Ranking the top 5 quarterback rooms in the SEC
Big time SEC football games are won in the trenches, of course, but a star quarterback — or a great quarterback room — remains the great equalizer and the great elevator.
A gargantuan jump from Joe Burrow was the reason LSU was able to finally clear the Bama hurdle and claim the program’s fourth national championship last January. Just as Tua Tagovailoa helped rescue the national championship for Alabama in 2017 after Jalen Hurts struggled, so did having a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year in Hurts on the bench helped rescue Alabama from Georgia again when Tagovailoa was injured in 2018.
Jake Fromm led Georgia, a program that had not played for a national championship in almost 40 years, to the title game as a freshman. He also became only the third SEC starter to lead his team to 3 consecutive SEC Championship games. Had he faltered as a freshman or sophomore, a pair of 5-star recruits, including an eventual Heisman finalist, were waiting in the wings.
At Florida, a story straight out of Friday Night Lights saw seldom-used and lightly recruited Texan Kyle Trask to play the role of Matt Saracen and step in for starter Feleipe Franks to lead Florida to an 11-win season and an Orange Bowl victory in 2019.
The lack of it can either be damning — see Florida having to turn to the likes of Tyler Murphy and Skyler Morninwheg in 2013 en route to a 4-8 campaign; or require innovation, like Kentucky’s staff overhauling their whole offense and installing a single-wing system for jack-of-all-trades Lynn Bowden Jr. last season.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which eliminated spring football almost entirely across the country, will place even greater pressure on deep quarterback rooms.
With a veteran QB and experienced QB room — there is less need for instructional and installation moments in limited practices and more time for game-planning and quality reps for other guys. The result? In a season where most offseason coaching occurred on Zoom or Google Meet, the programs with established veterans at the quarterback spot, along with “safety valve” depth at the QB position, will be at a distinct advantage.
In the SEC, those advantages are most evident in places where: (1) a veteran QB returns as the sure-fire QB 1 and (2) there is experienced or high-rent talent depth behind them as an insurance blanket.
Before we rank the top 5 QB rooms in the SEC (plus two “almosts”) that fit that profile, let’s start with 2 that barely missed the cut.
Almost: Arkansas, Mississippi State
Mike Leach scored his first Starkville coup in convincing KJ Costello, the Stanford gunslinger who is a perfect fit for Leach’s Air Raid, to follow him to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs get his 25 career starts, which includes over 6,000 yards of production in a Power 5 league, to transition to a new scheme under Leach.
Having backup Garrett Shrader, a dual-threat who started at times last season, means Leach has a built-in backup plan if things go south with the injury-prone Costello. Vanderbilt transfer Allan Walters, who was a recruiting coup for the Commodores, transfers in and adds knowledge and depth.
As for Arkansas, the Hogs start the year with 1 of only 2 returning SEC quarterbacks to win a New Year’s 6 bowl in Feleipe Franks. A 3-year starter in the SEC, Franks’ presence in Fayetteville is the one sweet piece of medicine Hogs fans have as they face down college football’s most brutal schedule. Franks’s backup, Malik Hornsby, proved Sam Pittman brought his recruiting juice with him from Athens, and the dual-threat joins KJ Jefferson in giving the Hogs 2 blue-chip talents to learn from Franks and step in if needed. That’s a deep room with a veteran at the top, and merits mention in this list.
5. Texas A&M
The math says Kellen Mond took a step back last season, with his yards per attempt number (6.9) just above the national average (6.8) and his rushing yards total the smallest (340) it has been in his 3 years on campus. That’s surprising for a 3rd-year starter, and even more surprising for a player in his second year in Jimbo Fisher’s system.
Still, Mond is going to be a 4-year SEC starter and Fisher has a masterful track record in coaxing production out of experienced starters. It’s now or never for Mond, who is blessed with a cornucopia of NFL type talent but hasn’t yet put it all together. Sometimes that sense of finality can push a player on the brink of greatness over the top.
Behind Mond, the Aggies feature highly coveted 4-star quarterback Haynes King, a multisport star from Longview, Texas that everyone recruited who has shined in fall camp, and Zach Calzada, Mond’s primary backup a year ago who is a self-described “overachiever” with a chip on his shoulder.
It’s a good blend and one Fisher should make the most of in 2020.
4. Ole Miss
Since helping Nick Saban win a national championship with Jake Coker restored his status as “young offensive genius,” Lane Kiffin has wisely catered his offense to the strengths of the quarterback he’s had at his disposal, whether it was Coker at Alabama or dual-threat Jason Driskel or pocket passer Chris Robison at FAU. The latter two helped FAU win double-digit games in 2 of his 3 seasons on the beach in Boca Raton, and are part of the reason he is back on an SEC campus as a head coach.
He inherits a quarterback room with 3 types of players, all of whom have huge talent.
The favorite for the job is probably John Rhys Plumlee, the fastest quarterback in college football who is electrifying every time he leaves the pocket. Kiffin can cater his offense around that player, and though he certainly wishes he’d have had a spring to do so, at least Plumlee has played plenty of SEC football.
Matt Corral, the rocket-armed gunslinger who is competing with Plumlee for the job, also started at times last season and has looked confident in camp.
Another blue-chip, Grant Tisdale, elected to return to Ole Miss when Kiffin got the job, and it’s hard to know if he’ll factor in given he lacks the playing time of Plumlee and Corral. Nevertheless, he was a big recruiting win for the Rebs and having a player of his caliber as the third-string option speaks to the quarterback room’s depth in Oxford.
There are enough “don’t sleep on Mac Jones” and “Mac Jones is underrated” pieces on the internet that the Alabama incumbent starter isn’t really “underrated” anymore. He’s just a very talented quarterback that Pro Football Focus ranks as one of the top 10 returning quarterbacks in college football. If you watched him shred Auburn’s elite defense in the Iron Bowl, only to be undone by a bit of a fluky pick-6, you know the kid can flat-out play.
Jones won’t ever be Tua, who leaves Alabama a legend 3rd in school history in yards, 1st in completion percentage and 1st in touchdowns produced. But he can be a steady starter and you just know that Steve Sarkisian, in his second campaign, will put him in a position to succeed.
Behind him, Bryce Young has the Bama faithful thinking they already have “the next Tua” on campus. Those expectations aren’t fair, but if you’ve seen Young play, you get why people are so excited.
Also worth noting? Paul Tyson of Trussville, Alabama, whose grandfather was a guy named Bear Bryant, was a blue-chip in his own right and he — not Young — led the second-team offense in the fall’s first scrimmage. This is a deep quarterback room with the potential to be the SEC’s best.
From a pure “experience” standpoint, this is the most experienced room in the league. Jamie Newman, who has NFL size and mobility, threw for 2,868 yards and rushed for 574 more last season at Wake Forest. He is battling USC (the California one) transfer JT Daniels for the starting job. Daniels, more of a Trask-like pocket style passer with a big arm, threw for 2,672 yards as the freshman starter at USC before an injury cost him the job last season.
There is also high-rent talent waiting in the wings, with Carson Beck, the No. 2 high school quarterback out of Florida per the 247sports composite, on deck. D’Wan Mathis, another blue-chip with prototypical NFL size, might be “the smartest of the bunch,” a Georgia staffer told me last week. “Don’t count any of these guys out right now as they are all getting first-team reps.”
The Dawgs slot in at No. 2 — and not No. 1 — for two reasons.
First and most important, Georgia is installing a new system on offense under Todd Monken. The loss of spring football was lamented by Smart and the early returns in fall camp indicate that the QB play has been sloppy as both competitors adjust to new demands.
Second, not a single player in Georgia’s quarterback room has taken an SEC snap. Newman, who has received in ways entirely unfair to him, comparisons to Cam Newton, has been a trendy pick for first-team All-SEC and postseason awards. The talent is there, but the on-field results, at least to date, haven’t been.
In his 3 games last season against top 50 S &P+ defenses (Clemson, Michigan State, Virginia Tech) Newman was 0-3 and completed 34-of-79 passes (43%), with 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Those numbers are pedestrian at best, and his rushing yards in those games (40 rushes for 136) are hardly terrifying.
Daniels’ numbers against good competition are better, but the reality is both will face better defenses week in and week out in the SEC. Of course, he’ll also both be surrounded by the league’s best talent outside of Tuscaloosa. We’ll see how that movie ends soon.
The best combination of experience, talent waiting in the wings and system continuity is in Gainesville.
Trask, who started only 10 games, threw for nearly 3,000 yards and did so behind a leaky offensive line with little to no ground game. Expect a jump from Trask, who still has plenty he can improve upon and should, if early reports out of fall camp are accurate, have an improved offensive line and a run game to create balance and better open up the intermediate pass game.
His backup, Emory Jones, was a highly-touted recruit every major Power 5 program offered who has played in spots in each of his years in Gainesville. Dan Mullen said last week that Jones’ grasp of the offense is much improved this summer, and he could play an expanded role in the offense this fall. In any event, should anything happen to Trask, he’s an excellent security blanket and, as many in the social media-sphere have pointed out, a more natural fit for Mullen’s version of the spread.
Behind them, Mullen has raved about Anthony Richardson, another blue-chip and ideal fit for Mullen’s system who was the No. 1 high school quarterback out of Florida last year, per the 247 composite.
Collectively, Mullen, who has coached and developed multiple Heisman-winning quarterbacks and first-round draft picks, has the best quarterback room in the SEC.