One of the narratives I’ve seen so far this offseason is that the SEC looking at a big drop off at the quarterback position. Kyle Trask seems to be settling in as everyone’s top returning signal caller, but there are some real question marks after him.
Kellen Mond’s name comes up a lot among the other returners, but in two years starting for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, he’s turned in a pair of passing efficiencies in the 130s. Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman is probably going to be Georgia’s starter, and there was some excitement about that—at least until people looked at the massive splits between his performance against good and bad teams.
Stanford grad transfer K.J. Costello had a good 2018 before missing a lot of 2019 to injury, but it’s going to be tough for him to excel right away without spring practice. Mike Leach’s Air Raid requires precise timing. No Mississippi State quarterbacks have been able to work to build that timing, and Costello has no experience throwing to the Bulldogs’ receivers.
The top passing efficiency among returning conference quarterbacks after Trask is, believe it or not, Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano at 143.99. Yeah, the guy Jeremy Pruitt kept benching.
So here we go then, time to dive off a cliff for SEC quarterback play, right?
If you’re expecting massive fall, it’s because you got distracted by the top two guys last year. Joe Burrow turned in arguably the best passing season of any college quarterback ever. He set a new record for passing efficiency at 201.96 despite facing some of the nation’s best defenses and five teams that finished in the top ten. Perhaps the only reason Burrow now owns the record is that Tua Tagovailoa got hurt. He was sitting at 206.93 but failed to qualify for the charts because he didn’t appear in 75% of his team’s games.
The SEC lost a pair of all-timers in Burrow and Tagovailoa, but beyond those two, 2019 wasn’t a banner year for quarterbacking.
Trask played ably and officially ended up second in passing efficiency after Burrow, but he had some growing pains. Considering he hadn’t started in seven years, those growing pains were understandable. His ceiling is higher than what we saw in 2019, and I really hope we get to see it later this year.
After Trask came Guarantano. Again: yes, really. Jake Fromm clocked in lower than Guarantano did in passing efficiency. Want to use adjusted yards per attempt instead of passing efficiency? The Volunteer edges out the Bulldog there too. James Coley’s offense and the lack of explosive receivers really did knock Fromm’s performance down that much.
Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant dealt with injuries at Missouri and had Newman-like splits between good and bad opponents. After him, Mond and his high-volume/low-excitement play came next. Despite throwing more than 400 passes, he didn’t crack 2,900 yards because he got a paltry 6.9 yards per attempt. Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden ran for a yard more per play than that despite defenses knowing it was coming. Aside from Mond and Ball State grad transfer Riley Neal at Vandy, the rest of the passing efficiency list under Bryant consisted of freshmen.
If the SEC has an underwhelming quarterback season in 2020, it’s not going to be due to a sharp decline in quality. It’s going to be because it was like 2019 but without the two headliners.
If you want to see what a sudden fall in SEC quarterbacking looks like, you’ll need to look at 2014.
The 2013 season was probably the best one ever for quarterbacks in the conference despite Florida basically saying, “nah, we’re good” for the duration. Johnny Manziel improved nearly all of his passing numbers above his Heisman campaign of the prior year. Zach Mettenberger threw for just 0.4 yards per attempt fewer for LSU than Burrow did a half-decade later. AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw, and Aaron Murray capped off careers that had cases to be the best ever for their schools at the time. Nick Marshall led Auburn to the national title game. Missouri’s James Franklin clocked in eighth in passing efficiency with a mark that’s about the same as Fromm (fourth) had last year.
Then 2014 came. Career backups getting one chance to start as a senior was a major theme between Alabama’s Blake Sims, Georgia’s Hutson Mason, and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson. Dak Prescott started his terrific upperclassman run for Dan Mullen, Marshall slightly improved his passing while falling off a bit as a runner, and Bo Wallace got to beat Bama that one time. There was a lot less good quarterbacking play all around.
For all its faults, 2014 did have more quarterbacks top the good-but-not-great threshold of 150 in passing efficiency (five) than 2019 did (three, counting Tua). The top two in ’19 got so much attention that they disguised the rather mediocre year the SEC ended up having at QB.
Besides, 2020 may not end up so bad. Trask has room to grow. Bama’s Mac Jones played very well against Auburn outside his two picks and absolutely lit up Michigan in the bowl. He’s no Tua, but he still has a couple of first round receivers to throw to. Costello has a high floor and will probably end up fine.
Some of the freshmen who, well, played like freshmen in 2019 will probably improve a fair bit. Bo Nix, Ryan Hilinski, John Rhys-Plumlee, and Matt Corral all qualify here. Newman has started for a year and won’t be a deer in the headlights. Guarantano and Mond, as seniors, will probably get at least a little better. And don’t forget about Kentucky’s Terry Wilson, who has real dual threat skills if he can get back to pre-injury form.
Will 2020 be 2013 all over again? Will the SEC’s passing attacks make you forget about the Big 12? Certainly not. But it won’t be 2014 again in terms of being a long fall from the prior year. Myles Brennan will be a downgrade from Burrow. Jones will be from Tua, though perhaps not as much.
But the conference’s quarterbacks as a whole might actually be better from third place on down. Don’t believe any dire warnings about who’s behind center in the conference. It’ll probably be a fairly normal year for the SEC in the quarterback department when all’s said and done.