The most critical down in football is what separates good teams from great ones. The same can certainly be said for quarterbacks.

Need proof? The nation’s five best teams at converting on third down (No. 1 Army, No. 2 Boise State, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 UCF) finished the season with a 59-9 record in 2018. While quarterbacks cannot be as easily judged in the ultimate team game, when an offense is backed up and forced to throw on third down, which returning SEC signal-callers delivered the most?

The answer might surprise you.

We analyzed the eight returning starting quarterbacks heading in 2019. The results won’t be perfect, as no two SEC schedules are the same and each team played unique nonconference matchups, but there was quite a bit of solid data to work with.

We also omitted stat-stuffing regular-season performances against non-Power 5 opponents. For example, Mississippi State’s Keytaon Thompson looked like a Heisman Trophy contender against Stephen F. Austin (he scored 7 touchdowns and had nearly 500 yards of total offense) but couldn’t get on the field for the Bulldogs in conference play.

Based on the complete season totals, minus their stats against non-Power 5 opponents as noted above, here is how the eight projected returning SEC starters performed:

Season total passing numbers

Player
3rd-down completions
3rd-down attempts
3rd-down percentage
Jarrett Guarantano
39
60
65%
Tua Tagovailoa
31
53
58.5%
Jake Fromm
41
72
56.9%
Terry Wilson
29
52
55.8%
Joe Burrow
46
85
54.1%
Jake Bentley
40
76
52.6%
Kellen Mond
39
78
50%
Feleipe Franks
32
68
47.1%

No surprise to see Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm near the top of the list, but seeing Jarrett Guarantano at No. 1 was a surprise. It should be noted that Tennessee’s starting quarterback did not see much action against Alabama or Missouri due to injury. His third-down passing numbers might have been affected by not being in the lineup for those games but we will never know how much.

Here is another set of data, the same eight quarterbacks but using only their performances in SEC play. Again, Guaranatano missed two of these games. Also, it should be noted that Fromm and Tagovailoa played an extra game due to their teams advancing to the 2018 SEC Championship Game.

SEC season total passing numbers

Player
3rd-down completions
3rd-down attempts
3rd-down percentage
Jarrett Guarantano
35
53
66%
Joe Burrow
36
64
56.3%
Terry Wilson
27
48
56.3%
Jake Fromm
34
61
55.7%
Tua Tagovailoa
22
40
55%
Jake Bentley
31
58
53.4%
Kellen Mond
30
61
49.1%
Feleipe Franks
25
54
46.3%

Guarantano’s numbers slightly improved by removing the numbers from Tennessee’s season-opener against West Virginia. Joe Burrow’s numbers also climbed when omitting LSU’s nonconference games against Miami and UCF. It was interesting to see Tagovailoa’s numbers decline once league play began, as Alabama steamrolled through the league until the SEC Championship Game.

We thought it would also be interesting to see how well the quarterbacks performed when asked to throw on third downs in the games their team won in 2018.

Based on these results, Tennessee lived and died with Guarantano’s success on third down, while Kentucky and Florida, which each went 10-3 on the season, didn’t require much success from Feleipe Franks or Terry Wilson on third downs to achieve those lofty marks

Passing numbers during wins

Player
3rd-down completions
3rd-down attempts
3rd-down percentage
Jarrett Guarantano
15
20
75%
Jake Fromm
28
41
68.3%
Tua Tagovailoa:
28
48
58.3%
Joe Burrow
34
60
56.7%
Kellen Mond
25
45
55.6%
Terry Wilson
16
29
55.2%
Jake Bentley
12
22
54.5%
Feleipe Franks
20
43
46.5%

Naturally, if we were going to analyze performance during wins, we had to take a look at quarterbacks’ showings during losses.

Wilson’s numbers improved in Kentucky’s losses, as did Franks’ production. Kellen Mond’s numbers took a big drop in games Texas A&M lost while Fromm’s performance took a massive nosedive in the games Georgia lost last season.

Passing numbers during losses

Player
3rd-down completions
3rd-down attempts
3rd-down percentage
Jarrett Guarantano
24
40
60%
Tua Tagovailoa
3
5
60%
Terry Wilson
13
23
56.5
Jake Bentley
28
54
51.9%
Joe Burrow
12
25
48%
Feleipe Franks
12
25
48%
Kellen Mond
14
33
42.4%
Jake Fromm
13
31
41.9%

Finally, we collected information on the results of the completions the quarterbacks had on third down. Aside from obviously interceptions, these numbers indicate completions the quarterbacks made and the result of the play. Simply put, which third-down passes resulted in first downs, which did not due to being completed short of the first down marker and which resulted in touchdowns.

3rd-down results

Player
1st downs
Short of marker
Interceptions
Touchdowns
Joe Burrow
27
15
3
4
Jake Bentley
27
11
6
2
Jake Fromm
27
7
4
7
Jarrett Guarantano
27
10
2
1
Kellen Mond
25
9
3
4
Feleipe Franks
23
8
1
1
Tua Tagovailoa
18
9
2
6
Terry Wilson
11
15
4
2

After taking in all those figures, a few things standout from the list. While some Tennessee fans have issued their displeasure with Guarantano, the Volunteers would have likely finished the season with another winless conference campaign without his success on third downs. His performance on the road at Auburn may have been the single greatest performance from an SEC quarterback last fall, as he completed 11 of 14 third down attempts, which included eight first downs and a touchdown.

While Franks’ and Wilson’s numbers were down on this list, you could argue the offensive coaching staffs at Florida and Kentucky really managed their gameplans well in 2018 considering they had signal callers that could not consistently convert on third downs. With both clubs winning 10 games last fall, that success resulted without production in tough passing situations. If either of these players improve in that area in 2019, their team stands to punish opposing defenses in new fashions next season.

The vast difference in Fromm’s production in Georgia’s wins versus losses has to be of some concern to UGA fans, particularly when you consider how many weapons he is losing this offseason to the NFL, but considering his progression during his time in Athens, anticipating Fromm to make an improvement in this regard is to be expected.

Mond’s issues on third down are somewhat to be expected for landing the starting role all season for the first time and while learning a new offense but if Texas A&M is going to take that next big step, Jimbo Fisher has got to work with his QB to get this issue solved heading into 2019.

Bentley’s inconsistency on third downs is more concerning considering his experience at South Carolina and the weapons he had at receiver in 2018. If the Gamecock QB is finally going to live up to the hype, he has got to deliver on the big stage and make throws to bail out his unit when called upon on third down more often.