SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 9: Bryce Young has wheels. Should he use them more?
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.
1. Bryce Young, Alabama
Young’s mobility has never been in doubt — the guy was a 5-star recruit at 5-11; mobility is an essential feature of his profile — but Bama’s 52-24 win over Tennessee was arguably the first time we’ve really gotten to see him run. Prior to Saturday, Young’s elusiveness was mainly in service of keeping plays alive with an eye toward finding a receiver or getting rid of the ball; in the first 7 games he was credited with just 87 yards rushing on 12 carries, all of it coming on scrambles rather than designed runs, and almost all of it offset by negative yardage on sacks. (Officially, including sacks, he came into the Tennessee game with -2 yards rushing on the season.) Against the Vols, he finally finished in the black: 54 yards on 8 carries, with 3 runs of 10+ yards, 4 3rd-down conversions and the first 2 rushing touchdowns of his career.
Not that Young necessarily needs to run, at least as long as he remains one of the nation’s highest-rated passers on all counts. Still, for an athlete of his caliber, it’s a little mystifying that he remains such a nonentity in the conventional ground game, all the more so given his success on the fly. Per Pro Football Focus, Young hasn’t logged a single carry on a designed run all year — not one option look, not one QB draw, not even a sneak in short yardage. Only the occasional scramble when the pocket begins to break down.
Maybe that’s a reflection on offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, whose most relevant experience is in the NFL. Maybe it’s Young’s preference, to reassure pro scouts about his stature in the pocket. Maybe it’s simply self-preservation on the part of an undersized asset, and they’re just waiting to bust out the zone-read package when they really need it. Maybe some combination of all of the above. But the more we see of Young’s talent with the ball in his hands, the less sense it makes that the game plan seems determined to limit those opportunities.
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(Last week: 2 ⬆)
2. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Corral was questionable to play vs. LSU and didn’t quite look like his usual, gung-ho self, accounting for a season-low 209 yards with 2 TDs (1 passing, 1 rushing) in a 31-17 win. But the game wasn’t nearly as competitive as the final margin implies — Ole Miss led 31-7 before LSU tacked on a couple late, purely cosmetic scores — and if anything, it was all the more emphatic for the fact that a restrained performance from their star QB didn’t prevent the Rebels from winning comfortably. When the defense shows up for a change, it’s almost tempting to call them a complete team.
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(Last week: 1 ⬇)
3. Stetson Bennett IV or JT Daniels, Georgia
On paper, this weekend’s date with Florida is a logical moment for Daniels’ return from his month-long hiatus: For all their issues, the Gators are still the most significant upset threat on the schedule, and with 5 weeks to go in the regular season it leaves Daniels with more than enough time to shake off any rust and settle in ahead of the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4. For what it’s worth, there’s also the fact that Bennett memorably struggled in Georgia’s season-defining loss to Florida last year.
Then again, based on how well Bennett has played in the interim role, it’s not worth much. What’s the logic of benching a guy who leads the SEC in yards per attempt (12.1), overall efficiency (210.9), and QBR (91.5)? Kirby Smart told reporters on Monday the pecking order for the Cocktail Party is wide open pending the next few days of practice and the specifics of the game plan. (Bennett is the better runner, if keeping the QB involved in the run game is a priority; if not, a healthy Daniels clearly has the better arm – emphasis on healthy, a lingering question mark Smart is in no hurry to resolve before he absolutely has to.) Either way, opposite UGA’s defense, it’s the kind of decision that’s hard to get wrong.
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(Last week: 3 ⬌)
4. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Coming off a 3-game losing streak, Jefferson ushered in the Razorbacks’ open date on a high note, throwing for 194 yards and 4 TDs on just 17 attempts – all in the first half – in a routine trashing of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Two of those scoring strikes went to the somehow still-underrated Treylon Burks, who’s well on his way to becoming Arkansas’ first 1,000-yard receiver since 2012 (Cobi Hamilton) and the first with double-digit touchdowns since 2011 (Jarius Wright). When you’re hitting benchmarks old enough to evoke Bobby Petrino in a neck brace, you’re doing something right.
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(Last week: 4 ⬌)
5. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
A late Alabama surge turned a competitive, 31-24 game in the fourth quarter into a lopsided, 52-24 romp, obscuring another very solid outing for Hooker in the process. In fact, his stat line on Saturday was virtually identical to Zach Calzada’s in Texas A&M’s upset win over Bama earlier this month.
To their credit, the advanced stats tell a slightly different story: Hooker’s grades came in significantly below Calzada’s according to both QBR (74.0 to Calzada’s 91.1) and PFF (62.5 to Calzada’s 86.6), both of which align more closely with the results. A big part of that likely owes to the fact that, unlike Calzada, a big chunk of Hooker’s output came on a couple of long touchdown passes covering 57 yards and 70 yards, respectively, while his inconsistency over the rest of the evening registers more clearly in the metrics that drill into the play-by-play. The sacks are a factor. And his only big mistake, an interception early in the fourth quarter, was also a death knell, coming as it did with Tennessee trailing 38-24 and setting up a short-field Alabama TD that slammed the door shut.
a RARE Hendon Hooker interception — looked like the WR zagged when Hooker thought he was gonna zig pic.twitter.com/W305HKBjJO
— RockyTopTalk (@RockyTopTalk) October 24, 2021
Late fades are beginning to look like a trend for Hooker, with Saturday night’s collapse joining down-to-the-wire losses vs. Pitt and Ole Miss earlier in the year. Altogether, his passer rating in the fourth quarter this season (128.9) declines by nearly 70 points compared to his rating over the first three (196.6).
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(Last week: 5 ⬌)
6. Emory Jones or Anthony Richardson, Florida
Dan Mullen has vowed that both quarterbacks will play against Georgia, his standard line for most of the season. But the man is not blind: He watched Richardson breathe life into the offense in the Gators’ shootout loss at LSU just like the rest of us, on the same afternoon that Jones’ stock hit a new low. With 2 INTs in Baton Rouge, including the pick-6 that got him benched just after halftime, Jones currently owns the worst interception rate among SEC starters – a harsh rebuttal to the notion that his experience makes him the steadier hand.
Mullen’s deference to the veteran is understandable, up to a point. Jones was the first major recruit to commit to Florida after Mullen’s arrival, flipping on a pledge to Ohio State, and he didn’t hit eject when he was passed on the depth chart by the barely recruited Kyle Trask. He offered a couple of sustained glimpses earlier in the season vs. Alabama and Tennessee of what his brand of dual-threat efficiency looks like at its best. But a 4-3 team with nothing in particular to play for over the second half of the season is well past that point. Eventually, the results have to speak for themselves.
There’s a lot more at stake here than ambushing a rival. The season is on the brink, the fan base is on edge, and the upward momentum of Mullen’s first 3 seasons is suddenly rolling downhill. The Gators are 2-6 in their past 8 games vs. Power 5 opponents. Patience is running thin. The timing is right to reset behind the younger, more talented player – not only because Richardson’s enormous upside gives them the best chance of pulling off an enormous upset Saturday (although it does), but also because it represents a fresh start going forward. Right now Jones represents neither. If Mullen is still unwilling to commit to a move that seems glaringly obvious to the rest of the world en route to another humbling loss, he might not be in a position to make any decisions for very much longer.
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(Last week: 6 ⬌)
7. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
So much for a sore shoulder: Rogers attempted 57 passes in the Bulldogs’ blowout win over Vanderbilt, right on his season average. Even for a Mike Leach offense, that’s an extreme number: At that rate, Rogers is on pace to put the ball in the air an astounding 680 times over 12 games, which would obliterate the existing SEC record (559 attempts by Kentucky’s Jared Lorenzen in 2000) and put him within striking distance of the FBS record of 719 attempts, set by Texas Tech’s BJ Symons in 2003. (Predictably, each of the top 4 and 10 of the top 15 spots on the all-time leaderboard are occupied by former Leach quarterbacks.) Factor in a bowl game, and Rogers is on track to pass Symons’ mark by nearly 20 attempts.
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(Last week: 7 ⬌)
8. Will Levis, Kentucky
The Wildcats had the weekend off to regroup from their first loss of the season at Georgia and settle in for what could still be a banner season. Statistically, it can go either way: According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Kentucky has between a 46% and 53% chance of winning — the analytic equivalent of a pick-em — in 3 of its last 5 games.
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(Last week: 8 ⬌)
9. Bo Nix, Auburn
Nix also holds pat following an open date, one in which he relinquished his season-long lead in the obscure statistic known as drop rate. Although Auburn’s receivers have recorded an SEC-high 23 drops, per PFF, KJ Jefferson’s receivers at Arkansas have been slightly more butterfingery on fewer attempts, dropping 14.2% of on-target throws from Jefferson to Auburn’s 14.1% from Nix. With a month to go, it’s still anybody’s race.
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(Last week: 9 ⬌)
10. Zach Calzada, Texas A&M
Sometimes, the less the quarterback has to do, the better. In A&M’s blowout win over South Carolina, Calzada could have taken the night off. Between the running game (which gained 290 yards), the defense (which held Carolina scoreless through three quarters), and the special teams (which opened the scoring on a 95-yard punt return TD), the passing game was a distant afterthought. Calzada did throw for two touchdowns, as well as an interception, but mostly for the purpose of staying limber.
11. Max Johnson, LSU
Ed Orgeron insisted Johnson’s job is safe on the heels of Saturday’s debacle at Ole Miss, but the fact that he was forced to address the question is telling. The future at the position is wide open: Johnson is just a sophomore, but between Myles Brennan (who remains on the shelf with a broken arm he suffered in the preseason), blue-chip freshman Garrett Nussmeier, and 5-star 2022 commit Walker Howard, LSU is due for a crowded competition next year and isn’t banking on Johnson as a long-term starter. An open date under a lame-duck head coach is a natural point to consider promoting Nussmeier for the home stretch. It’s not like Orgeron has anything to lose.
Then again, maybe the idea of shoving a true freshman into his first career start at Alabama is too desperate even for a coach who’s already been fired. Orgeron doesn’t have anything to lose by letting Johnson play out the string, either. At this point, it amounts to little more than an audition for the next coach anyway. Let him handle the ramifications while Coach O is working on his tan.
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(Last week: 10 ⬇)
12. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak is not going anywhere, yet, but after 16 career starts the offense is feeling a little stale and the writing is on the wall if the arrow doesn’t start pointing up again soon. A trip to Vanderbilt is a welcome opportunity to fend off the speculation for at least another week, ahead of a trip to Georgia that is anything but.
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(Last week: 12 ⬌)
13. Zeb Noland, South Carolina
The final score was bad, but the reality of Carolina’s 44-14 loss at Texas A&M was even worse: Through 3 quarters, the Gamecocks trailed 44-0 with zero 3rd-down conversions and a grand total of 15 yards of total offense to their credit. Noland, who finished 7/12 for 30 yards, spent the 4th quarter on the bench after suffering a knee injury on his 3rd sack of the night.
The time is right for a week off, injury-wise, but even Carolina fans don’t have much to invest in on the other side. Noland is expected to be available for the next game, a visit from Florida on Nov. 6; otherwise, with Luke Doty on the shelf due to a foot injury, the only other non-freshman option is senior Jason Brown, a jumbo-sized transfer from FCS St. Francis (Pa.) who came off the bench in College Station to lead a couple of garbage-time touchdown drives in his first extended action of the season. A bowl game is a pipe dream, and neither Noland nor Brown will be back in 2022. Unless coaches are willing to throw true freshman Colten Gauthier into a trial by fire, the last 4 games are strictly about keeping the margins respectable.
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(Last week: 13 ⬌)
14. Mike Wright, Vanderbilt
Wright’s first career start was a struggle, yielding just 122 yards with an interception and 3 sacks in a 45-6 loss at Mississippi State. Even the 6 felt like a minor miracle. As a team, Vanderbilt finished 1/11 on 3rd-down conversions while earning 5 — count ’em, 5 — first downs. That’s the fewest for an SEC team since, well, earlier this season, when Vandy managed 4 against Georgia. The last time an SEC team other than Vandy finished with 5 first downs or less: LSU in its shutout loss to Alabama in the 2011 BCS Championship Game.
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(Last week: 14 ⬌)