First and 10: Next wave of SEC QBs is on the way. Nobody's situation is better than Georgia's, but ...
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There’s no position like it, none more all-encompassing and critical to a program’s development and success.
The most important position in college football will be the most uncertain in the SEC in 2021.
Maybe this time Georgia can get it right.
Of all the uncertainty in the 2020 season, none was more strange — and frankly, surreal — than the way Georgia handled the quarterback position and wasted a championship defense. And potentially, a championship season.
This time around, there is one variable at Georgia: the future of QB JT Daniels. Daniels is a draft-eligible third-year sophomore, and even though he has only started 15 career games and has produced modest numbers (24 TDs, 12 INTs), the COVID season has made many players who otherwise wouldn’t contemplate leaving school early, think twice about it.
One NFL scout told me if Daniels has a big bowl game performance this week against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl, he could see Daniels declaring for the NFL Draft.
“He has all the measurables and can make every throw,” the scout said. “My advice, and I would imagine it would be the advice from the (NFL College Advisory Committee), would be to stay in school. More reps in big games against the best players in college football, and a better chance to move up in the (2022) draft.”
For now, we’ll assume Daniels returns to Georgia for his junior season and gives the Bulldogs a potentially elite player at the most important position on the field. Of the SEC’s 7 heavyweight programs, only Georgia would have stability at quarterback. The other 6 – Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas A&M, Auburn and Tennessee – will either have a new starter or play a career backup or a struggling starter (more on that later).
None, though, is more intriguing than Georgia – if for no other reason because of the way the Bulldogs have botched the position so badly over the last 3 years and voided potential championship teams.
These 3 seasons will haunt coach Kirby Smart for years to come:
— 2018: Coming off a national championship game loss to Alabama in 2017, Smart signed the nation’s No.1 dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields and failed to fit his offense around Fields’ skillset. Smart instead tried to force Fields into a pro-style, play-action system better suited for starter Jake Fromm, and it imploded during the SEC Championship Game when Fromm struggled in the second half of a loss – and Fields’ lone contribution was an obvious (and failed) fake punt call. Season result: 11-3.
— 2019: Infatuated with Fromm and his ability to guide the Bulldogs to the national title game in Year 1, and within a handful of plays of winning the SEC title in Year 2, Smart stayed with Fromm and Fields transferred to Ohio State (where he led the Buckeyes to back-to-back College Football Playoffs running a system more suited to his skills). Fromm hit his ceiling and had his worst season in college, and the season ended with a blowout loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game and a win in a meaningless bowl. Season result: 12-2.
— 2020: Instead of preparing for Fields’ junior year, Georgia began the unique COVID-based season with 2 transfers competing for the spot (Jamie Newman of Wake Forest, and Daniels of USC), D’Wan Mathis, former walk-on Stetson Bennett and freshman Carson Beck. Smart started with Mathis, pulled the switch early, went to Bennett, and stayed with him too long before moving the Daniels, whom he said was healthy and ready to play 2 games before he did (one of those games being a loss to Florida that cost Georgia the East Division). Result: 7-2, Peach Bowl vs. Cincinnati.
That’s 3 seasons that could’ve ended with championships but didn’t because of the way the Georgia staff handled the quarterback position.
After Daniels played his first game against Mississippi State (a nearly flawless game, by the way), he was asked why he didn’t play sooner. His response: coaching decision.
If Daniels stays at Georgia, there can be no mismanagement this time. Smart will do what he always has done at Georgia: freshmen will compete for the right to play. It worked once before (Jake Fromm over Jacob Eason), and failed the second time (Fromm over Fields).
The difference between Fromm, Fields and 5-star signee Brock Vandagriff, the No.1 quarterback recruit in 2020: Vandagriff won’t be enrolled until the summer. He won’t have the (expected) 15 spring practices to pick up the offense and compete at a higher level in fall camp.
Daniels has more practices for bowl preparations, 15 for spring practice and a month for fall camp. If he stays, he’d likely have to get hurt to lose the job. Bennett isn’t a factor in the competition, Mathis transferred to Temple, and Beck could still transfer.
Translation: It’s almost impossible for the Georgia staff to bungle this quarterback decision.
That is, unless Daniels leaves early for the NFL.
The following is breakdown of where the 14-team conference stands at quarterback on three levels: potential elite, growing stars, the jury’s out.
2. Potential elite
Alabama: Mac Jones, the Heisman Trophy favorite, has another year of eligibility but likely will declare for the NFL Draft.
The outlook for 2021: Redshirt freshman Bryce Young. Many believed Young would eventually win this year’s job, and supplant Jones prior to the second half of the season. It never materialized, but with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian building elite offenses, Young should develop nicely – even with a near-complete reshuffle at the skill positions around him. Expect more QB run game with Young.
Florida: Heisman finalist Kyle Trask is expected to declare for the NFL Draft.
The outlook for 2021: Emory Jones. The anticipation of Jones in coach Dan Mullens’ offense has been percolating for 3 years. One NFL scout told me Jones has “a live arm; the ball just pops off his hand,” and that he can’t wait to see what Jones can do in Mullen’s fully operational dual-threat offense.
Ole Miss: Matt Corral won the competition with John Rhys Plumlee, and came out firing Week 1. The No. 3 quarterback in the conference by the end of the season.
The outlook for 2021: Another year in coach Lane Kiffin’s system, and Corral – despite his size – might be too good to pass up on the first 2 days of the NFL Draft. “He’s a tough grade,” one NFL scout told me. “I like his fire, his competitive juice. I want to see him value ball security and make smarter throws. How do you have 11 interceptions in 2 games? He’s either not seeing defenses and combo coverages, or he’s arrogant with his arm. Neither is good. Still, he has come a long way from last year, and that’s a credit to Lane (Kiffin).”
LSU: Myles Brennan waited 3 years to play, and was playing well before a core injury ended his season after 3 games. The Tigers struggled at the position the remainder of the season.
The outlook for 2021: If Brennan returns healthy from the core injury, expect him to play well and produce big numbers. He was averaging more than 400 yards passing a game before the injury, and the staff believes he would’ve had a huge season were it not for the injury. If Brennan can’t play, backups Max Johnson and TJ Finely both have starting experience, though both were hit and miss as true freshmen.
3. Growing stars
Missouri: Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak won the job from Shawn Robinson in Week 2, and the Tigers got progressively better as he got more comfortable in coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s offense.
The outlook for 2021: Bazelak threw for 2,366 yards and completed 67% of his passes, and despite an average TD/INT ratio (7 TDs, 6 INTs), the staff believes he can take a significant step in Year 2 as a starter. Throws a beautiful deep ball and gained more confidence and leadership skills throughout the season.
Auburn: Bo Nix regressed in 2020 under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, and that, as much as anything, was reason to fire good guy Gus Malzahn.
The outlook for 2021: New coach Bryan Harsin has a history of developing quarterbacks at Boise State, and has a project on his hands with Nix – a talent who has gone awry. Harsin’s biggest goal: minimize what looks like Nix’s best play but is more counterproductive (throwing off schedule), and emphasizing staying in the pocket and sliding and going through progressions.
Mississippi State: KJ Costello set SEC and school records in Week 1, then fell off the ride and eventually gave way to freshman Will Rogers.
The outlook for 2021: Rogers completed nearly 70% of his passes, but the ball didn’t get downfield nearly enough. Year 2 under Leach typically translates to drastic improvement/confidence in the offense for all of his quarterbacks.
Vanderbilt: Maybe the best move of the season from former coach Derek Mason: starting freshman Ken Seals Week 1 and never giving up on him.
The outlook for 2021: Seals has a live arm and a gunslinger’s mentality – something that hasn’t been seen in Nashville since the days of Jay Cutler. He completed 65% of his passes when teams knew the Commodores were throwing and chasing points – and he was the offense’s only option. A strong piece to build around for new coach Clark Lea.
4. The jury is out
Texas A&M: Four-year starter Kellen Mond ended all speculation about returning for a 5th season when he accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.
The outlook for 2021: Haynes King threw 4 passes in 2020, but coach Jimbo Fisher has raved about King’s competitiveness and physical ability. The most heralded Texas high school quarterback since Kyler Murray, King will be the first quarterback Fisher recruited to start at Texas A&M.
Tennessee: It couldn’t get much worse. Jarrett Guarantano was a disaster and has entered the transfer portal. Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout (transfer portal) and Harrison Bailey weren’t much better.
The outlook for 2021: Bailey was a heralded recruit but never really got much of a chance. His starts were uneven, and he struggled to find any rhythm behind an offensive line that couldn’t protect. The loser of Bailey vs. Maurer might head for the portal, too.
Kentucky: Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen all took snaps this season. None really did much in the passing game, and because of that, UK has a new offensive coordinator and new philosophy (see: throwing the ball = good).
The outlook for 2021: Gatewood and Allen will compete for the job in new offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s offense, and Allen – coach Mark Stoops’ biggest quarterback recruit – seems to be a perfect fit for the system. Gatewood couldn’t get on the field at Auburn, then couldn’t beat out Wilson – who was limited in the passing game – when given the opportunity at UK.
Arkansas: Feleipe Franks seems like the perfect candidate for the NCAA’s eligibility waiver rule for 2020. But he accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl and won’t return to Arkansas.
The outlook for 2021: It’s hard to argue against KJ Jefferson, who, in his first start, threw 3 TDs and 0 INTs and but for a crazy comeback by Missouri, would’ve beaten a rival and be undefeated as a starter. Is he the best fit for offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense? Probably not – but he’s clearly making the most of his opportunity.
South Carolina: Nothing was more damaging for former coach Will Muschamp than his inability to develop a winning quarterback. The 3 quarterbacks who played combined for 8 TDs and 9 INTs.
The outlook for 2021: Who stays, who goes from the 3 who took snaps this season? It may not matter. Expect new coach Shane Beamer to sign at least 1 quarterback from the transfer portal, and don’t be surprised if he’s the starter.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (plus 4 more), bowl edition:
- Florida vs. Oklahoma (+3)
- Tulsa (+2.5) vs. Mississippi State
- Arkansas (+5.5) vs. TCU
- Georgia (-7) vs. Cincinnati
- Auburn vs. Northwestern (-3.5)
- Alabama (-19.5) vs. Notre Dame
- NC State (-2.5) vs. Kentucky
- Ole Miss (+7) vs. Indiana
- Texas A&M (-7.5) vs. UNC
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama DT Christian Barmore.
“Physically you look at him, and you wonder why he doesn’t make more plays. He’s a big man who moves really well. I thought he had a chance to develop like Quinnen Williams; they’re similar type players and build. (Barmore) just hasn’t stretched yet. He might go back (to Alabama) and become that type of player, but if you’re already a potential Day 1-2 grade, there’s no sense in going back at that position. You’re taking games off your career and from the ability to earn. If he comes out, someone will take a chance on him in the first round – especially if he shows out during the Playoff.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: nonconference schedule for 2021.
1. Alabama: Miami (Atlanta), Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Mercer.
2. Texas A&M: Kent State, at Colorado, New Mexico, Prairie View A&M.
3. Florida: FAU, at USF, Samford, Florida State.
4. Georgia: Clemson (Charlotte), UAB, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech.
5. LSU: at UCLA, McNeese, Central Michigan, ULM.
6. Auburn: Akron, at Penn State, Georgia State, Alabama State.
7. Missouri: Central Michigan, Southeast Missouri, at Boston College, North Texas.
8. Ole Miss: Louisville (Atlanta), Austin Peay, Tulane, Liberty.
9. Kentucky: ULM, Chattanooga, New Mexico State, Louisville.
10. Arkansas: Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
11. Tennessee: Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, South Alabama.
12. Mississippi State: Louisiana Tech, NC State, at Memphis, Tennessee State.
13. South Carolina: Eastern Illinois, at ECU, Troy, Clemson.
14. Vanderbilt: ETSU, at Colorado State, Stanford, UConn.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: My Tigers went and hired some coach from Boise State. Are we really that bottom of the barrel that we can’t hire a coach from an established program?
Kory: The one thing that has always hindered Auburn is meddling from heavy-handed boosters outside the athletic department. Battling in the SEC, and in the state with CFB king Alabama, is bad enough. Battling with boosters is only palpable when your contract is guaranteed, or so loaded in your favor (see: Gus Malzahn), who gives a flip what mega boosters say?
That said, Auburn got lucky with Bryan Harsin, who could’ve taken any number of Power 5 jobs over the last few years but decided to stay at Boise. He’s a respected teacher of quarterbacks, and his offenses have been among the best in the nation as the head coach of Boise, and as the offensive coordinator under Chris Petersen.
Auburn had gone stale with Malzahn’s misdirection offense. There’s only so much action that can happen unless you have an elite talent that can both run and throw in the offense. Malzahn hadn’t had that type of player since Nick Marshall. If your quarterback can’t effectively produce in either the run or pass game, Malzahn’s offense eventually crawls to an ugly stop (see: 2019-2020).
Auburn was 28th in the nation (33.2 ppg.) in scoring in 2019, and 86th in the nation (25.7 ppg.) this season.
55, 31, 21, 13, 6. Want to know why LSU is looking for a new defensive coordinator (there is interest and conversation between former Vandy coach Derek Mason and LSU coach Ed Orgeron): LSU finished 125th out of 127 FBS teams in passes of 20-plus yards given up (55), last in passes of 30-plus yards (31), last in passes of 40-plus yards given up, last in passes of 50-plus yards (13) and tied for last in passes of 60-plus yards given up (6).
10. Quote to note
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach: “Throughout the country, I think you saw a number of teams sort of give up the ghost and quit playing with some of the passion they did early in the season. I don’t feel like that was the case for us.”