First and 10: If you don't have a QB, you don't have a chance, a'ight? And several SEC teams don't
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Thirty years ago, a brash 40-something coach arrived at Florida and declared he didn’t know who his quarterback would be – only that he’d lead the SEC in passing.
That idea, now more than ever, fuels college football – and specifically, the SEC.
Those who have elite quarterback play win big games. Those who don’t struggle for success and hire and fire coaches while looking for the best “fit.”
Let’s make this very clear from the jump: Winning in college football has nothing to do with “fit” and how it plays out on the field. It has everything to do with the most important position on the field.
It wasn’t long after Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990 that the quarterback position at Florida became the most high-profile job in college football. Only years later, after Nick Saban changed course in the middle of the most successful coaching run in college football history and ditched his “game manager” philosophy on quarterbacks to recruiting game-changers, can we truly appreciate just how important the position has become.
Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain couldn’t develop an elite quarterback at Florida and were fired.
Les Miles won a national title with a run-first, game-manager offense early at LSU, but couldn’t develop an elite quarterback to keep pace later in his career and eventually was fired.
Gene Chizik won a national championship at Auburn with an elite quarterback and was fired 2 years later after struggling to find another difference-maker.
Jeremy Pruitt can’t find a quarterback at Tennessee. Neither can Mark Stoops at Kentucky, or Muschamp at South Carolina, or Derek Mason at Vanderbilt.
Mike Leach, in his first season at Mississippi State, thought he had a quarterback in Week 1 but has since benched him. Before Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt, his team had scored 23 offensive points in 4 straight losses.
Lane Kiffin has a quarterback in his first season at Ole Miss, and were it not for a horrific call from SEC officials in a loss to Auburn, would have 3 wins with a team that probably shouldn’t have any.
To further emphasize outside the SEC: Jim Harbaugh hasn’t had a quarterback in 6 seasons at Michigan, and he can’t consistently beat his rivals (or Ohio State at all) and is teetering on disaster despite an impressive overall record. Brian Kelly responded from an awful 4-8 season at Notre Dame in 2016 by recruiting and developing Ian Book – and Book just gave Clemson (the king of quarterback play in the last decade) its first regular-season loss in 37 games.
“It’s where we are in college football, no question,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “The position has always been important. But so much is placed on (the quarterback) now with pre-snap (reads), protections, understanding defensive formations, anticipating change in those formations, getting everyone lined up properly.
“Then the ball snaps, and you have to read and react in a matter of 3 seconds or less. Go through progressions, move in the pocket to buy time, escape when you have to, and throw accurately no matter where you are in that process. That’s every single snap. Now times that by 60 or 70 or 80 times, and you see how important that position becomes.”
Nowhere was that on more prominent display than last weekend’s Florida-Georgia game. Mullen has developed Kyle Trask into 1 of the 2 best quarterbacks in the SEC; Georgia coach Kirby Smart has botched the quarterback spot so badly, a championship-ready team needs a miracle (2 more Florida losses, better UGA QB play down the stretch) just to have another shot at Alabama again in the SEC Championship Game.
Mullen arrived at Florida in 2018 with a depth chart full of underwhelming quarterbacks and wide receivers. By the end of Year 1, he had 10 wins and developed quarterback Feleipe Franks from a player who was booed by his own fans to a quarterback leading a rout of Michigan in a bowl game.
A year later, after Franks sustained a season-ending injury in Week 3, he got Trask – who hadn’t started a game since his freshman season in high school – ready to play in the toughest conference in the nation. By the end of the season, the Gators had 11 wins, and 4 of those underwhelming receivers were drafted by the NFL.
Now here we are in 2020, and Trask has set an SEC record for consecutive games with at least 4 TD passes (5), and his emergence among the elite of college football is a similar trendline to that of a guy named Joe Burrow.
Trask isn’t the talent of a first pick overall in the NFL Draft like Burrow, but he’s the reason Florida is no longer stuck in mud at the most important position on the field. His emergence since last season has lifted Florida from a program on the rise to a program set up to play for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Meanwhile, the play of Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis is the reason Georgia has regressed for the first time under Smart.
The play of Jarrett Guarantano (and every other Tennessee quarterback) has led to hard questions that must be asked about Pruitt (more on that later).
“High criticism or high praise,” Jimbo Fisher says about the quarterback spot. “It’s not fair, but there’s no gray area there.”
We can talk about the passing game being more than the quarterback, how the offensive line has to protect, receivers have to run correct routes and catch the ball, and play-callers have to set up throws.
Or how defensive rules changes over the years have given a distinct advantage to offenses (they have), or how quarterbacks are protected at a greater level than previous years (they are).
But all of that means nothing when it’s 3rd-and-9 and you need a play, more times than not, it’s all about the quarterback. Can he make an accurate throw, and can he avoid disaster?
It’s not that difficult to understand: The quarterback is everything.
2. The Big Orange dilemma
Jeremy Pruitt is winless vs. Tennessee’s rivals (Alabama, Georgia, Florida) and last weekend the Vols lost their 4th consecutive game.
After winning 8 in a row dating to last season, the Vols have imploded at quarterback and have scored 7 total points in the second halves of the last 4 games.
The latest Tennessee loss, to Arkansas, magnified this reality: In 3 years, Pruitt and his staff have yet to develop a difference-maker at quarterback.
On the other sideline, there was this: In less than a year – through a pandemic and the loss of spring practice and summer workouts – first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff have continued to develop a quarterback (Franks) who has been critical to the Hogs’ rise from the SEC basement.
Franks threw 2 interceptions to start the season in a loss to Georgia and has since thrown 13 TDs and 1 INT in leading the Hogs to 3 wins. That’s coaching.
If you’re Tennessee and Jarrett Guarantano isn’t working, and the quarterbacks Pruitt and his staff recruited (Harrison Bailey, Brian Mauer) aren’t working, where does that leave you with a coach who doesn’t have a single signature victory in his 3 seasons?
The hiring of Pruitt was a colossal mistake, a ridiculous reach for a proud program after a botched coaching search led to an inner-departmental coup. That coup led to the new athletic director (Phil Fulmer) hiring a career assistant coach and paying him $4 million a year – because he was a good “fit.”
Pruitt will make a change this offseason at offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, and the Vols will move forward with a coach who doesn’t have a signature victory. They’ll hope he will make the right hire to teach and develop the most important position on the field, and that a lost decade doesn’t become two.
That, or spend $12 million to buy him out and start over.
3. The most important position, The Epilogue
How important is the quarterback position, you ask?
It saved Texas A&M $54 million, give or take $7 million a year.
Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher has finally figured out Kellen Mond, and how to set him up for success. Mond has developed over 3 seasons with Fisher, and now the offense is clicking and Texas A&M is winning and they’re talking about – hold onto your 10-gallon hat – the Playoff.
Mond is nearly 25 points better than the best QB rating of his career and has career bests in completion percentage (64.3) and average per attempt (8.3). His 16 TDs project to a career-best 27 TDs. Mond is the Aggies’ all-time leader in touchdown passes (68).
More important, he has big wins on his résumé, including LSU in 2018 and Florida in 2020.
In 3 years under Pruitt’s staff, Guarantano hasn’t been nearly as effective. He has gotten progressively less instinctual and more mechanical. He’s trying to not make mistakes.
“You watch (Guarantano) on the sidelines, and he’s this big kid with a big arm and you’re thinking, I can’t wait to see this,” an NFL scout told me. “Then you watch him, and it’s just a train wreck. Sometimes I really feel for these kids who aren’t getting proper coaching. Once your confidence is shaken, it’s not easy for young guys. Then it’s more poor coaching on top of poor coaching. And these guys don’t know which end is up.”
Guarantano isn’t alone in his struggles.
— Auburn spent guaranteed money this offseason to hire Chad Morris as offensive coordinator, and quarterback Bo Nix hasn’t progressed like most 2nd-year starters. He’s incrementally better in numbers, but as far as impact on a game, there’s little doubt he has regressed. Were it not for 3 horrific officiating calls, there would be a much greater emphasis on what in the world is wrong with the Nix and Morris marriage.
— Muschamp hired good friend Mike Bobo to run his offense at South Carolina, and Bobo brought Collin Hill, his former quarterback at Colorado State, with him. Hill is statistically having the worst season of his career, but he did jump from the Mountain West to the SEC. This, of course, makes you wonder why Ryan Hilinski, who played well at times in 2019 and is more physically gifted than Hill, hasn’t been able to win the job.
“There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t get to see,” an SEC coach told me. “Does your quarterback understand what we’re doing? Does he know where the ball should go? It’s not just, boy, he has a good arm. But at the end of the day, it’s our job to teach him to know where the ball should go, and how to protect it.”
Coaches who can do just that win big games. Coaches who can’t – for whatever reason – will eventually be weeded out.
4. Et tu, Georgia?
Smart rolled back the curtain somewhat on what has become the biggest story in the SEC this season (for some reason, it’s not the looming Heisman Trophy race between Mac Jones and Kyle Trask).
JT Daniels has been running scout team quarterback for Georgia. He’s not wearing a knee brace and he’s not limited in what he can do in practice or games, Smart said, when asked specifically about Daniels after a blowout loss to Florida.
That leaves Georgia with Stetson Bennett, who clearly isn’t the answer, and D’Wan Mathis, who clearly isn’t, either.
“I think (Daniels) is still growing and getting better in the offense,” Smart said. “But obviously right now, with where we are, we feel (Bennett and Mathis) give us the best shot.”
So let’s recap: The quarterback running scout team has better arm talent than either quarterback used this season. The quarterback running the scout team – who started as a freshman at USC before injuring his knee in the first game of 2019 (he left after Kedon Slovis’ big freshman season made it clear where USC was headed) – isn’t ready to play for the Bulldogs.
I don’t know how else to say this other than: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Unless Daniels goes out and throws multiple interceptions, he’s not going to make things worse. He can miss wide-open receivers, too. He can miss progressions and eliminate big plays, too.
Hell, he can throw it into the back of his offensive line, too.
Georgia has a quarterback problem, a situation that has taken a championship-level team and turned it into a group of talented players languishing in the kiddie pool because there’s no quarterback who can jump in the deep end and survive.
At this point, what exactly does it hurt to put Daniels in the game with 1 or 2 specific reads every play? The odds of him hitting those throws can’t be much worse than Bennett and Mathis.
You’ve seen what Bennett and Mathis can do. You haven’t seen Daniels.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Alabama (-22.5) at LSU
- Arkansas (+17) at Florida
- Auburn (-13.5) at Mississippi State
- Texas A&M (-12) at Tennessee
- Georgia at Missouri (+12)
Last week: 4-1
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: LSU WR Terrace Marshall.
“He doesn’t have the top-end speed of (Ja’Marr) Chase, and doesn’t have the explosiveness of (Justin) Jefferson, but man, is he smooth. Now he can run, and he’s one of those guys that finds another gear on game day.
“He’s long and he can go get it, and that’s a big deal in our game now. But a lot of times with those long guys, they’re clunky. He’s smooth, so smooth.
“The best thing that happened to him was Chase opting out. Not only did he become the focus of that passing game, he’s the guy out there playing right now. Whatever you want to say about these guys opting out – and I have no problem with it – the players that are on the field are the players who are generating fresh game tape. I love (South Carolina CB) Jaycee Horn. He might be the first corner taken. And Marshall got the best of him in that matchup when they played (this season).”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: There’s a whole lot of rat poison left on the schedule, and think about this: Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have had 1 unbeaten season (since 2007).
2. Florida: The Missouri defense under Barry Odom had success against Dan Mullen in 2018-19 (40 points in 2 games), and didn’t have better talent than Odom has at Arkansas. A dangerous spot for the Gators after an emotional win over Georgia.
3. Texas A&M: Aggies are talking about the CFP. Two things: This team isn’t good enough to look ahead, and they’re going to need Florida to lose at least 1 more time (in the regular season, or the SEC Championship Game).
4. Georgia: In the last 3 key SEC games for Georgia, the defense has given up 37 points (LSU, 2019), 41 (Alabama) and 44 (Florida).
5. Auburn: Unless there’s something crazy good and unexpected for Auburn, the Tigers are staring at a 6-4. That would be easier to handle if there were something dynamic to build around.
6. Arkansas: Franks will be geeked to play his former team in the former stadium whose fans once booed him. The Gators will have a natural letdown. Can Franks and OC/play-caller Kendal Briles take advantage of it?
7. Kentucky: Terry Wilson or Joey Gatewood: Which QB can be more efficient in the passing game? This is an optimal moment (vs. Vanderbilt) to find out – before back-to-back road games against Alabama and Florida.
8. Tennessee: Can this be Tennessee’s moment to take a stand? The Vols did it in 2018 against Auburn. A win this week against Texas A&M prevents what could be the ultimate collapse of losing out.
9. Missouri: A critical spot for Mizzou coming off a bye week. If the Tigers can exploit Georgia’s banged up defense, they can win a shootout. Win here, and MU isn’t far from a really nice season under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz.
10. Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin has been eerily quiet during the bye week. He knows what’s going down in the second half of the season and how important it can be (more on that later).
11. LSU: The odds of QB Myles Brennan being ready to play vs. Alabama are slim. That leaves LSU in a big(ger) hole against the Tide, which might hang the largest number in the history of the series on the Tigers. Especially after the – ahem — colorful audio from last year’s winning locker room.
12. South Carolina: I’m not sure I’ve seen a Will Muschamp coached team look so woefully unprepared as the Gamecocks were against Texas A&M. Get back to what you do best: run with TB Kevin Harris and slow tempo against Ole Miss.
13. Mississippi State: Bo Nix is a different player on the road (see: not good), and the Mississippi State defense is the one steady thing on the roster. If QB Will Rogers can protect the ball and the defense gets multiple turnovers, an upset is possible.
14. Vanderbilt: Last week was the chance to win a game this season, and the Commodores had 5 turnovers against Mississippi State. You want positive: Vandy may have found something in TB Keyon Henry-Brooks.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m a little discouraged by the Lane Train. From what I can tell, he’s one of those coaches who comes in with a lot of bluster, wins a game or two he shouldn’t win, and then never really elevates a program. Tell me where I’m wrong, and tell me this season and his time at Ole Miss won’t be any different. Even if his two “wins” were close losses to Alabama and Florida.
Monty: If you’re an Ole Miss fan, you’ve got to hang on to the reality that Kiffin has made a legit SEC quarterback out of Matt Corral – who had talent, but clearly wasn’t focused under the previous staff. The problem: The previous staff didn’t exactly recruit well on the defensive side of the ball.
I would expect Kiffin to hit the transfer portal heavily at the end of the season, especially with the NCAA in the process of granting every player one free transfer without losing a year of eligibility (this has nothing to do with the free season of eligibility for every player this season). That means Kiffin can upgrade defensively immediately, signing guys who can play in 2021 and change the unit. How does he do that? Finish strong this season.
Keep scoring points, keep making it look fun, keep pressing to the edge to make players want to be part of what he’s building. That begins this week against South Carolina, a winnable game Ole Miss can’t lose. They’re not beating Texas A&M the following week, but they absolutely can beat Mississippi State and LSU to finish the season.
If Kiffin somehow gets to 5-5, he’s going to have a great opportunity to land some difference-makers on defense from all 3 recruiting areas: the portal, junior college and high school. Then we’ll see if he can truly make it unique in Oxford like Hugh Freeze did not so long ago.
9. Numbers: 221.79
To finish our Week Of The Quarterback, we give you Alabama’s Mac Jones. In games against 3 (Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi State) of the SEC’s top 4 defenses, Jones has a passer rating of 221.79. That number is higher than Jones’ season passer rating of 210.32 (2nd in the nation for players with more than 1 game) and is backed by an impressive stat line: 12 TDs, 2 INTs, 1,143 yards and a completion percentage of 75.5.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Dan Mullen, on jumping into the stands to celebrate with fans: “You’ve got to have some fun and enjoy this. It’s been a tough, difficult year for everybody.”