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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

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The SEC’s Quarterback Crop

I don’t think the argument is about which SEC team has the best quarterback: it’s Georgia and Aaron Murray, and any argument to the contrary — especially with his closest competition out for spring practice — should fall on deaf ears. Murray, entering his sophomore season, showed enough as a first-year starter in 2010 to earn this prestigious title, even if this looks like the conference’s worst batch of starting quarterbacks in the better part of the decade. Where have all the stars gone? Are we ready for a year without an SEC quarterback factoring heavily in the Heisman Trophy mix?

It had to happen, I suppose, sooner or later. And so the question becomes not which team will have a Heisman winner but which team simply can get it done under center; some can, while others enter spring practice with a slight sense of trepidation about its circumstances at the position. With holes to fill at several stops, it’s vital that each team not only locate a starter but a competent reserve — this is the case even at Georgia. Let’s take a look at each team’s depth, with the projected starter listed first.

Alabama: A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims. The race to replace two-year starter Greg McElroy is well underway in Tuscaloosa, and early returns have been largely positive, according to Nick Saban. He was pleased with how each performed during this past weekend’s scrimmage, though Saban – who will make the final decision – has given little sign that he’s leaning in either direction. One would think the answer will be McCarron, McElroy’s understudy a year ago, but it’s not as if his experience automatically gives him a leg up on Sims, a redshirt freshman.

Arkansas: Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell. It’s amazing what one half of football can do for a youngster’s future: Wilson went toe-to-toe with Cam Newton in a high-scoring loss to Auburn last fall, essentially guaranteeing that he would be Ryan Mallett’s successor in Bobby Petrino’s high-flying offense. Talk about a golden ticket, right? At the same time, Wilson’s performance in limited action last fall significantly raised the expectations surrounding his ascension to the starting role. Mitchell, who attempted three passes last fall, is expected to be Wilson’s backup, but he’ll need to hold off the now injury-free Jacoby Walker.

Auburn: Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley. Trotter’s the frontrunner, with Gus Malzahn hoping to name a starter at the end of spring practice. He’ll split carries the between the pair this month — that’s the plan, at least — with the goal of not only finding a capable replacement for Cam Newton but also identifying what each contender brings to the table. What neither brings to the table: Newton-like ability. What each has going for them: Malzahn.

Florida: John Brantley and two freshmen. Perhaps no other quarterback in the SEC – or the country, for that matter – will benefit in a change in offensive philosophy quite like Brantley, who is far better suited for Florida’s new pro-style attack than the spread offense the Gators ran a season ago. With both Jordan Reed and Trey Burton no longer in the picture, the starting job is clearly Brantley’s to lose; to lose the job, Brantley would need to either suffer an injury or utterly fail to grasp the Charlie Weis-led system. If either does occur, Florida will turn to either redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy or true freshman Jeff Driskel, with the latter’s viewed by many as the program’s future. Brantley might succeed, but depth is an issue – until one of the freshmen proves himself, at least.

Georgia: Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason. How good was Murray last fall? Shockingly good, minus sour showings in losses to Florida and U.C.F., the latter in the Liberty Bowl. What does the future hold? The sky is limit, if he continues to progress in a similar fashion to a few of his predecessors at the position during the Mark Richt era. Georgia has the finest starting quarterback in the conference; the backup position, on the other hand, is unsettled. As was the case a year ago, Mason should be Murray’s backup. He could be pushed by a few freshmen: Parker Welch, Greg Bingham and Christian Lemay – Lemay, an early enrollee, was one of the stars of Georgia’s lauded recruiting class.

Kentucky: Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith. In all likelihood, Newton will start the season opener against Western Kentucky. He’s still undergoing a bit of a competition this spring with Smith, a true freshman who enrolled in January. Smith is more of a pocket passer than is Newton, and in a sense replaces the role previously held by Ryan Mossakowski, who transferred after not breaking into the rotation over his first two seasons. Newton’s athletic ability, even if he’s still growing as a passer, gives him an edge.

L.S.U.: Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger. Those expecting Mettenberger to arrive on campus and grab the starting role this spring will be disappointed: early returns find Jefferson solidifying his grasp on the starting role and Lee, once again, sitting in the primary reserve role. In hindsight, this really isn’t altogether surprising; Mettenberger, despite lighting up junior college defenses, remains an unproven commodity on this level of play. There’s still plenty of time for him to make his mark, however, and Mettenberger’s talent level gives L.S.U. good depth at the position.

Mississippi: Randall Mackey, Nathan Stanley and Barry Brunetti. No other SEC program has a more unsettled quarterback situation. There’s Stanley, last season’s projected starter prior to Jeremiah Masoli’s late arrival on campus. There’s Brunetti, the West Virginia transfer who applied for an N.C.A.A. waiver to be eligible for immediate action. Then there’s Mackey, last season’s junior college transfer who, by recent accounts, has pulled away slightly from the competition. Mackey might be the most physically gifted, but the battle is far from won: Houston Nutt might name a starter this spring, but I can’t imagine this competition being officially over until closer to September.

Mississippi State: Chris Relf and Tyler Russell. It was thought, about a year ago this time, that Russell – then a redshirt freshman – had a distinct shot at leapfrogging Relf on the depth chart. Relf held off Russell then, held off Russell again in August and performed well enough in his first full season in the starting lineup to nearly guarantee that he’ll remain the starter in 2011. One thing to watch, however: Russell is the starter in 2012 and beyond, so Dan Mullen might want to get him into the mix even more so than he did in 2009, when Russell attempted 67 passes with 5 touchdowns.

South Carolina: Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw. For the third time in five years, Garcia will miss at least a portion of Carolina’s spring practice. His absence gives Shaw, the future at the position, a chance at unseating the senior as U.S.C. prepares for a B.C.S. run. I wouldn’t bet on that happening, not this year, not when so much is at stake and with Garcia beginning to come into his own in 2010. What U.S.C. does have at quarterback, however, are two viable options. Steve Spurrier has the best quarterback situation – in terms of depth – in the SEC.

Tennessee: Tyler Bray and Matt Simms. As noted over the weekend, Bray’s development has U.T. offensive coordinator Jim Chaney breaking out the entire playbook, something he was unable to do during Bray’s freshman campaign. Bray’s progression is key to Tennessee’s overall success on the offensive side of the ball, though the Volunteers still need to address issues along the offensive line. With Simms in place, U.T. has a capable backup option but not necessarily a quarterback who can win games with consistency on the SEC level.

Vanderbilt: Larry Smith and a cast of contenders. Smith’s one of 11 starters returning on the Vanderbilt offense — yes, the entire offense is back in 2011. That will give James Franklin a nice base of talent to work with, even if he needs to overhaul the system. Smith will face competition for his starting role from Jordan Rodgers, but the junior might not be back at full health until the end of the spring. The Commodores also add three quarterback recruits in the fall, but don’t expect the newcomers to factor heavily into the mix under center.

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  1. [...] it’s not as prevalent as Mark Richt’s hot seat, this one’s officially got legs, folks. I don’t think the argument is about which SEC team has the best [...]

  2. dabear says:

    I believe that Brunetti has not yet received the waiver. Only Lockett has received news from the NCAA. Lockett has received a sixth year.

    Paul: Yes, you are correct. Supposedly there was a nice video from Kyle Veazey showing Lockett when he heard the news about the sixth year, would love to see that.

  3. [...] Read more of “The SEC’s Quarterback Crop” on PreSnapRead.com 4.6.11 [...]

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