Preseason SEC quarterback rankings: Who starts at No. 1?
Say what you want about SEC quarterback play in 2016.
It was brutal. It was inexperienced. It was frustrating. It was promising. It was … many things.
But pretty much everyone can agree on one thing — it should be better in 2017. Maybe it’s the idea that the 2016 freshmen will emerge into stars. Or that the battle-tested veterans appear poised to take big steps. Whatever the case, making the top of this list is much harder right now than it was at the end of last season.
14. Jake Hubenak/Nick Starkel/Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Somebody has to be last. For now, that goes to the Aggies’ unproven trio. Hubenak is the only one with any experience, and none of his three career starts was particularly impressive. The question is whether or not Kevin Sumlin will pull the trigger on starting a freshman instead of Hubenak. Starkel is believed to have the best arm of the bunch, and Mond might have the most play-making ability. Whoever gets the nod will battle a UCLA defense that surrendered just 12 passing touchdowns in 2016. A banner performance from any A&M signal-caller would surely be enough to unseat the Aggies from the No. 14 spot.
13. Quinten Dormady/Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
Something tells me the appreciation for Joshua Dobbs will grow a bit in Knoxville in 2017. Now that Dobbs is gone, Tennessee has a great unknown at the most important position on the field. Dormady appears to be the favorite to win the job as the one with actual college experience, though mop-up duty against Western Carolina and Tennessee Tech is hardly a valid measuring stick. Guarantano could also see the field against Georgia Tech. Reports out of camp indicated that at the very least, the redshirt freshman is pushing for the starting gig, though he might not be ready to have the keys to the car just yet. Sooner or later, we’ll be able to properly evaluate just how much the Vols will miss Dobbs.
12. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
The overall numbers weren’t good (9 TD passes, 10 INTs, 54 percent completion rate, 32 sacks), but the finish was. By leading the Commodores to two offense-fueled, double-digit victories to close the regular season, Shurmur looked like a guy who had turned the corner instead just a guy. Will we see that version of him? Or will we see the version who couldn’t do anything in the Independence Bowl? The former would take Vanderbilt past mediocrity.
11. Danny Etling, LSU
Etling has far more experience than most of the quarterbacks on this list. Unfortunately, the results haven’t always been pretty. While Etling has accuracy on his side (he only threw five interceptions last year), he isn’t a running threat, and he doesn’t have the strongest arm. The good news is that he has Matt Canada to work with now. Assuming he stays healthy, Etling should put up more than the 11 touchdown passes he had in 2016. But obviously, his primary responsibility is still to hand the ball off to Derrius Guice.
10. Malik Zaire/Feleipe Franks, Florida
Put me in the “wait-and-see” category when it comes to the Florida quarterback situation. I’m not convinced that either starter is going to come in and set the world on fire, especially against Michigan’s defense. For all the hype surrounding Zaire’s graduate transfer decision, there’s still such a small sample size to consider (98 career pass attempts ain’t much). The same goes for Franks, who has still yet to play a down against a live SEC defense. Both Franks and Zaire generated plenty of buzz this offseason, though it’s easy to question how much upside they have in Florida’s offense, especially if Antonio Callaway misses any more time.
9. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky
Johnson hasn’t officially been named the starter yet, but all signs point to him being the guy for the foreseeable future. He stepped up when Drew Barker went down with a back injury last year, most notably in the Louisville win.
Johnson can make a defense pay for selling out on the run, but he’s still not a guy who’s going to methodically lead an offense down the field with his arm. He didn’t hit 20 completions in a game once last year, nor did he complete 60 percent of his passes against anyone except for Missouri. Can Johnson take the next step and secure a firmer grip on the starting job? If he can, he’ll have a chance to finish higher on this list than many would expect.
8. Jacob Eason, Georgia
The fact that Eason didn’t crack the top half of this list says a lot about how much better SEC quarterback play should be in 2017. Eason has been getting plenty of offseason attention (viral jet ski videos help), and understandably so. The former 5-star recruit has an entire season under his belt, which is more than Shea Patterson, Jarrett Stidham and Jake Bentley can say. But Eason needs to show more consistency in Year 2. Georgia must find a deep threat for him to stretch the field to open up holes for the ground game. Until further notice, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are still the heart and soul of the Georgia offense.
7. Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
Hold on. I know. You’re getting ready to fire off a response about being wayyyyyyy too low on Patterson. Before you do that, hear me out. Patterson could be the single most-talented quarterback in the SEC. He has 5-star ability, which was evident in the limited action he got at the end of 2016. When Brent Musburger is dropping Johnny Manziel comparisons, you know the kid is off-the-charts good.
So why only No. 7? Well, I’m not sold that the pieces around Patterson will help him out. I wonder if Patterson has the supporting cast to maximize his potential. There’s a solid chance Patterson shoots up this list in a hurry, but for now, I’m holding off on putting him in the upper echelon of SEC quarterbacks.
6. Drew Lock, Missouri
I can hear Mizzou fans already chirping about Lock being the SEC’s best quarterback. Lock is as experienced as they come, but check out his numbers in SEC play last year:
- 10 TDs, 10 INTs
- 53 percent passing
- 248 passing yards per game
- three games with multiple TD passes
And here’s what he did in non-conference play (West Virginia was the only Power 5 team):
- 13 TDs, 0 INTs
- 57 percent passing
- 353 passing yards per game
I get it. He’s tied for the SEC lead in touchdown passes among returning quarterbacks. He’s got experience that few in the SEC have and he did his damage without much help. But until Lock can consistently produce against SEC foes, he can’t be considered one of the league’s top two or three quarterbacks.
5. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Ah, the single toughest person to rank on this list is the former Baylor transfer. Some probably believe Stidham should be No. 1 on this list, others might feel he deserves to be in the bottom half. I’ll split the difference. I already outlined why I’m not all in on Stidham yet (three career starts, unproven in Gus Malzahn’s system, never faced an SEC defense). The talent is there. The playmakers are there. I’m just waiting for the experience to be there, too.
4. Jake Bentley, South Carolina
There was a lot to like from a kid who should’ve been a senior in high school last year. He completed at least 74 percent of his passes and averaged 253 passing yards against Tennessee, Mizzou and South Florida. Yes, the Clemson and Florida games were rough. Road games against top-25 teams are usually rough for true freshmen. But Bentley’s leadership has been drawing rave reviews this offseason, both on and off the field. The sample size is still relatively small, but the upside is there.
3. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Nationally, people might not realize just how good Fitzgerald was in 2016. The guy threw 24 touchdown passes and finished second in the SEC in rushing with 7.1 yards per attempt and 16 scores. Yowza. With a full year under his belt, all signs point to him improving his 54 percent accuracy in his second year as a Dan Mullen starter. He has to. He’ll be asked to do a lot in this offense, which means he could end up with the most prolific year of any SEC quarterback.
2. Austin Allen, Arkansas
Many believe Allen is the SEC’s best quarterback. As a pure passer, that’s probably true. He racked up 3,430 passing yards and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt despite playing behind a woeful offensive line. That unit should be improved, as should Allen’s decision making. He can’t take 34 sacks again, but the tools are there for Allen to finish 2017 atop this list.
1. Jalen Hurts, Alabama
In case people forgot, Hurts was one defensive stand from leading Alabama to a national title as a true freshman. And yes, the defense and running game had plenty to do with that, but don’t undersell Hurts’s accomplishments. He completed 63 percent of his passes, he accounted for 36 touchdowns (23 passing, 13 rushing) and he only took 19 sacks in 14 games. Color me impressed. Hurts has plenty of motivation to improve with Alabama’s bevy of young quarterbacks, but make no mistake: this offense is his, and so is the title of SEC’s top quarterback.