FAYETTEVILLE — As soon as it was announced Sunday that Drew Sanders had been selected as the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, several Arkansas football fans joked — or, quite frankly, predicted — the linebacker would share the honor in his own conference.
Sure enough, it came to fruition. Sanders, who was all over the field in the Razorbacks’ 44-30 win over South Carolina, was named SEC co-Defensive Player of the Week alongside Kentucky’s Jordan Wright.
Fans reacted about as you’d expect:
Since the SEC released its weekly honors, Sanders has picked up another national award, as he was also named the Bednarik Award Player of the Week as the top defensive player in the country for Week 2.
The accolades are no surprise after what he did against South Carolina. Not only did he make a team-high 11 tackles, but eight of them were solo and three were behind the line of scrimmage, including two sacks. Sanders also forced two fumbles, broke up a pass and notched a quarterback hurry. He was the first SEC player since 2007 to put up that stat line in a single game.
“I was asked after the game about Drew Sanders’ play,” Pittman said Monday afternoon. “I thought he had a good game. I didn’t know he had a hell of a game. I thought he had a really good game, but he did some things that were pretty incredible.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that Wright also had a really solid game for Kentucky. In the Wildcats’ win at Florida, now ranked No. 18, he had six tackles, two TFLs, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception.
Those are great stats and deserving of SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors most weeks, but there should be little debate about who had the better numbers between him and Sanders. Even Pro Football Focus agrees that Sanders was better, giving him a 79.7 grade on 67 defensive snaps compared to Wright’s 71.8 grade on 59 snaps.
Despite them playing close to the same number of snaps, the analytics site credits Sanders with two more total pressures (4 vs. 2) and two more “stops” (5 vs. 3) — tackles that constitute a failure for the offense.
About the only advantage Wright has is that his performance came in a road SEC game against a top-15 team, while Arkansas was at home and playing an unranked South Carolina team.
So, it begs the question: Why split the award this week?
Does the SEC Hate Arkansas?
There seems to be a common thought among fans that the conference simply can’t stand to give credit to Arkansas football.
Costly calls by officials — such as at Florida in 2009 and Auburn in 2020 — are naturally the biggest complaint, while seemingly trivial things such as weekly SEC awards are used as further evidence of a conspiracy against the Razorbacks.
While it would be difficult to quantify bad officiating, the latter is much easier to track. The conference has given out six honors — Offensive, Defensive, Special Teams, Freshman, Offensive Lineman and Defensive Lineman of the Week — each week of the regular season since 2005.
On first glance, something does seem a bit fishy about the awards. Through two weeks this year, five of the 12 awards have featured co-winners. Four of those five involved an Arkansas player.
In Week 1, Bumper Pool was the SEC co-Defensive Player of the Week and Jordan Domineck was the SEC co-Defensive Lineman of the Week, sharing the honors with Georgia safety Christopher Smith and Florida defensive end Brenton Cox Jr., respectively.
Then this week, in addition to Sanders and Wright sharing SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors, Arkansas’ Ricky Stromberg and Mississippi State’s LaQuinston Sharp were named SEC co-Offensive Linemen of the Week.
However, dig a little deeper and the numbers reveal the conference doesn’t “hate” Arkansas any more than the other 13 teams.
Consider that last season the Razorbacks had only two “co-“ weekly award winners compared to six solo winners. Only Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M had more solo winners than Arkansas in 2021, while the two “co-“ winners were tied for the fewest in the league.
The story was much the same in baseball. Arkansas’ three solo winners were tied with Florida for the third-most in the conference, behind Tennessee and Vanderbilt, while its one “co-“ winner was tied for the second-fewest.
In men’s basketball, it is true that Moses Moody had a very strong case for winning the 2020-21 SEC Player of the Year award over the eventual winner, Herb Jones. And, yes, the Razorbacks did have more “co-“ winners (2) than solo winners (1) in 2021-22. But Auburn and Kentucky also each had twice as many “co-“ winners. It’s also worth noting that there are only two weekly awards in that sport and Arkansas was essentially ineligible for one because it didn’t play any freshmen in 2021-22.
The SEC’s Bigger Issue
What has seemingly happened — and this author is just as guilty of it — is a classic example of selective memory. Arkansas fans only remember when players on their team get slapped with a “co-“ and not when other teams’ players do, too.
The bigger issue is the fact that those designations are becoming more and more common. The reason behind it can be debated, which could eventually lead down a rancorous political path – and that’s not the purpose of this site.
Instead, we’ll just provide you with the data and you can draw your own conclusions.
Last year, the SEC handed out 78 weekly awards throughout the regular season and 25 of them had multiple winners. That is nearly one-third of the awards, easily a record high since the conference started dishing them out in 1985.
In fact, there was a stretch from the start of the 1992 season through the penultimate week of the 2009 season — a span of 238 weeks and 803 total awards — in which only three awards were shared.
(Coincidentally, all three involved Arkansas players: Clint Stoerner shared SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors with Auburn’s Ben Leard one week in 1999, Darren McFadden shared SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors with Florida’s Chris Leak one week in 2006 and Dennis Johnson shared SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors with Florida’s Brandon James one week in 2009.)
The final week of that 2009 season marked an important milestone: For the first time ever, two of the six awards were shared. Tennessee’s Montario Hardesty and Florida’s Tim Tebow were co-Offensive Players of the Week and South Carolina’s Ladi Ajiboye and Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee were co-Defensive Linemen of the Week.
From that point on, leading up to the last couple of years, it has apparently become harder and harder for the conference to narrow its picks down to one player. The chart below shows the percentage of SEC weekly awards that had “co-“ winners, beginning in 2005 when the league started handing out six per week.
There were usually 4-8 or so shared awards each season between 1985-91, but then virtually none the first 17 years Arkansas and South Carolina were in the conference. Since 2015, however, the shared awards have tracked upward with a surge in the last two years. Based on these two weeks, the trend toward shared glory doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Sam Pittman Press Conference Excerpts
Arkansas takes on Missouri State on Saturday in a game in which the Hogs are heavy favorites according to all top sites. Below are some of Pittman’s thoughts going into the game:
On Dominique Johnson returning from injury:
“I hope so. He’s looked good. He’s got the brace off. In all honesty, I think it’ll be up to him if he feels like he’s ready to go. He has been cleared. He’s been cleared actually for the last two weeks. If yesterday was any indication, I would say he would play Saturday, but it’s still up to him on how he feels. I think he’s feeling pretty good.”
On ankle injuries to Latavious Brini and Trey Knox:
“I feel strong about Brini and Knox. Slush is still up in the air. So, we’ll see if he’ll be available. He hasn’t done any practicing, so there’s a chance he’ll be available, but we’ll have to see. It’s a day by day deal. We’d kind of have to see today how that works.”
On whether any of the Hogs’ young receivers will crack the rotation:
“Yeah, there really is. I’ve said it before you know how I like this group. Of course, you prefaced the four guys who have been playing a little bit. But you’ve got Wilson, Stephens, McAdoo. I really like McAdoo. Mbake is coming on, and he’s going to play more special teams wise. Sategna, I like him a lot. We have big plans for him. He rolled his ankle yesterday. I don’t know exactly where he’s going to be on that. Those guys are good players, and yes we are trying to… we just haven’t had the situations really right yet.”
“Even Ketron Jackson, who I think is a really good players, we haven’t got him the reps really yet that I would like to. Those are good problems at times. To answer your question, I’m really high on McAdoo and Sategna and Mbake. They’re all really good players, and of course we have the other guys in Stephens and Wilson who aren’t playing that I like as well. I would have no problem putting them in the game, but the situation hasn’t quite been there yet where we were able to do that.”
On Missouri State quarterback Jason Shelley:
“Shelley’s a good player. He can run and pass. A very good player. He’s got some good talent around him. Their philosophy, it seems to me like they want to run the ball. They run the stretch play extremely well. Run inside zone as well. Run some counter action. But they’re going to stretch the field vertically, get in 10 personnel, empty personnel, 12 personnel.”
“We have to be ready for all the different personnel groupings and understand what they like to do out of them. But he runs the show. Again, a very good athlete. He can run and has a very good arm. We have to keep him locked up in that pocket. We’ve got to get to him. If we don’t, he’s very accurate with the ball and has some really good wideouts.”
On the talent level of Missouri State (which has 40+ transfers):
“I think they have really good talent. They’ve got a wideout from Central Michigan who I think’s fantastic. Their running back from K-State, Wright, is a really good player. Obviously coach Petrino knows how to recruit and knows what he had need wise and and has done an exceptional job of roster management and getting guys on his roster that can play.”
“And you look at them from junior college, from Minnesota, to Kansas State, Utah State, to wherever they may be coming from. He’s done a great job with improving his talent level at Missouri State. And we know that they know the experience of playing D-1 ball, and it’ll be a challenge for us.”
On being ranked No. 10 in the nation:
“Well, I’d rather be ranked 1! — but I’d rather be ranked 10 than 100. We’re proud of where we are today. That doesn’t mean anything about Saturday’s game, but we are using it in recruiting and we’re proud of it. Certainly as long as we continue to do the things that got us to this point, we should play well on Saturdays. We’ve talked to our kids about that and addressed it. I believe if you get that high in recruiting you ought to use it for recruiting and that’s what we did.”
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