Nick Fitzgerald vs. Shea Patterson: Which Egg Bowl QB will be better in 2017?
Mississippi has been spoiled by its SEC quarterback play.
Dak Prescott set school records at Mississippi State and has transitioned into an NFL star in Dallas. Bo Wallace, through all the Good Bo and Bad Bo shenanigans, led Ole Miss to the Compass, Music City and Peach Bowls, the first two of those wins. Then Chad Kelly led the Rebels to a Sugar Bowl win while becoming just the third SEC QB to throw for 4,000-plus yards in a season.
The trio of quarterbacks carried the state’s two SEC schools to the heights neither had seen, a lucky bounce here or there from national championship contention. Pretty big shoes for their successors: Mississippi State junior Nick Fitzgerald and Ole Miss sophomore Shea Patterson. The spotlight will shine bright on both in 2017, but which of the two is in the best situation to win?
The argument for Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has a whole year to sample from. He took the job in the second game last season and led the Bulldogs to a win against South Carolina. He really broke out two weeks later in a win at UMass, throwing for 305 yards and rushing for 110. In the Egg Bowl win against Ole Miss, he rushed for a school record 258 yards and became the school’s first QB to top 1,000 yards rushing.
He finished with 1,375 yards, second in the SEC in 2016 and the third-best season in Bulldogs history.
Fitzgerald can run, but his arm leaves questions. Mississippi State was ninth in the SEC in passing last season, averaging 209.7 yards per game. Fitzgerald ranked eighth in passing yards and 13th with only 6.7 yards per attempt. Occasional drops might have contributed to his low completion percentage (54.3), but misfires were a bigger issue.
The long ball wasn’t there despite having one of the best receivers in the SEC in Fred Ross. Eight SEC QBs had more completions of 30 or more yards than Fitzgerald, who had 16. Donald Gray is set to return as the Bulldogs’ best receiver (709 yards last season), but Fitzgerald has to get him the ball.
Another large hurdle is finding the right center. The Bulldogs return four starting linemen, but must replace 2016 starting center Jamaal Clayborn.
The argument for Patterson
Ole Miss finally pulled the trigger when Kelly was lost for the season and took the redshirt off the true freshman Patterson. The decision immediately paid off when Patterson threw for 338 yards in a comeback win at Texas A&M. That was followed by two consecutive losses and a bowl-less season.
The Egg Bowl loss can be heavily laid on a defense that couldn’t stop Fitzgerald, putting Patterson, the 5-star phenom, and the offense in a hole from the beginning.
He still threw for 320 yards on 27-of-48 passing and a pair of touchdowns against his in-state rivals.
He threw two touchdown passes in each of his three starts, and topped 300 yards passing and 60 yards rushing in two of them.
Patterson’s sample size is small, too small to judge the variance between his play at A&M, then at Vanderbilt. Patterson won’t have Evan Engram, Damore’ea Stringfellow or Quincy Adeboyejo in 2017 and needs Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown or DK Metcalf to take the lead at receiver. Any of those possibilities are feasible, but it will still be a new look.
A lot of Patterson’s success will depend not only on a porous defense that needs to be rebuilt, but also on new coordinator Phil Longo’s offense that aims to improve a running game that ranked ahead of only South Carolina and Florida in production.
If Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze could combine the two, they would.
Patterson, the highest-rated QB in the 2016 recruiting class, came to Ole Miss with the most hype and had to flash some of it before Ole Miss wanted to force the issue. Fitzgerald’s success was more surprising. A former 3-star prospect with virtually no game experience, he emerged from a crowded quarterback battle to prove his worth and lead the Bulldogs to a bowl win despite his deep-ball inefficiencies.
Both have areas they can improve, most notably their accuracy.
Fitzgerald already is appearing on Heisman Trophy watch lists, as a dark horse candidate. Patterson, after just three games, already is drawing comparisons to 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Fitzgerald led the SEC in total yards in 2016, averaging 292.2 per game. Patterson didn’t play in enough games to qualify, but he averaged an astounding 349.7.
In 2015, Chad Kelly led the SEC in total yards (349.4). Prescott was second at 337.
If 2016 served as the preview, 2017 could be the full-length feature, concluding with a promising Egg Bowl shootout. Never in their series history has there been a game in which both teams scored more than 30.
With the weapons Patterson will have at his disposal and a pure-yet-still-not-tested arm, the Rebels’ sophomore has the nod for a better season.