Ranking SEC's best QBs in past 20 seasons
People like carving huge faces on mountains. Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain prove the point pretty well. Given the relevance of SEC football in American culture, particularly in southern culture, is there any doubt who should be next?
Let’s carve up some southern mountainside with the faces of the four best field generals who ever pulled on a helmet in the Southeastern Conference.
To narrow it down a bit, let’s restrict our picks to the past 20 years — since Florida won a title with the Fun-N-Gun and SEC quarterback became, oh, slightly more glamorous than being a U.S. President. Before I get to the guys who made the cut, let’s talk about the guys who almost did …
Honorable mention to: David Greene, Chris Leak, Jared Lorenzen, Casey Clausen, Bo Wallace, Andre Woodson, Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler, Tim Couch, Brandon Allen.
Close, But No Cigar
The six QBs who drew serious consideration for Mt. Rushmore selection, but ultimately came up a bit short:
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: The only active player with any shot, but it’s not much of a shot. Kelly was superb in 2015, throwing for over 4,000 yards and running for over 500 more, with 41 total touchdowns. But he’ll be a two-year player on a team that has never made an SEC Championship Game appearance. If Ole Miss wins the West and Kelly has another similar year, he’ll be solidly in the conversation. (He’s trying to become the first SEC quarterback in history to throw for 4,000 yards twice.) Of course, then he may also have a Heisman trophy to his credit.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Undoubtedly a great dual-threat quarterback, and the greatest Bulldogs quarterback. All he did was throw for more than 9,000 yards and 70 TDs, and run for another 2,500 yards and 41 more scores (and he even caught three more touchdowns). Prescott’s career SEC credentials are impressive: 11th in career passing yards, 16th in touchdown passes, 3rd in total yardage, 4th in total touchdowns. But he never got close to a Heisman, and leading the Bulldogs to a pair of 10-win seasons, while impressive, lacks the pizzazz for SEC QB Mt. Rushmore.
Eli Manning, Ole Miss: A tip of the hat to the QB who Ole Miss fans would find first in war and first in peace … but ultimately, he stands second in his own family. Eli passed for 10,119 yards in basically three years (8th in SEC history), and his 81 passing touchdowns are 6th. But no Heisman win, no national title, not even an SEC West title for Eli.
You could point out that this resume isn’t that different from older brother Peyton’s. But the difference is that Peyton always had UT on the cusp of the SEC and national title scene, only to be thwarted by Florida. When Peyton lost the Heisman, it was a travesty. When Eli lost it, nobody was particularly cranky. Ole Miss went 10-3 in Eli’s senior year. Through no fault of Eli’s, the Rebels didn’t do enough to get him to the mountain.
A.J. McCarron, Alabama: Not the most glamorous candidate (insert obligatory Katherine Webb reference here), but all he did was win two national titles and throw for over 9,000 yards. He finished tied 9th in SEC in career touchdown passes (77) and 4th in QB rating. McCarron came in a distant second for the Heisman in 2013. But at the end of the day, fairly or unfairly, it always feels like McCarron was a bit player on some outstanding Alabama teams. He’s underrated, but he’s not underrated enough to make SEC QB Mt. Rushmore.
Aaron Murray, Georgia: Murray is the SEC career passing yardage leader (13,166, more than 1,600 yards above second place) and passing touchdowns leader (121, seven above second and an astounding 32 above third place). But Murray lacks the “it” factor. No Heisman top 10 finishes, no national titles, no SEC titles (although he was only a few yards away in 2012). Mt. Rushmore wasn’t for very good presidents, and SEC QB Mt. Rushmore isn’t for very good quarterbacks.
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The hardest player to leave off. There were many hours of pondering Manziel vs. the four guys who are on SEC QB Mt. Rushmore. Make no mistake, Johnny Football was an astounding phenomenon. He’s second in the SEC in career passer rating, and ended up 25th in yardage and 21st in touchdowns in just two seasons.
Once his game-breaking running ability was factored in, Manziel was 11th in SEC total yardage — again, in two seasons. He won a Heisman in 2012 and accounted for 47 touchdowns one year and 46 the next.
So why not Manziel? No championships. No BCS titles, no conference titles, no division titles.
Sure, he beat ‘Bama in 2012, but he lost to Florida and LSU. Also, his personal issues really should be irrelevant in SEC QB Mt. Rushmore (It’s not like Thomas Jefferson stayed out of scandals), but they don’t help. If he had won a little more, he’d be in. As it is, he’s the last guy out.
Four Faces of Mt. Rushmore
Danny Wuerffel, Florida: Wuerffel is kind of forgotten today, in part due to a very forgettable NFL career. But he played a huge part in transforming SEC quarterbacks from athletic guys who handed the ball to the tailback 50 times a game to passing-game glamour boys.
He won the Heisman trophy in 1996, he led Steve Spurrier to the national title that vindicated the HBC’s throw-first-and-ask-questions-later style. That said, there is a tendency to see Wuerffel as a cog in Spurrier’s machine, but he was much more.
No other Spurrier QB had the same kind of success. Wuerffel’s 10,875 passing yards is sixth in SEC history, and his 114 passing touchdowns are second all-time. He set the career touchdown record during his junior year, added to it and held it for 17 years.
He remains third in passer rating. Wuerffel also led the Gators to four SEC championships. How impressive is that? Well, the Gators have won a total of three in the two decades since Wuerffel. He’s on Mt. Rushmore.
Peyton Manning, Tennessee: Objectively speaking, there are flaws in Peyton’s candidacy. He didn’t win a Heisman (thanks, Charles Woodson) or a national title (thanks, Steve Spurrier). But it’s not like he’s a bad candidate, objectively speaking.
He did pick up an SEC title in 1997, and UT was 40-9 in his four seasons. His 11,201 passing yards are still fourth in SEC history, and his 89 touchdown passes rank third, and he won every major award possible except the Heisman in 1997.
But more than the sum of his accomplishments and statistics, Manning, along with Spurrier, was responsible for changing the face of SEC football from conservative grind-it-out power running to aerial attack version 1.0. His decision making was impeccable, his command of the Tennessee offense was remarkable, and other than Steven Orr Spurrier, no one else in college football could even slow Peyton Manning down. He’s on the rock.
Tim Tebow, Florida: The 2007 Heisman winner, 2006 and 2008 national title winner, Tebow finished 14th in SEC career passing yards despite playing only occasionally as a freshman.
He’s the SEC’s all-time rushing touchdown leader and total touchdown leader, and he’s second in total yards.
When you start checking boxes, Tebow has made his case quite well.
But honestly, he made it in 2008, when the Gators suffered a tough loss to Ole Miss. Tebow contritely appeared in the postgame press conference and promised the assembled media, “You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of this season and you’ll never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of this season, and you’ll never see a team play harder than we will the rest of this season.”
The Gators didn’t lose again, in part because Tebow simply wouldn’t allow it. It’s like Washington and his courage at Valley Forge, or Lincoln and his penchant for honesty. It’s Americana at its highest form, and we were lucky to witness it. He’s in.
Cam Newton, Auburn: The obvious issue: He’s here on the basis of one year. While Newton threw a dozen passes as a Florida Gator, he is on this list based on his superhuman 2010 season at Auburn.
His ONLY season at Auburn.
But what else could the man have done? He didn’t rack up a ton of passing yardage (2,854), but he had the highest single-season QB rating in the history of the league.
Meanwhile, he ran for 1,473 yards and added 20 rushing TDs to his 30 passing scores. Not only was it the best running season for an SEC QB, it’s 20th all-time in single-season rushing yardage.
Newton was the best passer and the best runner. He won the Heisman, single-handedly beat and led Auburn to the BCS title. Sure, it was one year, but is Teddy Roosevelt coming down from Mt. Rushmore because he didn’t run for President again in 1908?
Didn’t think so. Neither is Newton from SEC QB Mt. Rushmore.