SEC QB Power Rankings, 2021 Reset: Familiar faces abound. So do question marks
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week throughout the season, SEC QB Rankings helped 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. This week, we’re moving on from 2020 with an early look at the projected pecking order to open 2021. Previously: Week 1 … Week 2 …Week 3 … Week 4 … Week 5 … Week 6 … Week 7 … Week 8 … Week 9 … Week 10 … Week 11 … Week 12… Week 13 … Week 14.
1. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
This time last year, Corral’s future in Oxford was in serious doubt off a deflating 2019 campaign that saw him lose the starting job and the head coach who recruited him. Now, he’s in the conversation with the Rebels’ best ever off the most prolific season in school history. On Lane Kiffin’s watch, Corral easily set Ole Miss records for total offense (384.3 yards/game), yards per attempt (10.2), and overall efficiency (177.6), at the helm of an attack that averaged 40.7 points in SEC games — more than a full touchdown per game better than the previous school record.
Three factors prevented his star from rising in spite of his production. One: A historically bad defense that allowed 40.3 points per game in conference play and ensured some of Corral’s most memorable outings came in losing efforts. (Three of the Rebels’ 5 losses came in games in which they scored 35+ points and averaged well north of 7.0 yards per play, including their epic October shootout with Alabama in the highest-scoring game in SEC history.) Two: A reckless streak that manifested in a flurry of turnovers in losses to Arkansas (6 INTs, including a pair of pick-6s) and LSU (5 INTs, 1 pick-6). And three: A lingering reputation as a “system QB” whose turnaround owes a crucial debt to Kiffin.
All of those obstacles remain in 2021, only one of which — the turnovers — is actually within Corral’s control. His top receiver, All-American Elijah Moore, is on his way out, and the only good thing to say about the defense is that it can’t get any worse. It’s hard to mount a Heisman campaign for the face of a team aspiring to the Liberty Bowl. On the other hand, there’s no reason to expect a decline from an offense that returns every significant piece except Moore and TE Kenny Yeboah, including newly enriched coordinator Jeff Lebby; if it sustains its 2020 pace, even a merely below-average defense could be enough to make the Rebels a reliable threat in every game. If he holds up his end of the bargain, Corral has a chance to leave a legacy rivaled only by the Mannings.
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(Last week: 3)
2. JT Daniels, Georgia
Let’s set aside the question of why it took until late November to finally get Daniels on the field, along with the larger questions about how Kirby Smart has managed the position throughout his tenure. For now, the arrow is pointing up: In his 4 starts, Daniels was who he was supposed to be, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt with 10 TDs to 2 INTs and finishing with a stellar 175.8 passer rating. The Bulldogs closed on a 4-game winning streak, leapt Florida in the final AP poll, and look like a no-brainer pick to reclaim their perch atop the SEC East.
On paper, the offense has the potential to be the most explosive in Athens in ages. Daniels clearly has the arm to open things up downfield, and he has the weapons – his top 4 targets (George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, and Darnell Washington) were all freshmen and sophomores who collectively averaged 16.1 yards on 54 catches in Daniels’ starts. That was just a glimpse of an inexperienced lineup still trying to get the chemistry right at the end of a frustrating campaign. Given a full offseason together, this group has the opportunity to be special, and to propel Daniels into a first-round prospect in 2022.
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(Last week: 6)
3. Bryce Young, Alabama
Mac Jones’ departure for the NFL is official, which means Young’s promotion to automatic Heisman contender is, too. Young arrived last winter as arguably the most touted recruit of Nick Saban’s tenure, appeared in 9 games as Jones’ understudy, and assumes the reins as a true sophomore with the hype fully intact.
The caveats have less to do with Young’s obvious potential – the go-to comps are Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray – than with an offense that will be largely starting from scratch across the board: In addition to a new offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, the Tide will be replacing the most prolific rusher and receiver in school history and breaking in at least 3 new starters on the o-line. But then, as always, those are the kind of standard-issue Bama problems that other teams aspire to. Rising juniors John Metchie III and Evan Neal are proven commodities at receiver and tackle, respectively, Jahleel Billingsley is a breakout candidate ate tight end, and the baseline talent level among the candidates vying to fill the vacancies is the envy of the league outside of Georgia. If Young is even close to as good as advertised, this group won’t miss a beat.
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(Last week: n/a)
4. Emory Jones, Florida
As much as we’ve seen of Jones at this point – 286 snaps in 24 games over the past 3 years – it’s a little weird to still be thinking of him as a question mark. But his role has always been limited, either to the Wildcat or to garbage time, and his opportunities to put the ball in the air in meaningful situations have been few and far between. The leap to full-time starter is hardly a formality, especially on the heels of a record-breaking, bar-raising season by Kyle Trask.
As little information as we have on Jones as a passer, though, there’s no doubt about his mobility, or about Dan Mullen’s ability to exploit it in the QB run game – a staple of Mullen’s offense that, between Trask and Feleipe Franks, has been extremely limited the past 3 years. The departures of last year’s top 3 targets, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, also points toward a far more run-oriented approach in 2021. It may not look the same, but if the ground game clicks the Gators will be most of the way to a smooth transition.
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(Last week: n/a)
5. Max Johnson or Myles Brennan, LSU
Brennan was the least of LSU’s problems prior to the mid-October hip injury that sidelined him the rest of the year, throwing for 1,112 yards and 11 TDs (vs. 3 INTs) in his first 3 career starts. Those numbers looked even better in his absence, after the Tigers proceeded to drop 3 of their next 5 while managing a single non-garbage-time touchdown in losses to Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama. As of early December, the incumbency remained Brennan’s to lose.
But that was before Johnson’s emergence in year-end wins over Florida and Ole Miss kicked the door wide open. With all 4 years of eligibility still in his pocket, Johnson is an easy sell – a much-needed reset following a lost season, and, along with electric WR Kayshon Boutte, a fixed point for the new offensive staff to build around for the foreseeable future. Still, whether he actually represents an upgrade over Brennan (who has 2 years left) is a question for spring practice, when blue-chip freshman Garrett Nussmeier joins the mix, as well.
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(Last week: 8 / n/a)
6. Bo Nix, Auburn
Between a stagnant sophomore season by Nix and a coaching change, Auburn’s QB situation has “grad transfer” written all over it. But don’t expect any resolution on that front any time soon: The new staff under Bryan Harsin will want to get a good, long look at Nix in the spring before making any promises to a transfer QB looking for an opportunity to start, and anyway, that’s pending finding someone in the transfer portal worth making promises to. At the moment, the most intriguing names still on the market – Austin Kendall (West Virginia), Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina), Lance LeGendre (Maryland) – are all former 4-star recruits with starting experience who never managed to seize the job at their previous stops.
The way these things go now, the portal will likely see an influx of new options in a few months as guys who found themselves on the wrong end of a spring competition decide to test the market. By that point, Harsin and incoming OC Mike Bobo should have a better idea whether they’re comfortable riding into the season with Nix entrenched or want to bring in some viable competition. Either way, the job security he enjoyed his first 2 years on campus can no longer be taken for granted.
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(Last week: 7)
7. Harrison Bailey or Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Bailey, a true freshman, is in a unique position entering Year 2: Secure enough at the top of the depth chart to send the rest of the Vols’ QB room packing for the transfer portal, but not so secure that coaches were willing to hand him the job by default. Enter Hooker, a dual threat with an 8-7 record as a starter at Virginia Tech and a legitimate chance to take the first snap in September.
Of course, before they can answer that question (or any question), the Vols have some much larger vacancies to fill first, beginning with a new athletic director to replace the outgoing Phil Fulmer. The new AD will be immediately on the hook for hiring a new head coach, who will have precious little time to staff up and take stock of the situation ahead of spring drills. (That is, if a full-time coach is even on campus by then.) Bailey (6-5/225) and Hooker (6-4/220) both bring NFL-ready size to the table, but with sharply diverging skills – Bailey the classic pocket type with blue-chip credentials as a recruit, Hooker the athlete with more than 1,000 rushing yards (excluding sacks) and 14 rushing TDs the past 2 years. Choosing which guy fits the identity they want to instill will be one of the first big decisions the next staff will have to make.
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(Last week: 12 / n/a)
8. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Mississippi State fans spent all of 2020 listening to warnings that Mike Leach’s version of the Air Raid is not really as dynamic as its high-flying reputation suggests, due to the high volume short, safe passes that effectively function as handoffs. In practice, Rogers’ stat line was a perfect example: Although he led the league in attempts per game (38.4), Rogers ranked last among SEC starters in average depth of target (5.7), yards per attempt (also 5.7), and yards per completion (8.2), with a little more than 25% of his passes aimed behind the line of scrimmage. By comparison, only 6.8% of his attempts traveled 20+ yards, with only 5 completions.
Considering the circumstances, though, Rogers did an admirable job. In normal conditions, he would have been tagged for a redshirt; instead, he was thrown into the fire almost immediately, and by the time he was promoted to full-time starter at midseason the offense he inherited was a hopeless, depleted wreck that had managed a grand total of 3 touchdowns in its previous 4 games. To go from that point to closing with back-to-back wins over Missouri and Tulsa was as encouraging as the first half of the season was deflating. Leach has made it a point to bring in some competition, but based on his obvious growth down the stretch Rogers isn’t going anywhere.
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(Last week: 9)
9. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak’s first start, a 406-yard, 4-TD outing in an upset win over LSU, was his best by a mile: He didn’t come close to putting up those kinds of numbers again, managing just 3 touchdown passes over Mizzou’s last 7 games vs. 5 interceptions. As you’d expect for a redshirt freshman not far removed from running the triple-option in high school, he especially struggled to push the ball downfield, connecting on just 14-of-50 throws of 20+ yards, per Pro Football Focus. His long gain in that span covered just 33 yards.
Still, 5-3 as a starter vs. SEC opponents is 5-3 as a starter vs. SEC opponents, and for an outfit that came into the season with no identity or expectations under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz, that counts as a step forward. Incoming freshman Tyler Macon will get a good, long look in the spring (which will be Macon’s first action in more than a year due to COVID-19), but displacing an incumbent who’s still on the upward slope of his career would be a significant upset. If Bazelak survives the challenge from a more dynamic athlete, he has the makings of a potential 4-year starter.
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(Last week: 10)
10. Haynes King, Texas A&M
More than any other player here, King is a blank slate: He arrived as a 4-star recruit; he took 16 snaps as a true freshman, all in garbage time; he attempted 4 passes yielding 1 touchdown and 1 interception. But expectations are running high for A&M following a top-5 finish, and as the heir apparent to the departing Kellen Mond, King will be thrust into a spotlight role with virtually everyone else who touched the ball in 2020 back in the fold and very little margin for growing pains. Either he rises quickly on this list, or else he may not be on it for long.
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(Last week: n/a)
11. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Arkansas fans have only gotten a couple of glimpses of Jefferson’s potential over the past 2 years, but what little they’ve seen has been encouraging. His lone 2020 start in place of Feleipe Franks – a 306-yard, 4-TD effort in a shootout loss at Missouri – was effectively an audition for the full-time job, and went well enough that it may have staved off an effort to pursue a veteran transfer with more starting experience. The Razorbacks did bring in former Ole Miss backup Kade Renfro (who never saw the field in Oxford), and also owe redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby a chance to make good on his 4-star billing out of high school. Clearly, though, Jefferson enters spring as the frontrunner, with all the expectations that go with it.
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(Last week: n/a)
12. Joey Gatewood or Beau Allen, Kentucky
Kentucky is 23-14 over the past 3 years, making it the best 3-year run in Lexington since Bear Bryant left for Texas A&M in the early ’50s. They’ve also finished dead last in the SEC in passing offense in each of those seasons, a trend Mark Stoops is determined to change by handing the offense over to a new coordinator, Liam Coen, who’s spent the last 3 years with the St. Louis Rams. No more glorified Wildcat for the Wildcats.
In Gatewood (43 career attempts at UK and Auburn) and Allen (7 attempts as a true freshman), Coen inherits a couple of raw passers whose potential at this point far surpasses their résumés. The good news: Last year’s leading receiver, senior Josh Ali, plans to return for a 5th year, and UK added a potential difference-maker to the rotation in Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson, a Kentucky high school legend who accounted for 1,725 all-purpose yards and 7 TDs in 2 years as a Husker. (All-American OT Darian Kinnard’s decision to pass on the draft doesn’t hurt, either.) If the chemistry matches the talent, Stoops and Coen are going to look very smart.
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(Last week: n/a)
13. Luke Doty, South Carolina
Doty has the position essentially all to himself following the departures of 2020 starter Collin Hill and 2019 starter Ryan Hilinski, leaving incoming freshman Colten Gauthier as the only other scholarship QB on the roster. Although he barely got his feet wet as a freshman, starting season-ending losses vs. Georgia and Kentucky under a lame-duck coaching staff, Doty was a top-100 overall prospect in the 2020 class and brings intriguing athleticism to the role. In a more favorable situation, he’d be a prime candidate for a breakthrough. In his actual situation, South Carolina’s offense doesn’t lend itself to much optimism, to say the least. Unless he turns out to be the kind of talent capable of transcending his surroundings, patience is a virtue.
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(Last week: 13)
14. Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
The basement feels a little unfair to Seals, whose growth as a true freshman was the only remotely hopeful aspect of an otherwise miserable season for Vandy. (Sarah Fuller’s successful PATs notwithstanding.) Despite a respectable midseason run, though, Seals went out on a low note in season-ending blowouts vs. Missouri and Tennessee, and the Commodores finished as the SEC’s lowest-scoring offense en route to the first winless season in school history. (Yes, really.) Whatever long-term promise he may possess going into Year 2, there won’t be any bonus points for merely surviving long enough to see Year 3.
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(Last week: 14)