Our SEC Football Countdown continues this week with a look at the league’s best quarterbacks for 2019. But first, like a less morbid Oscars-style In Memorium, let’s glance back at the quarterbacks who have departed since the end of the 2018 season. We bid thee a fond farewell …
DREW LOCK, Missouri … Denver Broncos, second-round draft pick
The four-year starter finally got his signature win last fall at Florida and finished his career among the most prolific SEC quarterbacks of all time: No. 2 in passing yards, No. 3 in completions and No. 3 in touchdown passes.
JALEN HURTS, Alabama … transferred to Oklahoma
All he did was help lead the Tide to four playoff appearances and two SEC championships. He leaves the SEC ranked ninth in career passer rating, ahead of the likes of Peyton and Eli Manning, Dak Prescott and Lock.
JARRETT STIDHAM, Auburn … New England Patriots, fourth-round draft pick
The former Baylor QB had a solid two-year run with the Tigers but it’s fair to say he fell short of expectations last fall.
KYLE SHURMUR, Vanderbilt … Kansas City Chiefs, undrafted free agent
He threw for 50 touchdowns the last two seasons and saved his best for a quietly good senior season.
NICK FITZGERALD, Mississippi State … Tampa Bay Buccaneers, undrafted free agent
Only accounted for 9,814 yards of passing and rushing and 101 touchdowns in four years in Starkville.
JORDAN TA’AMU, Ole Miss … undrafted
Did you know the junior college transfer led the SEC with 326.5 passing yards per game last year?
Now, back to the Countdown. Here are your best quarterbacks in the SEC for the 2019 season, starting at the bottom …
10. KEYTAON THOMPSON, Mississippi State
Thompson looks like a breakout star … except for the fact that Penn State’s Tommy Stevens has transferred to Starkville to reunite with MSU coach Joe Moorhead, his former coordinator in the Big Ten. There’s a lot to like about Thompson’s small sample size last season: He only completed 46 percent of his passes but threw six touchdowns to one interception in just 39 attempts — most of those in the opener against Stephen F. Austin when Fitzgerald was suspended — but the upside is impossible to miss.
9. JARRETT GUARANTANO, Tennessee
You can see the glimpses. He made clutch, winning plays in wins over Auburn and Kentucky. He set a team record with 166 consecutive passes without an interception. His three INTs were the fewest for a Vols starter since 1972. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes, just a few tenths behind Lock and better than four players ranked higher on this list. But he also threw for only 12 touchdowns and got pummeled in the pocket and finished with negative rushing yards in nine of 12 games. Now he’s playing for a fourth coordinator in four years in Jim Chaney, who might be able to unlock more production from the junior starter.
8. TERRY WILSON, Kentucky
Here’s the good: The former junior college transfer completed 67 percent of his passes and added 547 rushing yards as UK’s second-leading rusher. He also helped lead UK to its first 10-win season since 1977. Now the bad: He threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (eight) and posted an ordinary passer rating (133.9). Sometimes it seemed the Wildcats were winning games despite mediocre play at quarterback, thanks to All-SEC running back Benny Snell and a stifling defense.
7. JOE BURROW, LSU
The Ohio State transfer brought some much-needed stability to the quarterback position in Baton Rouge and for that alone Burrow might deserve a higher spot on this list. He was at his best in LSU’s final game, throwing for 394 yards and four touchdowns against Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. Burrow only threw 16 touchdowns, but there’s something to be said for being the QB on a team that beat Miami, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and UCF.
6. JAKE BENTLEY, South Carolina
On the surface there’s a lot to like about the three-year starter. He completed 62 percent of his passes last year and threw for 27 touchdowns. He also led the league with 14 interceptions and owns just one win over a nationally ranked team. The Bentley naysayers were validated last fall when the Gamecocks blew the dust off Michael Scarnecchia against Missouri and the senior backup outplayed Lock in nasty weather. Bentley returned and played well in wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss and threw for 510 yards in a loss to rival Clemson then finished the year with a dud in a 28-0 Belk Bowl loss to Virginia. The Gamecocks signed an intriguing recruit in Ryan Hillinski, a four-star pocket passer who might quickly become a fan favorite if Bentley struggles early.
5. KELLEN MOND, Texas A&M
As a first-year starter for Jimbo Fisher, Mond got better as the Aggies’ season unfolded, peaking in the wild seven-overtime win over LSU when Mond threw for six of his 24 touchdowns against a loaded Tigers’ secondary. His season numbers were short of spectacular — just 57.4 completion percentage — but he gave the Aggies a true running threat with 474 rushing yards and seven TDs on the ground. Fisher has to replace an All-SEC running back and tight end, but Mond will start the year as a valuable centerpiece.
4. FELEIPE FRANKS, Florida
What a difference coaching makes. Gators fans might have been ready to write off Franks as an SEC starter, and concerns surely lingered midway through 2018 when he struggled in consecutive losses to Georgia and Missouri. But everything changed in UF’s final four games of the season. In wins over South Carolina, Idaho, Florida State and Michigan, Franks threw for 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions while playing like the kind of quarterback we’ve come to expect on Dan Mullen’s watch. For the year, his rating (143.3) and completion percentage (58.3) fell short of elite status, but he finished with 24 touchdowns to six INTs and renewed hope in a program that for years has struggled to develop a difference-maker at the position.
3. KELLY BRYANT, Missouri
One of the league’s top candidates for newcomer of the year, Bryant spent only one of his four seasons at Clemson as a full-time starter, leading the ACC power to 12 wins in 2017, including a conference championship and College Football Playoff appearance. In 29 career games at Clemson, he was a more accurate passer (66.2 percent) than Lock during his four years at Mizzou (56.9) and had a comparable passer rating of 132.8 to Lock’s 138.8. Bryant only threw 16 touchdowns to 10 INTs at Clemson. It’s fair to wonder how effective he’ll be as a passer in the SEC based on his history at Clemson. His three-most efficient games in 2017 came against The Citadel, Kent State and Louisville. Against five ranked teams, he threw just three touchdowns with a QB rating of 113.9. In Clemson’s playoff loss to Alabama, he completed only half his throws with two picks and a season-low rating (67.8).
But here’s the game-changer: Bryant also ran for 973 yards and 16 scores at Clemson and should be Mizzou’s most dangerous dual threat quarterback since James Franklin, who quietly had one of the most prolific careers in Mizzou history.
2. JAKE FROMM, Georgia
In any other conference, the veteran Bulldog might be No. 1 on this list. (OK, probably not the ACC, where Trevor Lawrence will reign for another two seasons, but surely the rest.) Instead, Fromm will have to ride shotgun in the SEC — for now. Fromm shared the backfield with two 1,000-yard rushers last season, but the sophomore QB was anything but a caretaker, completing 67 percent of his passes while throwing for 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His passer rating (171.2) ranked second in the SEC and fifth nationally. Since Fromm emerged as one of the league’s elite QBs and UGA’s franchise quarterback, the Bulldogs have lost two five-star players at the position, Jacob Eason to Washington and Justin Fields to Ohio State, which only validates how much Fromm means to the program.
1. TUA TAGOVAILOA, Alabama
The Heisman Trophy runner-up clearly wasn’t healthy down the stretch and it showed when the lefty looked mortal in Alabama’s final three games against Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson, when he threw just seven touchdowns to four interceptions. But otherwise, the body of work was historically great. Tua’s passer rating (199.5) set an FBS single-season record. For the year he threw 43 touchdowns to just six picks, despite rarely playing deep into the second half until late in the season. He was even more efficient on third down (201.9).
Others of note …
• Arkansas coach Chad Morris reunites with graduate transfer Ben Hicks, his former QB at SMU, where under Morris in 2017 he ranked in the top 20 nationally for completions, touchdowns and passing yards.
• Matt Corral is just a redshirt freshman, but that makes him the oldest scholarship quarterback on the roster at Ole Miss. The good news is he gets to work for first-year offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez.
• There’s a quarterback competition at Auburn, and freshman five-star Bo Nix, the son of former Tigers star QB Patrick Nix, figures to create the biggest buzz if he gets a shot.
• Who’s next up at Vanderbilt? Deuce Wallace is a junior but played sparingly, while Riley Neal, a grad transfer from Ball State, had a promising spring game.
From Clemson to Notre Dame to Texas, SEC teams are playing some of the biggest names in college football outside of conference play this season.