SEC QB Power Rankings, regular-season wrap: With Matt Corral, boom times for Ole Miss' offense are inseparable from the busts
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week throughout the season, SEC QB Power Rankings will help you keep the game’s most important position in perspective by ranking the SEC starters 1-14 according to highly scientific processes and/or pure gut-level instinct. Previously: Week 1 … Week 2 …Week 3 … Week 4 … Week 5 … Week 6 … Week 7 … Week 8 … Week 9 … Week 10 … Week 11 … Week 12… Week 13.
1. Mac Jones, Alabama
Jones capped his first (only?) full season as a starter Saturday by throwing for 418 yards and 5 TDs in a 52-46 win over Florida, and with it put himself in position for a clean statistical sweep: Through 11 games, he remains on pace to set single-season SEC records for completion percentage (76.5%), yards per attempt (11.4) and overall efficiency (202.3), as well as the Alabama record for passing yards per game (339.9). He boasts, for now, the highest grade ever for a college quarterback per Pro Football Focus and the best rating ever per ESPN’s Total QBR. All of which is subject to change in the postseason, but still. Pretty good.
Most years, putting up those kinds of numbers as the quarterback of the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation makes you a shoo-in for the Heisman. This year, eh. Not necessarily, and not only because the shortened season takes a little of the shine off the stats. Jones is an obvious finalist (although the ceremony will be virtual, so no trip to New York), and his credentials will certainly resonate with enough voters to give him a chance.
But the consensus has clearly shifted over the past few weeks to his top target, DeVonta Smith, as the odds-on favorite, and Smith’s 15-catch, 189-yard, 2-TD outing in Atlanta only drove the point home. For the kind of voter who’s tired of penciling in a quarterback every year – and it is essentially a QB award at this point, having gone to a quarterback in 17 of the last 20 years – Smith is the most compelling candidate since Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey in 2015.
He’s not there by default: If he wins it, Smith will be the first full-time wide receiver to take home the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, and he’s worthy of the distinction.
Stats notwithstanding, Jones doesn’t leap off the screen in the same way, and his “plays within the offense” brand of efficiency is a harder sell in an era when the numbers are forever going up across the sport. He’s played his way into legitimate first-round consideration on the strength of his consistency, composure and downfield accuracy. But he hasn’t produced any indelible moments or undeniable athletic feats that separate him as an undeniable next-level talent outside of the context of the most gifted surrounding cast in the college game.
And although the Heisman isn’t a career award, there’s also the fact that Smith (as well as Trevor Lawrence and Najee Harris) has truly had a career, a record-breaking body of work spanning multiple seasons and including heroics on the biggest possible stage. Whereas Jones’ case is based on a single campaign whose biggest tests are still to come. There’s no chance anyone is going to look back in a few weeks, or a few years, and wonder “what were we thinking?” about Trevor Lawrence or DeVonta Smith.
All that said: The résumé don’t lie, and if Jones is the pick his track record on paper stacks up against just about anyone you can name at this point in the season. If not, the trophy is very likely still coming back to Tuscaloosa. And if the top of the 2021 QB draft class is looking a little too crowded, you know, there’s always next year.
– – –
(Last week: 1)
2. Kyle Trask, Florida
Florida’s loss in the SEC Championship Game almost certainly eliminated Trask as a viable candidate to win it, but if there’s justice he’ll be among the Heisman finalists getting virtually feted on Jan. 5. In addition to throwing an FBS-best 43 touchdown passes, he also accounted for a higher share of his team’s total offense (74.6%) than any other SEC player and led the nation in a couple of metrics aimed at quantifying value, Expected Points Added (per ESPN) and Wins Above Average (per PFF). He spread the wealth among the Gators’ receivers, didn’t skip a beat in Kyle Pitts’ absence, and kept the Gators in alive in all 3 losses, in which they allowed 41, 37 and 52 points, respectively. Arguably no other quarterback meant more to his team this season.
– – –
(Last week: 2)
3. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Corral had a breakthrough season by any definition, obliterating school records for completion percentage (71.3%), yards per attempt (10.6), pass efficiency (182.2) and total offense (384.9 yards per game) while ranking 4th nationally in QBR. He also served up a league-worst 14 interceptions, making him the first SEC quarterback in a decade with more than a dozen picks in fewer than 300 attempts.
More bizarre: 11 of those 14 INTs came in just 2 games – a mid-October meltdown at Arkansas in which Corral was picked 6 times (including a pair of pick-6s); and Saturday’s wild, 53-48 loss at LSU, where he accounted for an incredible 409 total yards, 4 TDs, and 6 turnovers in the most dramatic boom-or-bust performance of the season.
It’s not easy to throw 5 interceptions in a single game, or even to get the chance. Prior to Corral this year, only 6 SEC quarterbacks had managed it in the previous 20 years. Doing it twice is almost impossible. Since 2000, the only other FBS QB with multiple 5-INT games in the same season is Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons in 2003, who put the ball in the air that year more than 700 times.
Then again, opposite one of the most flammable defenses in SEC history, Corral was certainly playing by Texas Tech logic. The Rebels scored 35+ points in 6 of their 9 games, losing 3 of them, including Saturday’s shootout in Baton Rouge and a memorable 63-48 blockbuster against Alabama, the highest-scoring regulation SEC game ever; on the other side of the coin, they also won games while giving up 41 points to Kentucky (in overtime) and 42 to South Carolina, two of the league’s most low-octane offenses. Corral was virtually flawless in those games.
That doesn’t make him the next Patrick Mahomes, or mean that in 5 years we’ll be looking back at this year’s Ole Miss-Alabama game the same way we look back at the legendary Texas Tech-Oklahoma shootout featuring Mahomes and Baker Mayfield in 2016. It does, however, put him squarely in what we might call the Mahomes Zone of prolific, risk-taking college quarterbacks defined as much by the fact they played on teams with historically awful defenses as by their own production. (Mahomes infamously posted a 13-16 record as a starter at Tech despite the Red Raiders scoring 35+ points in 10 of those 16 losses.) The upside is obvious enough. The downside … well, it’s pretty obvious, too. But as long as Ole Miss’ defense is what it is there’s not much room to think about that.
– – –
(Last week: 3)
4. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Technically, every player in college football is eligible to return in 2021, and very few of them have a more interesting decision to make than Mond. On one hand, after 43 career starts there’s not much left to prove in terms of draft stock – Mond is a mid-to-late-rounder, at best, which isn’t likely to change with another year under his belt. (If it does, it’s as likely as not to be for the worse.) I know, raw tools, etc. If he were going to make a leap into a potential first-rounder, that would have happened by now. Conventional wisdom says get while the gettin’s good.
Then again, after narrowly missing the Playoff cut, A&M is potentially loaded for another run next year – everyone else who touched the ball on offense is expected to return – and Mond’s stability as a 5th-year senior would lend significantly more credibility to that effort than breaking in a new starter. This season was his best in terms of efficiency and limiting turnovers, pointing toward an upward trajectory (at this level, anyway) if he were to come back. Convincing Mond to pass on the draft for another year might be a long shot, but unless Jimbo Fisher is supremely confident there’s not going to be a drop-off in the transition to true freshman Haynes King it’s one worth taking.
– – –
(Last week: 4)
5. Feleipe Franks, Arkansas
Franks will wrap a fine senior season in the Texas Bowl before moving on to draft prep and ceding the job to either redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson or a grad transfer to be named. After Jefferson’s 306-yard, 4-TD performance at Missouri in his only start, the transfer route seems less urgent than it might have otherwise.
– – –
(Last week: 5)
6. JT Daniels, Georgia
It might take Georgia fans a little while to stop reimagining the first half of the season with Daniels in the lineup from the jump, but when they do the excitement for 2021 is going to reset at maximum tilt. With a big bowl game (or just a pretty good one) against an extremely underrated Cincinnati defense, he’s a solid bet to open next season at or near the top of of this list.
– – –
(Last week: 6)
7. Bo Nix, Auburn
No other quarterbacks on the current roster are a threat to pass Nix on the depth chart, so incoming head coach Bryan Harsin will have a decision to make next spring about just how comfortable he is with Nix as the incumbent. As a sophomore, Nix has looked more or less exactly the same as he did as a freshman, posting a nearly identical stat line and generally failing to demonstrate any sustained growth from week to week. If the new staff concludes he’s maxed out entering Year 3, pursuing a grad transfer to compete for the job may be on the table.
– – –
(Last week: 7)
8. Max Johnson, LSU
Johnson’s stock is moving in the opposite direction after accounting for 781 yards and 8 TDs in back-to-back, down-to-wire wins over Florida and Ole Miss that salvaged a glimmer of hope for LSU’s future in a dismal year. The Tigers’ QB race next spring still projects (for now) as a 3-man race between Johnson, a healthy Myles Brennan, and blue-chip freshman Garrett Nussmeier, although at this point it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Brennan sought greener pastures going into his 5th year. Regardless, whoever winds up taking the snaps will have the luxury of throwing to the electric Kayshon Boutte, who’s well on his way to cementing his status the next great LSU wideout.
– – –
(Last week: 10)
9. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Rogers made huge strides over the second half of the season, culminating in Saturday’s 51-32 win over Missouri in which he finished 21-for-36 for 295 yards with 3 TDs and averaged a season-high 8.2 yards per attempt. The most encouraging part of his emergence: His steady rapport with fellow freshman Jaden Walley, who is on a Boutte-esque run in his own right with 4 consecutive 100-yard games to close the regular season. After a mostly frustrating year in Starkville, the ending was a glimpse of what the Air Raid is supposed to look like.
Competition and/or depth is arriving in the new year via grad transfer Jack Abraham, a 3-year starter as Southern Miss, and 4-star freshman Sawyer Robertson, the gem of the incoming recruiting class out of Mike Leach’s old stomping grounds in Lubbock, Texas. Leach is fickle enough about his quarterbacks to grant the premise that the new guys have a legitimate shot at winning the job. As it stands, though, the safe bet is on Rogers.
– – –
(Last week: 11)
10. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak ended the regular season on a low point, serving up 3 interceptions in 38 attempts at Mississippi State (including a pick-6) after throwing just 3 INTs in Mizzou’s first 9 games combined. That came on the heels of his lowest-rated outing of the year in a 49-14 debacle vs. Georgia. For now, he remains the Tigers’ presumptive starter for 2021 after sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors from league coaches. (I’ll never understand why redshirts like Bazelak are eligible for the rookie awards, which seems like a violation of the spirit of the thing – Bazelak actually saw the field in 2019. But maybe that’s just me.) Still, a positive turn against Iowa in the bowl game – if it gets played, anyway – would go a long toward ensuring that assumption holds in the spring.
– – –
(Last week: 8)
11. Terry Wilson, Kentucky
Wilson will get one more turn in the saddle vs. NC State in the Gator Bowl before Kentucky turns the page under new pro-style offensive coordinator Liam Coen. The Wildcats’ miracle 10-3 season in 2018, Wilson’s first year on campus as a JUCO transfer, seems a whole lot longer ago than two years.
– – –
(Last week: 9)
12. Harrison Bailey
Jarrett Guarantano and JT Shrout have officially portaled out following Saturday’s season-ending loss to Texas A&M, ceding QB1 to Bailey for the foreseeable future despite Jeremy Pruitt’s stubborn reluctance to commit to the freshman down the stretch. Given the chance, Bailey has played relatively well, going 34-for-45 for 403 yards with 4 TDs and no INTs over the final 3 weeks.
Even while starting all 3 games, though, he’s continued to split snaps seemingly at random. Against A&M, Bailey started 3-for3 for 64 yards on the Vols’ opening drive, capped by a 33-yard TD pass. But after fumbling on the next 2 possessions – both the result of blindside hits in the pocket – he was benched for Shrout and didn’t see the field again even as the offense struggled throughout a 34-13 loss. What’s the point of starting a true freshman in a lost season if not to let him take his lumps?
At any rate, Pruitt apparently remains the coach in a week that’s already seen the launch of an internal investigation into potential recruiting violations and a COVID-19 outbreak cancel the Vols’ trip to the Liberty Bowl, and Bailey is apparently the guy going forward. Tune in next week.
– – –
(Last week: 12)
13. Luke Doty, South Carolina
The Gamecocks canceled their date in the Gasparilla Bowl, mercifully sparing us the spectacle of a 2-8 outfit that fired its head coach amid a 6-game losing streak to end the season taking the field in a fourth-tier bowl game. Doty will move on to prepping for a spring competition with fellow holdover Ryan Hilinski.
– – –
(Last week: 13)
13. Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
All signs point to Seals remaining in the fold under incoming head coach Clark Lea, who will not be installing the option and therefore will have plenty of use for a sturdy young pocket passer with, technically, 4 years of eligibility remaining. It’s not out of the question that Seals will be the first 5-year starter in SEC history.
– – –
(Last week: 14)