SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 10: Kirby Smart has built a monster. Can he leave it in Stetson Bennett's hands?
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week throughout the season, we’ll 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. Bryce Young, Alabama
Statistically, the bar for what it takes to win the Heisman Trophy has risen so dramatically over the past few years that Young’s output looks relatively ordinary by comparison — his current passer rating (177.1) is more than 20 points below the record-breaking ratings posted by Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow in their Heisman campaigns, and significantly below notable finalists Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Mac Jones’ numbers, as well. Compared to the other candidates this year, though, Young’s résumé is right up there.
Among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, he ranks No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency and Total QBR, trailing only Ohio State’s CJ Stroud on both counts, and he’s graded out slightly ahead of Stroud per Pro Football Focus. As far as Vegas is concerned, anyway, that and Bama’s lofty position in the Playoff race are more than enough to make him the safe bet heading into the home stretch.
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(Last week: 1 ⬌)
2. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
No player anywhere has been more indispensable to his team this season than Corral, or more willing to play through pain. But when the season comes down to gutting it out on the road on two bad ankles with your top 3 receivers and best offensive lineman all on the shelf with injuries, it’s usually time to concede the tank is empty. That certainly looked like the case in a 31-20 loss at Auburn, where a game but exhausted Corral turned in his worst outing of the year in terms of both pass efficiency (117.0) and QBR (62.0) in Ole Miss’ lowest-scoring game under Lane Kiffin.
As called on Auburn radio: pic.twitter.com/nRi8eRD3mW
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 31, 2021
That’ll do it for the Rebels’ dark-horse bid in the SEC West, and Barring a miracle, presumably for Corral’s Heisman odds, as well. One milestone that remains in his sights, if he can make it that far in one piece: Becoming the first quarterback off the board in next year’s draft.
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(Last week: 2 ⬌)
3. Stetson Bennett IV or JT Daniels, Georgia
Sooner or later, the Bulldogs were bound to arrive at the outer limits of the Stetson Bennett Experience, and Saturday’s defensively-driven win over Florida may have been the moment those limits began to come into view.
True, to his credit, Bennett has done everything he’s been asked to do while Daniels slowly (very, very slowly) continues to work his way back from a muscle strain. He held down the job for the entire month of October, going 4-0 as a starter in games Georgia won by an average margin of 26.3 points. Three of those wins came against ranked opponents, with the 4th coming against a rival that started the month in the top 10. He leads the SEC and ranks in the top 5 nationally in yards per attempt (11.5) and overall efficiency (193.9) among QBs with at least 100 attempts. A little more than 20% of his attempts have gained 20+ yards, the best rate in the conference, by far. At no point has he looked like a liability.
But let’s be real: Nobody’s about to confuse the guy for the second coming of Baker Mayfield in the annals of former walk-ons made good, and if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the era of the overachieving “game manager” type riding the coattails of an elite defense to a championship are ancient history. (I sincerely try to avoid the game manager cliché here, but sometimes it is what is is.) On that note, Bennett’s outing against Florida, arguably the most athletic defense he’s faced, was telling. All 3 of Georgia’s offensive touchdowns were set up by the defense and special teams handing the offense a short field, and on 2 of them Bennett’s job consisted strictly of handing off the ball. In the meantime, he finished 10/19 for 161 yards and 2 INTs.
There is an argument to be made that Georgia’s defense is playing at a level above elite, that even the Alabamas, Oklahomas and Ohio States of the world are more likely to wilt under its power than they are to score 20 points, and that in that context the distinction between Bennett’s savvy and Daniels’ next-level skill set is largely academic.
If you were Kirby Smart, knowing his history of decision-making at the position, is that a bet you’d be willing to take? Or would you be taking advantage of the next few weeks to get the future NFL Draft pick back up to speed in time to do what you brought him in to do in the postseason? At this point in the year, each week that goes by with Daniels on the bench is one step closer to leaving him there for good. With the stakes as high are they are, Smart’s going to have to decide fast whether he’s really willing to live with that.
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(Last week: 3 ⬌)
4. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Jefferson’s star waned in October following a hot start, the casualty of a 3-game losing streak that knocked Arkansas out of the polls and the national consciousness. But he remains as big and athletic as ever, and coming out of an open date he should be feeling fresher for the home stretch, too. (In fact, counting a Week 8 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff as a functional bye, he hasn’t been hit in 3 weeks.) With winnable dates against Mississippi State, Missouri and LSU on deck, the Razorbacks have a fair shot at their first 8-win campaign since 2015.
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(Last week: 4 ⬌)
5. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Hooker has been a significant upgrade for the Vols at a long-suffering position: He’s efficient, ranking among the national leaders in pass efficiency, and athletic, racking up more than 500 yards rushing before subtracting for sacks. But oof, those sacks. In 7 games he’s been dropped 22 times, more than any other SEC quarterback, and has posted the conference’s worst pressure-to-sack ratio — nearly one-third of his dropbacks under pressure have resulted in sacks, according to PFF, roughly twice the league average. Only 3 other QBs nationally have taken sacks at a higher rate.
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(Last week: 5 ⬌)
6. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Rogers was nearly flawless in a 31-17 win over Kentucky, finishing 36/39 for 344 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ most complete performance yet under Mike Leach. Rogers averaged a career-high 8.8 yards per attempt, and went in the books as only the 11th FBS quarterback since the turn of the century to complete more than 90% of his passes in a game on at least 30 attempts.
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(Last week: 7 ⬆)
7. Bo Nix, Auburn
I was among the many, many people who came to bury Nix after he was benched in Auburn’s come-from-behind, skin-of-the-teeth win over Georgia State on Sept. 25, so credit where it’s due: October was the best month of his career, even factoring in a lopsided loss to Georgia. Coming off back-to-back road wins at LSU and Arkansas, he stole the show again in the Tigers’ win over Ole Miss, finishing 22/30 for 276 yards and 3 touchdowns (1 rushing, 2 passing) with the occasional smattering of Bo Nix Stuff.
Bo Nix is the king of schoolyard QB scrambles pic.twitter.com/bCQjuc236I
— Patrick Greenfield (@PCGreenfield) October 30, 2021
Nix’s down-by-down consistency from the pocket has improved (at least for the time being), but it’s the freewheeling aspect of his game lately that really gives us a glimpse into why he was as hyped as he was coming out of high school, traits he didn’t flash nearly enough in his first 2 seasons on campus. Something about the prospect of losing his job seems to have freed him up to channel his instincts rather than sanding them down to fit inside a box assembled by pro scouts.
There’s an alternate timeline where Nix doesn’t bounce back as quickly from his demotion, gets permanently surpassed on the depth chart by TJ Finley and spends the rest of the season plotting his exit. Instead, he handled it, came back better, and has the Tigers up to in position to control their fate in the West with Texas A&M and Alabama still on the schedule. I don’t know if that makes him any more draftable at the next level when his size, footwork and mechanics are what they are, but it’s obvious both he and his team have been better off on the other side of the controversy.
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(Last week: 9 ⬆)
8. Emory Jones or Anthony Richardson, Florida
Well, turns out Richardson’s much-debated, long-anticipated debut in the starting lineup was kind of a bust. OK, fine, it was a total bust: His 9 possessions at the helm against Georgia yielded 3 turnovers – all of them leading more or less directly to UGA touchdowns – and zero points before he was yanked for Jones in garbage time. Dan Mullen made the move everyone and their mother (and their favorite blogger) had been clamoring for, and came out the other side with his job security hanging by a thread.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 30, 2021
Still, grading on a curve for Georgia’s defense, none of that necessarily changes Richardson’s status as the Gators’ quarterback of the future, and at 4-4 this is very much a team concerned with the future more than the present. Florida will be heavily favored in its last 4 game regardless of the starting quarterback; beyond that, though, the threat of losing a player as obviously gifted as Richardson to the transfer portal is a valid concern. Mullen’s future is at stake, too, but unless he’s already made up his mind to commit to Jones in 2022 that future still looks a lot brighter with Richardson in it.
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(Last week: 6 ⬇)
9. Will Levis, Kentucky
Levis’ night at Mississippi State started bad, with an interception on the game’s opening series, and only got worse, with two more picks in the course of a 31-17 loss that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. (Kentucky’s only offensive touchdown came in garbage time.) That brought his INT total for the season to 9, tied with Emory Jones for the most among all Power 5 quarterbacks.
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(Last week: 8 ⬇)
10. Zach Calzada, Texas A&M
Calzada hasn’t had much to do since his moonshot performance against Alabama, taking a backseat to the ground game and the defense in blowout wins over Missouri and South Carolina. That’s not likely to be the case this weekend against Auburn, where the Aggies would love to have him back in giant-killer mode in a big game in the SEC West.
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(Last week: 10 ⬌)
11. Max Johnson, LSU
The big QB news in Baton Rouge this week had nothing to do with Johnson. Instead, the headlines were all about the guy he replaced at the top of the depth chart, Myles Brennan, who confirmed he plans to transfer for his final year of eligibility in 2022 after 5 snake-bitten seasons as a Tiger.
Brennan will be best remembered at LSU as the blue-chip recruit/NOLA restaurant heir who served as Joe Burrow’s backup during the 2019 national title run, but while he may be a prime candidate for What Could Have Been it would be unfair to label him a bust. His moment never really arrived for reasons almost entirely beyond his control. In 2018, Brennan was in line to take over as the starter as a redshirt sophomore until Burrow’s arrival via the transfer portal relegated him to clipboard duty for the next 2 years. When his time finally came in 2020, it was amid the chaos of a pandemic — which had a dramatic effect on LSU’s roster, including Ja’Marr Chase’s decision to opt out entirely — and got cut short by a season-ending injury in the 3rd game. With the job still up for grabs this summer, Brennan randomly broke his arm on a fishing trip in August, forcing a medical redshirt.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have moved on and are due for a house-cleaning. Although he’s earned 10 consecutive starts in Brennan’s absence, Johnson’s grip on the job still seems largely provisional; barring a spectacular finish, he looks like a candidate for the portal himself in the coming months with blue-chip freshman Garrett Nussmeier waiting in the wings and 5-star commit Walker Howard on his way in 2022. Factor in a new coaching staff with a mandate for change, and the writing on the wall is about as plain as it gets.
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(Last week: 11 ⬌)
12. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak left Mizzou’s 37-28 win at Vanderbilt early with an unspecified “soft tissue” injury, putting his streak of 17 consecutive starts in doubt ahead of this weekend’s trip to Georgia. Not that his presence poses any threat whatsoever to Georgia’s defense, but at least Bazelak has been there before. Given how little freshman backups Brady Cook and Tyler Macon have played — they’ve combined for just 9 attempts for the season on 33 snaps, all of them coming against Vandy and Southeast Missouri State — putting either of them on the field in Athens almost literally qualifies as throwing them to the wolves.
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(Last week: 12 ⬌)
13. Zeb Noland, South Carolina
Noland spent the Gamecocks’ open date recovering from knee surgery, which may or may not keep him out of the lineup this weekend at Florida. If he can’t go, the job will fall to fellow senior Jason Brown, a 6-3, 229-pound transfer from FCS St. Francis (Pa.) who came off the bench to lead a couple of late, garbage-time touchdown drives in an otherwise horrific loss at Texas A&M. (He also threw an interception.) Neither guy is expected back next year, so unless they’re willing to drop true freshman Colten Gauthier into the deep end, all that’s at stake over the last four games is closing out Shane Beamer’s first season as head coach with dignity.
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(Last week: 13 ⬌)
14. Mike Wright or Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
Wright has started the past 3 games in Seals’ absence, and looked credible enough to make it a dead heat whenever Seals is cleared to return from an injured finger. His athleticism brings a dimension to the offense that Seals never has, on display Saturday when Wright ripped off runs of 69 and 70 yards, respectively, in the loss to Missouri. Vandy is highly unlikely to crack the win the win column in its last 3 games, but settling the question heading into the offseason will be a top priority.
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(Last week: 14 ⬌)