SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 14: Don't hand Joe Burrow the Heisman yet (but don't bet against him)
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. Joe Burrow, LSU
Like any good race, the Heisman derby is never over till it’s over — just look at Kyler Murray’s last-second surge past Tua Tagovailoa last year, when the consensus right up to the end was that Tua had it all sewn up. But the smart money is clearly on Burrow, and there is a lot of it: Vegas has made him such a heavy favorite since LSU’s win over Alabama that at least one sportsbook has pulled its odds on other players and offered a straight prop bet on Burrow at Yes –2000/No +1000. If the Tigers close out a 13-0 season in the SEC Championship Game, it’s going to take another cinematic turn of events on the order of last year’s 11th-hour twist to keep him from making good.
If anyone can still catch him at this point, the most intriguing candidate isn’t one of the other front-running quarterbacks. It’s one of Burrow’s former teammates at Ohio State, Chase Young, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks at an almost unprecedented rate. Young has the numbers, including a school-record/FBS-best 16.5 sacks and 7 forced fumbles; just as important, he’s shone the brightest in the Buckeyes’ most high-profile games, racking up 4 sacks against Wisconsin and 3 in Saturday’s division-clinching win over Penn State. Another big game in the national spotlight against Michigan will put to bed any notion that he’s some kind of insurgent candidate who can’t win because he plays the wrong position.
In fact, in the case of a no-brainer contender like Young the longstanding bias against non-offensive skill players arguably makes him an even more compelling option. As consistently prolific as Burrow has been, there’s a certain type of voter who would relish the opportunity to throw their weight behind a worthy player who bucks the standard “Quarterback On a Playoff Team” mold. (I know, because although I don’t have a vote that’s definitely the type of voter I’d be if I did.) The freakish headliner of a unit that leads the nation in both yards and points allowed gives them that chance, which gives Young a chance. It’s gonna be an interesting couple of weeks.
Bomb for Burrow Watch: It’s crunch time in the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and with 5 weeks to go the 0-11 Bengals continue to cling to a commanding 2-game lead over the 2-9 Dolphins. Miami can make up one of those games by taking a head-to-head L against the Bengals in Week 16, an all-time pillow fight that could still have far-reaching implications if the Bengals screw up and win a game in the meantime. To maximize their chances of doing just that, they’ve decided to bench rookie Ryan Finley this week and thaw out veteran Andy Dalton instead — a loud-and-clear signal that the team is in the market for a new QB next spring. (Last week: 1)
2. Jake Fromm, Georgia
No way around it: Fromm is in a slump. The offense is struggling, his draft stock is wobbling, and his completion percentage has dipped below 50% in 3 consecutive games, including Saturday’s 19-13 win over Texas A&M in which he missed multiple wide-open receivers. Prior to that he’d posted just 3 sub-50% games in his entire career.
So far, it hasn’t mattered due to the machine-like efficiency of Georgia’s defense. (D’Andre Swift has been a rock in the backfield, too, although he sometimes feels like the forgotten man.) It won’t matter Saturday against 3-8 Georgia Tech. With LSU looming, though, it’s the worst possible time for Fromm’s usually reliable game to suddenly go wandering off into the wilderness for weeks on end.
The version of Fromm who showed up in last year’s razor-thin SEC Championship loss to Alabama is one the Bulldogs can win with, and one who stands to make himself a lot of money in the process. On the other hand, if he does wind up returning for one more go-round in 2020, it will almost certainly be because they came up short (again) in this one. (Last week: 2)
3. Kyle Trask, Florida
Trask confirmed earlier this week that he plans to be back next year, as expected, and the odds of former starter Feleipe Franks returning to compete for his old job as a 5th-year senior are slim. Franks has options: Assuming his ankle checks out, there should be plenty of schools interested in landing a once-touted prospect as a grad transfer looking to make one last case for the NFL; he could also attempt to cash in on a pro baseball career with the Red Sox, who drafted him in the 31st round in June despite the fact that Franks hasn’t played organized baseball since he was a junior in high school. The more pressing concern might be convincing redshirt freshman Emory Jones, if he’s unable to supplant Trask by the end of spring practice, to stick around one more year in a complementary role before he finally has the job all to himself in 2021. (Last week: 3)
4. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Mond had a fine stat line at Georgia, finishing 25-of-42 for 275 yards, 1 TD, and no turnovers. Again, though, he found himself in the all-too-familiar position of trying to throw A&M out of a 2nd-half hole against one the league’s best defenses with no support whatsoever from the running game. The Aggies went into Athens having significantly improved their rushing output in 6 consecutive games; they limped out with a grand total of 18 yards (not including sacks) on 17 carries, their worst output on the ground in a decade. (Last week: 4)
5. Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
Bowden slashed his way to 129 yards and 2 TDs rushing against UT-Martin on just 11 carries, setting the pace for a record-breaking day on the ground for the team as a whole: The Wildcats’ 492 rushing yards were the most in school history. Bowden himself has eclipsed the century mark in 6 consecutive games since converting from wide receiver, the longest streak of any SEC player this season. (Last week: 5)
6. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
At the start of the season I felt like Guarantano was the hardest quarterback in the league to get a bead on, and as we approach the end of the season I feel the same way. Dude has languished, bottomed-out, rebounded and refused to relinquish his title as the SEC’s reigning enigma:
On 2 separate occasions this season I counted Guarantano as a lost cause: 1) Following a blowout loss at Florida in which he was picked twice and benched, putting an exclamation point on a nightmarish September; and 2) Following his dramatic goal-line fumble at Alabama, which sealed the loss in Tuscaloosa, got Guarantano chewed out on national TV, and reportedly led to death threats. After Brian Maurer’s promising start against Georgia, it looked like the torch had been officially passed to the true freshman, and if Maurer hadn’t suffered multiple concussions in the subsequent weeks that might have been the end of the story.
Instead, the same guy who served as the face of Tennessee’s descent to rock bottom has re-emerged as the face of Tennessee’s turnaround. Guarantano came off the bench to throw multiple TD passes in come-from-behind wins over South Carolina and Kentucky, and returned to the starting lineup Saturday to bomb Missouri for 415 yards and 2 TDs in the best performance of his career. The Vols are going to a bowl game after a 2-year absence; with a win Saturday over Vanderbilt (Tennessee is a 21-point favorite), they’ll wrap up a winning conference record for only the 2nd time since their last division title in 2007. Jeremy Pruitt’s seat is as cool as it’s been since he took the job.
Guarantano indicated earlier this week that he plans to return for his senior season in 2020, which almost no one would have believed a month ago. Now, the only question is which version the Vols are going to get. (Last week: 10)
7. Kelly Bryant, Missouri
It’s hard to spin this season as anything but a disappointment for Bryant, who transferred from Clemson with hopes of salvaging his draft stock but might be going out with even worse prospects than he came in with. Knee and hamstring injuries have had a lot to do with that, limiting his mobility over the past month and forcing him to sit out the Georgia game — the biggest on the schedule as far as pro scouts are concerned — altogether. But when he has played the results since midseason have been grim: Over the course of the Tigers’ 5-game losing streak Bryant has averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt with subpar efficiency and QBR ratings in every game.
The silver lining this week is an opportunity to close out the regular season against a woebegone Arkansas secondary that ranks dead last in the SEC and 123rd nationally in pass efficiency defense. That should get the Tigers level at 6-6, which seems like an appropriate ending now that the NCAA has finally (fiiiiinally) ruled that the 1-year bowl ban handed down earlier this year will stand. At this point, everyone involved should be content to snap the skid against the league’s worst team and call it a year. (Last week: 6)
8. John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
Is Plumlee the nation’s best true freshman running back? Just because he doesn’t technically play the position doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a case.
Plumlee is certainly not on the level of the best Class of 2019 quarterbacks as a passer — USC’s Kedon Slovis, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Sam Howell all rank in the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency, whereas Plumlee’s rating (105.5) doesn’t even crack the top 100. On the ground, though, he’s at the top of the class by a surprisingly wide margin:
The competition isn’t exactly stellar. And unlike most of the other names on that list, Plumlee has racked up most of that output at the expense of the best teams he’s faced: 109 yards vs. Alabama, 143 vs. Missouri, 92 vs. Auburn, 212 vs. LSU in one of the most prolific individual rushing performances on record against the Tigers in any era. He’s also the freshman leader in runs of 20+ yards, with 11 — 6 of which have gone for 40+ yards, tied for 3rd nationally among all players. Literally the first snap of his college career was a 47-yard gain against Cal, the longest the Golden Bears have allowed this season.
Given all that, there’s a legitimate argument that Plumlee deserves Freshman All-America consideration as a running back, and not only for the lack of other good options at that position. He and fellow freshman Jerrion Ealy are true home-run threats against everyone on the schedule. The potential for those two to go on doing Pat White/Steve Slaton things in Rich Rodriguez’s offense for the next 2 or 3 years is the only good thing to come out of Ole Miss’ season and frankly the best argument against a potential coaching change. (Last week: 7)
9. Bo Nix, Auburn
Nix’s hasn’t delivered the breakthrough debut Auburn fans were looking forward to from a 5-star prospect, but by normal freshman standards he’s held up just fine. If he caps the season by delivering an upset win over Alabama, no one will remember anything else that happened before it anyway. (Last week: 8)
10. Mac Jones, Alabama
Jones might be the most closely scrutinized man in America on Saturday, his first test as Alabama’s starting QB against respectable competition. First of all, and most important: Is he playing well enough to beat Auburn today? Next: Is he playing well enough to imagine him leading the Crimson Tide to a championship if the Playoff committee blesses them with one of the golden tickets in a few weeks? And finally: Is he playing well enough to remain the de facto starter entering 2020?
His first 2 starts against Arkansas and Western Carolina have gone smoothly, with Jones averaging 15.0 yards per attempt with 6 touchdowns and no turnovers. But much of that output has come via Alabama’s electric wideouts embarrassing would-be tacklers in the process of turning short, safe throws into long touchdowns, and all of it has come against, you know, Arkansas and Western Carolina. A road-trip Iron Bowl is a different beast, and if he can ride it without getting bucked it could change the outlook both for the rest of this season and the foreseeable future. (Last week: 9)
11. Tommy Stevens, Mississippi State
Stevens went the distance in the Bulldogs’ 45-7 win over Abilene Christian, despite some boo birds among the home crowd after a 1-for-7 start in the 1st quarter. Ultimately he accounted for 253 total yards and 3 TDs before yielding to Garrett Shrader in garbage time, a stat line that will probably go over better this week against Ole Miss than it did against a random FCS team. But neither he nor his embattled head coach can afford another slow start in the highest-stakes game of the season. (Last week: 11)
12. Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina
Hilinski has been surrounded by so many injuries this season that it’s hard to judge his freshman campaign fairly. A respectable showing in Saturday’s finale against Clemson would be nice, but barring a miracle he’s going to finish at or near the bottom of the conference in every major category with nowhere to go but up in Year 2. (Last week: 12)
13. K.J. Jefferson or Nick Starkel, Arkansas
Five different starting quarterbacks in one season? Interim coach Barry Lunney hasn’t ruled it out, describing the competition between Jefferson, Starkel, and junior walk-on Jack Lindsey — the prospective Starter No. 5 — as a “day-to-day, hour-to-hour situation” ahead of Friday’s finale against Missouri. Jefferson, a true freshman, made his first career start at LSU and played reasonably well (no turnovers) before leaving in the 3rd quarter with an apparent concussion; Starkel took over from there, yielding to Lindsey in the closing minutes.
Under different circumstances, it might be worth speculating whether it makes sense to risk Jefferson, the presumed front-runner in 2020, in a meaningless game with nothing at stake except a few extra reps against SEC competition. But given that the entire remaining coaching staff is likely to be out of a job by the end of next week, all that matters now is pulling out the stops to snap that 18-game conference losing streak before they go. (Last week: 13)
14. Riley Neal, Vanderbilt
Derek Mason will be back as head coach in 2020, but who’s his quarterback? Neal is a 5th-year grad transfer who has only survived for lack of other options. Junior walk-on Mo Hasan started the Commodores’ midseason upset over Missouri, suffered a concussion in the 2nd half, and hasn’t been seen again; meanwhile, backup Deuce Wallace has looked overwhelmed in limited action, and redshirt freshman Allan Walters has barely seen the field even as the older guys have struggled. All signs point to another foray into the grad transfer market this offseason with the understanding that whoever winds up behind center next year will have Mason’s fate in his hands. (Last week: 14)