The SEC is a league known for producing NFL-caliber talent. Even with the rise of programs outside the SEC, recruits still want to attend premier SEC schools, even in down year. Since modern football relies heavily on the quarterback, the SEC has been able to keep up their high level of play in large part to some great college quarterbacks. The league has relied upon recent gunslingers like 3x BCS National Champion A.J. McCarron from Alabama, SEC career passing yards leader Aaron Murray of Georgia, and first overall picks like Cam Newton (Auburn) or Matt Stafford (Georgia) to cement itself as the upper crust of college football. All of those guys are gone now, and a new crop of SEC quarterbacks hope to write their name in the record books. Down the road that could happen, but there’s a common theme of youth, inexperience, and flaws that pervades this years group of starters. Some of these guys will be the key to their team repeating as an annual powerhouse, while others are stop gaps until the freshman five-star recruit is ready. Whatever the case, there’s a wide range of quarterbacks this season, so here’s your informal guide to the young guns, stopgaps, and veterans that will be leading their teams through the SEC gauntlet.
The Super Star
Dak Prescott – Mississippi State
The former Heisman trophy candidate is back for his senior year. Prescott was unquestionably the best quarterback in the SEC last season, throwing 27 touchdowns while rushing for 14 more. Prescott struggled a bit with his accuracy, throwing 11 interceptions, but still returns as the best of the SEC quarterbacks. Mississippi State will rely heavily on Prescott after the departure of several key players, but if Prescott can replicate last year’s numbers he can get them to eight or nine wins.
Brandon Allen – Arkansas
Maty Mauk – Missouri
Mauk has 18 career starts and Allen has 25, which rank 3rd and 1st respectively in starts by a quarterback for an SEC team this season. They both completed less than 60 percent of their passes last year, but outside of starts and completion percentage, that’s as far the similarities go . Allen was arguably the better of the two, completing 56 percent of his passes, and throwing 20 touchdowns against five interceptions. However, he does have the benefit running back tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who each rushed for 1,000+ yards last season. Allen is the epitome of a “game manager”, a quarterback who can make the right decisions, protect the football, and keep the offense humming; and when you have two guys like Collins and Williams, that’s really all you need to do.
If Allen is yin, then Mauk is yang. Watching Maty Mauk play football is one of the most exciting/excruciating things for a Mizzou fan to do. He’s got such a live arm that he’ll miss an open receiver because he puts so much juice on the ball. Yet, the guy lives for crunch time, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter last year, while keeping the offense rolling to pull out multiple close wins. Mauk doesn’t just have a great arm, but is also an pretty mobile quarterback, and I’d like to see Mizzou use him on more option plays. There’s a risk with that since he’s of smaller stature, but it’s not often you see a guy listed as 6-foot, 200-pounds do this:
Looking to improve
Josh Dobbs – Tennessee
Patrick Towles – Kentucky
Kyle Allen – Texas A&M
Three guys who are all returning after promising seasons last year. Dobbs will be the key for the Volunteers offense, who are widely expected to have a breakout year. After taking over as starter halfway through last season, he completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns, while running for eight more scores and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Dobbs could be the next Dak Prescott of this group, and is a legit dual-threat quarterback that will give defensive coordinators headaches to gameplan for.
Similar to Dobbs, Towles returns for his second go-around as the starter for his team. After Vanderbilt, Kentucky might be the least sexy team in the SEC. They’ll post anywhere from four to seven wins yearly, with maybe one close game or upset. Towles looks to improve upon that record, and with some help he could do it. He had a respectable stat line last season, ranking fifth in the SEC in passing yards with 2,718, and throwing 14 touchdowns. He’s not going to wow anybody, but if you have a couple decent receivers and a run game, Towles won’t kill you.
Finally, the youngster of the group, Kyle Allen. Allen was thrust into the starting role after a combination of poor play and suspension ousted starter Kenny Hill. With Hill now just down the road at TCU, Allen should be starter. Considering he was a true freshman last season, Allen played pretty well. He had a 16:7 touchdown/interception ratio, and completed 61.5 percent of his passes. Five-star recruit quarterback Kyler Murray has arrived in College Station and will compete for the starting job, but I think Sumlin goes with Allen. Allen was the only quarterback in spring camp, performed well last season, and knows the playbook. Unless Murray amazes the coaching staff in camp (which he could very well do), I think Sumlin sticks with the proven commodity.
Anthony Jennings – LSU
Jeremy Johnson – Auburn
Ok, Anthony Jennings started 12 games for LSU last season, so he’s really not totally unproven. However, he only had 227 attempts, putting him at 12th in the SEC, right in between Jeff Driskell and Justin Worley, which is not great company. Jennings only topped 20 pass attempts in five games last season, and the Tigers lost three of those. Jennings isn’t unproven in terms of experience, but rather his arm. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw seven interceptions against only 11 touchdowns. If LSU wants to tap into their cornucopia of talent they have offense, it’ll start with Jennings being able to put the ball in the air and make things happen there.
Jeremy Johnson is the heir to Nick Marshall and is Gus Malzahn’s shiny, new playtoy. Johnson is having the kind of camp you get excited about if you’re an Auburn fan. Phrases like “embracing a leadership role” and “his right arm is a blessing” are being bandied about. Johnson is going to give Auburn’s offense a different look than when Marshall ran it, seeing that Johnson is considered as the better passer but less fleet-footed. He’s on Auburn’s roster as 6-foot-5, 240-pounds, so what he lacks up in elusiveness, he makes up for in size. In a limited sample size last season, Johnson had an impressive stat line. He threw for 436 yards, completed 28 of 37 passes, and threw three touchdowns and zero interceptions. With stats like those and Cam Newton-size, Johnson will be the reason why Auburn’s season will be considered a success or failure.
The New Guy
Brice Ramsey – Georgia
Chad Kelly – Ole Miss
Connor Mitch – South Carolina
This is where it starts to get ugly. This is a trio of redshirt sophomores who have thrown a combined 67 passes, with only 23 of those in SEC play. There will plenty of growing pains with this group.
The most fortunate of three is Ramsey, who has potential Heisman candidate Nick Chubb to hand the ball off to. Ramsey won’t ever have to throw more than 20 passes a game, and if he does it’ll be against the likes of Troy or Charleston Southern. Ramsey was a consensus four-star recruit in high school, so he wasn’t a nobody coming into Georgia. In Georgia’s spring game this year, he completed 5 of 9 passes for 174 yards, with no scores. Georgia could win 11 games this year, and will rely heavily upon the run game, so as long as Ramsey protects the football, he won’t lose them any games.
Chad Kelly comes to Ole Miss as a junior transferring from East Mississippi Community College. Originally signed with Clemson, Kelly redshirted his freshman year there and then transferred to East Mississippi C.C. after two seasons with the Tigers. While at East Mississippi C.C., he led them to the NJCAA national championship and 12-0 record while completing 66.9 percent of his passes, throwing 41 touchdowns and adding almost 4,000 yards. Kelly hasn’t been on campus as long as his competition, redshirt sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, but comes with more experience and a better pedigree (his uncle is Hall of Famer Jim Kelly). Barring some stellar improvements from Kincade or Buchanan, my money is on Kelly as the starter to begin the season.
Here’s an interesting fact about South Carolina: Connor Mitch had the third-most pass attempts for the Gamecocks last season, behind starter Dylan Thompson and wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, who went 5-for-8 with two touchdowns. If I’m a South Carolina fan, this would not inspire confidence in me. Mitch completed two of his six pass attempts last season, which came in games against Furman and South Alabama. Mitch’s only competition is walk-on Perry Orth, who had all of two pass attempts last season. All of South Carolina’s quarterbacks received equal snaps in the spring game, but Mitch is probably the de facto starter in the season opener.
Will Grier – Florida
Jake Coker – Alabama
The Orlando Sentinel reported Monday that Florida’s new head coach Jim McElwain “has yet to see any separation in the Gator’s QB battle.” Redshirt freshman Will Grier and true sophomore Treon Harris are competing for the starting job, and McElwain was quoted as saying, “I guess if you’re asking is there a separation yet, I haven’t really seen it.” Harris has the upperhand when it comes to experience, as he started six games last year, but that’s really about it. He had a 4-2 record as a starter, including an upset over No. 9 Georgia, but showcased his lack of ability to pass the ball. Harris completed only 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,019 yards yards. Harris’s real value comes as a runner, and the trio of him and their running backs Kelvin Taylor and now NFL-pro Matt Jones was enough of a rushing attack to move the chains. After redshirting last year, Will Grier comes in as the jewel of the 2014 recruiting class, a four-star prospect who was named Parade National Player of the Year his senior year of high school. Grier reportedly bulked up to 215 pounds this offseason (he’s listed as 201 on Florida’s roster right now), and is the better passer of the two. It’s likely that Grier won’t be the runner that Harris was last season, but he won’t kill you with his legs. Grier will most likely enter the season as the starter, but McElwain will give Harris some reps in their early tune up games. If McElwain doesn’t like what he sees out of Grier, the head coach could go with whomever has the hot hand.
Jake Coker transferred to Alabama before the 2014 season with the hopes of being the starting quarterback after A.J. McCarron’s departure. This did not happen as Blake Sims won the job in camp and led Alabama to a 12-2 record and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Going into the 2015 season, Coker finds himself in almost the exact same situation as last year. Tabbed as the guy expected to win the job, another candidate has come along and shown himself as legitimate competition. This year that guy is redshirt freshman David Cornwell. Cornwell was a four-star recruit from Norman, OK who competed in the Elite 11 in high school, and chose Alabama over his hometown Sooners. In the spring game this year, Coker and Cornwell posted similar results; Coker went 14-of-28 for 183 yards and a touchdown, while Cornwell threw for 110 yards on 12-of-24 passing and added a touchdown himself. Nick Saban is a coach who prefers experience and seniority for his starting quarterback, so I think he starts off with Coker. However, if Coker plays poorly, I think Saban would give Cornwell a chance to potentially put Coker back on the bench.
It could be anyone!
Vanderbilt started four different quarterbacks last season, with Johnny McCrary leading the team in that category with five. Similar to the two teams listed above, it’s a two-man battle between McCrary and sophomore Wade Freebeck. McCrary and Freebeck have been sharing reps with the first-team offense, and that could be the way it goes during the season as well. Because of their academic standards, Vanderbilt struggles to recruit high-level talent. It seems like every year, the Commodores might have one or two NFL-caliber players, but that’s about it. It’s more than likely that the Dores go with the guy is playing better week-to-week, or even series-to-series. Unless McCrary or Freebeck separates himself and can cement himself as a competent signal-caller, it’ll be a long year in Nashville again.
Featured image h/t: allfortennessee.com