully concerned about his ability to stay on the field. If he stays healthy and on the right side of the law, it's likely all smiles in Athens. That's a big "if," though.
Offense: Terry Wilson, QB
Former Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson has exhausted his eligibility and Drew Barker has given up on the game, leaving Wildcats offensive coordinator Eddie Gran looking for a completely new direction at the position in 2018. Former Oregon quarterback Terry Wilson appears to have a chance to earning the starting role after transferring in from the junior college ranks. If the No. 2 dual-threat JUCO quarterback prospect from the class of 2018 has the goods, the Wildcats' offense could flourish with star running back Benny Snell already in place.
Defense: Kash Daniel, LB
The time is now for the Kentucky junior as he attempts to replace Courtney Love as the Wildcats’ starting middle linebacker. The homegrown prep star has just 26 tackles to his name through two seasons in Lexington, but the ask will be much larger in 2018 if he’s going to be the steady force fans have always envisioned in the middle of the Wildcats defense. Coaches reportedly have pushed him to become a more flexible athlete in anticipation of the increased role. His response to that ask likely will determine the fate of this wild card.
Offense: Damarea Crockett, RB
New offensive coordinator Derek Dooley may be the Tigers' real wild card entering Drew Lock's final season at Missouri, but Crockett likely will be an important cog for achieving balance in an offensive that will have one of college football's top quarterbacks slinging the ball around the yard. After eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman in 2016, Crockett had a frustrating sophomore campaign that was cut short by a shoulder injury that cost him the final seven games of the season. Former backfield partner Ish Witter (1,049 rushing yards in 2017) is gone and all eyes are on Crockett as he looks to regain his freshman-year magic.
Defense: Jordan Elliott, DT
All eyes are on the Texas transfer, who has an opportunity to step in right away and be the next "big thing" for a program that has a proud history of impact defensive linemen. While most will have their eyes on senior leader Terry Beckner Jr. from this unit, Elliott has the pedigree to be a difference-maker at the tackle position for the Tigers. Those two, working in tandem, could pose serious problems for SEC offensive lines this season.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Offense: Deebo Samuel, WR
When healthy, Samuel was perhaps the most dynamic playmaker in the SEC in 2017. Unfortunately for Gamecocks fans and highlight-reel producers alike, Samuel's breakout junior season was cut short due to a season-ending leg injury. Samuel is back for his senior season, and all signs point to good health heading into the fall. He's the "wild card" for this group because if he's at full capacity, he may be the key ingredient to a SEC East title run for the Gamecocks. If not, well, let's just say the path is a little more difficult.
Defense: Bryson Allen-Williams, LB
Limited to just three games in 2017 due to a season-ending shoulder injury, Allen-Williams decided to return to the Gamecocks for his senior season this fall. And they’ll need him to fill a big role. If South Carolina is going to make a run at Georgia for the division title, a return to 100-percent health for the versatile defender is a must. From there, Will Muschamp must figure out where Allen-Williams fits best with the personnel available. The senior has experience at the strong- and weak-side linebacker positions, and reports out of spring practice are that he has taken reps at the Buck position as well.
Offense: Jauan Jennings, WR
Jennings was dismissed from the program by the previous coaching regime in November, but he's back with a new opportunity to prove his worth under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt. An offseason surgery rendered him unavailable for spring practice, robbing the "wild card" from a chance to rebuild chemistry after injuring himself in the season-opening win against Georgia Tech last fall. Jennings caught 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns during the 2016 season. A return to that level of production would be a huge win for a Volunteers offense in desperate search for playmakers.
Defense: Shy Tuttle, DT
It's widely agreed upon that SEC football games are won and lost in the trenches, so rescuing a program that was 0-8 in the league in 2017 likely will require some serious improvement on both lines. Jeremy Pruitt wants to establish a brand of tough, physical football in Knoxville. That's a start. Tuttle has the ability and the experience to be a driving force in implementing that brand. Can the senior shake off injuries and become the interior line star that Vols fans have envisioned?
Offense: Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB
You don't just "replace" one of the top rushers in SEC football history, but the Commodores are tasked with trying to do their best to fill the hole created by the graduation of star running back Ralph Webb. Enter Vaughn, who is a former prized Nashville recruit that went away to Illinois before transferring back home to play in the SEC. Vaughn sat out the 2017 season, and is eligible to contribute alongside Khari Blasingame, Josh Crawford and Jamauri Wakefield in the Commodores' backfield. Can he take charge of a group who will be without its former leader?
Defense: Rutger Reitmaier, DT
Vanderbilt received word in June that the Oregon transfer will be eligible this fall after going through spring practice drills with the team. The former four-star recruit chose to leave the Nashville area in favor of the Ducks as a member of the class of 2017, but after one spring practice with Oregon decided to transfer back home. At minimum, he becomes a depth piece for a defensive line that returns just one starter. At best, he’s an instant difference-maker with four years of eligibility remaining for the Commodores.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Offense: Tua Tagovailoa, QB
Sure, he wowed us all during a comeback victory against Georgia in the College Football Playoff national title game in January, but do we really know what the left-handed wonder brings to the table for a full season? And will he wrestle the starting quarterback role away from Jalen Hurts on a permanent basis? Tagovailoa's variety of possibilities for 2018, which range from Heisman Trophy contender to backup quarterback, make him college football's ultimate wild card.
Defense: Saivion Smith, CB
Nick Saban’s defenses seemingly always find a way to reload rather than rebuild, but the Crimson Tide defensive backfield will be put to the test in this area coming off a national championship. With all starters from the 2017 team gone, Alabama will look to fresh faces such as Smith and Patrick Surtain Jr. to become household names defending the pass. The former is a former LSU cornerback that arrives in Tuscaloosa as one of the nation’s top JUCO transfers and will be pressured into handling some of the league’s top wide receivers immediately.
Offense: Cole Kelley, QB
He's big (6-7, 268) and he's strong, but is he the answer in the post-Allen family era of Razorbacks football? After penciling in Brandon and Austin Allen at the quarterback position for what seems like a decade, new Hogs head coach Chad Morris will make a massive shift in offensive philosophy with Kelley as his presumed starting quarterback. The sophomore's numbers should see a bump due to enhanced passing opportunities, but does he have the skill set necessary to make Morris' historically dynamic offense go?
Defense: Chevin Calloway, CB
Arkansas will attempt to build a revamped secondary around seniors Santos Ramirez (SS) and Ryan Pulley (CB) with the help of a couple of talented sophomores. Kamren Curl, who showed out as a cornerback during his freshman year, has moved to safety to this season, leaving the responsibilities of a starting cornerback position on Calloway. The in-state product saw action in all 12 games for the Razorbacks last season, but the pressure will be on him to become an every down contributor to John Chavis’ defense.
Offense: Jack Driscoll, OT
Where do you look for a wild card on an offensive unit that returns a veteran quarterback and most of his meaningful playmakers? The offensive line, of course. That’s where the Tigers received a big boost in the spring in the former of UMass graduate transfer Jack Driscoll. He figures to plug into the unit’s plans right away, with the possibility of starting at either tackle position or even on the interior, pending offensive line coach J.B. Grimes’ decision. If he’s as good as advertised, that’s a huge boost for an already potent offense.
Defense: T.D. Moultry, LB
Carrying the responsibility of the Buck position at Auburn is a big deal, and it’s Moultry who has the inside track to replace Jeff Holland (10 sacks, 13 TFL in 2017) in the role for 2018. The sophomore appeared to earn the first-team spot during spring practice, and the Auburn coaching staff appears confident that Moultry is read to be the program’s next big pass rusher. He joins an already loaded Tigers defensive front, so if he breaks out... look out.
Offense: Joe Burrow, QB
Exit Danny Etling, enter a highly-coveted Ohio State transfer in Baton Rouge. Ed Orgeron may have won the offseason transfer game by landing Burrow, but will the former Buckeyes quarterback make an impact beyond the national headlines garnered by his post-spring practice arrival? Orgeron's job may depend on it.
Defense: Greedy Williams, CB
Is Williams the next great cornerback from the program that proudly calls itself "DBU"? Or were his six interceptions as a freshman in 2017 a product of teams avoiding throwing at former Tigers CB Donte Jackson? Tigers fans will find out this fall. The cornerback unit will be talented, but inexperienced, and likely looking for Williams to be a group leader.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Offense: Stephen Guidry, WR
Mississippi State’s leading receiver (Jesse Jackson) caught just 27 passes for 276 yards in 2017. If the Bulldogs are going to compete for a SEC West crown this season, senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will need a playmaker of the Fred Ross or De’Runnya Wilson ilk of which State fans are accustomed. Enter Guidry, who arrives in Starkville as one of the nation’s top JUCO recruits. At 6-foot-4, he has the size and play-making ability to lead the Bulldogs receiving corps right away.
Defense: Brian Cole, DB
Cole, who is a former Michigan wide receiver, redshirted last season after transferring in from East Mississippi Community College. New Bulldogs defensive coordinator Bob Shoop sees Cole as one of his more talented players on a defense that returns seven starters, which could signal good things ahead for an already experienced group. Cole is expected to start at nickel in a 4-2-5 defensive alignment.
Ole Miss Rebels
Offense: D’Vaughn Pennamon, RB
Ole Miss is loaded with a capable quarterback and three top-flight receivers to haul in his throws, but if the Rebels want to maintain any sense of offensive balance they’ll have to find a replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins. Pennamon is one of a handful of options at the disposal of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, but he missed spring practice after undergoing offseason knee surgery and remains a wild card in a running back room that lacks in both experience and production.
Defense: Detric Bing-Dukes, LB
The Rebels struggled to stop the run in 2017, ranking among the nation’s worst while allowing 225 rushing yards per game. The onus on improvement in this area falls on the linebackers in a 4-2-5 scheme, which will be led by Bing-Dukes during his senior campaign. But is he up for the task? Bing-Dukes seemingly has matured from a 2017 arrest for shoplifting and will look to build up on a 24-tackle effort that followed the legal drama last season.
Texas A&M Aggies
Offense: Nick Starkel, QB
Starkel vs. Kellen Mond has been a debate that raged into the offseason after both saw playing time as freshmen last season. Starkel is the more polished passer who seemingly is a more natural fit in the pro-style scheme that Jimbo Fisher brings over from Florida State. After battling back from a leg injury that cost him a good portion of the 2017 season, the “wild card” here is learning a new playbook and playing well enough to hold off a talented dual-threat option in Mond.
Defense: Clifford Chattman, CB
The Aggies' defense needs help at cornerback perhaps more than any other position, and Chattman is their chance to cash in big for 2018. After a productive freshman season in 2016, Chattman missed last season due to academic issues. He’s cleared to again play in 2018 and appears to be in position to earn a starting role for a group that allowed 276 yards per game through the air in '17.
-- Written by Nick Cole, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has spent the previous seven years covering SEC football for SEC Country, Saturday Down South and The Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @NickColeSports.