SEC Preview: Manziel Ranks Atop League’s QBs

Surprise, surprise: Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, tops the SEC’s best QBs countdown. Mandatory Credit: Soonum Im – USA TODAY Sports

The SEC features star-power at the top of its QBs list, highlighted by the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and the quarterback of the back-to-back national champions. The lack of clarity in the middle of the list, though, shows how much fluctuation is possible toward the middle of the league. There will be at least three new starting QBs in the SEC in 2013 with the possibility of as many as five opening day triggermen.

Here is our countdown of the top QBs in the SEC:

 

1.      Johnny Manziel – Texas A&M

When you win the Heisman Trophy, your name gets listed first everywhere. That’s one of the perks of winning the sport’s biggest award. Of course, accounting for more than 5,000 yards of total offense and 47 TDs, it doesn’t hurt your cause. Manziel helped the Aggies to a stunning 11-2 season capped by an upset win at eventual national champion Alabama and a dominant Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Manziel meshes great burst and escapability with a strong, accurate arm and enough cunning to know when to take off and run or when to hit a receiver downfield after eluding defenders behind the line. No defensive coordinator will sleep well the night before facing a healthy Manziel this year for fear of being the next chapter in The Legend of Johnny Football.

2.      Aaron Murray – Georgia

It’s easy to forget that Murray led the Bulldogs to within 5 yards – or, perhaps, one play – of an SEC Championship Game win over Alabama. Not only is Murray the most dangerous pure pocket passer in the league, he also possesses the type of supporting cast that can put together a sequel better than the original. Murray threw for 3,893 yards and 36 TDs a year ago. He paid for one horrifyingly bad performance – an 11-for-31, 109-yard, no-TD showing in a 35-7 loss at South Carolina – and a just-good-enough game in a win over Florida. The rest of Murray’s season was a showcase in brilliance. Make no mistake: Murray is perfectly capable of being No. 1 on this list by season’s end.

3.      A.J. McCarron – Alabama

One can make the case that McCarron is the counter to the product of the system. It’s hard to doubt the rising senior’s ability. When called upon, McCarron has always come through for Alabama, which has won back-to-back titles under his watch. When it comes to statistics, McCarron is more steady than sensational. He threw 30 TDs compared to just three INTs last year and never had the crippling performances that cost his team a shot at a title – all while breaking in a talented-but-green receiving corps. At the same time, few have the cast of highly sought, five-star recruits up and down the roster. McCarron is undoubtedly the most underappreciated quarterback on the list, but it’s difficult to put him ahead of either of the statistically superior signal-callers at the top.

4.      Connor Shaw – South Carolina

Ironically, after making the case for Murray and Manziel ahead of McCarron, the next QB on the list earns his spot based on the good ol’ eye test. Shaw’s numbers can’t compare to the next man on the list, but his grittiness is a big reason why South Carolina has won 11 games in consecutive seasons. Like McCarron, Shaw’s value to the team can’t be measured entirely in statistics, but rather in impact plays such as third downs. If it makes Ole Miss fans feel better, they can think about this as “South Carolina QBs” rather than strictly Connor Shaw, since QB2 Dylan Thompson has proven himself capable in case of emergency – or in case of a Steve Spurrier hissy-fit. Classifying Shaw as the dreaded “game-manager” would be a miscast. He has too much accuracy and too much ability to pick up a critical first down with his feet to wear such a dubious label. But don’t expect Shaw’s numbers to put him on any Heisman finalist lists by midseason, either.

5.      Bo Wallace – Ole Miss

Wallace proved to be the perfect triggerman to help coach Hugh Freeze bring respectability and excitement to Oxford during his debut season. Perhaps no quarterback in the SEC provides a greater range of emotions than Wallace, who is equally capable of throwing an 80-yard TD bomb or a back-breaking interception. And perhaps no quarterback east of College Station, Texas is more exciting to watch. Wallace’s upside could easily propel him further toward the top of this list this season, but the inconsistency keeps him below the steadier Shaw. With Freeze calling the shots, Wallace will have plenty of chances to air it out and to tuck and run. He excels at both, as evidenced by his 2,994 passing yards, 22 passing TDs and eight rushing TDs. The Rebels would certainly appreciate an improvement on his 17 interceptions – 11 of which came in Ole Miss’ six losses.

6.      Zach Mettenberger – LSU

Many of Mettenberger’s struggles in 2012 were not of his own doing. His receivers dropped passes seemingly by the dozens and his makeshift offensive line proved far more capable as run-blockers than as pass protectors. But there was still plenty of unsteadiness in Mettenberger performances – specifically three consecutive games in the middle of the season in which he failed to complete 50 percent of his passes. It should be pointed out that the Tigers managed to win two of those three games. Former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron joined the LSU coaching staff this year and will provide fresh perspective for Mettenberger, who seems to have all the tools but – in 2012, at least – lack the coolness needed to be a championship quarterback. A year to make the entire offense should serve Mettenberger well.

7.      James Franklin – Missouri

There are plenty of fans in Columbia, Mo. who question whether Franklin ever truly recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. That conclusion, at least, provides the easiest answers to the most curious regression in the SEC last year. Franklin has now had a full year to recover from the surgery – and several months to overcome other various injuries incurred in 2012. Mizzou fans hope Franklin will reward them by returning to 2011 form, when he looked to be the next in line of standout QBs produced by coach Gary Pinkel. As a sophomore, Franklin passed for 2,865 yards and 21 TDs (against just 11 INTs) while also rushing for 981 yards and 15 more TDs. However, the transition to the SEC proved difficult for Franklin. Whether acclimating to SEC defenses, getting over injury or both served as the true primary issue, Franklin never appeared right as a junior. In limited action, he threw for just 1,562 yards and 10 TDs (as opposed to 7 INTs) and ran for just 122 yards while failing to find the end-zone. Talent alone keeps Franklin in the middle of the pack. Missouri desperately needs him to live up to his considerable ability to compete in the SEC in 2013.

8.      Tyler Russell – Mississippi State

If the 2012 season would have been two games shorter, Russell would likely appear at least a few notches above his current ranking. But it’s really hard to scrap those two performances in losses to Ole Miss and Northwestern from memory. Russell went a combined 30-for-61 in those games, throwing three TDs against six INTs. Ironically – at least for anyone who watched either or all of those games – opposing defenses intercepted Russell just 10 times all year. Russell’s solid – and borderline stellar – play helped Mississippi State make waves with its 7-0 start. The Bulldogs, however, dropped five of their final six to end the season. Statistically, Russell might be underrated on this list. He did throw for 2,897 yards and 24 TDs. However, the second half of the State schedule featured all of the teams that turned out to be even remotely good and Russell did not fare well down the stretch.

9.      Jalen Whitlow/Maxwell Smith – Kentucky

Maxwell Smith showed promise as the Wildcats QB before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. However, Jalen Whitlow staked his claim for QB1 during spring practice and some think he has the edge entering August. If Whitlow truly is ahead of Smith in the QB race, it bodes well for Kentucky because it means the Wildcats have a couple good gunslingers. New offensive coordinator Neal Brown knows how to develop QBs, having engineered prolific passing attacks at Texas Tech and Troy. Brown is a rising star in the coaching ranks and seemingly has weapons to help him continue his assent.

10.  Jeff Driskel – Florida

Gators fans could probably go either way on this one: On the one hand, Driskel was QB1 for a team that went 11-2 with a Sugar Bowl appearance; He also got there on the back of a formidable run game and powerhouse defense. Driskel finds himself so far (too far?) down this list because he managed to crack the 200-yard passing total just twice all year. He did have some big performances, such as his 4-TD effort in a blowout win over South Carolina and a 177-rushing yard, 3-rushing TD performance at Vanderbilt. But the Gators never showed any real ability to play from behind because the passing game never quite seemed in sync. An erratic passing attack also helped underdogs such as Bowling Green, Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette threaten upsets. In the case of both Missouri and the Ragin’ Cajuns, it took excellent defensive efforts to save Florida.

11.  Austyn Carta-Samuels/Patton Robinette – Vanderbilt

We have reached the portion of this countdown where there is so little actual information on the QB situation that analysis is more speculation than educated guess. Carta-Samuels, the presumed favorite, at least has some Division I experience on his way to Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors at Wyoming. He left after Brett Smith beat him out for the job. Coach James Franklin has shown an ability to win with what he has and helped elevate Jordan Rodgers’ game over the past two seasons.

12.  Nick Marshall/Kiehl Frazier/Jonathan Wallace – Auburn

Let’s make this clear: Malzahn’s presence alone keeps Auburn off the bottom of this list. It is altogether possible that Auburn’s 2013 QB1 has not yet taken a snap on campus. That makes it rather difficult to project too much faith in the position – at least, certainly, what we know of the two returning options. Neither Frazier nor Wallace appeared to be SEC-caliber QBs in 2012. Wallace, a true freshman, led Auburn to wins over New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. He also failed to lead the Tigers into the end-zone in shutout losses to Georgia and Alabama. Frazier opened the season as QB1 and struggled in Scot Loeffler’s pro-style offense from the start. He threw just two TDs on his way to eight INTs. The highly sought high-school recruit never looked comfortable and couldn’t even get going in the run game despite his athleticism. At least Frazier reunites with Malzahn, who recruited him to Auburn. Frazier essentially ran Malzahn’s offense at his Arkansas high school on his way to All-America honors. Marshall is the X-factor. The junior-college-transfer started his career as a Georgia defensive back. He did not enroll for the spring semester, so he won’t make his practice debut until August. Still, the murkiness of the QB situation gives Marshall a real shot to win the job. JUCO transfers don’t typically choose schools without assurances of their chance to become QB1 and Marshall chose the Tigers over Kansas State and Baylor.

13.  Brandon Allen – Arkansas

Allen was tabbed QB1 after spring practice, seemingly because of his ability to avoid critical turnovers. That probably tells you everything you need to know about converted WR Brandon Mitchell, who enters August as QB2 and will almost certainly be utilized in the offense. The good news for Allen, or whichever Brandon lines up under center, is that first-year coach Bret Bielema prefers pounding the ball at opponents rather than gunning all over the field. At Wisconsin, at least, Bielema wanted to beat opposing defenses into submission and then take chances downfield in the play-action game. Commitment to a stable running game goes a long way in the development of any young quarterback and Allen, a sophomore with zero career starts, would certainly fit that description.

14.  Justin Worley/Josh Dobbs/Nathan Peterman – Tennessee

Worley seems the most likely starter, if only because he is the lone QB on the roster with any actual game experience. The Volunteers lost QB Tyler Bray, who went undrafted in the NFL Draft rather than return for his senior season, as well as dynamic WRs Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. Tennessee does, however, return the bulk of its offensive line and at least one of its two leading rushers. (RB Rajion Neal, the leading rusher in 2012, is back for sure and Marlin Lane is currently suspended but seems to be on track to rejoin the team.) Worley is the only QB on the roster with a pass to his credit. He went 15-of-23 last year for 134 yards and two INTs. Dobbs, an incoming freshman, is a fan-favorite, but it’s hard to imagine a true freshman leading the offense from Day 1. Peterman redshirted in 2012 and ranked below Worley on the depth chart throughout spring practice.

Topics: Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Kentucky Wildcats, Louisiana State Tigers, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Missouri Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels, SEC, South Carolina Gamecocks, Tennessee Volunteers, Texas A&M Aggies, Vanderbilt Commodores

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