SEC QB Power Rankings, Regular-Season Wrap: Lynn Bowden Jr. is a category unto himself
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… Week 14.
1. Joe Burrow, LSU
Last week, I attempted to make the case that, despite the consensus forming around Burrow, the Heisman Trophy was not yet a foregone conclusion. This week? Conclude it. This deal is done.
I suppose it is technically possible for one of the handful of candidates currently looking up at Burrow to catch him this weekend with a transcendent final statement combined with something like a total meltdown by the front-runner in the SEC Championship Game. We saw just that type of twist last year, when Tua Tagovailoa — a presumed lock going into the final Saturday — turned in his worst game against Georgia, got hurt, and was forced to watch Alabama’s dramatic comeback in that game from the bench; with Tua’s aura of invincibility punctured for the first time, Heisman flocked to Kyler Murray instead. The UGA defense Burrow will face on Saturday has been better so far than the one that derailed Tua’s campaign a year ago, and a similar turn could leave an opening for an 11th-hour surge by Hurts or any of the trio of candidates at Ohio State.
Realistically, it’s over. Unlike last year, there is no dead-obvious No. 2 who’s separated himself from the rest of the pack the way Murray did en route to overtaking Tagovailoa. And there’s no reason to suspect Burrow isn’t going to hold up his end of the bargain in Atlanta: He’s healthy (recall that Tua was limited by a sore knee last year, even before the ankle injury that knocked him out of the game against Georgia), his surrounding cast is intact, and he’s yet to deliver anything less than a stellar performance in any game this season. LSU’s biggest games have been his best, culminating in last week’s 50-7 incineration of Texas A&M.
As always, Heisman voters should hang on to their ballots until all the games have been played, if only for the sake of deciding which of the other contenders get invited to New York as finalists. The only real question beyond that is whether Georgia can make Burrow look ordinary enough to make the final vote remotely suspenseful. (Last week: 1)
2. Jake Fromm, Georgia
In one sense, Saturday should be old hat for Fromm: He’ll join Danny Wuerffel as the only quarterbacks to start in 3 consecutive SEC Championship games, all three of them in his case with a guaranteed Playoff slot on the line. In a different sense, it might be the defining game of his career.
He’s had his share of those already, I know. But the climax to his junior season carries an extra sense of urgency.
For one thing, there’s the very real chance that Fromm is going to be off to the NFL after this season, making this his last run at the national championship that so narrowly slipped from his grasp as a freshman. If so, it also puts Georgia’s ability to seriously contend again in 2020 in some doubt with no clear heir apparent on the roster in the wake of Justin Fields’ transfer to Ohio State. (Impeccably named backup Stetson Bennett IV is an undersized walk-on with no experience outside of garbage time; true freshman Dwan Mathis has yet to be fully cleared since undergoing brain surgery to remove a cyst in August. If Fromm does go pro, replacing him could come down to a graduate transfer and/or 2020 commit Carson Beck.) Then there are the futile but inevitable comparisons to Fields, a home-grown product who has lived up to his 5-star potential elsewhere while Fromm’s production this season has undeniably declined. If the Buckeyes roll on into the Playoff — spoiler: they’re already in — while the Bulldogs are consigned to an also-ran bowl for the second year in a row, it can’t help but feel like a serious missed opportunity.
Of course, there’s also a real chance that this isn’t Fromm’s last go-round, and he’ll be back in the Red and Black next year as a senior. Even assuming that happens, though, it will almost certainly be an “unfinished business” tour after coming up just short of a title again this year. And who is really looking forward to another 12 months of Is Jake Fromm Elite? His going out as a winner could spare us all. (Last week: 2)
3. Kyle Trask, Florida
Is Trask the best Florida quarterback since Tebow? Is it even a question?
To sum up: Yes, he is. And no, it’s not. Saturday’s 343-yard, 3-TD barrage against Florida State was an exclamation point on a breakthrough season from a guy who, prior to September, hadn’t started a football game since he was in the 9th grade. By this time next year he could be an imminently draftable prospect.
Meanwhile, with his former understudy entrenched the writing was on the wall for Feleipe Franks, who officially entered his name in the transfer portal on Sunday. There are those on the Florida beat believe Franks is more inclined to take his chances in the draft, which (health pending) would give him a chance to impress scouts in pre-draft workouts with the same raw skill set that made him a blue-chip recruit out of high school, than to play out his final year of eligibility at another school. His on-field track record suggests that route would be … ambitious. But compared to betting on his stock rising in just one season on a team much further down the food chain, it might actually be the safer way to go. (Last week: 3)
4. Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
Kentucky’s play-calling over the second half of the season never made any pretense that Bowden was anything other than a wide receiver playing quarterback out of sheer necessity, and it didn’t have to: Since converting, he’s 5-2 as a starter with nearly four times as many rushing yards (1,136 on 8.2 per carry) as passing (291 on 5.0 per attempt) in an attack that seemed to get stronger by the week. In Saturday’s 45-13 romp over Louisville, both Bowden individually and the Wildcats as a team smashed records on the ground while effectively abandoning the concept of the forward pass altogether.
LYNN BOWDEN JR. TO THE HOUSE ‼️‼️ pic.twitter.com/HW5SuFVxyD
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 30, 2019
That was likely Bowden’s last game at Kentucky, and if there’s any justice he’ll go out as a consensus All-American in the “all-purpose” role, which he embodies as well as any player in the past 20 years. In fact, it’s hard to come up with another player who’s made anything like a similar switch, much less made it work over the majority of a full season. Bowden has sometimes been compared to Antwaan Randle El, which overlooks the fact that Randle El’s career unfolded in the opposite direction — he only converted to receiver in the NFL after serving as a full-time college quarterback who attempted more than 1,000 passes at Indiana with just seven career receptions. (The same goes for Julian Edelman, who attempted more than 700 passes at Kent State with only one reception.) By contrast, with his September production alone Bowden actually finished as Kentucky’s leading receiver for the 2nd year in a row.
There’s Randall Cobb, although Cobb in his UK days was never more than a part-time QB. A better analogy to what Bowden has pulled off the past two months might be Darren McFadden operating out of the Wildcat at Arkansas … if, you know, Darren McFadden operated out of the Wildcat full-time. Bowden has got that wood in spades. (Last week: 5)
5. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
The debacle at LSU was the worst night of Mond’s career, yielding 3 interceptions (all of them coming in the second half, long after the outcome was decided) and a woeful 2.9 yards per attempt. As a team, A&M finished with its fewest total yards (169) in any game since the infamous 77-0 massacre at Oklahoma in 2003.
A bad night doesn’t completely erase the fact that Mond has been relatively steady this season, even when the rest of the offense (especially the running game) has not. Still, the fact that it came in his 33rd career start, at the end of a season in which the Aggies went 0-5 vs. opponents with winning records, isn’t encouraging for his prospects of turning the corner into an upper-echelon starter in his last season on campus. Middle-rung bowl games don’t count for much in terms of “momentum,” but in Mond’s case just getting the bad taste of his mouth heading into what figures to be a very long offseason in College Station ought to be incentive enough. (Last week: 4)
6. Bo Nix, Auburn
The Iron Bowl was a weird game in a lot of ways, not least of which was the fact Auburn managed to eke out a 48-45 win with just 3 offensive touchdowns. Nix himself wasn’t exactly a revelation, either, averaging a pedestrian 5.8 yards per attempt on 15-of-30 passing. After watching him struggle in the Tigers’ other big games this season, though, it was arguably his most assured performance yet, and arguably the first time he’s looked like a guy capable of winning these types of games on a regular basis over the next 3 years — in other words, the first time he’s reminded us why he was a 5-star recruit.
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) November 30, 2019
One number that bears that out more clearly than others is ESPN’s QBR metric, which graded Nix’s performance against Alabama (85.7) as his 2nd-best against any opponent this season, trailing only a 99.3 grade in Auburn’s blowout win over Mississippi State in September. That represented a significant improvement over his mediocre-to-bad QBR scores against Oregon (61.9), Texas A&M (62.1), Florida (17.8), LSU (50.6) and Georgia (52.7), as well as the best number any opposing QB who is not Joe Burrow has posted against Bama this year. As far as his BMOC rating is concerned, those other games may as well have never happened. (Last week: 9)
7. Mac Jones, Alabama
Jones’ big-game debut as the Crimson Tide’s starter was largely defined by 2 disastrous plays, the first of which was clearly his fault …
THE SMOKE SIX pic.twitter.com/SSeurXOLhc
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
… and the second of which will go down as one of the most dramatic, game-changing flukes in a rivalry with a long history of them:
THE BACK-PICK SIX pic.twitter.com/QuwSnjS6ho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
That improvised explosive device of a play represented a 14-point swing all by itself, the biggest of a handful of essentially random plays that combined to tilt the scoreboard in the Tigers’ favor. Otherwise, Jones was fine: Aside from the picks, he finished 26-of-37 for 335 yards and 4 touchdowns, numbers that look downright Tagovailoan.
Of course, to say aside from the picks is to assume that he’s going to stop throwing them in the future, which isn’t necessarily a given. But taken in context — inexperienced QB, on the road, in a pressure-cooker game, against one of the top defenses in the league — there was more than enough to like about Jones’ performance to give him the benefit of the doubt as the Tide’s presumptive starter going into 2020. That could change quickly as Taulia Tagovailoa sheds his redshirt and 5-star commit Bryce Young prepares to enroll in time to compete in spring practice; until further notice, it’s Jones’ job to lose. (Last week: 10)
8. Kelly Bryant, Missouri
Bryant sat out Mizzou’s season-ending win over Arkansas due to a lingering knee injury, a fittingly anticlimactic end to a lost season. At midseason, the Tigers were 5-1 with visions of a darkhorse run at the SEC title; by the end, they’d dropped five straight, lost their appeal to overturn an NCAA bowl ban, and fired coach Barry Odom after just his 4th year on the job. Whatever nascent draft stock Bryant possessed plummeted along with the team’s record and his health.
Adding injury to … well, injury, freshman backup Connor Bazelak suffered a torn ACL against the Razorbacks that will keep him out of the first spring practice under a new coaching staff. The silver lining: Former TCU transfer Shawn Robinson will be eligible after sitting out this year per NCAA rules. In the long run, it might be better both for Robinson and the new staff that he wasn’t available to be thrown into a sinking ship. (Last week: 6)
9. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
It’s not clear whether Guarantano will opt to finish his eligibility next year in Knoxville or take the opportunity to move on after an emotional roller coaster of a season, but if he does decide to stay, it will be on the same terms as the past 2 years: As the incumbent. If he goes the distance in the bowl, it will be for the 3rd consecutive game, which after being demoted, scapegoated, chewed out, and finally restored to the top of the depth chart during the Vols’ November surge might qualify him for Comeback Player of the Year in the course of a single season. (Last week: 7)
10. John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
Possibly no one stands to lose more from the decision to fire Matt Luke than Plumlee — less so because of Luke’s exit at the top than because it also means offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez will be on his way out, too. Plumlee thrived in Rodriguez’s spread-to-run system, finishing as both the only true freshman (at any position) to crack 1,000 yards rushing and the SEC leader in rushing yards per game. But the list of explosive athletes behind center who saw their production plummet post-Rodriguez is a distinguished one: At his previous stops, Pat White (West Virginia), Denard Robinson (Michigan), and Khalil Tate (Arizona) all achieved serious Heisman buzz under RichRod, only to fade back into their surroundings in their first season after his departure.
It’s not completely out of the question to imagine Ole Miss deciding to promote Rodriguez to the full-time gig, although his well-documented baggage from previous stops will make that difficult. (Especially given that Ole Miss has more than enough well-documented baggage of its own.) Regardless, whoever does get the job should follow his lead in making Plumlee’s potential in the read-option game. If the next guy thinks he can turn Plumlee into Eli Manning it’s going to get ugly. (Last week: 8)
11. Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader, Mississippi State
Stevens and Shrader shared the job all season and put up remarkably similar stat lines, distinguished mainly by Shrader’s higher volume (and higher altitude) as a runner. With Stevens graduating, the job should be Shrader’s to lose as a sophomore after leading a season-saving win in the Egg Bowl. But whether he can keep may depend on his leveling up as a passer. (Last week: 11)
12. Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina
South Carolina issued a press release Tuesday to clarify that Hilinski did not play on a torn ACL this season, as reported by at least one local outlet, but will undergo knee surgery to repair some relatively minor issues involving his left meniscus. The injury stems from the Gamecocks’ midseason upset at Georgia, in which Hilinski was knocked out of the game in the 3rd quarter, and after which he clearly struggled over the second half of the season: In their 3-game losing streak to end the year, he averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt with 1 touchdown, a far cry from the touted prospect who held his own against Alabama back in September in his first SEC start.
Still, if there were any lingering doubts about Hilinski’s status as QB1 in 2020 they were answered on Monday when injured senior Jake Bentley confirmed his plans to transfer for his final year of eligibility, more or less as expected since Bentley was ruled out for the year following the season opener. The unexpected transition from a seasoned vet to a true freshman was one of several reasons (along with a brutal schedule and a prohibitive buyout) that Will Muschamp remains the head coach despite a 4-8 record and diminishing returns on the scoreboard in Year 4. With a year under Hilinski’s belt and a new offensive coordinator on the way, there’s no such margin for error in Year 5. (Last week: 12)
13. Riley Neal, Vanderbilt
Neal started 10 games in his first and only season at Vandy but failed to make a dent outside of Nashville, or for that matter inside of Nashville. Ideally, Derek Mason would have an up-and-coming underclassman in the pipeline for what figures to be a make-or-break season for his head coach in 2020. But if he did, that guy would already be the incumbent. Instead, Mason might have to hitch his fate to another grad transfer from the sport’s hinterlands. (Last week: 14)
14. (Pick-’em), Arkansas
The Razorbacks achieved a kind of immortality by rolling out 5 starting quarterbacks in their last five games, an historic feat featuring two graduate transfers, two former walk-ons, and a true freshman who missed Saturday’s season-ending loss vs. Missouri due to either a concussion or the mumps. Collectively they completed just 38.5 percent of their passes in the month of November for just 4.2 yards per attempt, worst in the nation on both counts.
Somewhere in that group could be the likely frontrunner to emerge as the 2020 starter under a new head coach — only 5th-year senior Ben Hicks has exhausted his eligibility, leaving Nick Starkel and K.J. Jefferson as the most likely candidates if they decide to stick around. (Starkel, a redshirt junior who served up an SEC-worst 10 interceptions this year in just 179 attempts, is frankly a long shot to return for year five.) More likely, the grad-transfer market beckons yet again. (Last week: n/a)