With spring ball all but over, a power ranking of SEC quarterbacks
With the exception of Georgia, SEC spring football is all but over.
So why not rank SEC quarterbacks heading into the summer?
I realize that not everyone has an established starter. That means I have some predictions in here about who wins certain jobs. And yes, some of this involves projecting for how I believe the season will play out.
It’s worth remembering that a ranking like this is who I’d trust to go win a game tomorrow. Stats are part of the argument, but they aren’t the entire argument for this extremely subjective ranking.
With that, here’s how I’d rank the SEC quarterbacks heading into the summer:
14. Riley Neal, Vanderbilt
Here’s the good news: The Ball State transfer is going to be in a pretty favorable spot with the outside weapons he has to work with. Not many SEC teams have a RB/WR/TE combination as good as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. Neal has never had talent to work with quite like this.
But yeah, I do question if the same mobility that helped him make plays will be as useful against SEC speed. Neal has never been the guy to lead a team back from a significant deficit, nor did he find himself on the positive side of many shootouts at Ball State. I’m skeptical of how effective he’ll be in replacing Kyle Shurmur.
13. Ben Hicks, Arkansas
Sensing a theme here? It’s hard for me to see grad transfers coming from mid-major conferences where they weren’t stars to taking the next step against SEC competition. I’ve gone back and forth on Hicks as the starter because I’m very high on Nick Starkel. But I think with more experience in the system — don’t forget Starkel won’t arrive on campus until the summer — it’s Hicks who wins out.
The fortunate thing for Chad Morris is that Starkel is expected to have 2 years of immediate eligibility, so if Hicks doesn’t look like he’s capable, there’s a proven option ready on the bench. Without the ability to stretch the field like Starkel, I question if Hicks will have the skill set to last as the starter.
12. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
This is a prediction, but not much of one. At this point, something significant would have to happen for Corral not to win the starting job. In Rich Rodriguez’s offense, it’ll be interesting to see how much running Corral does because he looks capable. The sample size is still so small to judge, and that was obviously pre-Rich Rod. It wouldn’t surprise me if Corral led the SEC in interceptions, but if he also delivered more flash than Jordan Ta’amu. Ole Miss will take the good with the bad with Corral because the depth chart is thin from an experience standpoint.
Well, as long as the “bad” isn’t getting into fights in the middle of games:
MATT CORRAL’S GOAT STATUS AT 100% pic.twitter.com/RHmxMUU2sm
— Old Row Ole Miss (@OldRowOleMiss) November 23, 2018
11. Terry Wilson, Kentucky
What we saw from Wilson in the spring game was super encouraging. He knows all eyes are on him to step up with Benny Snell off to the NFL. Wilson and the Cats will still rely on the running game, but they need to be less predictable this year. That involves Wilson being able to stretch the field. It involves him being comfortable to pull the trigger. In Year 2, I’d expect he will be.
For now, he’s near the bottom half of this list because we’re talking about someone who hasn’t shown he can be a consistent passer, and he was held to under 30 rushing yards in 6 of Kentucky’s final 8 games.
10. Keytaon Thompson, Mississippi State
What I like about Thompson’s potential is obvious. He’s working with Joe Moorhead and he has the mobility skill set to operate that system at a high level. The arm is there and the willingness to push the ball downfield is there, as well. Sometimes to a fault. The biggest hurdle for a quarterback who completed less than half of his career passes is obviously accuracy. We saw that play out in the spring game. Thompson is going to sail throws, and until proven otherwise, MSU’s receivers aren’t the most likely to bail him out.
But can Thompson become a top-5 SEC quarterback? Absolutely. The dude we saw beat Lamar Jackson in the TaxSlayer Bowl is still capable of leading the offense to plenty of wins, especially of Kylin Hill can stay healthy.
9. Jake Bentley, South Carolina
I sold my stock on Bentley last year when once again, it seemed like he failed to take that next step up. Sure, the touchdown numbers improved, as did the yards per attempt. But the week-to-week consistency just still isn’t there, which is frustrating for someone entering his fourth year as a starter. It was sort of fitting that Bentley went off against Clemson and then came back down to Earth in lackluster showings against Akron and Virginia to end the season.
Without Deebo Samuel, I have serious questions about what Bentley’s upside really is. For me, he’s a middle-of-the-pack guy until he can avoid those costly mistakes in key moments.
8. Malik Willis, Auburn
I’m higher on the Auburn quarterback room now than I was a month ago. Shoot, I’m higher on it now than I was a week ago. I thought Willis’ spring game performance was exactly what he needed. In a non-contact situation like that, he wasn’t going to be able to dazzle with his legs. We didn’t really need to see that from him. That element is there. But I thought he looked more than capable with his arm.
I wrote Saturday after watching the 4-quarterback battle that I thought Willis did enough to be at No. 1 on the depth chart. Do I expect the improved Joey Gatewood and the emerging Bo Nix to threaten for the starting job in fall camp? Absolutely. In fact, I think there’s a decent chance Gatewood gets snaps during meaningful series in the opener against Oregon. But Willis checks the boxes Gus Malzahn needs, and that gives him a chance to become one of the SEC’s better quarterbacks in his first year as a starter.
7. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
I’ve gone back and forth on Guarantano for the year, so perhaps it’s fitting that he’s at No. 7 on this ranking. I’m a bit concerned about this being Guarantano’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many years, but I liked what we saw Saturday in his debut with Jim Chaney. I think Chaney will give Guarantano more chances to make plays downfield, and that’ll make Tennessee’s offense a little tougher to guard.
Guarantano still struggled with the week-to-week consistency last year, and he’ll need to be more decisive so that he takes less punishment. But Guarantano is someone who definitely could make a leap this season all the way up to No. 3, as long as he gets some help from the ground game.
6. Feleipe Franks, Florida
If you told me a year ago that I’d rank Franks in the top half of SEC quarterbacks to start the 2019 season, I would have called you crazy. But here we are. Actually, some people probably think I should be even higher on Franks after he had the best season for a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow. That’s a credit to Franks for trusting Dan Mullen. Franks improved significantly as a runner, which was really why Florida gashed a Devin Bush-less Michigan squad in the Peach Bowl.
I’m interested to see if Franks’ numbers take a slight dip in the event that Mullen tries to get Emory Jones some meaningful snaps without the redshirt rule in place. And let’s be honest. Franks is never going to be the world’s most accurate quarterback. There are probably going to be a couple throws a game that will make Florida fans pull their hair out. But Franks showed more than enough to also make them breathe easier knowing that the combo of him and Mullen can win plenty of games.
5. Kelly Bryant, Mizzou
One of the most impressive SEC players all spring has been Bryant. And go figure, the Clemson transfer still hasn’t played a game for Mizzou. I’m more of a believer in Bryant now more than ever. That isn’t just because he looked really good in his debut in Derek Dooley’s offense. That’s because seeing the way he looks like he already won over his teammates. I wondered about how that would go replacing someone like Drew Lock, who was the true face of that program.
Bryant will be very different from Lock from a skill standpoint, but I think he can still be plenty effective in the intermediate passing game. He has plenty of weapons to work with, too. He might not light it up from a passing perspective the way Lock did, but Bryant’s legs will make him a threat to move the chains when plays break down on 3rd-and-long. A big year awaits the SEC’s newest face.
4. Joe Burrow, LSU
If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Burrow this offseason, it might actually come as a surprise that I only have him ranked at No. 4. LSU’s offense, I believe, is going to take the next step up. The experience returning at receiver plus an entire offseason Burrow will have with Steve Ensminger’s offense plus the addition of Joe Brady from the Saints to implement more run-pass option principles will equal more consistent production from the Tigers.
I’m in the pro-Burrow crowd because I love the way he commands the offense. Anybody who watched the Texas A&M marathon saw him just decide, “you know what? I’m going to put our gassed defense on my back and run for every last yard.” Or the fact that after getting that cheap shot after the pick-6 he had against UCF, Burrow played like an All-American. He’s going to get out-shined by Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa because he doesn’t have their pro prospects, but I’d take Burrow on my team any day.
3. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
You know that step we were waiting on Jake Bentley to take? Mond took it for him. Mond did so many things well in his first year in Jimbo Fisher’s system. He was more accurate and it seemed like the game slowed down for him. Granted, he still needs to take less sacks and he’ll have to overcome losing both Trayveon Williams and Jace Sternberger.
But what I like about Mond, and I’m sure Fisher also likes, is that there’s nothing that he can’t do on the field. He can make a difficult, pro-style throw one play and then wiggle loose for a 50-yard rushing touchdown the next. In one season, Mond went from being an expected backup who looked overwhelmed as a freshman to one of the 20 best quarterbacks in college football. I expect that rise to continue in 2019.
2. Jake Fromm, Georgia
If you’re still under the impression that Fromm isn’t one of the 5 best quarterbacks in the country with first-round NFL potential, consider this:
Thing that isn't talked about enough because UGA lost its final 2 games:
Jake Fromm faced 4 top-20 scoring defenses in his last 6 games. He had a 17-2 TD-INT ratio while completing 68% of his passes.
To the Fromm doubters…what more do you want?
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) April 15, 2019
The narrative that Fromm struggles against elite defenses should stop there. I get that he looked awful against LSU and there were plenty of moments in that Texas game when Georgia fans wanted more, but Fromm make the next leap last year. You’re not going to find too many quarterbacks who average 9 yards per attempt with a 30-6 TD-INT ratio and 67 percent accuracy.
I expect Fromm to have another big year, this time with James Coley running the show. In fact, I’ll even go as far to say that the gap between Fromm and Tagovailoa is much smaller than some people realize. But for now, Fromm is a close second on this list.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
I wrote that I’d be a touch concerned about Tagovailoa if I were an Alabama fan for the simple fact that he hasn’t looked like his all-world self 3 of the past 4 games he’s been on TV. That was on the heels of an uninspiring spring game performance. I think Tagovailoa is working through some confidence issues right now, and he’s not playing with the same fearlessness that we saw in the first 2 months of 2018.
But would I still take him over any quarterback in the SEC? Yes, for the simple fact that nobody has a higher upside. His deep ball is still as good as we’ve seen in the SEC in some time, and combined with his ability to keep plays alive and make big-time throws on the move, he’s everything you’d want in a quarterback. I’ll bank on the belief that Tagovailoa gets through whatever issues he’s dealing with and he’s again in the hunt for a Heisman.