Rather than rank the SEC quarterbacks, here's how I'd group them heading into 2020
Full transparency here. I have no idea what a ranking of SEC quarterbacks should look like heading into 2020. Neither do you.
It’s as big of a question mark as any in recent memory. It’s an argument that’s based more on preference than anything else. I’m not going to sit here and bang the drum that there’a clear top 3 or a clear top 5. There’s not. And yes, I realize I’ve already come up with a top 5 and I’ll probably rank all of them at some point this offseason.
What there is, however, is a way to group them all. Some groups have better potential than others.
Heading into such an unpredictable 2020, perhaps this is the way we should be breaking down signal-callers:
The “we’ve seen them be good in their current systems but not great yet” group
- Kyle Trask, Florida
- Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
If we were doing this by tiers, this would be the top tier. Why? We’ve seen both QBs do it for a full season in the SEC, and their surroundings are similar, if not better than what they were before. Both are being coached by elite offensive minds and they’ll return a pair of experienced offensive lines.
I’d actually argue that Trask is more proven against elite competition than Mond is, despite the fact that the latter had 2-plus years of experience as a starter compared to 1. What’s going to make Trask and Mond step into that upper echelon of elite quarterbacks nationally is going on the road and leading a win against a legitimate top 15 team. That’s what makes a quarterback great.
I want to see how both guys play with what should be improved offensive lines. I thought at times, they suffered at the expense of some poor play up front. Can both speed up their process and get quicker making decisions? Can they avoid that occasional horrendous throw that drives fans up a wall?
Those improvements will be what determine if Trask and Mond are worthy of sitting high atop any SEC quarterback ranking at season’s end.
The “promising Power 5 transfer who I need to see with new surroundings before I go to bat for them” group
- Jamie Newman, Georgia (from Wake Forest)
- K.J. Costello, Mississippi State (from Stanford)
- Shawn Robinson, Mizzou (from TCU)
- Feleipe Franks, Arkansas (from Florida)
Ranking transfers is difficult for the simple fact that everything is new. Nearly 1/3 of the conference is expected to turn to turn to a Power 5 transfer (from 4 Power 5 conferences) who we have yet to see as the starter with their respective SEC schools.
I can say that I like a lot of things about someone like Newman. His ability to fit balls into tight windows is elite, and his willingness to run will help Georgia’s offense at times when it needs to convert on 3rd down and the first 2 reads aren’t open. But I can also say, well, Clemson was the only ACC defense that finished in the top 20 in scoring (the SEC had 6) and that was, by far, his worst performance. There’s no guarantee that Newman will look exactly did during a breakout 2019 season.
And sure, Franks already led a team to a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory in the SEC in 2018. But that was with Dan Mullen, an experienced offensive line and some talented weapons. How is Franks going to perform when all of those elements are different? Also, how will he look against the tougher division? We won’t know until we know.
I’ve never seen Mike Leach or Eli Drinkwitz run their offense in the SEC, which makes it tough to assume that one of their signal-callers will instantly be elite (though I do think statistically that Costello should put up big passing yardage numbers).
This group, like many others on this list, is going to be easier to split up after we’ve had about a month of 2020 data on them.
The “I took my lumps as a first-year starter, but I’m gonna show I’m the man in Year 2” group
- John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
- Bo Nix, Auburn
- Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina
- Terry Wilson, Kentucky
When I came up with my way-too-early ranking of top 5 SEC quarterbacks, I noticed that a lot of the comments I got were about the first 3 names there (the only one I had listed was Plumlee as my No. 5). They all felt like fans were coming out and saying “wait until you see what this guy does as a sophomore.” I totally get that. The Year 2 jump is always supposed to be a big one.
Based on what we saw in 2019, you could easily pick apart a pretty significant portion of their game. Plumlee and Nix still are not even average SEC passers. They have work to do in order to improve in that department, and both will do so with new offensive coordinators. That’s not always easy.
Hilinski also will have a new offensive coordinator, though he’s more developed as a passer than those 2. His issue is decision-making and becoming more efficient. To be fair, all 3 need to be more efficient to take that next step. They all failed to average 7 yards per attempt and complete 60% of their passes.
We saw flashes against elite teams from all 3. Nix and Hilinski showed promise against Alabama while Plumlee’s LSU effort was one of the most electrifying we saw all year by an SEC quarterback:
.@OleMissFB’s John Rhys Plumlee showed out against the No. 1 team in the country!
212 rush yards & 4 rush TDs 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6eI0qagj3y
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 17, 2019
That little hitch on the fake reverse that Plumlee pulled off was special. I’m not sure enough people talked about that.
Oh, I buried the lede! Why do I have Wilson on here? I know he was technically in his 3rd year of college back in 2018 when he was a redshirt sophomore. But I grouped him here because I thought he was treated like a freshman that season when he was a first-time starter. The focus during Kentucky’s historic 2018 season was on him avoiding the costly mistakes. As a result, he didn’t take as many shots downfield as he should have, and the game was mostly put on the shoulders of the ground game and defense.
But like with those other guys, we’re going to see Wilson carry much more responsibility this year. We should have seen that in 2019, but his season-ending injury in September prevented that from happening. Now, as long as he stays healthy, we’re going to see if Wilson can make that all-important Year 2 step.
I suppose that sentence applies to this entire group.
The “extremely small but encouraging sample size in a potentially dominant offense” group
- Mac Jones, Alabama
- Myles Brennan, LSU
I don’t want to get caught up in what Jones did against Arkansas and Western Carolina, much like I don’t want to get caught up in what Brennan did pre-2019 in a different offensive system. That makes the meaningful sample size small for both quarterbacks.
I saw Jones in person look solid against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. That marked his 2nd consecutive good performance against a Top 25 defense away from home. Yes, he was still good against Auburn. He made 2 mistakes that proved costly in a game in which Alabama put up 45 points on the road against an elite defense. Does that mean Jones will be an All-SEC quarterback in 2020? Not necessarily. He still needs to show how he responds to defenses having film to game plan against him, and how he’ll deal with Bryce Young and Taulia Tagovailoa breathing down his neck.
As for Brennan, I was pleased with the limited work he got as Joe Burrow’s backup in 2019. He showed that in addition to making some nice throws downfield in LSU’s new system, he can take and even deliver a hit. He wasn’t afraid to scramble, which will be key for someone whose longevity made coaches skeptical prior to 2019. Nearly 9 yards per pass attempt at a 60% clip wasn’t bad, either. But that was still on just 40 pass attempts because, in case you missed it, the LSU starter was pretty good last year.
The encouraging thing is that both guys have some super favorable surroundings. They’ll have proven play-callers in their ears and they’ll have multiple potential All-American receivers to throw to. If this winds up being the first and second-team All-SEC quarterback ballot, it won’t come as a major shock.
The “there are at least 3 guys who can start in Week 1” group
- Tennessee quarterbacks (3)
- Vandy quarterbacks (5)
I mean, do you have any idea what’s gonna happen in the state of Tennessee? I sure as heck don’t. I could easily see a scenario in which both teams’ starting quarterback remains a week-by-week deal into the middle of the season.
Vandy just brought in 4 (!) new quarterbacks after losing 3 of 4. Two came via JUCO and 2 are incoming freshmen who won’t arrive until the summer. Allan Walters is the only returning quarterback in the room, and he’s also the only one in that group with a pass attempt at the Power 5 level (he was 2-of-9 for 36 yards and an interception last year).
The Vols, on the other hand, couldn’t really make up their mind between Jarrett Guarantano and Brian Maurer (when healthy), and now, early-enrollee Harrison Bailey might be the most talented one in the room.
So, uh, how in the world can we possibly rank these signal-callers when their own coaches probably don’t have any idea who will start the most games in 2020? We can’t. At least not accurately.
If someone from this group finishes 2020 with an All-SEC honor, don’t let anyone tell you that miracles can’t happen.