SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 10: Bo Nix was a 5-star recruit. Is he a 5-star talent?
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 .
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Does Tua really need to play against LSU? The question might be rhetorical, even heretical. But it’s not crazy.
Obviously the Tide want their franchise QB to be healthy and in the lineup in 2 weeks. So do Bama fans, the media, and everyone else with even the slightest passing interest in Bama-LSU living up to the Game of the Century hype that’s been building all season. Two aspiring Heisman contenders going head-to-head with a Playoff spot on the line, the whole thing. We all hope he can play. But do they need him to play?
Thinking strictly in terms of Alabama’s chances of winning a national championship, it’s debatable. Physically, Tagovailoa’s status for the LSU game is still in doubt as he recovers from ankle surgery; rushing him back too soon could have a significant impact on his performance down the stretch, as it arguably did last year after injuries to his knee and (other) ankle.
And although this isn’t the kind of thought Nick Saban would ever allow to cross his mind, his team is in the rare position of likely being able to afford a setback: Even if the Tide were to lose vs. the Tigers with backup Mac Jones behind center — not a given, considering Jones’ confident performance Saturday in his first career start, and considering Bama shut out a Joe Burrow-led offense last year — there’s a fair-to-good chance the Playoff committee would grant an 11-1 Bama a mulligan over the Big 12 or Pac-12 champion, if it came down to that. (It’s happened before.) A loss vs. the No. 1 team with the star player on the bench isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but exposing Tua to further risk if he’s not 100 percent could be.
Buy any of that? Yeah, me neither. It’s going to be a long week-and-a-half.
Tank for Tua Watch: Their backs against the wall, the Miami Dolphins snatched defeat from the jaws of victory Monday night, racing to a stunning, 14-0 lead at Pittsburgh before rallying to give up 27 unanswered points over the final 3 quarters. The come-from-ahead loss extended the Dolphins’ losing streak to 10 games going back to last season and kept them on pace with the 0-8 Cincinnati Bengals for the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft — a race that, as it stands, still figures to be decided by the Bengals’ epic Week 16 trip to Miami. The bigger question by then may be whether Tua will still be the quarterback they’re tanking for. (Last week: 1)
2. Joe Burrow, LSU
Statistically, Burrow’s 32-of-42, 321-yard, 1 TD/1 INT outing against Auburn was his worst of the season in terms of both efficiency and QBR, which says a lot more about the rest of his season than it does about his performance against the Tigers. That represents the most yards and highest completion percentage (76.2) any LSU quarterback has posted against Auburn this century.
Between a 14-yard scramble on 3rd-and-12, a game-clinching TD run in the 4th quarter, and this …
"SWEET FEET JOE BURROW" pic.twitter.com/KyKGUN5MWi
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 26, 2019
… it was also a good reminder that Burrow is a more productive runner than he generally gets credit for. His 222 rushing yards on the season (not including negative yardage on sacks) puts him neck-and-neck with the Tigers’ No. 2 running back, Tyrion Davis-Price, and 10 of Burrow’s 15 carries on 3rd down (including sacks) have either moved the chains or scored. (Last week: 2)
3. Jake Fromm, Georgia
Fromm is coming off the worst 2-game stretch of his career against South Carolina and Kentucky, but he’s been here before: This time last year, he rebounded from a dismal afternoon at LSU — a 5-alarm loss that raised the specter of Justin Fields ascending to QB1 — with his best game, a 17-of-24, 240-yard, 3-TD effort against Florida that solidified Fromm’s grip on the job and put the Bulldogs back on track for a potential Playoff bid. Fields didn’t leave the bench vs. the Gators and didn’t take another meaningful snap until his ill-fated fake punt attempt in the SEC Championship Game.
Fromm isn’t looking over his shoulder this time around, but otherwise the situation this weekend is more or less identical. Again, the Cocktail Party is the decisive game in the SEC East; again, there are nagging doubts about Fromm’s ability to elevate his game in a situation where he has to put it in the air 25 or 30 times (or more) for the Bulldogs to beat a Playoff-level opponent. He’s answered those questions before. Fairly or not, how he answers them on Saturday will go a long way toward shaping how he’s remembered in Athens — as the face of championship-caliber teams, or the guy who ultimately held those teams back. (Last week: 3)
4. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Mond had a banner day in the Aggies’ 49-30 win over Mississippi State, accounting for 308 total yards, 5 TDs, the best efficiency rating of his career (202.4), and the high score among all FBS quarterbacks in Week 9 according to ESPN’s QBR metric. As a team, A&M scored touchdowns on 7 of 10 non-half-ending possessions, resulting in its largest margin of victory over an SEC opponent since 2016 and its largest lead in an SEC game (25 points) since the 2014 opener against South Carolina. (Last week: 6)
5. Kyle Trask, Florida
Trask has quietly ascended the ranks since taking over for the injured Feleipe Franks in Week 3, putting together one solid performance after another in each of his 4 SEC starts. His past 3, against Auburn, LSU, and South Carolina, look so similar on paper it’s uncanny:
Now, that’s not an entirely accurate reflection of how each of those games has unfolded. At South Carolina, especially, Trask benefited enormously from field position late in the game — 3 of his 4 TD passes against the Gamecocks came in the 4th quarter, 2 of them on possessions that began inside the Carolina 40-yard line, redeeming an otherwise rough afternoon up to that point.
As a reflection of where he stands in the broader pecking order, though, “reliably on the high end of average” fits Trask to a tee. That might not be enough to lift the Gators past Georgia, or to win a championship. But if the defense holds up its end of the bargain it’s not necessarily going to lose one, either. (Last week: 5)
6. Kelly Bryant, Missouri
Bryant’s stock has plummeted over the past 2 weeks along with his team’s, and the reality is worse than the stats: More than half of his 130 passing yards in Saturday’s 29-7 loss at Kentucky came on one play, a 3rd-and-long surrender screen that RB Tyler Badie somehow popped for a 74-yard touchdown.
That was the sum total of Mizzou’s scoring in a game that saw Bryant struggle to push the ball downfield (he was 0-for-3 on attempts beyond 10 yards, with a long of just 12) and post a horrendous 25.6 QBR. It’s fair to chalk some of that up to the weather, which also limited his UK counterpart, Lynn Bowden Jr. (See below.) His receivers were plagued by drops, and he appeared to be playing on a gimpy hamstring that rendered him a non-factor as a runner. He exited the game early for the 2nd time this month.
Still, coming on the heels of an equally deflating effort at Vanderbilt in Week 8 it’s officially Time For Concern heading into this weekend’s open date. The timing is good for Bryant’s health, if nothing else. Georgia and Florida await on the other side in games that no longer look like opportunities. (Last week: 4)
7. Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
Bowden’s arrow is pointing in the opposite direction. His move from wide receiver was supposed to be a short-term solution in the absence of Sawyer Smith, but after the romp over Missouri is this really a question?
In 3 starts, Bowden has run for 499 yards, passed for 149 more, accounted for 5 touchdowns, and been recognized twice as the league’s Offensive Player of the Week, salvaging the Wildcats’ hopes of a winning season in the process. His 204 rushing yards against Mizzou — in a downpour, against an above-average defense that had little doubt what was coming its way — set a single-game high for any SEC player this season; it’s also nearly the exact margin of Bowden’s edge over LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire for the conference lead in all-purpose yards.
Well, okay. But can he throw? Kind of!
Lynn Bowden connects on a 43 yard pass to Bryce Oliver. pic.twitter.com/BJ4AH9WTkc
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 27, 2019
… as long as, you know, he’s only asked to do it on a regular basis. That throw, which set up Kentucky’s first touchdown, is Bowden’s best of the year and stands as evidence that he is theoretically capable of challenging opposing secondaries beyond the 1st down marker. But it’s the only evidence: His other 6 attempts on Saturday yielded just 2 completions for 11 yards, on the heels of a 2-of-15, 17-yard performance at Georgia in which he didn’t complete a pass until well into garbage time.
In his defense, both games were played in a steady rain that led to the decision to lean into the glorified Wildcat approach in the first place. (Smith was cleared to play in both games, and might have started both in more passing-friendly conditions.) Still, to be viable on a full-time basis Bowden does need to pose some kind of downfield threat.
The concern going forward, as coach Mark Stoops conceded Saturday night, is that defense will have a better read on the one-dimensional playbook now that it’s on film; that wasn’t the case against Missouri, which looked lost even when defenders in the box outnumbered Kentucky blockers, but it very well could be in 2 weeks against Tennessee, which completely shut down Kentucky’s offense last year in Knoxville. “It’s pretty hard to take (Bowden) out,” Stoops said after the win over Mizzou. “So I don’t know. I don’t think guys we play, defensive coordinators are stupid. They’re pretty bright in this league.”
Maybe. More fundamentally, though, the Wildcats have found an identity they sorely lacked during their 0-3 start in conference play, and have been a their best embracing it. Ultimately, that might mean a rotation between Bowden and Smith as the situation warrants. But as well as it’s gone so far, they owe it to themselves to keep sticking with what works until it doesn’t. (Last week: 12)
8. Bo Nix, Auburn
Nix was about as highly regarded a prospect as they come, but there are 5-star recruits and then there are 5-star recruits:
This one belonged to Derek Stingley. pic.twitter.com/fD0yOtfIho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 26, 2019
To be fair, even among the cream of the crop Stingley’s talent wrecks the curve. But isn’t that what blue-chip athletes are supposed to do? What does it say about Nix’s ceiling that he’s yet to produce any real wow plays that offset his maddening inconsistency?
The inconsistency itself is understandable: He’s 19 years old. Taking his lumps against the likes of Florida and LSU in 2 of the most hostile road environments in sports is par for the course. But those losses have also been telling re: Nix’s limitations, as have the wins. No one expected a 6-1, 207-pound freshman to come in looking like Cam Newton out of the gate, but at this stage nothing about his athletic profile in terms of size, speed, or arm strength screams next-level specimen. He’s smart; he’s resilient; he’s flashed hints of the elusive It Factor. Even if the light comes on as he continues to mature into the role, though — or, more likely, when the light comes on — all signs point to a guy who tops out as an efficient, highly competitive, functionally mobile game manager.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the “efficient” part of the equation needs to come into view soon. When an obvious talent like Joey Gatewood is relegated to spot duty on the goal line, the bar for the guy playing in front of him has to be higher than 15-of-35 for 157 yards in a game where the defense held the league’s highest-scoring offense to 23 points. (Last week: 7)
9. Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
The official depth chart for this weekend’s trip to Auburn lists Corral and Plumlee as co-starters, continuing a rotation that showed some initial promise at Missouri but got slapped back to Earth by Texas A&M. An open week came at the right time for Plumlee, who’s coming off arthroscopic knee surgery following the A&M game but expects to be back at full speed this week. (Last week: 9)
10. Brian Maurer or Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
The league’s most volatile QB situation is back on the upswing. Maurer has reportedly been cleared to play against UAB after sitting out Saturday’s 41-21 win over South Carolina due to multiple concussions. Guarantano, the goat of the Vols’ 2-5 start, is coming off one of the best games of his career, a 229-yard, 2-TD outing against the Gamecocks that went a long way toward redeeming his game-changing blunder at Alabama; he left the game in the 3rd quarter with a broken left (non-throwing) hand but expects to be available against UAB. In Guarantano’s absence, redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout came on to close out the win, going 7-for-11 with a 55-yard TD bomb to put UT up 2 scores.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt joked this week that he might alternate all three guys this weekend, Spurrier-style, sending in the calls directly with whoever happened to be going in on a given play. As with his joke about refusing to punt against Bama, that sounds like a fine idea. (Last week: 11)
11. Garrett Shrader, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs were out of the game in the 2nd quarter, but Shrader salvaged a respectable-looking stat line at Texas A&M by leading three extended touchdown drives in the second half, spanning 74, 75, and 79 yards, respectively, chewing up nearly 14 minutes on a combined 31 plays. The margin in that span never got any closer than 18 points. (Last week: 8)
12. Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina
Hilinski burned Tennessee on the first play of the game, a 75-yard touchdown pass to Shi Smith, and struggled the rest of the way, averaging just 4.9 yards on his other 50 attempts. That’s the 4th time in the past 5 games at least 20 percent of his total output has come on one play. (Last week: 10)
13. Riley Neal or Mo Hasan, Vanderbilt
If he’s cleared to play, Hasan is the likely starter for this weekend’s trip to South Carolina after holding his on in the Commodores’ Week 8 upset over Missouri, his first career start. But there’s been no official word on where Hasan stands in his recovery from the concussion that knocked him out of that game, leaving the door open for Neal to reclaim the job for at least 1 more week. (Last week: 13)
14. Nick Starkel or Ben Hicks or John Stephen Jones or K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas
Incredibly, Starkel absorbed a relentless wave of pressure from Alabama on Saturday without taking a single sack. He would have been better off if he had.
Alabama's defense is nothing to play with 😤 pic.twitter.com/QnGPyGCfJr
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 27, 2019
Starkel was picked 3 times in all on a brutal night that ended with Jones coming off the bench to lead Arkansas to its only score, an irrelevant touchdown in garbage time. That was enough to move Jones, a redshirt freshman walk-on, into the mix over the final month of the season as the Razorbacks start looking ahead to 2020.
The more intriguing option is Jefferson, a touted true freshman who is taking at least some of the first-team reps in practice this week with an eye toward his first action of the season. With just 4 games to go, Jefferson is now eligible to finish out the year without burning his redshirt, which immediately wins the title of Most Optimistic Sentence anyone has written about Arkansas all season. (Last week: 14)