SEC QB Power Rankings, Week 6: NFL scouts still love Will Levis. Kentucky is still waiting for him to put it all together
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.
1. Bryce Young, Alabama
The cliffhanger of the week is the status of Young’s sprained right shoulder. Although Nick Saban spent the weekend downplaying its severity, describing his franchise QB as “day-to-day” (aren’t we all), obviously an injury to the throwing shoulder of the reigning Heisman winner at the start of the conference gauntlet is a code-red event. Young is arguably the most valuable player in the college game. If it comes down to it, how long can the Tide survive without him?
At least the outlook isn’t as grim as it would have been at this time last week. Redshirt freshman Jalen Milroe came off the bench for the first meaningful action of his career in Saturday’s 49-26 win at Arkansas and immediately produced his first viral highlight, a 77-yard sprint at the start of the fourth quarter that shifted the momentum of the game: Prior to the run, Arkansas had scored 23 consecutive points to cut a 28-0 deficit in the second quarter to 5 by the end of the third; after, Alabama scored 3 touchdowns on its next 5 snaps to slam the door shut. For now, it’s fair to say Milroe’s legs inspire significantly more fear than his arm. At 6-2/212, he draws inevitable comparisons to Jalen Hurts — besides their dual-threat skill sets and nearly identical recruiting ratings, both came to Tuscaloosa from the greater Houston area — and if pressed into extended action he’d likely be limited to a game plan that owes more to the screen-heavy, spread-option scheme Hurts ran as an underclassman in 2016-17 than the pro-style, passer-friendly spread the Tide have embraced since. Three of Milroe’s 4 completions against the Razorbacks fell behind the line of scrimmage, including his lone touchdown pass, and he was 0-for-3 on attempts beyond 10 yards.
Last year’s shocker in College Station notwithstanding, Bama fans are probably not too concerned with the prospect of Milroe earning his first start this weekend against struggling Texas A&M and its desolate offense. If he gets the call, that looks like a classic “punting is winning” assignment. The following month, featuring road trips to Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss with a home date vs. Mississippi State mixed in, is a different story. Even for Alabama, and for a young QB as talented as Milroe, that’s not a stretch a team in championship-or-bust mode wants to leave in the hands of an unproven backup. Maybe the surrounding cast and the defense are good enough to carry the Tide safely to the other side sans Young anyway. But they’d definitely rather not have to find out.
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(Last week: 1⬌)
2. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Nothing new here for Hooker, whose Vols enjoyed a bye week before Saturday’s date with LSU.
3. Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia
Bennett’s Heisman stock is in a nosedive coming off a couple of meh outings against Kent State and Missouri, but despite a shaky night overall at Mizzou, he deserves credit for pulling it together with the Bulldogs’ season flashing before their eyes. At the start of the fourth quarter, Georgia trailed 22-12 and was on maximum upset alert. From there, Bennett led 2 extended touchdown drives on which he was 7/9 passing for 78 yards, escaping with what in retrospect felt like an inevitable, 26-22 win.
The comeback didn’t feature a huge, memorable play or defining moment. It was just … routine, the offense functioning as usual despite very unusual circumstances in an amped-up road environment. Whatever else there is to say about him, that’s what a 6th-year QB who’s been around the block and back is supposed to look like when it counts.
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(Last week: 3⬌)
4. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Jefferson exited late in the Razorbacks’ loss to Alabama after having his head slammed into the turf on a sack, putting his availability for this weekend’s trip to Mississippi State in doubt. (Jefferson actually left for 1 play following the sack, then came back out on 3rd down to loft a badly off-target pass in the end zone; he didn’t return after that.) Coach Sam Pittman pointedly avoided the word “concussion” in his weekly Monday press conference, confirming Jefferson got hit in the head but describing his symptoms as “mild” and his status as “wait and see.” It’s officially that time of year.
If Jefferson is out, the Hogs will turn to 5th-year transfer Cade Fortin, who finished the game against Bama, or blazing-fast redshirt sophomore Malik Hornsby, whose handful of snaps this season have come exclusively at wide receiver and running back. Given that Hornsby’s speed is well established, the answer probably depends on how much coaches trust Fortin’s arm. Either way, Jefferson’s absence at any point in the conference slate would be an enormous loss — literally and figuratively.
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(Last week: 4⬌)
5. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Rogers turned in his best game of the season against Texas A&M, finishing 31/45 for 329 yards with 3 touchdowns, no INTs, and no sacks in a comfortable, 42-24 win. The final score was slightly misleading on both sides: Mississippi State padded the margin with touchdowns on defense and special teams, while nearly all of A&M’s production came after the outcome was effectively decided (see below). But there are few quarterbacks working at any level right now more at home in the confines of their offensive system than Rogers is in the Air Raid.
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(Last week: 7⬆)
6. Will Levis, Kentucky
If UK fans feel like protesting the illegal motion penalty that wiped a late, go-ahead touchdown off the board in the Wildcats’ 22-19 loss at Ole Miss, I won’t argue. It was a marginal call to potentially swing the outcome of such a crucial game. But it was also only one of several miscues down the stretch that cost Kentucky a chance to win despite the defense in general and electric freshman WR/KR Barion Brown specifically holding up their ends of the bargain. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Levis failed to convert on 4th-and-3 from the Ole Miss 32-yard line. On their following possession, an 11-play, 74-yard march that spanned nearly half the fourth quarter, the Wildcats came up empty when he coughed up a fumble inside the Rebels’ 20-yard line. And on the play immediately following the iffy illegal motion flag, he was strip-sacked to clinch the game — Kentucky’s third consecutive trip in scoring range trailing by 3 that resulted in zero points.
LEVIS IS STRIPPED AND OLE MISS RECOVERS. REBELS WIN 22-19. pic.twitter.com/4TUIlqIhve
— CFB Kings (@CFBKings) October 1, 2022
Frankly, Levis continues to draw extra scrutiny on this front because he continues to be touted as a top prospect in next year’s draft, albeit for reasons that have more to do with his athletic profile — big, mobile, weapons-grade arm strength — than with anything he does or doesn’t do on the field on any given Saturday. Turnovers are a recurring issue: He threw 13 interceptions in as many games last year, and has been responsible for 6 giveaways this year (4 INTs plus the 2 fumbles in Oxford) in 5 games. On a related note, his 19 sacks are also the most of any Power 5 quarterback. He’s faring well so far in terms of pass efficiency (174.9), up significantly from last year; not so much per QBR (57.4) and PFF (69.5), both of which are significantly down.
For a “traits” guy, the numbers and negatives matter less than the potential, which in Levis’ case draftniks clearly hope is closer to the Josh Allen end of the spectrum than it is to, say, Blake Bortles. Who knows? Projecting quarterbacks to the next level is notoriously random, and there are worse ideas than gambling on a vet who checks all the boxes athletically. (As a former Allen skeptic, I’ll admit his runaway success after a mediocre college career at Wyoming should make anyone think twice about dismissing raw talent, although he remains an extreme outlier in that regard.)
And there’s always the chance that when the time comes the mock-draft hype will turn out to be wrong about how interested the folks running the actual draft ever really were in Levis in the first place. Either way, the window for him to put it all together while he’s still in Lexington is closing fast.
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(Last week: 5⬇)
7. Jayden Daniels, LSU
Daniels is expected to play this weekend against Tennessee despite being sidelined in of each of the past 2 games with assorted aches and pains. Against New Mexico, he left with a sore back after taking a couple of unnecessary shots with the game well in hand. Against Auburn, he lasted just long enough in a come-from-behind, 21-17 win to preside over the go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter before exiting with a sore knee in the fourth, which Brian Kelly described earlier this week as painful but not a structural injury that will keep Daniels out. At this rate, he’s going to be playing with pain as a matter of course for the rest of the year.
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(Last week: 6⬇)
8. Jaxson Dart, Ole Miss
Dart largely deferred to the defense and ground game in Ole Miss’ win over Kentucky, finishing 15/29 passing for 213 yards with no touchdowns and 1 very bad INT directly into the chest of former Rebel Jacquez Jones. Are we really living in a timeline where a Lane Kiffin-coached version of Ole Miss is relevant on the strength of its defense? Is that what we want football to be?
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(Last week: 8⬌)
9. Anthony Richardson, Florida
Richardson did exactly what he was supposed to do against Eastern Washington, bombing the Eagles for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play, accounting for 285 total yards without breaking a sweat, and calling it a day in the third quarter of a 52-17 blowout. The rankings would like to see him put together at least two consecutive quality outings vs. real opponents before falling for his enormous potential (again), but rest assured if he delivers this weekend against Missouri we are ready and willing to be swept away.
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(Last week: 9⬌)
10. Spencer Rattler, South Carolina
At Oklahoma, making plays under pressure was arguably Rattler’s biggest strength: His PFF grades on pressured dropbacks led the nation in 2020 and ranked No. 2 in ’21, a big reason he was widely regarded as the top transfer QB on the market despite getting benched midway through last season. At South Carolina, he’s shown few traces of his former cool. Through 5 games as a Gamecock, Rattler’s 31.7 grade under pressure is easily one of the worst in the country.
Of course, it would help if he wasn’t under heat on every other dropback that isn’t a screen or quick release. Carolina’s ambitions have already been downgraded to bowl eligibility, and if they can’t find a way to give Rattler cleaner pockets than he’s had to date even that is beginning to look dicey.
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(Last week: 10⬌)
11. Brady Cook, Missouri
Cook has been promoted from the basement this week after a solid outing (20/32, 192 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs) in Mizzou’s upset bid against Georgia. He connected on a couple of downfield shots, drew pass interference penalties on a couple more, and didn’t make the big mistake that deflated the entire stadium. If only he’d managed to finish off any of the Tigers’ 5 field-goal drives in the end zone …
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(Last week: 14⬆)
12. Robby Ashford, Auburn
Ashford came out hot in his first career start, leading 3 extended scoring drives against LSU in the game’s first 20 minutes. From there, he very much was not: LSU scored 21 unanswered to close the game, the first 7 of them coming directly off a blindside strip-sack that flipped the switch in the second quarter.
What. A. Play.
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/tihmFnoFIq
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) October 2, 2022
To his credit, it will be a while before I describe Ashford as “one-dimensional” again after he finished with 337 yards passing and 6 completions of 25+ yards. But given the trajectory of the game, 2 killer turnovers (the second coming on a game-icing pick on Auburn’s final offensive snap) loomed larger than the positives.
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(Last week: 12⬌)
13. Max Johnson or Haynes King, Texas A&M
If you only saw the box score of A&M’s 42-24 loss at Mississippi State, you might have come away with the impression the game was a borderline shootout. In reality, you would have seen the Aggies scrambling to put lipstick on a pig: After three mostly dormant, depressing quarters, they rallied to score 21 points in the final 18 minutes, but never touched the ball in that span trailing by less than 18 points. Even in garbage time, it was painful to watch.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) October 1, 2022
That was A&M’s 4th giveaway of the day and the second in as many possessions for King, who came off the bench to replace Johnson early in the fourth quarter and quickly reminded Aggies fans why he was sent to the bench in the first place following their low-octane Week 2 loss to Appalachian State.
Johnson is questionable for this weekend’s doomed trip to Alabama due to a hand injury, leaving the door open for King to at least briefly return to the lineup. (Jimbo Fisher also mentioned true freshman Conner Weigman on Monday, but no matter how many stars are next to his name trotting out a rookie with zero career snaps in a must-compete situation against Bama cannot be an option.) Barring a miracle in Tuscaloosa, it’s Johnson’s job going forward. But that feels more than ever like a distinction without a difference.
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(Last week: 11⬇)
14. AJ Swann, Vanderbilt
Swann got the weekend off following a predictably rough SEC debut at Alabama in Week 4. Now begins the season-defining quest to snap the ‘Dores’ ongoing, 22-game conference losing streak in earnest. First up: Ole Miss in Nashville, followed by, uh, Georgia in Athens. Woof. Keep hanging in there, kid.
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(Last week: 13⬇)