Published July 5, 2012 - 7:59am
NEW: Discuss this topic in the Google+ community for SEC fans.
There’s no doubt the SEC’s bread is buttered on defense, but the league that boasts the nation’s last six national champions has another pedestal from which to brag this fall.
The passing game and its slew of All-American caliber quarterbacks.
From Joe Namath to Eli Manning, the SEC has seen its share of stars under center excel at the next level but rarely does a crop of talented quarterbacks share the same season. A senior and five juniors make SDS’ can’t miss list this fall:
Tyler Wilson, Senior, Arkansas
Scouts drool over Wilson’s arm strength and accuracy, two defining measurables used when drafting an NFL-ready quarterback. A leader, true competitor and reliable threat, Wilson will be the first SEC passer taken in the 2013 draft and has all the tools necessary for a sustainable career at the next level.
But before his big pay day, Wilson has a BCS game to win as captain of the Razorbacks.
Rarely does Wilson make the wrong read or heave one into coverage. In fact, Wilson hasn’t thrown two interceptions in a game since making two mistakes on the plains against Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers on Oct. 16, 2010. In that 65-43 loss, Wilson was introduced as Arkansas’ quarterback of the future in relief of Ryan Mallett, completing 25-of-34 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns in 2 1/2 quarters.
It remains to be seen how much the exit of offensive guru Bobby Petrino will affect Arkansas’ offense, but with a savvy veteran as good as Wilson directing the charge, it shouldn’t matter who is calling the plays.
Aaron Murray, Junior, Georgia
If Wilson is the best of the West, then Murray’s the beast of the East leading a Bulldogs squad with their sights set on making it back to the SEC Championship Game just up the road in Atlanta.
Murray has enjoyed a fantastic first two seasons in Athens and leads all returning SEC quarterbacks in career yardage (6,198) and touchdown passes (59). As far as future NFL impact players go, Murray is the guy in his division with Tennessee’s Tyler Bray not too far behind. There’s a chance Murray could be an early-round — perhaps second — selection if he comes out after this season. Paired up with Wilson, USC’s Matt Barkley, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, the odds are against Murray being picked in the first round.
Should the Bulldogs be able to handle Isaiah Crowell’s recent dismissal, the East will come down UGA and South Carolina, an annual showdown that tends to have more meaning nowadays than the Georgia-Florida battle.
Connor Shaw, Junior, South Carolina
The Gamecocks’ zone-read facilitator provides a wrinkle the aforementioned signal callers can’t.
He can run.
Over the final eight games last season, Shaw rushed for 485 yards and eight touchdowns, torching Florida, the Citadel and Clemson on the ground in November. He’s shown poise and confidence in the pocket early in his career with a knack for coming up with the big play. Most importantly for South Carolina’s run-heavy attack, Shaw is elusive enough when the rush appears to slide through tackles and utilize his speed for first downs.
As far as third-down quarterbacks are concerned, I’d rank Shaw tops in the league — possibly the country — in situations of 5 yards or less. It may sound outlandish, but the Gamecocks’ numbers on third down in the latter half of the 2011 season back it up. Whether it’s a designed QB draw or an impromptu rush in a passing situation, the Gamecocks are dangerous when Shaw’s on the move. If South Carolina’s offensive line continues the progress its made each of the last two seasons, Shaw should have stellar numbers through the air and on the ground.
And Marcus Lattimore’s back to boot.
A.J. McCarron, Junior, Alabama
This time last season, McCarron was in a war with dual-threat Philip Sims for the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback position heading into fall practice.
What a difference a year makes for the defending national champions.
Entering his third year in Tuscaloosa, McCarron’s blossomed into an SEC Player of the Year candidate despite playing in a ball-control offense.
As a sophomore, McCarron completed 67 percent of his passes and was only sacked 13 times. Behind Alabama’s dominating ability to pass protect, McCarron tossed 16 touchdowns and was especially potent in play-action situations.
With a probable increased level of trust from his head coach, McCarron might have the ability to throw downfield more frequently. However, with the best offensive line in the country and significant talent in the back field (despite losing Trent Richardson), Alabama will still be a run first team.
Tyler Bray, Junior, Tennessee
The cocky kid from California has great size at 6-foot-6 and should put up staggering numbers again this season for Derek Dooley’s Vols. Before an injury sidelined him most of the season as a sophomore, Bray was on pace to surpass 30 TD passes and would’ve likely steered Tennessee to at least one victory during its 0-fer October.
Leading weapon Justin Hunter is also back and that’s great news for a team that lacked big plays last season. Hunter is one of the SEC’s top receivers and likely the league’s first pass-catcher taken off the board in next year’s NFL draft. With healthy playmakers on offense and a re-energized mentality around the program, Tennessee is the sexy “sleeper” pick in the East.
The Vols are still a year or two away from righting the ship and getting back to contender status but an eight-win season is certainly within reach this fall.
James Franklin, Junior, Missouri
It won’t take long for SEC viewers to get a taste of what James Franklin and the high-powered Missouri offense has to offer, but it remains to be seen if the Tigers can put up eye-popping totals against faster, more powerful SEC defenses.
Opposing defenses took a backseat to Franklin and Co.’s high-octane, no-huddle last season as Missouri averaged 475 yards and 32.8 PPG. Franklin’s a chore to bring down at 225 pounds and has a handful of speedy, misdirection running backs at his disposal.
Franklin could lead all SEC quarterbacks in rushing yards — and total touchdowns — this fall, but it’ll be up to Missouri’s defense to make the Tigers a contender during their first season as a member of the SEC East. Missouri’s first two conference games are against Georgia and South Carolina.
Welcome to the SEC.