First and 10: Taking stock of every SEC QB ... and what that means for 2022
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
First, the obvious: There is no more important position in football than quarterback.
Now, the unknown: What is the best way to find a quarterback?
More and more in the SEC, coaches are turning to the transfer portal to fill the need.
We’re less than 3 months from the start of the 2022 season, and at least 7 of the 14 starting quarterbacks in the SEC will be transfers.
What could potentially be the best year at the position in the SEC in nearly two decades has been redesigned by the transfer portal.
“Everyone wants a (5-star) they can develop,” an SEC coach told me. “And if you can’t land him? It’s who gives me the best chance to win. The transfer guy is going to be the option more times than not because he has been around, he has been through battles, nothing will surprise him.”
And it’s not just the starting quarterbacks. It’s the complete philosophical change at the position, starter and backup.
— Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and Kentucky’s Will Levis are 2020 transfers.
— Florida’s top backup, Jack Miller, transferred from Ohio State, and with starter Anthony Richardson’s injury history, could start at some point this season.
— Missouri missed on high profile transfers Jayden Daniels and JT Daniels.
— Georgia missed on the No. 1 QB in the portal (Caleb Williams).
As we enter the critical offseason months of June and July — where chemistry is built and leadership emerges — the role of the quarterback takes center stage. Here’s my annual ranking of the best SEC quarterbacks, based on 3 tiered levels.
2. The Elite
1. Bryce Young, Alabama: But for the loss of WRs Jameson Williams and John Metchie III late last season, Alabama would have won the national title and we’re talking about where Young fits among the all-time greats of college football.
He had a phenomenal season in 2021, despite a shaky offensive line and numerous critical drops at the wide receiver spot in the last 5 games. The problem for 2022: The line might not be much better, and the Tide are counting on two transfer wide receivers (Jermaine Burton, Tyler Harrell), who have a combined 73 career catches.
2. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee: The most undervalued quarterback in college football last season. Had the nation’s best TD/INT ratio (31/3), and was a willing, dangerous runner (620 yards, 5 TD).
He’ll be more comfortable in Year 2 of coach Josh Heupel’s Blur Ball offense, and he’ll play more instinctively instead of reactively.
3. Will Levis, Kentucky: The Wildcats didn’t truly lean on Levis until the final month of the season, when he played his best ball (16 total TDs in last 5 games).
New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello will pick up where Liam Coen left off in 2021, and Levis will continue his meteoric rise since — yep, that’s right — transferring from Penn State.
3. The Proven
4. Stetson Bennett III, Georgia: Say what you want about his lack of physical ability or arm talent, he got better as the season progressed in 2021. He made critical throws in both Playoff games — including a beautiful go ahead deep ball touchdown in the 4th quarter of the national title game.
The plan won’t change much this season. The Dawgs will play terrific defense, and Bennett will manage the game and the position. If you don’t think important, there was a guy named AJ McCarron who did it about a decade ago.
And won back-to-back national titles.
5. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas: He has dropped weight and has worked all offseason with OC Kendal Briles on becoming more of a thrower first, runner second.
Two things: He was already a dangerous thrower in specific down and distance situations last season, and don’t expect him to stop running because he has slimmed down. Watch him develop with more accurate intermediate throws on 3rd down.
6. Spencer Rattler, South Carolina. An intriguing placement for a player who, prior to last season, was the No. 1 player overall for many NFL Draft analysts.
The arm talent and athleticism are there. The championship pedigree is, too (Oklahoma, 2020). There’s plenty on the line for Rattler, who was benched last season at Oklahoma — and whose new team has built a strong set of skill players around him this offseason (with the portal) to ease the transition.
A big season could translate to moving back into NFL Draft first-round projections.
7. Will Rogers, Mississippi State: On history alone, a 3rd season in Mike Leach’s offense almost always means a record-setting performance.
His quarterbacks at Texas Tech (Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell) and Washington State (Luke Falk) who kept the job for multiple seasons had career performances in Year 3:
- Kingsbury, 2002: 5,017 yards, 45 TDs
- Harrell, 2008: 5,111 yards, 45 TDs
- Falk, 2016: 4,468 yards, 38 TDs
Rogers threw for 4,739 yards and 36 TDs last season. How much bigger can those numbers get — and more important, how many games can Mississippi State win?
4. The unknown
8. Max Johnson, Texas A&M: He’s the leader for the starting job, though Haynes King could still win the job in fall camp and/or start games this season.
Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher wants a thrower, and that’s Johnson. He doesn’t have elite arm talent, but he can make all the throws and makes smart decisions.
It’s hard to argue against a quarterback who, in 2 dysfunctional seasons in the LSU program (COVID season of 2020, Ed Orgeron’s final season in 2021) had a TD/INT ratio of 35/7. The accuracy (59% career) must improve.
9. Myles Brennan/Jayden Daniels/Garrett Nussmeier, LSU: Brennan was on his way to a huge season in 2020 before a core injury limited him to all of 3 games.
All 3 players give LSU the ability to win games. Brennan is the safest option. Daniels is the dynamic option with his ability to stress defenses in the run game. Nussmeier is the most talented, but has limited experience.
10. Anthony Richardson, Florida: If this ranking were based on talent and ability alone, Richardson would be in the Elite tier. But this is about production — and it has been spotty at best in 2 seasons.
Multiple injuries have been an issue, as has the odd coaching decisions by former Gators coach Dan Mullen. Florida has 3 coaches working with Richardson: offensive coordinator Rob Sale, offensive QB analyst Ryan O’Hara and coach Billy Napier — who is the Gators’ QB coach and play-caller.
The arm talent, the size, speed and athleticism. It’s all there. Can the new staff make it work — and can Richardson stay healthy?
11. Zach Calzada, Auburn: He took way too much criticism last season for the struggles of the Texas A&M offense. A first-year starter, and a backup before King’s season-ending injury in Week 2.
This is the same quarterback who made some big throws in a couple of important, program-growth wins (Alabama, Auburn). At the very least, he will get better in Year 2 as a starter — and could develop into a player who moves into the second tier of QB rankings by 2023.
12. Jaxson Dart, Ole Miss: Played well in spots last season as the top backup — and then starter — for a gutted (physically and emotionally) USC program. Talent is not a question for the former 5-star recruit.
Kiffin has a history of developing quarterbacks, including most recently developing Matt Corral from a petulant but talented athlete to an elite thrower.
13. Mike Wright, Vanderbilt: The Commodores found something in the last month of the 2021 season, and it looks like Wright could be the answer for a struggling program.
Wright had 6 TDs and 2 INTs in the last 4 games of the season, and he rushed for more than 200 yards. Accuracy (53.1%) must dramatically improve.
14. Brady Cook/Tyler Macon/Sam Horn, Missouri: There’s a reason Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz was trying to add a veteran quarterback (he missed on Jaylen Daniels and JT Daniels).
There’s plenty of uncertainty now. Cook played well in last year’s bowl loss, Macon is a dynamic threat and Horn, the 4-star freshman signee, is the most talented of the group.
Horn, an elite baseball prospect, could still leave Missouri and play professional baseball (that’s decision likely comes later this month). If he stays, he could win the job early.
5. The Weekly Five
Five reasons for optimism in 2022 for Florida:
1. Organization + buy-in = discipline. Would’ve been good for 2 more wins last season.
2. The best offensive line in the past decade. Physical, aggressive and experienced.
3. What could be with Richardson. He’s a talent mix of — and this isn’t hyperbole — Vince Young and Tim Tebow. But will he develop?
4. The offseason physical and mental change of DE Brenton Cox. He’s ready to dominate.
5. The return of MLB Ventrell Miller. The most respected player on the roster, the most dependable player on defense.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Georgia DE/OLB Robert Beal Jr.
“He’s not physically the same as Travon Walker, but his résumé is very similar. He started 2 games last year, had 6.5 sacks and was a wrecking ball off the edge — when he played. Rangy, athletic, long, quick first step. He has everything you’re looking for from that (OLB/DE) spot, but he hasn’t done it consistently.
“They’re going to lean on him this year, but they’ll still rotate guys. That’s their philosophy.
“I will say this: What happens with Walker (in the NFL) will absolutely have an impact (on Beal). If Walker plays well, the criticism of (Beal) not playing as a starter from (his first season) won’t be an issue. If Walker struggles, you know that’s going to play a role.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: A disturbing statistical trend that must change:
1. Georgia: 60.87. Percentage of TDs scored in the red zone, good for 6th in the SEC.
2. Alabama: 41. Sacks allowed, 2nd-worst in the SEC.
3. Texas A&M: 56.2. Completion percentage, 2nd-worst in the SEC.
4. Kentucky: 10. Fumbles lost, 2nd-worst in the SEC.
5. Arkansas: 87. Tackles for loss allowed, 12th in the SEC.
6. LSU: 3.33. Average yards per carry, 13th in the SEC.
7. Tennessee: 42.13. Opponent 3rd-down conversion rate, 13th in the SEC
8. Ole Miss: 83. Opponent rush plays of 10-plus yards.
9. Mississippi State: 86.5. Opponent score percentage in the red zone.
10. South Carolina: 24. Turnovers lost. Worst in the SEC.
11. Florida: 18. Interceptions thrown, tied for worst in the nation.
12. Auburn: 12. Turnovers gained, tied for worst in the SEC.
13. Missouri: 32. Rushing TDs given up, worst in the SEC.
14. Vanderbilt: 9. Sacks, worst in the SEC and tied for worst in the nation.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Last week you said Tennessee would have one big upset win this season. Let’s look at this another way. Who could Alabama and Georgia lose to this season? — Darrell Langston, Atlanta.
We have to start out by acknowledging no elite team in college football is safe from upset. Even Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State.
But more to the point, Alabama and Georgia aren’t bulletproof. The Tide have issues on the offensive line, and Georgia is completely revamping its defense.
Alabama has 3 legitimate road tests: at Texas (yes), at Arkansas, at Tennessee. That’s 3 teams that can score a boatload of points. All three, however, will have problems defensively.
But for every team not named Georgia 2021, the game is won with offense. Texas and Arkansas early (within the first month of the season) could get interesting if Alabama is forced to match scores with an offensive line that hasn’t yet figured it out.
Georgia has the easier road, but rebuilt South Carolina (and Rattler) in Week 3 on the road in a sleepy noon kick will be an intriguing spot — as will a road game at Kentucky in late November that could be for the East Division.
Tennessee, as I said last week, has the offense to outscore anyone in the SEC. The circumstances behind each game are unique: The Vols get Georgia in Athens a week after the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, and get Alabama after the Tide have back-to-back games at Arkansas and against Texas A&M.
144. It’s easy to zero in on the quarterback race at LSU. It more than likely will be a hot topic throughout the 2022 season.
But look deeper for an indicator of how quickly the turnaround will come under new coach Brian Kelly. And look to the other side of the ball.
LSU gave up an astounding 144 plays of 20-plus yards over the past 2 seasons, by far the worst in the SEC and one of the worst in the nation. Over the course of 23 games from 2020-21, LSU gave up an average of 6.2 20-plus yard plays per game.
That’s how you lose 10 of 18 SEC games the 2 seasons after you win the national title.
10. Quote to note
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher: “The transfer portal is an issue, too, when combined with NIL. It will be sorted out in the court system or by Congress. God help us if we get to that point.”