It's early, but SEC QB play lagging behind other Power 5 conferences
The SEC has a perception problem. The league has been the nation’s clear best conference top to bottom. It led the nation in collective SRS four of the past five seasons. While things have opened up a bit on the national front, the SEC has still produced eight of the past 11 national champions and five of the last 10 Heisman winners.
Despite this ascendancy, the perception has differed. The ACC “best conference in America” narrative, after winning two of the past four national titles, is more than just a cute media days talking point. That angle has proliferated. In my preseason college football media survey, media members chose the ACC as the best conference by a plurality vote. Even Alabama handling Florida State might not make much of a dent.
This perception stems from quarterback play. Six ACC quarterbacks ranked in the Top 25 nationally in passer rating last season. The sixth place on that list was Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson carried his team to a national title. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky was the first quarterback chosen in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The SEC, in contrast, had a brutal 2016 throwing the ball. One SEC quarterback, Josh Dobbs, finished in the Top 25 in passer rating. He was hardly imperious for a disappointing Tennessee team. Alabama got by with dual-threat freshman Jalen Hurts until the Playoff. LSU and Florida starting former Purdue quarterbacks much of the season was a major reason no challenger emerged for Alabama.
We’ve fallen a long way from 2013 where the SEC’s top five passers were Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw and Aaron Murray. Also present that year were Nick Marshall leading Auburn to the BCS Championship game and a young Dak Prescott.
The 2017 season is only two weeks old. But things don’t look much better on the aerial front for the SEC this season. Top statistical performers so far? Missouri’s Drew Lock fell back to Earth with a thud against an FBS opponent in Week 2. It might be unwise to buy Vanderbilt starter Kyle Shurmur’s efforts against Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M. Though some are bullish on him.
Georgia’s sophomore super recruit Jacob Eason was injured against Appalachian State. After his subpar freshman season, some Georgia fans were hoping freshman Jake Fromm would beat him out regardless. Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson might be the real deal. It’s hard to tell after South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin. But his rise doesn’t help the SEC much if Ole Miss’ program implodes in Hugh Freeze’s wake around him. Early returns on Jarrett Stidham at Auburn have underwhelmed. Quinten Dormady at Tennessee looked OK, sort of.
Florida’s situation might improve when not facing Michigan’s defense. But neither Feleipe Franks nor Malik Zaire appeared prepared for big time competition. Texas A&M’s passing offense has been grounded, with former 5-stars Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray off to other conferences. The stablest quarterback situation on a potential conference title challenger might be Danny Etling at LSU, which suggests Alabama won’t be facing much of a challenge.
Quarterback play won’t be as much of a strength for the ACC this season. Lamar Jackson is still posting stupid numbers. But, the five quarterbacks who finished in front of him in passer rating – Peterman, Trubisky, Evans, Watson and Kaaya – all left. Florida State’s Deondre Francois is out for the season after an injury during the Alabama game. The media narrative will catch up, eventually.
Two other conferences, however, look prepared to crest on a wave of excellent quarterback play. Baker Mayfield planting his flag in the Horseshoe was a huge conference pride statement for the oft-maligned Big 12. That conference also offers Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and West Virginia’s Will Grier. There’s some solid veteran depth behind them in the conference. There’s still a decent chance Tom Herman gets Texas’ offense going through the air as well.
The Pac 12, statistically, has been the real challenger to the SEC with capable coaches up and down the league. UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold are locked in a battle to be the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick. Washington’s Jake Browning took the Huskies to the Playoff as a sophomore last season. Oregon sophomore Justin Herbert is putting up better numbers than any of them and did face a real opponent in Nebraska. The conference has experience and depth at quarterback behind those four.
Alabama winning another national title would quiet some talk about the SEC. As with most seasons, that still looks like the most probable outcome. But the SEC won’t truly be back in perception until the league has multiple strong, top 10 to top 15 teams behind Bama. That won’t happen until the SEC’s quarterback play improves.