Top 10: SEC Quarterbacks

In a new mini-series, Gator Country will be taking a look at the Southeastern Conference’s Top 10 at a number of different positions heading into the 2012 season.

The series relies on precedent, as well as expected growth and development to determine the Top 10 in each category.

Readers may feel a player is underrated and therefore too low on the list or, in fact, a bum that belongs in street clothes on the sideline before cracking the Top 10 of anything.

It happens. Debate is good.

Today, we start with the quarterback position:

10. Jacoby Brissett/Jeff Driskel

It remains to be seen which of Florida’s two young guns will be chosen by coach Will Muschamp to start for the Gators.

Neither was particularly impressive when thrust into the spotlight last season, but there is a reason Driskel was the No. 1 quarterback and Brissett was No. 3 in the Class of 2011.

Driskel has more scrambling ability than Brissett but both have offensive weapons surrounding them.

Jordan Reed is an elite tight end, while Frankie Hammond, Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar form a strong wide receiving core.

Whichever guy wins the job is sure to go through growing pains, but their talent should prove through in the end.

9. Tyler Russell

Coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade, Mississippi State appears to be heading in the right direction under coach Dan Mullen. The key in 2012 will be the production of Tyler Russell.

Russell split with Chris Relf last season. With Relf graduated, the reigns will be fully handed over to Russell. Reportedly, Mullen has decided to feature more of a passing attack this season.

So Russell has the keys to the car, now he just needs to drive it.

As a sophomore last season, he completed 69 of 129 passes for 1,034 yards. His eight touchdowns with just four interceptions was a step in the right direction. So too was his 13-of-25 for 110 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions performance against Alabama last season.

8. Zach Mettenberger

In 2010, Zach Mettenberger threw for 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns — at Butler County (Kan.) Community College — not exactly the SEC.

Coming out of high school, Mettenberger was a top talent. He landed at Georgia and was part of a three-way quarterback battle before being kicked off the team.

Now, he finds himself the starter at LSU. He is the only returner who has taken snaps, albeit not very many. Mettenberger was just 8-of-11 for 92 yards and a touchdown last season.

So far, he has impressed his teammates.

“He has a phenomenal arm,” LSU receiver Odell Beckham told the USA Today’s Glenn Gullbeau. “He’s going to lead us to a lot of victories.”

Mettenberger checks in at No. 8 because he is still relatively unknown. Lucky for him, with the defense LSU features, he doesn’t need to be much more than that to do what Beckham said and lead the team to a lot of victories.

7. Jordan Rodgers

The younger brother of the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, Jordan took command of the Vanderbilt offense midway through last season and orchestrated the team’s fifth bowl appearance in school history.

His 10 interceptions to go with just nine touchdowns last season is something he needs to improve on, but he was the energizer of an offense that has historically been inept.

He was particularly impressive against Florida on Nov. 5, throwing for 297 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels could challenge for time if Rodgers struggles, but the dual-threat quarterback has a flair for the dramatic, something Vanderbilt football hasn’t had in years.

6. Connor Shaw

After flip-flopping with the troubled (understatement) Stephen Garcia for parts of last season, Connor Shaw finished the season 123-of-188 for 1,448 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. When Marcus Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury, Shaw also carried the onus of the running game.

He supplemented his passing stats with 525 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. His final three games were particularly impressive, as he threw for 657 yards with eight touchdowns and just one interception.

As much as Garcia was a problem child, Shaw has been noted as the complete opposite. He is a leader who works well with his teammates and his coaching staff.

His scrambling ability keeps plays alive and augments his downfield passing ability.

If his final three games are any indication, he could move up the list this season.

5. James Franklin

In the Big 12 last season, Franklin accounted for 36 of Missouri’s touchdowns — 21 through the air and 15 on the ground. Replicating his breakout season will be difficult as Missouri transitions into the SEC, but he will be the best dual-threat quarterback in a conference that is beginning to feature quite a few.

Franklin had offseason shoulder surgery, but Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said his starter will be ready to go for the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1.

The key for Franklin will be avoiding turnovers. He threw just 11 interceptions last season but twice had games with three interceptions. In a rigorous SEC, toning down the turnovers while still making big plays will prove important for Franklin and Missouri.

4. A.J. McCarron

There were questions regarding A.J. McCarron’s ability to lead Alabama last season. However, the sophomore answered them resoundingly by leading his team to a national championship.

A major strength of McCarron is his ability to read defenses and avoid turnovers, throwing just five interceptions compared to 16 touchdowns last season.

Eddie Lacy, who will replace Trent Richardson, should take some of the load off McCarron this season. So too should his group of talented receivers.

Kevin Norwood is explosive, while Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have also made strides to contribute this season.

3. Tyler Bray

With no real running game to speak of, Tennessee will rely on the arm of junior quarterback Tyler Bray. After breaking his thumb and missing five games last season, Tennessee struggled mightily.

This season, Bray certainly has one thing in his favor — his mega-talented group of receivers. Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers and JUCO transfer Cordarrelle Patterson combine to form the SEC’s best set of receivers.

Last season, Bray completed 21 passes for 502 yards and five touchdowns in the team’s first two games — to Hunter and Rogers alone. Hunter’s season then ended in the team’s third game.

With Hunter fully healthy and the addition of Patterson, Bray should vastly improve on his 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns from a year ago.

2. Aaron Murray

In his first two seasons at Georgia, Aaron Murray has thrown for 59 total touchdowns, as well as more than 3,000 yards in each season.

He has all the physical tools necessary to be the best quarterback in the conference. His mechanics are solid and his resiliency can’t be questioned.

What can be questioned is his ball security. Along with his 35 touchdowns and 3,149 passing yards last season, Murray also tossed 14 interceptions. 

With Isaiah Crowell out of the picture, Murray will be the one leading Georgia this season. If he cuts down on his interceptions and still throws for 30+ touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards, he could be a Heisman candidate.

1. Tyler Wilson

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior received 127 of a possible 222 votes to make him a preseason SEC First Teamer. If there is such thing as a known commodity within the collegiate ranks, it is this guy. A leader on and off the field, Wilson is a prototypical pocket passer with an NFL-caliber arm.

It was a tough call between Wilson and Murray, but Wilson has shown a better ability to avoid turnovers — something that has plagued Murray during his two years at Georgia. Wilson threw for 3,638 yards last season, easily the most in the conference.  Also, his 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio was much better than Murray’s 2.5-to-1 ratio.

The question that remains for Wilson is if he can do it without the SEC’s top group of receivers. The Minnesota Vikings drafted Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, while the Carolina Panthers snagged Joe Adams in last season’s draft.