SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 3: Anthony Richardson's time has arrived
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.
1. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Corral is not budging from the top spot after throwing 5 touchdown passes with no picks in a routine, 54-17 shredding of Austin Peay. He gets one more stat-padding opportunity this weekend vs. Tulane before the SEC gauntlet arrives in full force with an Oct. 2 trip to Alabama.
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(Last week: 1 ⬌)
2. Bryce Young, Alabama
Young has been as efficient as advertised in his first two starts, completing 70.8% of his attempts with 7 TDs and 0 INTs in easy wins over Miami and Mercer. Explosiveness, on the other hand, remains TBD. Young is just 1/10 on attempts of 20+ yards downfield, a notable departure from Bama’s historic deep-ball success with Tua Tagovailoa (51/97 on 20+ yard attempts in 2018-19) and Mac Jones (33/56 in 2020) the past 3 years.
Unlike his predecessors, of course, Young isn’t throwing to a fleet of first-round wideouts, and at any rate the small sample size at this stage doesn’t necessarily tell us very much about what Bama’s offense is going to look like going forward. Given that his one successful long ball so far resulted in a 94-yard touchdown, it’s still a safe bet there’s an abundance of big-play potential waiting to be unlocked.
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(Last week: 2 ⬌)
3. JT Daniels or Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia
Don’t mistake this for a controversy: Bennett, a former walk-on, was never supposed to see the field as Georgia’s starting quarterback in the first place, and certainly wasn’t supposed to reprise the role after Daniels’ much-celebrated promotion to QB1 last year. With 5-star Brock Vandagriff‘s arrival in the spring and Carson Beck in his second year in the program, Bennett’s presence in 2021 seemed like a footnote. But when called, the guy just keeps showing up. With Daniels sidelined by a core injury, Bennett’s stat line in Saturday’s blowout win over UAB (10/12, 288 yards, 5 TDs) was the most efficient performance by passer rating since the turn of the century for a quarterback with more than 10 attempts — not just among Georgia quarterbacks, or SEC quarterbacks, but among all I-A/FBS quarterbacks. UGA’s 5 first-half touchdown drives with Bennett in the game spanned a grand total of 15 plays.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 11, 2021
Conference-USA defense or not, Georgia badly needed that after failing to score an offensive touchdown in the opener vs. Clemson. That doesn’t mean Bennett is suddenly a viable long-term option for a team in Playoff-or-bust mode, as his obvious limitations in big games in the past has made clear. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ championship fate is going to hinge on Daniels, whose status for this weekend’s SEC opener vs. South Carolina is up in the air but whose status as the full-time starter when healthy is secure. In the meantime, though, Bennett just proved again that he’s still very much the kind of competent, veteran backup who can be counted on to survive the UABs and South Carolinas of the schedule without steering the season into the rocks. That’s a luxury not every team with big goals gets to take for granted.
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(Last week: 3 ⬌, n/a)
4. Bo Nix, Auburn
Auburn has outscored its first two opponents, Akron and Alabama State, by a combined score of 122-10 in what amounted to a couple of glorified scrimmages. Blowouts are fun, and good for the stock report. Now the season really begins with this weekend’s trip to Penn State.
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(Last week: 4 ⬌)
5. Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, Florida
Alright, it’s official: Count me as an Anthony Richardson believer.
Yes, it’s early. Yes, the competition to this point has been bad. Richardson has been on the field for a grand total of 37 snaps this season against Florida Atlantic and USF, the majority of those reps coming in garbage time. I get it. Lord knows I’m not looking for new excuses to eventually be proven wrong. But I’m not blind. Sometimes you have to trust yourself to know the real thing when you see it, and you don’t have to see much to know this kid has it in spades.
This throw by Anthony Richardson is just stupid good pic.twitter.com/H50FKm7Mit
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 11, 2021
That throw, a 36-yard gain to Jacob Copeland, was Richardson’s third attempt of the day and arguably the most impressive – arguable only because the previous two, also to Copeland, both went for touchdowns covering 75 yards and 41 yards, respectively. The next time he touched the ball, Richardson broke off an 80-yard run that left one USF defender in a heap and the rest eating his dust.
Add to that his 73-yard TD run against FAU and, well, you get the picture. Altogether, the 22 plays on which Richardson has run or thrown the ball the past 2 weeks have yielded 467 yards (an absurd 21.2 yards per play) and 5 touchdowns, all from 40+ yards out.
By comparison, in the full-time role, Jones has accounted for 419 yards (5.8 ypp) and 3 TDs on more than 3 times as many snaps. On the “taking care of the ball” side of the ledger, he’s also thrown 4 interceptions to Richardson’s 0.
So what is Dan Mullen thinking when he insists on Jones remaining the starter for Saturday’s SEC opener vs. Alabama, with his burgeoning young star continuing to come off the bench? At the top of that list, I suspect, is the fact that it’s, you know, Alabama – not an ideal situation to trot out a redshirt freshman with just a few series under his belt for his first career start. And although Mullen hasn’t come right out and said as much, there’s likely also a sense of loyalty to a veteran player in his fourth year in the program who has paid his dues. Flipping Jones from a commitment to Ohio State was Mullen’s first big win after arriving in Gainesville in December 2017, and three years as the heir apparent is a significant investment (on both sides) to waffle on after a couple of lopsided wins. Especially when Jones hasn’t really done anything to lose the job under normal circumstances.
Clearly, though, the emergence of a 6-4/236-pound backup with a full-blown Cam Newton skill set is not normal. Richardson, a local product, was not as hyped as a recruit as the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, or Tua Tagovailoa – or as hyped as Jones, for that matter – but he is reminiscent of those guys in the early stages of their careers in that his talent is too big to keep under wraps in deference to experience. And unlike the veteran options standing in the way in those cases, Jones isn’t an entrenched incumbent with a proven track record. He’s a career backup just getting his feet wet, too.
Dabo Swinney and (eventually) Nick Saban made the tough decision to roll with the superior talent and were richly rewarded; Kirby Smart deferred to the incumbent, alienated a future star, and has yet to live it down. I’m not so completely sold on Richardson that I’m about to anoint him as a future first-rounder on the basis of 37 snaps against directional schools. But how much more does Mullen need to see before he decides he owes it to Richardson, to the fan base, and to himself to find out?
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(Last week: 5 ⬌, n/a)
6. Will Levis, Kentucky
Other than Richardson, possibly no quarterback in America has seen his stock rise more quickly the past 2 weeks than Levis: The former Penn State castoff ranks among the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency (196.3) and owns the highest marks of any full-time SEC starter according to both Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s Total QBR. Kentucky’s renewed emphasis on the passing game hasn’t been quite as dramatic as advertised, at least in terms of quantity – in their 35-28 win over Missouri, the Wildcats ran for 340 yards on 52 carries, with Levis himself finishing with more rushes (11) than completions (10 on 18 attempts). The difference is the quality: Levis’ average completion in his first 2 games has gained 19.7 yards, more than twice UK’s team average in 2020 (9.2 yards).
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(Last week: 8 ⬆)
7. Max Johnson, LSU
The first rule against an FCS opponent is to leave no room for drama, and Johnson obliged Saturday with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-7 win over McNeese State. Beyond the final score, though, the Tigers looked listless and disorganized, and generally failed to inspire any confidence that their opening-night flop at UCLA was an aberration.
Many of those issues begin up front, not with the quarterback. But the absence of a steady ground game and breakdowns in protection become the quarterback’s problems in a hurry, and Johnson doesn’t project as the type of QB who’s likely to transcend his surroundings. If his connection with fellow sophomore Kayshon Boutte is the only part of the offense that reliably works, it’s going to be a long year.
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(Last week: 6 ⬇)
8. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Saturday’s 40-21 romp over Texas was Arkansas’ most satisfying win in years and a new high-water mark for the program since Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle. In that context, Jefferson’s mediocre passing line (14/19, 138 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) didn’t quite capture the spirit of the event. He was more efficient with his legs, accounting for 73 of the Razorbacks’ 333 rushing yards. The more they can get out of him in that mode, as opposed to trying to win games from the pocket, the better.
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(Last week: 10 ⬆)
9. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Rogers is off to a very Leachian start: He leads the SEC in attempts, completion percentage and passing yards, all while averaging a pedestrian 6.9 yards per attempt. Only 5 of his 97 attempts through the first 2 games have traveled 20+ yards, the lowest rate in the conference.
On the other hand, he’s connected on 4 of those shots with 2 touchdowns, a big improvement over last year’s dismal downfield results (albeit in a minimal sample size). Maybe it’s time for Leach to start loosening the reins a bit.
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(Last week: 9 ⬌)
10. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak’s night at Kentucky fell into the high-volume, medium-impact column, as well: 34/51 for 294 yards, or just 5.8 yards per attempt. He did finish with 4 touchdown passes, keeping Mizzou within striking distance against a productive UK offense, but his lone interception, at the start of the second half, may have been the most consequential play of the game.
The Wildcats capitalized on the short field to go ahead 28-14, a crucial cushion in an eventual 35-28 win. Bazelak is as entrenched as any starter in the league, but 50+ attempts is not a winning number here.
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(Last week: 7 ⬇)
11. Joe Milton III or Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Milton’s status going forward is TBD due in part to the ankle injury that knocked him out of Saturday’s 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh and also to the glaring inaccuracy that defined his afternoon before the injury.
Joe Milton summed up in one pass. pic.twitter.com/5LJqta1vKe
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 11, 2021
Milton went for broke early and often against the Panthers, taking 6 downfield shots in the first 20 minutes, and came away with nothing to show for it but a pass interference penalty that helped set up a field goal. (The Vols got hit with an offensive pass interference flag, too.) His arm strength is elite, but the man could overthrow a lake.
So: Welcome back to QB purgatory, Tennessee.
Hooker, the Virginia Tech transfer, fared better off the bench, leading 3 touchdown drives to keep the Vols in the game. Still, he doesn’t add much as a downfield threat (his longest completion, a 44-yard TD pass to Jimmy Calloway, was a quick screen that Calloway took the distance), and with the game on the line late he was picked off to seal the defeat.
With 15 career starts at Va. Tech, Hooker is more experienced, more consistent and more mobile – none of which was compelling enough in the spring to prevent Heupel from pursuing Milton in the transfer portal in the summer and handing him the starting job shortly after he arrived. Heupel embraced the long ball as head coach at UCF, with success; he loves the big arm. If Milton ever gets his coordinates straightened out, he can be a force. But that’s the kind of if that’s liable to wind up backfiring in a big way.
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(Last week: 11 ⬌)
12. Zach Calzada, Texas A&M
A&M’s worst fears were confirmed Monday when starter Haynes King was ruled out until mid-October at the earliest with a fractured foot – a window that includes the Aggies’ season-defining date with Alabama on Oct. 9.
In King’s place against Colorado, Calzada looked very much like a backup getting the first significant action of his career, finishing 18/38 for 183 yards (4.8 per attempt) and overseeing 6 3-and-outs on his first 7 possessions. The vast majority of his output came on two late, nerve-wracking drives with A&M trailing 7-3 that covered a combined 151 yards on 24 plays and took more than 11 minutes off the clock. The first of those marches failed to yield points after Calzada fumbled away an apparent touchdown at the goal line, resulting in a touchback and preserving Colorado’s lead. The second, finally, turned out to be the breakthrough.
Zach Calzada to Isaiah Spiller for the first touchdown of the game for Texas A&M! pic.twitter.com/2XAftddpQX
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) September 11, 2021
The good news: Every big goal remains intact, and Calzada has a chance to settle into the starting role this weekend vs. New Mexico, a virtually guaranteed win, before the SEC schedule kicks off vs. Arkansas. The not-so-good: Even if Calzada manages to lead the Aggies past Arkansas and Mississippi State, the prospect of sending the offense that barely eked out 10 points at Colorado up against Alabama is extremely bleak. There’s a long way to go in 3 weeks.
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(Last week: n/a)
13. Zeb Noland or Luke Doty, South Carolina
Noland is 2-0 as an emergency starter after rallying the Gamecocks to a come-from-behind win at East Carolina, a real credit to a guy who a month ago was still a graduate assistant coach. Doty’s return from a preseason foot injury is still pending. Whoever gets the nod Saturday at Georgia, Carolina is looking at the most lopsided point spread it’s faced in any game in more than 20 years.
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(Last week: 13 ⬆)
14. Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
Seals rebounded in Week 2 from a miserable turn in Vandy’s opening-night loss to East Tennessee State, throwing for 2 touchdowns in a come-from-behind win at Colorado State – his first career W. He has one more realistic opportunity this season to chalk up a second, in an Oct. 2 date vs. the nation’s most depressing team at the moment, UConn; otherwise, it will take his A game just to keep it respectable.
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(Last week: 14 ⬌)