Georgia may well have best QB situation in SEC

Projected 2021 SEC starting quarterbacks

Ranking the conference signal callers, 1 through 14

ATHENS — Funny how things work out. That’s especially the case when it comes to the modern-day recruitment and acquisition of quarterbacks.

Think about it. If things had worked out differently, Georgia might have Matt Corral as its starting quarterback for 2021. Instead, the Bulldogs ended up signing a guy named Justin Fields in 2018, the year Corral signed with Ole Miss.

Corral, of course, could also be at Florida right now. He once was committed to the Gators. Wonder if Kyle Trask still would’ve been Dan Mullen’s man if that had held up?

And, of course, John Rhys Plumlee, Corral’s backup at Ole Miss, once was a UGA commit. Looking back now, that might be more disappointing to Georgia baseball coach Scott Stricklin than football coach Kirby Smart, that Plumlee’s not in Athens now.

Smart and the Bulldogs are no doubt pleased that JT Daniels is, in fact, their quarterback heading into the season. That gives Georgia arguably the best QB situation in all of the SEC. That mythical distinction is ripe for the taking, with Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond all moving on to the NFL.

There certainly are arguments to be made for Ole Miss, with the aforementioned players returning to take snaps in the coming season. Meanwhile, only Auburn (Bo Nix), Missouri (Connor Bazelak) and Vanderbilt (Seals) have full-time starters returning at quarterback, but their surrounding casts are a bit suspect. And who knows about Mike Leach’s Mississippi State and six-game starter Will Rogers?

There’s nothing to say that a new starter won’t be the best quarterback in the conference. Who knew this time last year that Trask would do what he did for the Gators or Jones for the Crimson Tide. You won’t hear Bama fans complaining about Bryce Young taking over as a first-year starter as it defends its 2020 national championship.

A lot of astute observers are giving the nod to the Bulldogs on the quarterback front, especially after some key offseason acquisitions on offense. Count former Bulldogs lineman Matt Stinchcomb among those.

“More options at wide receiver and an emerging tight-end position,” Stinchcomb, a college football analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network, said of why he has Georgia at the top of the heap. “Plus, an established backfield means less pressure on the quarterback position.”

Still, opinions are varied. The AJC polled beat reporters from across the SEC for their assessment of their team’s respective quarterback situation and ranked the schools based on that feedback.

Following are our rankings:

1. Georgia

  • Projected starter: JT Daniels (6-3, 210, Jr.)
  • Depth: Stetson Bennett (5-11, 190, Sr.), Carson Beck (6-4, 215, RFr.), Brock Vandagriff (6-3, 205, Fr.)
  • Analysis: Georgia fans may never know exactly what kept Daniels from being able to play until the sixth game of a 10-game season, but they’re certainly glad to know he will be available for every game this season, continued good health permitting. Daniels passed for 401 yards and four touchdowns in his Georgia debut against Mississippi state after he was finally cleared from 2019 knee surgery. Georgia went 4-0 in his starts as Daniels passed for 1,243 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions and completed 67.2% of his passes. Georgia averaged 8.3 more points per game (37.3) and 103.2 more yards per game (486) behind Daniels than it did under Bennett and D’Wan Mathis, who started the other six games. Getting the Bennett back is no small accomplishment as he started five games a year ago and put up competitive numbers before a shoulder injury in the first quarter of the Florida game hindered his passing the rest the season. Meanwhile, the former 4-star prospect Beck showed in spring he is now capable of competing for backup snaps.
Quarterback Matt Corral (2) drops back to pass during the first half of The Grove Bowl, Ole Miss' spring football game, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. Corrals' Blue team won 28-6. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Quarterback Matt Corral (2) drops back to pass during the first half of The Grove Bowl, Ole Miss' spring football game, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. Corrals' Blue team won 28-6. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

2. Ole Miss

  • Projected starter: Matt Corral (6-1, 205, Jr.)
  • Depth: John Rhys Plumlee (6-0, 200, Jr.), Kinkead Dent (6-5, 205, So.), Luke Altmyer (6-2, 195, Fr.),
  • Analysis: Corral led the nation in total offense last season, with 384.9 yards per game, and finished among the top 10 in passing yards per game (fifth, 333.7), TD passes (seventh, 29) and pass efficiency (ninth, 177.6). But he was also a little fast and loose with the ball, as his 14 interceptions will illustrate. He lost two key targets in Elijah Moore and Dontario Drummond. But coach Lane Kiffin is determined to field a wide-open, pass-first offense, and he has recruited to Oxford accordingly. Also, the Rebels might have the best backup in the league in Plumlee. An eight-game starter as a freshman in 2019, the speedster represents a radical change of pace and innovative strategic alternative for the Rebels. He could always decide to play baseball full-time, however.

3. Missouri

  • Projected starter: Connor Bazelak (6-3, 211, So.)
  • Depth: Brady Cook (6-2, 207, RFr.), Tyler Macon (5-11, 205, Fr.), Jack Samsel (6-2, 204, Jr.)
  • Analysis: Bazelak shared SEC freshman-of-the-year honors in 2020 after taking the reins midway through a Week 2 loss to Tennessee and starting the last eight games. He finished the year ranked sixth in the SEC with 238.6 total yards per game and fourth with 236.6 passing yards per game. Coach Eli Drinkwitz took a conservative approach with his first-year starter, as Bazelak’s seven touchdown passes vs. six interceptions in 10 games illustrate. But the Tigers love Bazelak’s potential, which they believe they saw in his 406-yard, four-TD performance in a win over LSU. And Missouri expects to have more field-stretching ability next season to help Bazelak’s deep-passing numbers. He has 96 receptions returning in Keke Chism, Jalen Know and Touskie Dove, and the Tigers added Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper. …. Cook saw only limited action as a backup (6-of-7, 62 yards, 1 TD) and Macon, a 4-star early enrollee, is a dual-threat QB who set an Illinois record with 56 touchdowns as a junior in 2019.
Georgia linebacker Adam Anderson levels Auburn quarterback Bo Nix on a key defensive play in the fourth quarter, Oct. 3, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia linebacker Adam Anderson levels Auburn quarterback Bo Nix on a key defensive play in the fourth quarter, Oct. 3, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

4. Auburn

  • Projected starter: Bo Nix (6-3, 214, 194, Jr.)
  • Depth: TJ Finley (6-6, 250, So.), Demetrius Davis (5-10, 202, Fr.), Grant Loy (6-4, 226, Sr.)
  • Analysis: The Tigers are still waiting for Nix, the son of former Auburn star Patrick Nix, to make the leap toward fulfilling the promise he showed as a freshman starter. That didn’t happen under coach Gus Malzahn last season, so now the Tigers will have to see if things improve under new coach Bryan Harsin and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Nix is not likely to experience a lot of patience now that Finley is on the scene. Finley started five up-and-down games for LSU before transferring to Auburn last month. Davis, a 4-star prospect, gives the Tigers another dual-threat option.

5. LSU

  • Projected starter: Myles Brennan (6-4, 210, Sr.)
  • Depth: Max Johnson (6-5, 219, So.), Garrett Nussmeier (6-2, 172, Fr.)
  • Analysis: This is a solid quarterback room that, thanks to a chaotic season last year, has a lot of experience. Brennan won the job last season and put up solid numbers through three games. But after a loss to Mississippi State, Brennan went out with a torn abdomen muscle injury in a loss at Missouri. Enter TJ Finley, who showed promise but also was wildly inconsistent. Then came the lefty Johnson, an Oconee County High graduate and the son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson, who directed LSU to comeback wins over Florida and Ole Miss. The Tigers added Garrett Nussmeier, the son of Dallas Cowboys quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier. Finley has since bolted to Auburn via the portal. But Brennan seems poised to take over. In only three games, he still led the team with 1,112 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions and he exited spring drills as QB1 in the spread system established under new coordinator Jake Peetz. But the competition with Johnson will likely continue well into the season.

6. Alabama

  • Projected starter: Bryce Young (6-0, 194, So.)
  • Depth: Jalen Milroe (6-2, 201, Fr.), Paul Tyson (6-5, 228, So.)
  • Analysis: Young, the No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2020, hails from Mater Dai High in Santa Ana, Calif., same as Georgia’s Daniels. It was predicted Young would challenge Mac Jones for the starting job last season, but no spring drills and Jones’ phenomenal start nixed that notion. But thanks to Alabama being involved in several routs last year, Young saw action in nine games. He went 13-of-22 for 156 yards, with one TD and no interceptions. While he finished with zero yards on nine rushing attempts last season, Young is expected to bring back memories of former Bama dual-threat quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s read-option attack. There could be issues if Young gets hurt or struggles, because there is virtually no experience behind him.

7. Mississippi State

  • Projected starter: Will Rogers (6-2, 205, So.)
  • Depth: Jack Abraham (6-0, 205, Sr.), Sawyer Robertson (6-3, 200, Fr.), Daniel Greek (6-4, 225, Fr.)
  • Analysis: Rogers is the heir apparent, but the fact that coach Mike Leach brought in three transfers and signed two freshmen is an indication that change could be afoot. Mississippi State went 3-3 in Rogers’ six starts in 2020 as he passed for 1,976 yards, with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions in nine games. If somebody is to unseat Rogers, the best odds would seem to be on Abraham. The grad transfer passed for 7,067 yards and 41 touchdowns at Southern Miss; and Jay Hopson, his coach there, also joined the MSU staff. Leach also might turn to Robertson, a 6-3, 200-pound freshman 4-star prospect known for his ability to chuck the ball all over the field.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) looks to throw against Oklahoma during the Cotton Bowl Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (Ron Jenkins/AP)
Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) looks to throw against Oklahoma during the Cotton Bowl Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

8. Florida

  • Projected starter: Emory Jones (6-2, 210, 194, Jr.)
  • Depth: Jalen Kitna (6-5, 198, Fr.), Anthony Richardson (6-4, 232, RFr.), Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (6-2, 238, Fr.),
  • Analysis: This time last year, Jones, a fourth-year junior from LaGrange, would have been the odds-on favorite to win the Gators’ job. But after being unable to beat out drop-back passer Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask the past three seasons, coach Dan Mullen said he’s ready to return to a spread attack featuring more QB run. But Mullen warns not to go to sleep on Jones’ passing ability. “He’s got a cannon for an arm,” Mullen said. The bigger issue is Jones finding reliable targets to throw to. With the departures of Kyle Pitts and Kedarius Toney, running back Malik Davis is the leading returning pass catcher with 31 receptions for 377 yards.

9. Arkansas

  • Projected starter: KJ Jefferson (6-2, 205, So.)
  • Depth: Malik Hornsby (6-2, 190, RFr.), John Stephen Jones (5-11, 204, Jr.)
  • Analysis: The age of the dual-threat quarterback is arriving at Arkansas. Second-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles wants more freedom to use the quarterback as a run-game weapon and pressure defenses with run-pass option (RPO). The track record for sophomore KJ Jefferson is sparse, as he started just one game while backing up last year’s starter, Feleipe Franks. But in his most significant playing time, Jefferson had 274 passing yards, 32 rushing yards and four touchdowns accounted for in his lone start of 2020, which came in a thrilling, last-second loss versus Missouri. Experience is deficient but a re-tooled offense to suit Jefferson’s strengths should help mitigate that.

10. Texas A&M

  • Projected starter: Haynes King (6-3, 200, RFr.) OR Zach Calzada (6-4, 200, So.)
  • Depth: Eli Stowers (6-4, 215, Fr.)
  • Analysis: Coach Jimbo Fisher is known for getting a lot of his quarterbacks, and his reputation will be put to the test this season as he breaks in a new man with the departure of four-year starter Kellen Mond. A spirited spring competition between second-year quarterbacks King and Calzada was left unresolved. Both played only sparingly behind Mond last season and the duo put up almost identical stats in the spring game, with about 200 yards passing, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble apiece. King is thought to be the better athlete with strong running ability, while Calzada has the more impressive arm strength. This competition will continue in preseason camp, with the highly touted Stowers, patiently waiting in the wings.
South Carolina quarterback Luke Doty (4) scrambles with the ball against Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Lexington, Ky. (Bryan Woolston/AP)
South Carolina quarterback Luke Doty (4) scrambles with the ball against Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Lexington, Ky. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

11. South Carolina

  • Projected starter: Luke Doty (6-1, 204, So.)
  • Depth: Colten Gauthier (6-3, 210, Fr.), Connor Jordan (6-3, 210, So.), Jason Brown (6-3, 235, Sr.)
  • Analysis: After losing both Collin Hill and Ryan Hilinksi, who transferred to Northwestern, Doty inherits the job almost by default. Nobody else on the South Carolina roster has any SEC experience. But first-year coach Shane Beamer likes the potential of Doty, the No. 4-rated dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2020. In limited action last year that included two starts, Doty completed 43 of 71 passes for 405 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He rushed for 91 yards on 41 carries. Gauthier, who emerged as the backup in spring practice, is thought to have a better arm. But keep an eye on the grad transfer Brown, who passed for 3,124 yards with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 18 games as a starter on the FCS level at St. Francis (Pa.).

12. Vanderbilt

  • Projected starter: Ken Seals (6-3, 218, So.)
  • Depth: Mike Wright (6-3, 187, So.), Jeremy Moussa (6-3, 219, Sr.)
  • Analysis: Seals played well last year considering he was just the third SEC freshman to start a season opener since 1972 and he was given the reins of a team that would finish 0-9. He passed for a Vanderbilt freshman record 1,928 yards on 64.6% completions, which isn’t bad against an All-SEC schedule. Seals started all nine games and finished with 12 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. So he deserves the nod, just based on what he endured last season. But the Commodores will be under new leadership under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea and quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch, so all bets are off. Meanwhile, sophomore Mike Wright is expected to be the backup again after subbing in as running threat in goal-line packages last season. Keep an eye on Moussa, who averaged 353 yards per game and threw for 37 touchdowns at San Bernardino Valley College.

13. Kentucky

  • Projected starter: Joey Gatewood (6-5, 221, Jr.)
  • Depth: Beau Allen (6-2, 207, RFr.), Will Levis (6-3, 222, So.), Kaiya Sheron (6-3, 210, Fr.),
  • Analysis: The depth chart remains highly speculative after a completely closed spring practice session. But the time does seem to be right for junior Gatewood, the one-time backup to Nix at Auburn, to step to the forefront. Gatewood got minimal time behind Terry Wilson last year as Wilson became the only player in Kentucky history with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Wilson left and is using his bonus season of eligibility at New Mexico. Meanwhile, Gatewood and his big sturdy frame appear ideal for the dual-threat role desired by new offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who came to Lexington from the Los Angeles Rams, where he was an assistant quarterbacks coach. Gatewood made one start last season, completing a check-down laden 15 of 25 passes for 91 yards while rushing for 23 yards against Georgia. Redshirt freshman Beau Allen also is in the mix. But the real wild card sits with Penn State transfer Will Levis, a run-pass threat who will join the competition over the summer. Levis played in 15 games with the Nittany Lions, with one start.
Virginia Tech's Hendon Hooker warms up before facing Clemson Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. Tennessee has signed Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker as a graduate transfer, bolstering the position after a pair of Volunteers decided to transfer. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times)
Virginia Tech's Hendon Hooker warms up before facing Clemson Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. Tennessee has signed Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker as a graduate transfer, bolstering the position after a pair of Volunteers decided to transfer. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times)

Credit: The Roanoke Times

Credit: The Roanoke Times

14. Tennessee

  • Projected starter: Hendon Hooker (6-4, 218, Sr.)
  • Depth: Brian Maurer (6-3, 205, So.), Harrison Bailey (6-5, 220, So.), Joe Milton (6-5, 243, Jr.), Kaidon Salter (6-1, 190, Fr.)
  • Analysis: Somebody has to be last and, in this case, it’s the Volunteers because coach Josh Heupel’s situation is so unsettled. The quarterback that eventually wins out might be very productive. But there wasn’t a clear number one coming out of spring practice. Hooker, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, entered the spring game atop the depth chart, but did not play well. Maurer has the best arm of the lot and emerged No. 2 but continues to make occasional but often catastrophic mistakes. Bailey, a sophomore out of Marietta High, looked the best in the spring game. All three have started college games. The freshman Salter served a suspension for an on-campus incident during the spring and didn’t play. Then there’s the Milton, a transfer from Michigan who passed for 1,077 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions in five starts last year. So, Heupel is not kidding when he says the competition is “wide open” heading into preseason camp. That doesn’t mean the Vols won’t eventually have a very good player under center, however.

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