It should come as no surprise that the player mounting the challenge will be a teenager for only another month.
Precocious, prolific and elusive, Texas A&M redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel is third on the list with 922 yards. With four regular-season games plus a bowl game to go, he’s just 85 yards shy of becoming No. 2 overall and is in striking range of the 1,473-yard standard set by Newton, the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick out of Auburn in 2011.
Manziel’s far from the only instant contributor in a conference that has produced the last six national champions and has seven of the top 11 schools in this week’s Associated Press Top 25. To those in charge of the depth chart, it’s simply a sign of the times.
“From the running backs at Georgia to the quarterback at A&M, just so many young guys have come in and played very, very well,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It just goes back to the level of talent that people are recruiting in this league.
“Pretty much every week, you play somebody that’s got a young guy that’s contributed and contributed very well.”
That includes top-ranked Alabama, which has a number of high-profile freshmen.
Running back T.J. Yeldon caught the game-winning touchdown pass against LSU on a 28-yard screen last week and leads the Tide in rushing while averaging 7 yards per carry. Amari Cooper has a team-leading 32 receptions, 12 more than anyone else, to go with team highs of 472 yards and five TDs.
“More and more guys have the expectation of playing early on,” coach Nick Saban said. “Maybe it’s just some of the attention they get in high school now in terms of recruiting and playing in all-star games and things like that.
“The players that have the maturity to understand what it takes to learn and grow and try to be a complete player at their position and go about it that way, they obviously have the ability to play.”
Yeldon is following in the illustrious footsteps of a pair of first-round NFL draft picks. Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, had 728 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns as a freshman, and 2011 Heisman finalist Trent Richardson had 751 yards rushing and eight TDs.
Cooper is the most heralded Alabama wide receiver since Julio Jones, and Saban has said fellow freshman Chris Black would have been on the two-deep roster if he hadn’t been hurt before the season. Freshman backup Kenyan Drake has a 7.1-yard average and five TDs on 20 carries.
“In a lot of cases the guys that play have the maturity to play and the guys that don’t have a hard time with the consistency part of it, learning what to do and not getting frustrated,” Saban said.
It’s no surprise that some of the bottom-end schools are immediately plugging in the youngsters, with six freshmen starting at one-win Kentucky and five at two-win Auburn. The Wildcats have one of the youngest teams in the nation, a scenario that didn’t prevent coach Joker Phillips from getting fired.
Yet No. 7 Georgia also leans heavily on the kids. Counting a return man, kicker and punter, the Bulldogs have a league-high seven freshmen starting.
Todd Gurley is second in the conference with 95 yards per game, tied for second in scoring with 66 points and third in all-purpose yardage. Fellow freshman and roommate Keith Marshall had a career-best 164 yards rushing and two TDs against Tennessee.
Georgia punter Collin Barber and kicker Marshall Morgan are both freshmen.
Manziel is among five freshmen starting for 15th-ranked Texas A&M. He’s second in the nation in total offensive yards, leads the SEC in rushing and is second in yards passing directing a unit that’s expanded the complexities as the quarterback gains understanding. He’s also among 39 freshmen listed as starters.
“We certainly have more offense at our disposal now,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “It’s just growth, No. 1 and No. 2, it’s comfort level with Johnny being able to handle it.
“Defenses in this league are pretty complex and it’s not necessarily what you think you can handle as a coach, but what you think your players can handle.”
No freshmen are starting regularly for No. 7 Florida, but several have played key roles.
Defensive tackle D.J. Humphries, considered the top offensive line recruit in the country last year, started last week against Missouri and played well in place of Xavier Nixon. Three others have appeared in all nine games on defense, ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, and linebacker Antonio Morrison.
Morrison has started three games in place of injured Jelani Jenkins and led the team with eight tackles against Vanderbilt. Fowler has five tackles for loss and two sacks and Bullard has four tackles for a loss.
“Those guys, to me, jump out,” coach Will Muschamp said. “I’m very pleased with the freshman class.”
Auburn stopped a five-game losing streak with a freshman quarterback making his starting debut. Jonathan Wallace was solid for the nation’s 120th-ranked offense in a 42-7 victory over New Mexico State last week.
“I felt like as the game went on, he kind of calmed down a little bit,” Chizik said. “He hit some throws that he should have hit and, overall, ended up managing the offense well and throwing some nice balls out there.”
A stiffer test comes this week with Georgia coming to town.
“This is a different defense this week with a different caliber of guy,” Chizik said. “But he won’t go out there and be fearful in any way, shape or form.”
Denzel Nkemdiche of Mississippi is another impact freshman with 60 tackles, including nine for a loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He plays a hybrid safety-linebacker position.
“If you prepare and know the keys of the other team’s offense and what they’re going to do and watch a lot of film on them, you’ll be able to make the play,” Nkemdiche said. “When you see the play happening, it looks familiar and you’ll be able to fly around and not hesitate.”
Linebacker Benardrick McKinney has been a standout on an otherwise experienced defense at Mississippi State with a team-leading 73 tackles.
Missouri redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser was 2-1 as the stand-in starter while subbing for injured James Franklin. Guard Evan Boehm is the first freshman to start on the offensive line in coach Gary Pinkel’s dozen seasons at the school, and redshirt freshman Brad McNulty is set to make his fourth start at center this week.
“In the Big 12, we saw that happen quite a bit,” Pinkel said. “Obviously, there are some players that are really playing at a high level.”
Don’t forget the junior college transfers, either.
Mississippi State quarterback Bo Wallace, a sophomore, has thrown for 1,836 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has rushed for five TDs.
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson is No. 6 in the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 31.5 yards, and 24th overall in all-purpose yards with a 144-yard average.
“C.P. looks like a video game guy,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He makes a lot of cuts.”