Debates Down South: Who is the G.O.A.T. of SEC quarterbacks?
Let me stop you right there.
You came here with an answer to that aforementioned question. You want to see if I agree about who the best SEC quarterback ever is. I get that.
The title of “G.O.A.T. of SEC quarterbacks” has seemingly been all over the place for the past decade or so. If we’re being honest, the development of the quarterback position demands that we take a close look at this question every few years. As we’ll break down today, our understanding of the position is ever-changing. The decade opened and closed with arguably the best single-year performances we’ve ever seen, not just in the SEC but in college football history.
That’s my way of saying, yes, Cam Newton and Joe Burrow are in this conversation. Their peaks were higher than any quarterback in this conversation today.
But the goal is not to find the quarterback who had the best peak. This isn’t about how they performed in the NFL, either. It’s not just who had the best record as a starter or who threw the most touchdown passes. This is about who played the position better than anyone while they were in the SEC.
Are we clear? OK, let’s dig into it.
Why was/is this a debate?
People love quarterbacks. Duh.
If Herschel Walker vs. Bo Jackson is SEC debate No. 1, the G.O.A.T. of SEC quarterbacks is 1A. It’s far from unanimous, thanks in part because of the past dozen years. Every few years, it seems like we add a new wrinkle to this discussion. First, it was Tim Tebow. Then it was Cam Newton. Of course there was Johnny Manziel. Who could exclude Tua Tagovailoa. And obviously, 2019 put Joe Burrow firmly into that conversation.
You could make a case for all of them that they deserve to be called “G.O.A.T. of SEC quarterbacks.” At one point or another, you’ve probably seen 1 of these 12 SEC quarterbacks owning that title (in chronological order):
- Joe Namath, Alabama
- Steve Spurrier, Florida
- Archie Manning, Ole Miss
- Pat Sullivan, Auburn
- Danny Wuerffel, Florida
- Peyton Manning, Tennessee
- Tim Tebow, Florida
- Cam Newton, Auburn
- Aaron Murray, Georgia
- Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
- Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
- Joe Burrow, LSU
Did I miss anybody? Probably, depending on who you ask.
(For totally different reasons, some might argue that Tim Couch and A.J. McCarron should be in that group. As great as they were, you’ll see throughout this why their résumés didn’t quite compare.)
Let’s call that group “The Dirty Dozen.” Real original, right?
On second thought, I can’t include Namath, Spurrier, Manning or Sullivan in an in-depth debate about the No. 1 SEC quarterback ever. Recency bias? Do I hate old people? No and no. This is partially based on my belief that we as human beings do just about everything better now than we did 50 years ago. Quarterbacks are asked to do more. Offenses are more complex. The addition of this thing called “weight-lifting” changed how the game was played (there’s also another obvious reason that I’ll get to later).
Just so you think I’m not discriminating against before-my-era quarterbacks (I still watched them all on YouTube), here’s a reminder of why each of these QBs, while great in their time, can’t be considered No. 1:
- Namath: Threw double-digit TD passes in a season once
- Archie Manning: Was a career passer with a 31-40 TD-INT ratio
- Spurrier: Best season was 16 touchdowns in 10 games
- Sullivan: Won Heisman w/ QB rating of 127.8 and 66 total rushing yards
See what I’m saying? This goes into my Terry Bradshaw thing. That is, if you go back and look at quarterback numbers from a half-century ago, you’ll refresh the football reference page 4 times to make sure you’re on the right player. Trust me. You’ll say to yourself, “Wait a minute. Terry Bradshaw completed 48% of his passes for 6.1 yards per attempt and he threw 81 interceptions in his first 5 years in the NFL?!” He would’ve been a bust and out of the league had he come along 20 years later because we started holding quarterbacks to a higher standard.
Again, I get why Namath, Manning, Spurrier and Sullivan were decorated at the time. Namath, Spurrier and Sullivan won a ton of games while Manning ran in a way that we weren’t used to seeing quarterbacks move. They lifted their respective programs to new heights and should always be remembered for that.
Just don’t try to convince me that they were the best quarterback in SEC history with such noticeable demerits.
Scratch “The Dirty Dozen.” Let’s go with the original name “Elite 8.”
This argument isn’t all about stats. Stats need context. It’s part of it, though not all of it.
There’s something else we need to get out there. I usually hate when the characteristic described about a quarterback is “he’s just a winner.” There are so many other factors to consider when evaluating the quarterback position. A guy who needs to score 45 points a game to win might have a tougher time winning than the guy who can probably rest easy knowing his defense can take care of the rest once that 20-point mark is hit.
Having said that … if someone is going to be worthy of being dubbed the G.O.A.T. of SEC quarterbacks, they have to have won the SEC at least once. You know what that means. Sorry, Murray. Sorry, Manziel. As great as they were, I can’t declare a non-SEC champ the best quarterback in conference history.
Hear me out.
I’m by no means dismissing Manziel as one of the top few best players we’ve ever seen at the position. If you want him as your SEC quarterback of the 2010s, I have no problem with that. He made plays that were out of this world. In fact, if this were a true ranking, I’d have a hard time not putting him in my top 4 or 5, but this is all about who deserves to be No. 1. Other quarterbacks have better arguments to be made.
So instead of the cliché “Elite 8,” let’s call this group the equally cliché “Super 6.” That group is Wuerffel, Peyton Manning, Tebow, Newton, Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow. All of them check 3 important boxes:
- Won at least 1 SEC title
- Finished top 2 in Heisman (both runners-up had a strong case to win the award)
- Had 40-plus combined touchdowns in a season (including bowl games)
That’s the right balance of team and individual success. That’s what quarterbacks are judged on in a typical sense, so fittingly, that’s how they should be judged in the G.O.A.T. discussion.
Got it? Good.
What people said at the time
This debate gained more relevance after the season that Burrow had. After a decade of trying to decide if Newton deserved to be the greatest SEC quarterback of all-time for his 2010 season, the masses couldn’t help but think of the historical context of Burrow’s season. That’s what happens when you shatter single-season touchdown records with the most battle-tested schedule we’ve ever seen a champion plow through.
Who declared Burrow’s season the best ever? Here are a few:
- Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel
- Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer
- CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd
- USA Today’s Dan Wolken
- Brett Favre
That’s right. Even Favre gave Burrow the hat tip. You know it’s a season for the ages when even the college quarterbacks from 30 years ago are giving it up.
And if you’re telling me that Burrow’s season wasn’t legendary because he played in a favorable system or he had too much talent around him, well, get out. Obviously, he had more talent around him than Newton. Nobody is debating that. But Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson were 3-star recruits and LSU’s offensive line was mediocre at best in Burrow’s first year as a starter (and I’d argue a touch overrated in 2019). Nobody fit balls into tighter windows than Burrow, and he was a clutch as clutch gets.
That’s why Burrow absolutely deserves to at least be considered part of this discussion. Any argument that Newton is the best SEC quarterback of all-time for 1 season needs to include Burrow. Does it perhaps hurt Burrow that instead of playing somewhere in junior college he had mediocre numbers in leading LSU to a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory? In terms of public perception, it probably does. Weird.
If you want to dig up any sort of G.O.A.T. article from the past decade, they won’t have Burrow or Tagovailoa. That won’t be the case a few years from now.
The G.O.A.T. SEC quarterback articles I found had some, um, interesting takes. One from Bleacher Report had Archie Manning ranked ahead of Peyton Manning at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively. But wait, that’s not the best part! The reasoning for that decision was because Bear Bryant once declared that Archie Manning was the best quarterback he’d ever seen.
In other news, Bear Bryant died when Peyton Manning was 6 years old. Something tells me he would have changed his mind had he seen what quarterbacks did in the 1990s. Just a hunch.
Oh, and this Bleacher Report column also ranked Namath ahead of Newton and Manning. What’s the first sentence under Namath, you ask?
“Broadway Joe was Bear Bryant’s greatest quarterback.”
Speaking of awful takes, back in 2016 The Tennessean conducted a poll of the best SEC player of all-time. The winner? Manziel. The results of the poll were so frustrating that it prompted the headline “Johnny Manziel is SEC’s best? C’mon, really?” All you need to know about the legitimacy of this poll — or lack thereof — was that Manziel won the bracket-style tournament by trouncing Herschel Walker 76% to 24% in the semifinals and then he somehow beat Bo Jackson 95% to 5%.
I can’t with that, either.
In a much more sane ranking of SEC quarterbacks done in 2015, my guy Brad Crawford did a list for SDS and had this top 5:
- Tim Tebow
- Peyton Manning
- Johnny Manziel
- Cam Newton
- Danny Wuerffel
Manziel got the edge over Newton because he set the SEC record for total offense in a season in 2012. The counterpoint to that would be that Newton became the first SEC player to ever throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season. His 50-touchdown campaign will keep him in this discussion for decades.
Well, I suppose that depends who you ask. When ESPN put together its list of the Top 150 players in college football history to honor the sport’s 150-year anniversary, there was great excitement … and it was met with great disappointment. All you need to know about that was that Roger Staubach, who had 18 career touchdown passes, was dubbed the best quarterback in college football history.
Obviously, there was a priority to recognize the 20th-century greats. There had to be. But did ESPN go too far into that direction? Absolutely. In case you forgot, here were the SEC quarterbacks who made the top 150:
- No. 21 Peyton Manning
- No. 50 Archie Manning
- No. 76 Tim Tebow
- No. 91 Steve Spurrier
- No. 135 Cam Newton
A few things.
One is obvious. There weren’t 75 college football players better than Tebow. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but opinions can be wrong. That opinion, my friend, is wrong.
Not having Wuerffel, Manziel or Tagovailoa is downright wrong. Wuerffel and Tagovailoa were two of the most efficient quarterbacks ever, and both won national titles while playing the position at a far higher level than nearly anyone who came before them. If you’re putting Newton for his 1 season, Manziel surely deserved a spot in the top 150 for what he did in his 2 years at College Station.
Again, this isn’t all statistical, but what did Manning do that Manziel didn’t? In Manziel’s sophomore year against just Alabama and Auburn, which were both national title contenders, he had 9 touchdown passes. That matched Archie Manning’s entire season-long output in his second season as a starter … when he finished No. 4 in the Heisman.
I get that the game was vastly different, but come on. The first sentence of the ESPN 150 story for Archie’s ranking is telling:
With a strong arm, crazy legs and an aw-shucks smile, Manning signed a lifelong lease in the hearts of not just Ole Miss football fans, but fans throughout the south.
It looks like all Manziel needed was a better smile because there’s no chance that Archie’s legs were “crazier” and that his arm was stronger. Watch their YouTube highlights and tell me I’m wrong. And if this is all about how they performed relative to their competition, Manziel won a Heisman and Archie was never even runner-up, so that argument doesn’t pass, either.
Even the rankings that I didn’t necessarily have a problem with got me riled up. For instance, this sentence about Peyton Manning’s greatness is a stretch:
No, he didn’t win a national championship and (because!) he didn’t beat Florida. But Bear Bryant never beat Notre Dame, and his career turned out all right, too.
Right, because Manning’s Florida hurdle was totally the same as Bryant’s Notre Dame hurdle. Totally. The whole “Bear won 6 rings” thing had nothing to do with how we remembered him. Besides the apples-to-orange comparison of a player to a coach, Manning’s inability to beat Florida was and is something that has to be discussed as it relates to his college legacy.
In fact, every member of the “Super 6” has a demerit:
- Peyton Manning — Couldn’t beat Florida to win national title
- Danny Wuerffel — His surroundings (Spurrier’s offense, elite receivers, etc.) boosted him
- Tim Tebow — Not an elite passer
- Cam Newton — Only played 1 season
- Tua Tagovailoa — Noticeable drop-off against top 20 defenses
- Joe Burrow — 1 season as decent QB, 1 season as all-time great
Take a drink every time you see one of those points made in the comments.
Just kidding. For the sake of your liver, don’t do that. I worry that you’ll die and you won’t get to read the rest of this!
The worst take you can have about this debate
I’m going to sound like I just hated football before 1990. I promise that I don’t. For what it’s worth, I’ll bang the drum all day for Herschel as the SEC’s best player ever. But you already know what I think the worst take for this debate is.
It’s arguing that any of the pre-Manning/Wuerffel candidates deserve to be the SEC’s quarterback G.O.A.T.
I get it. Those guys had major hurdles to deal with. They didn’t have strength and conditioning coaches or programs. They didn’t have tablets they could look at when they got to the sidelines to figure out why they just threw an interception. If you want to argue that the quarterbacks of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t have the same resources available, sure, that’s fine.
But you wouldn’t say that makes those quarterbacks more deserving of being called the best SEC quarterback ever. That’d be like saying, “well, George Mikan had it pretty tough and he was the best player of his era, so he’s got to be considered better than Michael Jordan.” That’s insanity.
The film doesn’t lie. I watched a 13-minute special on Spurrier that was made during his playing days at Florida. How many times did he throw the ball over 30 yards in the entire video? Once. And if you think those players were every bit as athletic as today’s athletes, ask yourself the following questions.
Is peak-Spurrier making Devin White miss in the open field? Is peak-Namath running away from Myles Garrett? Is Archie Manning completing passes with a blitzing Josh Allen in his face? No chance.
Speaking of that, do you want a reason that isn’t comparing stats? Easy. Let’s talk about integration, shall we?
Nate Northington was the first black player of any kind in the SEC … in 1967. It wasn’t until Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama team got housed by USC’s mixed-race team in 1970 that integration in the SEC finally got some serious momentum.
Why is that significant? Namath’s college career ended in 1964, Spurrier’s finished in 1966 while Archie Manning was done after the 1970 season and Sullivan’s senior year at Auburn was 1971.
I’m not considering someone who didn’t have to face black players worthy of “best quarterback in SEC history.”
It was a watered-down level of competition. That’s undeniable. Nobody could write the story of college football of the last 50 years by only using white players. Integration raised the quality of the sport and made it more difficult to play the quarterback position.
That point would hold true if 1960s quarterbacks had much more efficient numbers, but they didn’t even have that. Not only did they not air it out anywhere close to the rates we see now, they weren’t as accurate as modern quarterbacks. Burrow’s worst single-game percentage was 63%, which Spurrier never averaged in an entire season. I mean, from the beginning of November through the rest of the season, Burrow had 197 completions. Namath, meanwhile, had 203 completions in his entire Alabama career.
It’s ignorant to pretend the quarterback position didn’t have major developments in the last half-century. We’re all better for it.
Thing I didn’t know/forgot about until researching/revisiting this debate
A few months ago, there was a debate on Twitter about the best 5 college football quarterbacks ever (not just SEC). The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman rolled out the list of Tebow, Burrow, Newton, Lamar Jackson and Vince Young. I quote-tweeted that and said “this is the best 5 I’ve seen” with admittedly not putting a ton of thought into it.
One of the comments to that tweet initially made me roll my eyes:
Danny Wuerffel is number 1. 4 SEC championships, national championship, Heisman Trophy, 2 time SEC POY, 2 time First Team AA. No modern QB has a resume like him.
— Brian Rosen (@gatorphi561) March 26, 2020
I thought, of course the Gators fan wants to give Wuerffel some love. But let’s be honest. Does he really deserve to be in that group, though?
Before you get mad at my ignorance, I was born in 1990. The first college quarterback I remember thinking was truly special was Peyton Manning. Of course, his career finished a year after Wuerffel, who played his last game when I was 6. So why is it that Wuerffel, who beat Manning each time and won the coveted Heisman/national title combination he fell short of, doesn’t immediately come to mind when all-time greats are discussed?
After rewatching= highlights and taking a closer look at his career numbers, I called up his former teammate, Chris Doering, and he confirmed the reasons I think we tend to forget about Wuerffel.
REASON NO. 1 — The physical talent
Compared to the rest of the Super 6, there’s no doubt that Wuerffel was the least talented physically. He didn’t have the strongest arm. Nobody was going to confuse Wuerffel for Newton, Manziel or Tebow once he got into the open field. Shoot, Tagovailoa and Burrow ran better than he did, too. That physical talent was why he was only a mid-round NFL prospect.
REASON NO. 2 — The lack of NFL success
Nothing will make people question a college legacy like a lack of NFL success. Wuerffel’s brief NFL career was obviously nowhere near the level of Manning. Go ask guys like Murray or Ron Dayne how much their lack of NFL success factored into their college legacies. Fair or not, they absolutely did. Wuerffel’s 12 career NFL touchdown passes probably served as revisionist history for how good he was in college. Why? Well …
REASON NO. 3 — The surroundings
Playing in Spurrier’s offense certainly allowed a quarterback to maximize his abilities. The high volume of passing certainly helped, though he actually had 14 fewer pass attempts in 1 fewer game than Manning in 1996. And those Florida receivers, as we know, were nasty. Between Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Doering, the Gators were loaded on the outside. Wuerffel would be the first to admit that he was blessed in Gainesville.
So does that mean Wuerffel was overrated? Nope. In fact, I admittedly underrated him. Go watch his highlights. He might not have had the strongest arm, but as Doering said, few quarterbacks were more accurate on passes over 10 yards. Wuerffel always got the ball where it needed to be.
And as much as I picked on 20th-century quarterbacks for their numbers, consider this. Wuerffel played in his last game nearly 24 years ago. Since then, only 2 Power 5 quarterbacks recorded multiple seasons of at least 10 yards per attempt. That list was Tagovailoa and Baker Mayfield. The guy was crazy efficient.
Nobody is going to touch Wuerffel’s 4 SEC championships (I get that he was injured as a true freshman in 1993 but he helped get them there). Beating Tennessee every year as a starter certainly helped, as did the fact that he finished his career as the SEC’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns (Murray broke that mark in 2013). As a junior and senior — when he no longer shared snaps with Terry Dean — the Gators only lost to a Nebraska team some would argue was the best ever, and then to Florida State, but that was avenged in the title game.
Wuerffel led Florida to the No. 3 offense in America in 1995 and the No. 1 offense in America in 1996. He beat rivals, he made clutch plays, he filled the stat sheet, he won a Heisman Trophy, etc. What more could you have wanted a college quarterback to do?
It took a random Twitter comment to remind me just how good Wuerffel was. Consider this my hat tip.
Where I stand on this debate
The moment we’ve all been waiting for.
Who deserves to be No. 1? If we’re talking individual seasons, I’d give it to Burrow over Newton despite the talent disparity. Burrow’s precision was at such an all-time level that he gets my vote for that. But if we’re talking best SEC quarterback of all-time, I had to favor someone who was elite for more than a year. I tend to think someone who has to deal with the offseason scrutiny and being at the top of every scouting report for an entire offseason has a tougher challenge.
Even though I’d probably have Burrow at No. 2, that’s why I give Manning, Tebow, Tagovailoa and Wuerffel so much credit. All of them returned at one point as decorated, household names and they delivered. That’s such a difficult thing to do. If that’s your top 4 SEC quarterbacks ever, I’m not talking you out of that opinion.
But here’s what I come back to. If it’s 4th-and-goal with my life on the line and I can pick any quarterback to score from 3 yards out, there’s 1 name that stands above the rest.
Give me Tebow over anybody who ever played the position in the SEC. Never mind the larger-than-life persona that he brought on. Just look at what Tebow did in his 4-year career and tell me I’m crazy:
- Freshman year
- Becomes best role player in America in helping Florida win first national title in 10 years (the Gators don’t beat South Carolina without him)
- Sophomore year
- Becomes first sophomore to win Heisman thanks to an absurd 32 touchdown passes and 23 rushing scores
- Junior year
- Following Ole Miss loss, delivers “The Promise” and fuels one of most impressive post-September stretches we’ve ever seen en route to a national title
- Senior year
- Takes step back statistically, but still goes 12-1 and becomes SEC’s all-time leader in touchdowns responsible for and rushing touchdowns
He was a 3-time All-American, a 2-time national champion, a Heisman winner and he should’ve been a 3-time SEC Player of the Year (he won the Heisman in 2007 but didn’t get that honor over Darren McFadden). He was as decorated as a quarterback gets, but it wasn’t just some media narrative.
We’re still talking about someone who holds the all-time lead in SEC for touchdowns responsible for. In fact, only Murray and Wuerffel are within 30 touchdowns of Tebow, and both were 4-year starters compared to 3 for Tebow. He’s still first in SEC in rushing touchdowns (57) and Derrick Henry is the only SEC player who ever had more rushing scores than the 23 that Tebow put up during that Heisman season.
And say what you want about his passing limitations, but give me the guy with an 88-16 TD-INT ratio who averaged 9.3 yards attempt as a 66% passer. I’ll take the unorthodox delivery with results like that. He wasn’t Manning or Burrow in that department, but there’s a reason the guy went 23-1 after “The Promise” with his lone loss coming to eventual-national champion Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship.
Tebow became a phenomenon in ways that few college athletes — if any — ever have. The constant media coverage and lack of sustained NFL success made it easy to pile on him, but it shouldn’t diminish a single thing that he did during his 4 years in Gainesville.
We’ve asked the question often over the course of the past decade-plus, and with good reason. We’ll probably revisit that discussion soon when another great SEC quarterback inevitably sets the college football world ablaze.
For me, though, it’s still the same answer — Tebow is the G.O.A.T.