First and 10: After an incredible QB run, the SEC is in major flux in 2023
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
The best conference in college football, the great unknown at the most important position in college football.
Rarely, if ever, in the SEC’s 2-decade dominance of the sport has there been a season with so much instability at quarterback. Spring practice is less than 6 weeks away for some, and there are all of 4 unquestioned starters among the 14 teams.
Everyone else is transitioning to a new starter, or still developing those who played last season. At the top of the list of QB uncertainty: 2-time defending national champion Georgia and dethroned king Alabama.
“This day and age, if guys can leave whenever they want, you have to make sure you have enough guys at every position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last month.
Bodies won’t be the problem. Talented, experienced bodies — the lack thereof — is where this offseason begins.
So what better time for our annual pre-spring ranking of the SEC quarterback rooms: 4 tiers, 4 distinct levels of play and expected performance.
Competition will begin in spring practice and continue for many throughout the offseason and into fall camp. Jobs will not be won in spring practice because declaring a winner leaves the roster vulnerable to programs searching for starters.
Two key things to remember:
— The transfer portal opens again on May 1 for 15 days and is a final opportunity for players to announce their intention to play for another team in 2023. Players must be in the portal by May 15 to be eligible to play in the 2023 season (unless by extenuating circumstances appeal).
— Players have 1 free transfer. If a player has already used his 1 transfer, moving again to another school will cost him a year of eligibility and he won’t play until 2024 —- unless he moves as a graduate transfer, in which case he would be immediately eligible.
Level 1, Championship
The room: Carson Beck (Redshirt Jr.), Brock Vandagriff (R-So.), Gunner Stockton (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Beck probably could’ve started 2 years ago, and the results more than likely would’ve been close to, if not the same, in Athens.
He has more physical and arm talent than Stetson Bennett, but does he have the moxie and intangibles that made Bennett so dangerous in big games? He’ll have better talent at wide receiver than Bennett had, and the offensive line will essentially be the same (even with changes).
This is his time, and why he stayed 3 seasons as a backup — when he could’ve transferred almost anywhere and played.
Vandagriff and Stockton will compete for the backup job, and the loser could transfer — especially if Stockton clearly wins the backup job.
The room: Jayden Daniels (R-Sr.), Garrett Nussmeier (R-So.), Rickie Collins (Fr.).
The skinny: It’s hard to argue against Daniels. He significantly improved as a thrower in the second half of the season, and he can stress a defense with his legs in the run game and with off-schedule scrambles.
You don’t walk away from a quarterback who accounted for 18 TDs (8 rush) and only 2 INT over the last 8 games and led the team to the SEC Championship Game. He’ll only get better in his 2nd season under OC/QBs coach Mike Denbrock.
Nussmeier is the better pure thrower and will press Daniels for the job. LSU coach Brian Kelly has a delicate situation: If he names Daniels the starter, Nussmeier could leave and start for any number of SEC teams.
That would leave LSU with Daniels and Collins, a true freshman 4-star signee.
The room: Joe Milton III (R-Sr.), Nico Iamaleava (Fr.)., Gaston Moore (R-Jr.).
The skinny: How does Vols coach Josh Heupel avoid playing Milton? Forget, for a moment, about Iamaleava and that ridiculous $8 million (allegedly) NIL deal.
Milton played Clemson’s top-10 defense in the Orange Bowl and completed 68 percent of his passes for 251 yards and 3 TDs without a turnover. It doesn’t matter what Milton did (or didn’t do) in the past at Tennessee and Michigan.
Focus on the now: He’s playing well, and the locker room absolutely loves him and is fueled by his leadership. He’s only going to get better under Heupel, who made Hendon Hooker a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Iamaleava — who has a ton of talent — will have to blow away the staff in spring practice, offseason work and fall camp to win the job.
2. The now, and the future
Level 2, Elite potential
The room: Devin Leary (R-Sr.), Kaiya Sheron (So.), Destin Wade (So.), Deuce Hogan (R-So.).
The skinny: Leary had a fantastic season at NC State in 2021 (program-record 35 TDs, 5 INTs), then got hurt midway through 2022 when a struggling offensive line couldn’t consistently protect. He’s UK’s starter in 2023, and with OC Liam Coen returning from his brief move to the NFL, could have a monster season with 2 elite WRs (Dane Key, and Barion Brown).
The only questions: Who wants to stay as a backup and who transfers?
The room: Conner Weigman (So.), Max Johnson (Sr.), Marcell Reed (Fr.).
The skinny: Weigman was strong in 4 starts to finish the season, and was 2-2 in those games — wins over UMass and LSU, and losses (by 3 points each) to Ole Miss and Auburn.
There’s little doubt he is the starter moving forward, no matter what Johnson — the former starter before injury — does in spring practice. Weigman has elite potential.
Johnson already used his free transfer (from LSU), but if he graduates prior to the start of the 2023 season, he could transfer again and play as a graduate transfer.
The room: KJ Jefferson (R-Sr.), Jacolby Criswell (R-Jr.), Kade Renfro (R-Fr.).
The skinny: New OC/QBs coach Dan Enos inherits a quarterback (Jefferson) who has a TD/INT ratio of 45/9 over the past 2 seasons and has rushed for 1,304 yards and 15 TDs over that span.
Jefferson has done it all for the Hogs but hasn’t yet been a consistent big-game player who makes critical throws in games that matter. It’s time to take the next step.
Criswell, a former 4-star recruit, transferred in from North Carolina, where he wasn’t going to play behind Drake Maye.
The room: Spencer Rattler (R-Sr.), Luke Doty (Sr.), Tanner Bailey (R-Fr.).
The skinny: As fun as it was to watch Rattler find himself in the last 3 games of the season, let’s not forget where it was before that remarkable run of success: 8 TDs, 9 INTs.
A week before the top-5 wins over Tennessee and Clemson, the South Carolina offense didn’t score a point and had 237 total yards in a 38-6 loss to Florida.
Rattler played the last 3 games of the season (including the Gator Bowl loss to Notre Dame) like the quarterback who led Oklahoma to the Big 12 title in 2020 — and had NFL scouts talking about No. 1 overall pick potential.
Doty is a serviceable backup.
The room: Jalen Milroe (R-So.), Ty Simpson (R-Fr.), Eli Holstein (Fr.), Dylan Lonergan (Fr.).
The skinny: Much of what happens here will depend on the new OC/QBs coach who replaces Bill O’Brien, and where Nick Saban and the new OC want to take the offense.
Does it stay more pass-oriented, or is there a move back toward more of a run threat at the position? Milroe showed last season that he’s dangerous as a dual-threat, but can he be a consistent thrower?
He completed 58 percent of his passes in 2022, and when Alabama needed a big 3rd down throw during his 1 start against Texas A&M, it was hit and miss — which is typical for most young quarterbacks.
A former 5-star recruit, Simpson was impressive on the scout team in 2022, and by the end of the season with Bryce Young continuing to absorb punishment, was getting important practice snaps.
It’s different when you’re running the first team and trying to win a job. But Simpson is probably the favorite.
Don’t be shocked if the Tide adds a quarterback from the portal, and/or 1 of the current 4 on the roster transfers.
3. Too much uncertainty
Level 3, Game managers
The room: Will Rogers (Sr.), Mike White (Jr.).
The skinny: The Bulldogs lost 3 quarterbacks to the portal but picked up a critical transfer in White — 1 of the few bright spots on the Vanderbilt offense the past 2 years.
But this is Rogers’ team, and the only question is how he transitions from Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme to new OC/QB coach Kevin Barbay.
Rogers had a TD/INT ratio of 82/24 in Leach’s QB-friendly system, and Barbay’s isn’t that much different. If anything, the increased emphasis on the run game (think: North Carolina) will protect Rogers and give the offense the ability to convert 3rd-and-short without throwing the ball.
The room: Jaxson Dart (Jr.), Spencer Sanders (R-Sr.), Walker Howard (R-Fr.).
The skinny: The most intriguing room in the SEC. Dart played well at times in 2022, but Ole Miss lost 5 of 6 to finish the season.
Don’t think Spencer Sanders left Oklahoma State and signed with Ole Miss — and not Florida or Auburn — to sit. Unless Dart (or Howard) responds with a big spring, Sanders will likely be the Ole Miss starter.
Dart and Howard are former top-100 recruits, and Howard signed with Ole Miss — and, again, not Florida or Auburn — because he was told the job was wide open. No matter who wins the job, the room likely is set with no further transfer movement this year.
4. This could get ugly
Level 4, Disaster avoidance
The room: Brady Cook (R-Jr.), Sam Horn (R-Fr.), Jake Garcia (R-So.).
The skinny: Cook is serviceable, and at times, has played well enough to lead an upset (see: Arkansas). But is he the long-term answer?
A blue-chip recruit last year, Horn didn’t throw a pass until his only 2 throws late in a nonconference November rout of New Mexico State. Horn got good work in 15 bowl practices, and this year will get his first 15 spring practices.
Then there’s Miami transfer Jake Garcia, who played extensively last year while starter Tyler Van Dyke was hurt and ineffective. He had 5 TDs and 4 INTs, and completed 60 percent of his passes.
Any of the 3 could win the starting job.
The room: Graham Mertz (R-Sr.), Jack Miller (R-Jr.), Max Brown (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Of all the quarterbacks Gators coach Billy Napier could’ve landed from the portal, he signed as big an enigma as his previous quarterback (Anthony Richardson) — minus the arm talent and dynamic ability.
Mertz had 7 TDs and 0 INTs in his first 2 starts at Wisconsin in 2020 and had 31 TDs and 26 INTs since. He has completed more than 60 percent of his passes once in 3 years as a starter.
Miller was thrown into a difficult situation against Oregon State (numerous opt-outs, limited prep time), and it showed. He could improve over 15 spring practices, or maybe Brown — a project recruit — makes a big leap.
The Gators will still likely try to land another quarterback from the portal after spring practice.
The room: Robby Ashford (R-So.), Holden Geriner (R-Fr.), Hank Brown (Fr.).
The skinny: The good news is Ashford can stress defenses with his legs (710 yards rushing, 7 TDs). The bad news: He has deficiencies in the passing game (7 TDs, 7 INTs, 49.2 completion percentage).
Geriner is a former 4-star recruit, and Brown, a 2023 signee, wasn’t ranked nationally by the 247Sports composite. First-year coach Hugh Freeze is desperate for an impact quarterback from the portal, and the Tigers will get 1 more shot at it after spring practice.
The room: AJ Swann (So.), Ken Seals (R-Jr.), Drew Dickey (R-Fr.), Walter Taylor (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Swann played so well last year, he forced Wright, who started the season, to leave (Mississippi State). The key moving forward is Seals staying after spring practice.
He’ll compete with Swann, but if he doesn’t win the job, he’s a candidate for the transfer portal — especially with extended starting experience (2020-21) in the SEC.
5. The Weekly 5
Texas A&M’s 2023 national championship odds and 5 things it will take to reach the Playoff:
1. Harmony between the potentially volatile mix of 2 big, strong personalities: coach Jimbo Fisher and OC Bob Petrino.
2. A big Year 2 jump from QB Conner Weigman.
3. A replacement for all-purpose TB Devon Achane. Is former top-100 recruit LeVeon Moss ready?
4. Blue-chip DL recruits from 2021-22 must play at their potential.
5. Time for WR Moose Muhammad III to play like a No. 1 receiver. He’s too talented to not be among the best in college football.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez.
“You’re going to have to do your due diligence on why he was suspended, and was it an isolated incident or were there more problems in his time there? Every team will have to make that choice when it comes to risk vs. value. On the field, he’s going top push a pile, and he’s a lot faster than you think and he’s got some wiggle. He has nice, soft hands in the pass game, and is a load to take down when he’s in space.
“I expect him to light it up at the Senior Bowl; he’s going to turn some heads. He doesn’t have that explosion, but he has great feet and feel when he sees that crease, he plants that foot and goes. And he’s bringing some power behind it.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: nonconference series I’d love to see.
1. Georgia: Florida State. Give FSU coach Mike Norvell 2 more years, and he might make this interesting.
2. Alabama: Clemson. We want it home and home. Desperately.
3. Tennessee: Virginia Tech. Play it on campus — not Bristol Motor Speedway.
4. LSU: Michigan. Forget about bowl games, it’s not the same as LSU strutting into Michigan Stadium.
5. Mississippi State: Washington State. The Leach series.
6. Ole Miss: USC. Lane Kiffin vs. Lincoln Riley. Kiffin vs. his old school, Riley vs. the conference he avoided by taking USC job.
7. South Carolina: Penn State. Imagine that loud Garnett shining through the White Out in Happy Valley.
8. Kentucky: West Virginia. Two hard-working, blue-collar programs. The perfect fit.
9. Arkansas: TCU. Former Southwest Conference rivals.
10. Florida: Ohio State. Florida in the Shoe, Buckeyes in The Swamp. Heaven.
11. Missouri: Illinois. I can’t wait 4 years. Play it now.
12. Auburn: Miami. Hugh Freeze craves a game in South Florida (see: recruiting).
13. Texas A&M: Oregon. The Aggies in the madhouse that is Autzen Stadium? Giddyup.
14. Vanderbilt: California. Yeah, there’s the academic connection. So what?
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Stetson Bennett was arrested for public intoxication in Dallas. How will this affect his (NFL) draft stock? Is that something teams even care about? — Franklin Jackson, Mobile, Ala.
First and foremost, there’s a heightened awareness among NFL franchises in regards to a player, or potential players, running afoul of the law. There’s too much money on the line, and draft picks are too valuable, to not have an exact off-field record of any potential draft pick.
The problem for Bennett: He already has significant questions about his physical ability to play in the NFL, and adding more off-field questions doesn’t help. This charge, no matter how insignificant you may think it is, reveals decision-making. And frankly, reckless decision-making.
Bennett knows everyone is watching his every move. He knows any problem off the field will be magnified because of who he is and the steep climb he will have to make to play in the NFL. He can’t give franchises more reason to pass. I assure you, that’s the first thing he was told by his agent.
Yet, according to police reports, he found himself stepping in it, anyway, publicly intoxicated and knocking on doors at 6 a.m. It’s not a good look — and it forces teams to question the idea of using 1 of 53 valuable roster spots on a quarterback (the most important position on the field) who makes poor decisions when he knows the spotlight is on him.
3. Top priority for the new Alabama defensive coordinator: Make Dallas Turner disruptive off the edge again. By the end of 2021, Turner looked (and played) like Alabama’s next elite pass rusher.
After getting 8.5 sacks in 2021 as a freshman, Turner had sacks in 3 of 13 games in 2022: Texas A&M (2), LSU (1.5), and Mississippi State (.5). LSU freshman Harold Perkins became the SEC’s top young force off the edge in 2022, with 7.5 sacks, 14 QBH, 4 FF and 1 INT.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel: “Our players are the people who deserve all of the credit for our resurgence. Over the last 2 years, they believed in us and poured their energy into every single day.”