SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 13: Alabama's post-Tua era begins with Mac Jones. Where does it end?
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.
1. Joe Burrow, LSU
If you had to sum up the State of the Quarterback in college football in one sentence, just point to the Heisman race: With 3 weeks to go in the regular season, the top 3 candidates according to ESPN and USA Today— Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and Justin Fields – are all transfers who left their original schools after getting buried on the depth chart. The Portal is vindicated!
Well, sort of. In fact, transfer QBs have been well represented in the Heisman race for decades, a long list that includes the likes of Troy Aikman (3rd in the 1988 vote), Cam Newton (1st in 2010), Russell Wilson (9th in 2011), Baker Mayfield (3 consecutive top 5 finishes from 2015-17, including winning in 2017), Kyler Murray (1st in 2018), and Will Grier (4th in 2018), among others.
Until the past few seasons, though, those guys were generally considered outliers — rare talents in unusual circumstances who beat the odds. Except for Wilson, the first notable grad-transfer QB, all of the above either spent a mandatory season on the bench at their second school or (in Newton’s case) a year in JUCO purgatory. Prior to Murray and Grier last year there had never been 2 FBS-to-FBS transfers in the top 5; only one other season, 2010, had ever seen 2 transfers finish in the top 10. (Newton was joined that year by Ryan Mallett, who came in 7th.) There have never been multiple transfers invited to New York as finalists.
To have 3 likely finalists in the same season who started their careers elsewhere is more evidence of just how integral the transfer market is to the sport, now and for the foreseeable future. By the end of the next decade, it might be weird to encounter an elite 4th- or 5th-year QB who didn’t start out somewhere else. Personally, I can’t imagine anyone watching guys like Burrow and Hurts fulfilling their potential as seniors and thinking that’s a bad thing.
BOMB FOR BURROW WATCH: With Tua Tagovailoa’s future suddenly in the balance, Burrow is clearly the most coveted passer in the 2020 NFL Draft, and with 6 weeks to go in the NFL season the 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals are clearly on the clock.
The Bengals are the first team eliminated from playoff contention.
Week 11 matches the earliest a team has been eliminated since at least 2002. pic.twitter.com/wRXotfbQ8l
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 18, 2019
Of course, in true Bengalian fashion it is still possible for them to screw this up: At least 2 remaining games, vs. the Jets in Week 13 and the Dolphins in Week 16, are winnable, the latter of which could still be the loser-take-all showdown for the top pick it was destined to be before Miami bungled its way into back-to-back wins earlier this month. If any team is capable of blowing a 3-game lead in the standings by accidentally winning, this version of Cincinnati is that team. (Last week: 1)
2. Jake Fromm, Georgia
Fromm’s 110 yards vs. Auburn marked a career low when attempting more than a dozen passes, and half of that number came on a single play on Georgia’s second offensive series:
Jake Fromm wanted it ALL on this one. pic.twitter.com/uO8Z56XnSB
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 16, 2019
That’s the kind of downfield juice UGA fans have been dying to see from Fromm and his blue-chip receivers all year. Characteristically, the offense responded by turtling up: Over the next 12 possessions, Fromm was just 10-of-25 for 56 yards (2.2 per attempt) as the Bulldogs proceeded to go 3-and-out 8 times. His long gain in that span covered just 13 yards.
It’s Auburn; a win is a win. But the general lack of explosiveness from James Coley’s offense has become a weekly complaint and a legitimate concern compared the kind of high-octane attacks — specifically LSU’s — that Georgia will have to contend with to have any chance at a national championship. Even within the SEC the Bulldogs’ downfield production has been consistently middling…
Percent of All Passes Gaining 25+ Yards
1. Tua Tagovailoa: 12.7%
2. Joe Burrow: 10.9
3. Jarrett Guarantano: 8.9
4. Bo Nix: 8.1
5. Kelly Bryant: 6.8
6. Kyle Trask: 6.6
7. Jake Fromm: 6.5
8. Nick Starkel: 6.5
9. Riley Neal: 5.8
10. Matt Corral: 5.4
11. Kellen Mond: 5.2
12. Ryan Hilinski: 2.9
– – –
vs. all 2019 opponents. Minimum 150 attempts.
… and the picture gets worse in the biggest games. Of the 17 Fromm passes that qualify for that column, 13 have come at the expense of Vanderbilt, Murray State, Arkansas State, Tennessee and Missouri. Against Notre Dame, Florida and Auburn: Just 1 in each game.
The fact the Bulldogs won all 3 of those games with somewhere between 21 and 24 points is a testament to the league’s best defense (by far) and the consistency of a solid-if-unspectacular ground game. To keep winning them as the stakes rise, they’ll need more from their veteran QB. (Last week: 3)
3. Kyle Trask, Florida
Trask might be the least-hyped Florida starter of the past decade, but since taking the reins in Week 3 he’s also quietly, consistently staked his case as the best:
Emphasis on consistently: In 8 starts Trask has posted a passer rating north of 145.0 in all 8 and a QBR of 72.0 or better in all but 2. He’s also thrown multiple touchdown passes in all 8 games, easily the best run by a Florida QB since Tim Tebow’s 9-game streak in 2008. (Last week: 4)
4. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Mond hasn’t been asked to do nearly as much over the course of the Aggies’ 4-game winning streak as he was over the first half of the season, thanks to a resurgent ground game that’s improved its output in 6 consecutive games. Here’s guessing Mond will be back in the spotlight Saturday at Georgia. (Last week: 5)
5. Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
Bowden has taken almost every relevant snap for the Wildcats since the start of October, going 3-2 as a starter in that span, but his status since converting from wide receiver has been provisional — technically, he continued to share QB1 status with Sawyer Smith on a week-by-week basis. Not this week: For the first time, Kentucky officially removed the or separating Bowden and Smith’s names on the weekly depth chart for Saturday’s game against UT-Martin, finally acknowledging the obvious.
A win will clinch the Wildcats’ 4th bowl game in as many years, which for a team that was on the verge of spiraling out before Bowden made the switch speaks for itself. The next big question: Assuming injured starter Terry Wilson is back in the saddle in 2020, can Bowden be convinced to pass on the NFL Draft for the chance to spend his senior season at his natural position? (Last week: 8)
6. Kelly Bryant, Missouri
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley described the past month as “football hell,” and it’s hard to disagree: After a 5-1 start, Mizzou has lost 4 straight vs. division opponents while scoring a total of 27 points. The Tigers failed to reach the end zone again in Saturday’s 23-6 loss to Florida, extending their touchdown drought to nine consecutive quarters. (Last week: 6)
7. John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
Just when it looked like defenses were beginning to catch on to Plumlee, the true freshman went off against LSU, accounting for 334 total yards (212 rushing, 123 passing) and 4 rushing TDs in a wild, 58-37 loss that’s going to be remembered in Oxford for years to come. Among the many offensive milestones worth a double-take: Plumlee became the first player at any position to run for 200+ yards vs. LSU since Cam Newton’s breakthrough game against the Tigers in 2010, as well as the first player to run for 200+ vs. the No. 1 team in the AP poll since Vince Young’s legendary performance against USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
Ole Miss has some offense of its own 🔥 pic.twitter.com/EYPxqQackm
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 17, 2019
The kicker: He did it while continuing to share snaps with backup Matt Corral, who got a series in the 2nd quarter and came on to finish the game in the 4th. It’s not quite accurate to say the Rebels are running a 2-quarterback system, given that Plumlee has started the past 6 games and taken the overwhelming majority of the snaps the past 3; it’s clear at this point that he’s the better fit for OC Rich Rodriguez, who more or less invented the concept of a spread-to-run philosophy that revolves around an athletic QB. Not everyone is convinced that Plumlee has the arm talent to succeed as a full-time starter, but as it stands it’s a safe bet that if Rich Rod is back next year, then Corral is not. (Last week: 10)
8. Bo Nix, Auburn
Nix fared slightly better against Georgia than he did in losses to Florida and LSU, if only because he a) didn’t throw a pick; and b) managed to rally the Tigers to a pair of late, ultimately futile touchdowns in a game that looked like it was over at the end of the 3rd quarter. Still, the overriding story of his freshman campaign is the massive gap in his performance against the top half of the schedule and the bottom:
The Iron Bowl is his last, best chance to reverse that trend before he has to spend the next eight months hearing about it on a daily basis. (Last week: 7)
9. Mac Jones, Alabama
Tide fans are more than familiar with Jones in mop-up duty, and in his lone career start against Arkansas on Oct. 26. (Which, let’s face it, was barely distinguishable from mop-up duty.) But Saturday’s visit from Western Carolina will be the first time that he takes the field as The Starting Quarterback at Alabama, a role he’ll assume for the rest of this season and quite possibly the next 2.
So: Can Alabama win a national championship with Mac Jones? It’s not inconceivable. As a recruit, Jones was in the same borderline 3-star/4-star range as guys like Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, and Jacob Coker, all of whom won a ring — 2, in McCarron’s case — and he projects as another floppy-haired, plays-within-the-offense type in a similar vein. If anything, he’ll be surrounded by an even deeper cast of elite skill talent than anyone in that group enjoyed, in an offense better suited to exploiting them. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if Jones made big leaps on this list in the next couple weeks and entered next season as a legitimate All-SEC candidate.
The more relevant question might whether he’ll ever get the chance. The deck is already stacked against the Tide’s Playoff chances this year, regardless of how strong they finish against Auburn. And no matter how well he plays down the stretch, Jones will still face serious competition next spring, from both Taulia Tagovailoa, who’s biding his time this season as a redshirt, and 5-star commit Bryce Young, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the 2020 recruiting class.
The harsh truth for Jones is that the days of the “game manager” in Tuscaloosa are over — Bama has fully embraced the transition to a spread passing attack that counts on the quarterback to make plays. The running game and the defense (especially the defense) are not on the level of the hulked-out units that defined the program over the first half of the decade. Eventually, the candidate who emerges as the heir apparent will be the one who gives the Tide the most big-play pop. (Last week: n/a)
10. Brian Maurer or Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
The Vols haven’t settled on a starter for this weekend’s trip to Missouri and aren’t sweating it: With only 2 games to go, and with Guarantano looking better off the bench over the past month than he ever did as the starter, there’s less urgency to resolve the question than at any other point this season. The more pressing issue might be how the dynamic carries over into 2020, when Guarantano will be a prime candidate to hit the grad-transfer market rather than risk spending his senior year in a relief role. (Last week: 9)
11. Tommy Stevens or Garrett Shrader, Mississippi State
Stevens went the distance against Alabama for the 2nd straight game, reasserting himself after yielding to Shrader for essentially the entire month of October. The latest depth chart still lists them as co-starters for this weekend’s game against Abilene Christian, but if Shrader has more than a brief cameo before the score gets out of hand it will be a surprise. (Last week: 11)
12. Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina
The only fair expectation for a true freshman starter is some semblance of growth over the course of the season, and by that standard Hilinski is trending in the wrong direction. Saturday’s 30-6 loss at Texas A&M was arguably his worst outing of the year: 16-of-41, 175 yards (4.3 per attempt), 74.9 efficiency, a season low. After racking up 72 points in Hilinski’s first start, a blowout win over Charleston Southern, the Gamecocks haven’t topped 27 points in any of the subsequent 9, going 3-6 in those games. Jake Bentley walked with the seniors on Senior Night in Williams-Brice Stadium a couple of weeks back, but if there’s still any doubt about whether he stays or goes in his final year of eligibility, the window for reclaiming the starting job next year is wide open. (Last week: 12)
13. Riley Neal, Vanderbilt
The Ball State transfer ranks last among regular SEC starters in pass efficiency and QBR, but remains the Commodores’ most viable option: Mo Hasan is still inactive — Hasan hasn’t played since getting knocked out of the Week 8 win over Missouri, his only career appearance — and backups Deuce Wallace and Allan Walters have looked overwhelmed in limited action. That leaves Neal to finish out the season as QB1 by default and Derek Mason without a good candidate to replace him in what figures to be a make-or-break year in 2020. Another foray into the grad-transfer market looms. (Last week: 13)
14. K.J. Jefferson or John Stephen Jones or Nick Starkel, Arkansas
Jefferson, Jones and Starkel are all listed as co-starters for this weekend’s trip to LSU, although interim coach Barry Lunney Jr. indicated on Monday that the Razorbacks “have a pretty clear direction on what we anticipate doing in the game, but it’s going to be to our advantage not to divulge that.” If you were searching for any possible advantage a team that just fired its head coach in the midst of a 17-game conference losing streak might have on the road against the No. 1 team in the nation, there you go. (Last week: 14)