The 2018 season has been heralded as the season of the SEC quarterback, with several teams returning talented and experience play-makers. This is a paradigm shift for a conference known more for its play at the line-of-scrimmage, but the attention is welcomed by many fans. With that attention, however, comes questions that each quarterback and team must answer for the season ahead.
Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Does it matter who’s the starter?
Jalen Hurts is 26-2 as the starter over the last two years. Tua Tagovailoa won the Alabama Crimson Tide the College Football Playoff Championship in dramatic fashion against the Georgia Bulldogs. Hurts is a better runner. Tua is a more explosive passer. Jalen doesn’t turn the ball over. Tagovailoa is more of a risk-taker. Both could be starters at most schools in the country, but they aren’t at most schools. They’re at Alabama.
Most of the attention surrounding the Crimson Tide this off-season has been about the quarterback battle, and it appears Tua remains the favorite for the job. What’s more important is finding out if it matters. Alabama is typically loaded with talent, but the defense is replacing a lot of players and that could put the Tide in some tough situations.
Does Alabama need Tua’s arm to outscore opponents, or are they good enough this year (like every year) to make it to the Playoff with Hurts’ safer style of play? We will find out soon.
Cole Kelley and Ty Storey, Arkansas
Can either quarterback stretch the field?
There is perhaps no other team in the SEC that overhauls their offensive identity as much as the Arkansas Razorbacks. They move from a ground-and-pound, pro-style offense to the up-tempo, spread style that is the signature of Chad Morris. The one major piece not making that transition is an experienced quarterback, as Austin Allen exhausted his eligibility the season prior.
The Razorbacks have an underrated group of young receivers, and those receivers will get even more opportunities to make plays this year. That is, if a quarterback can get them the ball. Cole Kelley did get some time when Allen was injured last season, but Arkansas still struggled on offense when he played. Ty Storey is the other major contender for the job, but he is less experienced than Kelley.
Whichever quarterback stretches the field the most and unlocks the new passing attack will get the job. Only time will tell who that is, and if he can maintain success.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Will he be better under pressure?
Jarrett Stidham had the highest completion percentage in the SEC last season with 66.49%, and led Auburn to an SEC West title with excellent games against Georgia and Alabama in November. While he was great in those big moments, he struggled during the beginning and end of the season.
The main issue Stidham faced was pressure. Lots of pressure. The Auburn offensive line was great at run blocking, but was seriously challenged when forced into obvious passing situations. At the same time, Stidham was excellent at keeping the offense on schedule, but was quick to get happy feet when the defense started getting closer.
This season, Auburn is rebuilding their offensive line after losing four starters. That does not bode well for Stidham. If Auburn wants to repeat as SEC West champs, Stidham must improve under pressure, because he is going to see more of it.
Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, Florida
Which quarterback is the better mental processor?
The Florida Gators haven’t had a good quarterback since the days of Tim Tebow. The Gator faithful hopes that Dan Mullen can bring those days back to the Swamp. Physical tools have not been the issue, as Feleipe Franks is gifted, listed at 6-foot-6 and 240 lbs. Kyle Trask, meanwhile, is also tall and strong at 6-foot-6, 234 lbs. The question will be what quarterback can pick up the offense the best and can process information.
Franks played in all 11 games last season, but did not play well by any standard. His biggest issue was that he continually stared down receivers and looked lost when his first read was not open. He turned the ball over considerably, and needs to work on going through his progressions in the passing game. Trask faces a different issue: He has yet to start a game in high school or college. His lack of playing time raises major concerns about his ability to scan the field when in live action, and that is something only the coaches at practice can discover.
The return of stellar quarterback play to Gainesville still seems a few seasons away, but the Gators still need someone out there taking snaps. The quarterback who wins the job will be the one who can read the field the best, and the level at which he can do that will determine what Mullen can do with the Gators offense.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
How does he overcome the loss of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb?
Jake Fromm had an all-time great freshman season, leading the Bulldogs to their first National Championship game in decades. Despite a relatively simple gameplan early on, Fromm improved into a great passer and excellent facilitator for the UGA offense. Granted, his job wasn’t hard when he plays in a run-heavy offense and had Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to hand the ball off to.
Jake Fromm with a DIME. What a response pic.twitter.com/PnT8LutHhl— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweetss) January 9, 2018
The question Fromm faces is if he is capable of overcoming the loss of both star running backs. He does have D’Andre Swift, so that helps considerably, but it still doesn’t fully make up for both Chubb and Michel. Fromm is going to have to take more responsibility and be more of a relied-upon play-maker this season. He’s shown he’s on the right track, but he can he take the next step in Georgia’s passing offense?
Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson, Kentucky
Will either quarterback fill the void of Stephen Johnson?
The Kentucky Wildcats have gone 7-6 in back-to-back seasons and the starting QB for all 14 of those victories was Stephen Johnson. He’s gone now and Kentucky must find a new quarterback.
The replacement candidates include sophomore Gunnar Hoak and JUCO (by way of Oregon) transfer Terry Wilson. Hoak is more of a pocket passer and has been at Kentucky for longer, but Wilson is more athletic and fits Johnson’s mold better.
Johnson was a steadying presence for the Wildcats offense the past two years. While he never had a staggering stat-line, his absence leaves a leadership void under center. The Kentucky rushing attack won’t miss much of a beat with the combination of Benny Snell Jr. and a solid offensive line, but the tale of Kentucky’s season will be decided by how the new quarterback (whichever one he is) follows up Stephen Johnson.
Joe Burrow, LSU
Can he unlock the LSU receiving corps’ potential?
Burrow has not officially won the starting quarterback job, but would Ed Orgeron really have brought in the Ohio State transfer if he felt confident with his quarterback room? Not at all. And now two of the four scholarship quarterbacks on LSU’s roster have transferred. Read the tea leaves people.
2018 is shaping up to be a year where the Tigers’ receivers overtake the running back room as the stars of the offense, with a host of young players and the addition of Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles. Regardless of what seems like a solid crop of talent, they still need someone to get them the ball. New offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has expressed a desire to be a more spread-like team, which fits Burrow’s skillset and his Urban Meyer roots. Without any meaningful college playing time however, there’s no telling if Burrow is an improvement over Danny Etling.
With a tough schedule against several excellent defenses and the absence of a known commodity at running back, the Tigers need to be able to imitate the days of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Can Joe Burrow be the Zach Mettenberger of that crew?
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Is he fully healthy?
Fitzgerald sustained a nasty ankle injury in the Egg Bowl last season, bringing a productive season to a tragic end. Now with new head coach Joe Moorhead, there is a lot of optimism around Mississippi State. There is also optimism about Fitzgerald’s return and his fit within the new offense, which will have him throw downfield more than previous seasons.
While it is important for Fitzgerald to take a step as a passer to open up the offense, the real question is about his health and if he is truly back to full form. Fitzgerald’s game is centered around his athleticism and rushing ability. When healthy, he is the best rushing quarterback in the SEC and one of the best in the country.
For the Mississippi State offense to be successful with Fitzgerald, he must be 100% healthy to maximize his skill set. If he is not healthy, there will be limitations to what the Bulldogs are capable of both on offense and in the win column.
Drew Lock, Missouri
Is he more than a system quarterback?
Drew Lock led the nation and set a single-season SEC record for touchdown passes with 44, and also led the conference in passing yards. His downfield passing prowess helped lead Missouri to a six-game winning streak and 7-5 regular season record. To cap it all off, he decided to return for his senior season with the hope that Missouri can compete at an even higher level and he can improve his NFL Draft stock.
History in the SEC.— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 24, 2017
Drew Lock sets the single-season passing touchdown record with his 41st TD of the year. pic.twitter.com/OAtAJbjade
Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel left for the vacant UCF job in the offseason however, and took his high-octane system with him. Head coach Barry Odom replaced him with Derek Dooley, a man who has literally never called plays before. Dooley’s offense doesn’t look drastically different from Heupel’s, but it allows Lock the opportunity to prove he is not a system quarterback.
During Lock’s freshman season, in a different offense, he posted a completion percentage of 49 percent and only 5.07 yards per attempt. When Heupel came to town, his numbers jumped up to 54.6 percent and 7.83 yards per attempt. The numbers jumped again in his second year in Heupel’s system, moving to 57.8 percent and 9.46 yards per attempt. He’s improved drastically over his three years, but the offensive system that brought him success is gone now.
Drew Lock is the key for Missouri to win games, and now he is working in a new offense that is being built from the ground up by Dooley. If Lock can prove his success is not tailored to an offensive system, he can win Missouri some games singlehandedly. If not, Missouri is in trouble.
Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss
Can he supplement the run game?
Ole Miss had the best passing offense in the SEC in 2017 with 328.42 yards per game, starting the season behind the arm of Shea Patterson. When he went down against LSU Jordan Ta’amu came in and took the 3-4 Rebels to a 3-2 finish, including a win over Egg Bowl rival Mississippi State. Now that Patterson has transferred, Ta’amu is poised to be the trigger-man in an explosive offense for the whole season.
Everyone in the conference knows Ole Miss is going to throw it all over the yard, but a bigger question is how the Rebels will cope with the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins. Wilkins was the first consistent ground threat the Rebels had in years and made life much easier on the quarterback, but now there is concern there may not be another running back that can replicate that production.
Ta’amu will be successful throwing to A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and the other talented Ole Miss receivers; that much is almost guaranteed. He will have to contribute in the run game to supplement to loss of Wilkins. The extent at which he is able to do that will dictate how truly explosive the Rebels’ offense can be. And as everyone knows, Ole Miss lives and dies by its offense.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina
Can he cut down on the turnovers?
Jake Bentley lit it up as a freshman in 2016, after being inserted into the lineup late in the season. In 2017 he threw for 2,794 yards and led the Gamecocks to a 9-4 record, including an Outback Bowl win over Michigan.
Despite a winning season, Bentley struggled as the year went on. This was partly due to the loss of All-SEC-caliber wide receiver Deebo Samuel only three games into the season. With Deebo down the offense needed more sparks and Bentley began to press. That summoned a wave of turnovers, including eight interceptions in the last five games. Among them, a pick-six against rival Clemson.
South Carolina has received some hype as a dark horse SEC Championship team this off-season, but the only way for that to happen is if Bentley can stay on the field. On a defensively-driven team, Bentley cannot afford to limit his offense’s chances to score.
If Bentley cuts down on turnovers, South Carolina can have a special season. If not, it’s just another Will Muschamp team.
Keller Chryst and Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
Can either provide stability?
Jarrett Guarantano played for much of the latter half of the 2017 season for the Volunteers. He showed flashes, but lacked any sort of consistency in Tennessee’s struggling offense. Keller Chryst comes to Knoxville via transfer from Stanford, and is battling with Guarantano for the starting job. Chryst is 11-2 as a starter at Stanford, but was not overly impressive on the field during that time.
Tennessee is going through a coaching change and program overhaul, and the thing the Volunteers need most is stability at quarterback. That, more than any splash plays, will be the trait that determines the Tennessee starting quarterback. It will also determine if the Tennessee offense improves at all this season.
Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
How to the quarterbacks adapt to the new pro-style system?
Texas A&M has been known for the wide open, pass-heavy offenses of Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin. Now, Kevin Sumlin is out and Jimbo Fisher brings his tough philosophy to College Station. The offense itself will be a mashup of styles, as he is forced to operate his pro-style system with spread players.
Both Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond saw significant time last season, and both quarterbacks had their ups and downs. Starkel is a better downfield passer, but Mond provides significantly more athletic upside. Fisher puts a lot of pressure on his quarterbacks and how each quarterback adapts to his new offensive system and philosophy will determine who can handle the starting job for Jimbo Fisher.
Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
Can he carry a rebuilt receiving corps?
Shurmur took a big jump in his junior season, after being relatively unspectacular his sophomore year. He threw a single-season school record for touchdown passes with 26, and with continuity in the offensive system there is reason for hope. The biggest hurdle he faces however, is an overhauled receiving corps.
Of all the wide receivers, Kalija Lipscomb is the only one with more than ten career receptions. This is a major unknown for the passing attack, and it could be either a blessing or a curse. The staff is high on the young talent, but it lacks experience and that could prove detrimental.
Shurmur needs to develop chemistry with the young receiving corps early and will likely have to carry them for at least the early part of the season. His ability to do that is the most important question Vanderbilt faces in its goal to score points.