Revisiting my worst SEC take from the 2019 season
I’ve had some bad takes in my day. Real bad. Like, “pray that nobody uses the right keywords in a Twitter search” kind of bad.
For example, I infamously predicted that Mississippi State would win 10 regular-season games in 2018. Even worse, I predicted that Jalen Hurts would quit Alabama’s team during the 2018 season to preserve his eligibility.
I know. Duds. Why do I get paid to write about college football if I have such awful predictions, you wonder?
Well, they’re not all that bad. Some, dare I say, might actually make me look like I have a brain.
Today, however, is not the time for those.
Instead, we’re going to revisit a take I had nearly 1 year ago. In fact, it ended up easily being my worst take of 2019. Here’s a hint: It involves getting a bit too high on an Auburn quarterback in the preseason.
Let me stop you right there. No, this take wasn’t as bad as predicting Jeremy Johnson to win the Heisman Trophy. It’s bad, but not that bad.
Let me give you the backstory.
In mid-April of last year, I was fresh off a weekend of watching a few SEC spring games. To that point, 13 of 14 SEC teams had already had their spring games (I’d pay an uncomfortable amount of money to watch some live spring scrimmages right now). That included Auburn, which had just hosted A-Day on Saturday.
It was, for my money, the most intriguing quarterback battle of any in the SEC. It was a 4-horse race with Bo Nix, Joey Gatewood, Malik Willis and Cord Sandberg. I thought, based on what we heard out of camp and saw in the scrimmage, it was really a 3-horse race between Gatewood, Nix and Willis.
Willis, as Jarrett Stidham’s backup, had the most experience in Gus Malzahn’s offense entering Year 3, but still had just 14 career pass attempts. Gatewood had a lot of hype but was still answering questions about his passing abilities after entering 1 game as a true freshman, and Nix was obviously the decorated true freshman.
So when I saw Willis make plays like this in the spring game, I came to a conclusion — he’s the favorite to win the job.
Malik Willis goes DEEP … WHAT. A. CATCH. 😱 pic.twitter.com/cIqbJAqlCj
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 13, 2019
Two days after that performance in which my eyes told me Willis was the leader in the clubhouse (and that Gatewood’s passing improvement from a year ago was obvious), I came out with post-spring ranking of SEC quarterbacks. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Part of doing something like that in the spring is that it means I have to predict who I believe will win each job. My prediction for Auburn was Willis (I did actually get 12 of 14 right). At the time, that wasn’t crazy considering the aforementioned strengths he had, plus there was so much pressure on Malzahn to get that decision right to save his job that I assumed an upperclassman like Willis had the edge over 2 talented, but total unknown options.
That wasn’t the horrendous take … it was that I put Willis at No. 8 among the 14 SEC quarterbacks. I wrote:
I’m higher on the Auburn quarterback room now than I was a month ago. Shoot, I’m higher on it now than I was a week ago. I thought Willis’ spring game performance was exactly what he needed. In a non-contact situation like that, he wasn’t going to be able to dazzle with his legs. We didn’t really need to see that from him. That element is there. But I thought he looked more than capable with his arm.
I wrote Saturday after watching the 4-quarterback battle that I thought Willis did enough to be at No. 1 on the depth chart. Do I expect the improved Joey Gatewood and the emerging Bo Nix to threaten for the starting job in fall camp? Absolutely. In fact, I think there’s a decent chance Gatewood gets snaps during meaningful series in the opener against Oregon. But Willis checks the boxes Gus Malzahn needs, and that gives him a chance to become one of the SEC’s better quarterbacks in his first year as a starter.
Did you also cringe or was that just me?
I say that because the No. 8 ranking came out on April 15. On May 1, Malzahn announced that the battle was down to 2 — Gatewood and Nix. Yikes. Two weeks later — and almost a month to the day that my rankings came out — Willis entered the transfer portal.
To recap, Malzahn decided that Willis was the No. 3 quarterback on his team, and I predicted that Willis would be a middle-of-the-pack SEC quarterback in 2019. Could he have been Nick Marshall 2.0? Probably not considering Malzahn has been searching for that for the past 5 years and has yet to find anyone capable of running his offense at that level.
Did I still feel extremely dumb for being so high on Willis after a spring game and overanalyzing some practice reports? Yes. Do I get constant reminders of this from my SDS Podcast co-host Chris Marler and our listeners whenever we talk SEC quarterbacks? Of course.
As long as Malik Willis is top 10, I’m thinking 8 what about you Connor?
— Sad about sports guy. (@MattyMok) August 5, 2019
At first, I resisted. I’d say things like “in my defense, Willis had a lot of things working for him. And I had to predict someone to win the job.” But over time, I realized that’s pointless. It’s easier to lean into the joke. It was a bad prediction because of the poor logic I used to make it (I’m probably fortunate that we don’t have spring practices right now to talk me into another take as bad as that one).
I believed that Malzahn wasn’t about to start a freshman (true or redshirt) in a season-opening game against an elite team like Oregon. What I failed to consider was that in terms of game experience, Gatewood or Nix would have caught up to Willis after essentially the first 2 games. It was Cole Cubelic who came on our podcast and pointed out early in fall camp that Malzahn probably could take a chance starting a talented, young quarterback who could struggle early on because of how elite that defense was.
(Consider this your regular reminder that Cole is smarter than me and really the vast majority of human beings who talk about football for a living.)
Everyone knows how it played out — Nix got the gig and had an up-and-down freshman season that included wins against Oregon and Alabama while Willis ended up with Hugh Freeze at Liberty, where he had to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules. Auburn fans hope that Nix takes the next step while I hope that Willis replaces Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert en route to a 12-0 regular season for the Flames.
Might as well double down.