Go back to this time 2 years ago ... how many SEC teams could have predicted what their QB situations would be?
Death, taxes and unpredictability at the quarterback position.
OK, that’s not exactly how it goes, but it probably should.
The SEC’s well-documented quarterback movement has been a popular storyline over the past couple of years. Sure, we could have predicted Tua Tagovailoa becoming really good, but nobody could have predicted that Joe Burrow, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask would all make a bid for the Heisman Trophy.
We’re entering a year in which there are 10 SEC teams with new starting quarterbacks or new offensive coordinators. It’s also worth noting that 8 of the 14 SEC head coaches will be entering Year 1 or Year 2. If there’s an overarching theme as to why there’s been such unpredictability with SEC quarterbacks, that’s it. This is the same league that has only had 1 5-star quarterback earn an all-conference honor with the team he signed with going back to 2010 (Tagovailoa).
If history has taught us anything in this league, it’s that we should expect the unexpected at the quarterback position. All you need to do in order to understand that point is go back to this time 2 years ago.
I did just that. I looked at how we thought of every SEC quarterback room back in April 2019. Very few have gone exactly how we thought they would. Look at each situation and you’ll see how obvious that is:
Expected starter for 2019 — Tua Tagovailoa
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Mac Jones, true freshmen Taulia Tagovailoa and Paul Tyson
Most unpredictable development — Jones becomes a star in 2020
How it played out and where we’re currently at — There was skepticism about newly hired Steve Sarkisian, but at the same time, nobody was surprised with how 2019 played out. Tua Tagovailoa was again incredible and as predicted, he left early for the NFL. But his late-season injury opened the door for Jones to establish himself before Bryce Young’s highly anticipated 2020 arrival. And even though there was optimism about the incoming freshman — he committed to Alabama in September 2019 — Jones got the key opportunity he needed and never looked back.
Again, no one saw Jones taking Alabama’s offense to the next level. At this time 2 years ago, Young was a USC commit. The best bet to be the 2021 starter probably would’ve favored Taulia Tagovailoa. It was only after the 2019 season finished that his transfer seemed somewhat inevitable.
Jones’ 2020 season, which will go down as one of the best in SEC history, was clearly the most unpredictable thing about the last 2 years in the Alabama quarterback room.
Expected starter for 2019 — Ummmm ….?
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Grad transfers Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) and Ben Hicks (SMU), redshirt junior Jack Lindsey, redshirt freshmen Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones, true freshman KJ Jefferson
Most unpredictable development — Arkansas starts 5 guys in a disastrous 2019 season
I remember actually giving Chad Morris some praise for basically bringing in half the western hemisphere to try and figure out his quarterback situation. Boy did I botch that one. None of it worked, which was obviously why Morris was canned. Nobody could’ve predicted that the Hogs would fail to complete half their passes, they would finish outside the top 100 in passing and they would fail to win an SEC game … again.
Starkel and Hicks were one-and-done even though both had success as starters at the FBS level. Noland switched to focusing on just baseball and Jefferson, well, bless him. He has an opportunity to be the guy now. In a totally roundabout way, Jefferson being the likely 2021 starter was sort of predictable at this time 2 years ago. It’s just that nobody could’ve predicted what 2019 and 2020 would entail.
I should also probably note that the other surprising development was that the best Arkansas quarterback of the last half-decade ended up being … Feleipe Franks? Go back and tell the spring 2019 version of yourself that one.
Expected starter for 2019 — 4-way battle
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Malik Willis, redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood, 24-year-old freshman Cord Sandberg, true freshman Bo Nix
Most unpredictable development — Nix starts from the jump … but doesn’t develop
How it played out and where we’re currently at — If you went back to this time 2 years ago and told Auburn fans that by April 2021, Bo Nix will be entering Year 3 as a starter, they’d probably assume that we’d be talking about a Heisman Trophy candidate. But after Nix became the first true freshman quarterback to start in Auburn’s season-opener since 1946, he has yet to become even an average SEC quarterback. Nix’s lack of development certainly wasn’t what Auburn fans would’ve predicted in the post-Jarrett Stidham era. The fact that Malik Willis paired up with Hugh Freeze and led Liberty to a historic season in 2020 probably didn’t help matters.
Gatewood never starting a game for Auburn wouldn’t have necessarily been a total shock given how much he needed to improve as a passer, but considering that he was someone who got the Cam Newton comps as a recruit, we couldn’t have assumed that at this time 2 years ago that he’d hit the transfer portal by the end of 2019.
We also couldn’t have assumed that Nix is a bad 2021 away from being Jarrett Guarantano 2.0.
Expected starter for 2019 — Feleipe Franks
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt junior Kyle Trask, redshirt freshman Emory Jones, true freshman Jalon Jones
Most unpredictable development — Trask leads the nation’s No. 1 passing offense in 2020
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Franks’ injury led to such unpredictability. There was an overwhelming feeling that 2019 would be Franks’ last year in Gainesville coming off a banner finish to 2018, but nobody saw that coming via Trask turning into one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks. Emory Jones was expected to be Franks’ replacement, but that got put on hold in a way that’s extremely atypical in this era of college football.
Go figure that Trask, AKA the guy who didn’t start in high school, delivered the best season by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow. The pocket passer who was recruited by the previous regime became another remarkable Mullen success story. Trask, despite his disappointing finish to 2020, is the perfect example of how an injury can change the course of history. Franks winded up having success in his lone year at Arkansas, and Emory Jones’ takeover was delayed in Year 4.
But at the same time, most Gator fans in spring 2019 that Emory Jones would be the obvious starter going into 2021, they wouldn’t have been surprised. As for what happened with Jalon Jones … let’s not go down that road.
Expected starter for 2019 — Jake Fromm
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — JUCO transfer Stetson Bennett IV, true freshman D’Wan Mathis
Most unpredictable development — The JT Daniels/Jamie Newman drama in 2020
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Keep in mind that in spring 2019, we’re a couple months removed from Justin Fields leaving Georgia for Ohio State. If one were predicting a 2021 starter at this time 2 years ago, Mathis would’ve been the likely choice, though Carson Beck had recently committed. Fromm’s role in this wasn’t that unpredictable, though it was at least a bit of a surprise that he didn’t stick around for the new offense in 2020.
The thing nobody could’ve predicted was how the Newman-Daniels situation unfolded. At this time 2 years ago, Daniels was a returning starter after an up-and-down true freshman season at USC while Newman was entering his first full season as the starter at Wake Forest, which turned out to be his coming out party. Kirby Smart went out and got the top transfer quarterback available in Newman … only to make the decision a few months later that he also wanted Daniels, AKA the former 5-star quarterback from USC. That was the first time Smart made a major transfer portal splash at the position, and boy, was it a splash.
Newman went from getting preseason Heisman buzz to opting out before playing a game at Georgia while Daniels went from waiting his turn behind Mathis (or getting back to full strength … depending on who you ask) to becoming a revelation in Todd Monken’s offense. Now, of course, Daniels is getting preseason Heisman buzz with expectations he’ll lead a high-octane offense after he finished 2020 on a tear.
The Georgia quarterback room is the primary example of “predict these things 2 years out and you’re bound to be wrong.”
Expected starter for 2019 — Terry Wilson
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Walker Wood, true freshmen Nick Scalzo and Amani Gilmore
Most unpredictable development — Lynn Bowden’s unbelievable midseason switch in 2019
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Talk about twists and turns. Kentucky might have had a predictable offense under Eddie Gran, but nobody could’ve envisioned what the last 2 years turned out to be. Wilson’s season-ending injury in 2019 was a major bummer coming off a historic 2018 season in Lexington. Troy transfer Sawyer Smith — he made that decision after spring 2019 — was given the chance to take over but couldn’t stay healthy.
That gave us Bowden, and boy, was it beautiful:
Kentucky’s leading WR Lynn Bowden Jr. made his first start at QB. All he did was:
196 rush yards
1 conference win
— ESPN (@espn) October 13, 2019
Bowden’s motion to switch from receiver to quarterback in the middle of the season earned him the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player, and it helped Kentucky somehow reach 8 wins after the season appeared to be lost. It’ll go down as one of the best individual seasons in program history.
Since then, however, Kentucky has changed. A lot. Gran’s offense struggled with Wilson in 2020, and Stoops revamped that entire side of the ball at season’s end by bringing in Sean McVay disciple Liam Coen as the new offensive coordinator. The Cats are getting with the times with a more balanced, modern pro-style offense. Beau Allen is the favorite in the clubhouse to win the starting job in 2021, which some might’ve guessed back in 2019, though the hometown hero was still another month away from giving Kentucky his verbal commitment.
Expected starter for 2019 — Joe Burrow
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Max Brennan, true freshman Peter Parrish
Most unpredictable development — Burrow delivers all-time season after Joe Brady arrives
How it played out and where we’re currently at — It’s crazy to think that Brady wasn’t even a household name at this time 2 years ago. Burrow wasn’t even a lock to earn preseason third-team All-SEC honors. All we were hearing about was LSU’s overhauled spread offense. That usually means it’s just a popular spring storyline that fades once the pads start popping in fall.
Nope. Burrow’s rise to Heisman Trophy winner/national champion/No. 1 pick was made for Hollywood. Meanwhile, Brady went from 20-something college position coach to possible NFL head coach in basically a years time. Nobody could’ve imagined LSU’s quarterback room would experience anything like that.
The interesting thing is that in spring 2019, predicting LSU’s 2021 starting quarterback would’ve likely been pretty obvious. Brennan would have gotten the majority of the votes with some going to Parrish, who was later kicked off the team. At that time, TJ Finley and Max Johnson had committed, but predicting a high school recruit to become a starter in Year 2 doesn’t always seem obvious.
Brennan put on the weight that some wondered if he could, and he showed flashes if brilliance before his season-ending injury in 2020, but he’s now locked in a battle with Johnson — fresh off a stellar finish to close the year — to win the starting job in his 5th year at LSU. I’m not sure a ton of people would’ve expected that going into 2021.
Expected starter for 2019 — Keytaon Thompson
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt freshman Jalen Mayden, true freshman Garrett Shrader
Most unpredictable development — Joe Moorhead fired after Year 2, Mike Leach hired as the replacement
How it played out and where we’re currently at — At this time 2 years ago, we were a month from Moorhead going into the transfer portal and bringing his guy from Penn State, Tommy Stevens, to Starkville. Stevens beat out Thompson, who was long expected to be the Nick Fitzgerald replacement. That in itself was a surprise.
However, Moorhead’s firing was a surprise that went well beyond a shakeup in the quarterback room. That was after Stevens never really figured it out, and Shrader had an up-and-down freshman season that infamously ended with taking a punch from Willie Gay before the bowl game. Moorhead didn’t enter 2019 on anyone’s hot seat. He did, however, enter in hopes of correcting some of the issues that plagued his 2018 unit. Still, it was a disappointing year in Starkville, which led to arguably the splashiest hire of the offseason.
Leach’s arrival meant another offensive overhaul. Running the Air Raid was certainly different than Moorhead’s version of the spread. Shrader changed positions and then changed teams in 2020. Thompson and Mayden both left MSU in 2020, and the Leach overhaul took place.
Not including Moorhead recruit Rogers, who started in relief of the injured/ineffective KJ Costello in 2020, here’s the list of scholarship quarterbacks Leach brought in since he took over 15 months ago:
- K.J. Costello, 2020 Stanford grad transfer
- Allan Walters, 2020 Vanderbilt transfer
- Jack Abraham, 2021 Southern Miss grad transfer
- Chance Lovertich, 2021 South Alabama transfer
- Sawyer Robertson, 4-star 2021 recruit
- Daniel Greek, 3-star 2021 recruit
In other words, predicting what the MSU quarterback room will look like 2 years from now is basically a dart throw.
Expected starter for 2019 — Kelly Bryant
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Lindsey Scott, TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, true freshman Connor Bazelak
Most unpredictable development — Eli Drinkwitz hired to replace Barry Odom
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Raise your hand if you knew anything significant about Drinkwitz in the spring of 2019. He had yet to coach an FBS game, he was a decade removed from being a high school head coach and he was 34 years old. If you had a list of 10 potential replacements for Odom, he wouldn’t have been on that list.
Of course, 2019 felt destined to fail from the jump when the NCAA made an example of the Tigers and gave the program a bowl ban for an issue with a tutor that the school self-reported. Bryant was always going to be a 1-year guy, so there wasn’t much room for variance of outcomes there. Robinson not fitting Drinkwitz’s offense wasn’t really a stunning development, either.
Dare I say, Bazelak now entering Year 2 as a starter was a pretty likely outcome at this time in 2019. Mizzou had what turned out to be the most predictable quarterback room of any SEC team from 2019-21.
Expected starter for 2019 — Matt Corral
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Alex Faniel, true freshmen John Rhys Plumlee, Grant Tisdale and Kinkead Dent
Most unpredictable development — Corral takes off with … Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Consider this another one of those cases where we got to where many in spring 2019 probably expected, but it was in an extremely roundabout way. Corral represented Ole Miss at SEC Media Days as a redshirt freshman in 2019, which told you all you needed to know about the program’s youth at the time. Also at the time, Matt Luke turned his offense over to Rich Rodriguez.
Plumlee ended up being the better fit to run Rodriguez’s offense than Corral. The true freshman was worth the price of admission, albeit for a 1-dimensional offense. The fiasco that was the 2019 Egg Bowl led to the firing of Luke, and straight out of a message board fantasy, Kiffin was hired. That swung the quarterback battle back in favor of Corral, who became one of the nation’s best at the position in 2020.
The interesting wrinkle is the rise of Lebby. At this time 2 years ago, he had never been an FBS coordinator. Now, he’s one of the top up-and-coming offensive minds in the sport who got a raise to $1.2 million to stay at Ole Miss. With Lebby, Kiffin and Corral, Ole Miss is in position to produce one of the nation’s top offenses.
Ole Miss fans couldn’t have asked for a better development 2 years ago.
Expected starter for 2019 — Jake Bentley
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Jay Urich, redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner, true freshman Ryan Hilinski
Most unpredictable development — Hilinski becomes true freshman starter, then transfers by end of Year 2
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Predicting how a Will Muschamp quarterback room would shake out was basically a game of roulette. If you had just known that Bentley would pass the torch to Hilinski, you probably would’ve said, “Hey, that seems pretty standard.”
In stepped Mike Bobo, and out stepped Hilinki’s chance of becoming the guy in Columbia. The highly regarded 4-star sophomore was never given an opportunity to run with Bobo’s offense. Whether that was on Bobo favoring the grad transfer Collin Hill or just Hilinski not picking up the offense, it created a suddenly inevitable sequence at season’s end. Hilinski left for another Power 5 opportunity (Northwestern).
Then again, there were at least some predictable elements to how it played out. Doty was committed to South Carolina back in 2018, and after getting starts in the final 3 games of 2020, he’s the favorite to be the first starter of the Shane Beamer era in 2021. But it is weird to think that Hilinski, as decorated as he was, came and went in the fashion he did.
Expected starter for 2019 — Jarrett Guarantano
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Maryland transfer Kasim Hill, redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout, true freshman Brian Maurer
Most unpredictable development — Tennessee fails to produce top 70 passing offense in 2 years with Jim Chaney
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Chaney was considered a massive, massive get for Jeremy Pruitt. It sparked some preseason buzz for Guarantano, too. But even when the Vols finished the 2019 season on a 6-game winning streak, the passing game just never really found that consistency. The problem was that Pruitt’s staff never showed it could develop Guarantano OR his potential replacement. Shrout and Maurer struggled in limited reps, and Guarantano continued to start games well into 2020, much to the chagrin of the Tennessee faithful.
At this time 2 years ago, Harrison Bailey was billed as the next guy. He, however, was also a victim of that lack of development in 2020. How he gels with Josh Heupel remains to be seen. It could be former Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker who proves to be the best fit in 2021.
Chaney being 2 years and out with the Pruitt regime wasn’t on the minds of Vols fans 2 years ago. Little did they know how much offensive frustration was in store.
Expected starter for 2019 — Kellen Mond
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt sophomore Connor Blumrick, Redshirt freshman James Foster, true freshman Zach Calzada
Most unpredictable development — Kellen Mond leads A&M to program’s best finish in 81 years
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Say what you want about Mond. For him to lead A&M to a top-5 finish and to now have a potential Day 2 draft stock is impressive. He didn’t surpass expectations in 2019, but he absolutely did in 2020. He also started every game of the Jimbo Fisher era. Maybe that’s the most surprising development. Rare it is to see that over a 3-year stretch.
In April 2019, we were a few months away from Haynes King committing to Texas A&M. Shoot, King didn’t even have an A&M offer at the time. Back then, Calzada probably would’ve gotten the most votes for the question “who will be A&M’s starter in 2021?” Now, it seems like it’s King’s job to lose with Foster and Blumrick both gone via the transfer portal.
A&M’s lack of quarterback drama almost seems like the outlier given its company on this list.
Expected starter for 2019 — Riley Neal
Scholarship QBs in waiting in 2019 — Redshirt juniors Deuce Wallace and Mo Hasan, Redshirt freshman Allan Walters
Most unpredictable development — Former Ohio State commit/Kentucky QB Danny Clark signs with Vandy but never plays
How it played out and where we’re currently at — Woof. That 2019 season was rough, despite the fact that the Commodores entered the year with the potent trio of skill players in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. It’s almost unfair to put too much of 2020 against the passing game because with depth issues all year against an SEC schedule, that offense was destined to sputter.
It was weird that Clark, who signed as a JUCO recruit after a brief stint at Kentucky, couldn’t beat out a pair of true freshmen. He was buried on the depth chart, and he ultimately opted out in the first week of November.
I suppose that one could’ve predicted Ken Seals would be the 2021 starter at this time 2 years ago. Seals committed to Vandy on April 3, 2019, and given the uncertainty at the position at the time, that probably wasn’t the worst call.
To recap …
I think you could make the case that the majority of people at this time 2 years ago could’ve accurately predicted the 2021 starting quarterbacks for Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Mizzou and Ole Miss. That’s 5 of 14. I’d argue that with the exception of Mizzou, 4 of those 5 teams still had multiple surprising developments to get to where they are in 2021.
Let’s revisit this conversation in a couple years and see just how unpredictable the future is.