Even with all of the success of SEC football in the last twenty years, the league has failed to steadily produce top-notch quarterback play. Rather, the SEC is known for their speed, their defenses, and their running backs. Is 2018 the year that changes? For the first time since the Spurrier years at Florida, the quarterback position is the marquee group in the conference. Here are the top five returning SEC quarterbacks in 2018.
Top Five Returning SEC Quarterbacks In 2018
It’s impossible to produce a definitive list of anything subjective. This is a holistic approach, including past performance, future potential, system, and performance in different situations. Most importantly, it considers who would get picked if we were building our own team from each position group around the conference.
5. Jarrett Stidham, Junior, Auburn
Here’s the thing about Jarrett Stidham: he’s still yet to prove himself consistently. While Stidham turned in a 419 yard passing performance in his first start as a freshman at Baylor, he followed that up with two games under 260 yards passing. At Baylor, under Art Briles, 260 yards was a mediocre day. Last season, at Auburn, he had tremendous games against Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Georgia (part 1) and Alabama. But he also struggled mightily against Clemson, Georgia (part 2), LSU, and UCF. And his statistics skew higher earlier in the game. If you need anything from a quarterback, he must be clutch.
He’s got plenty of potential. He led the conference in completion percentage last season (66.5%). And while he’s a little undersized at 6’3″, 215, he has good arm strength. His mobility is good enough for a Gus Malzahn system, although not optimal. With Auburn losing Kerryon Johnson, Stidham will be expected to carry more of the load this year. If Auburn is to take the next step, Stidham must being to live up to the hype.
4. Nick Fitzgerald, Senior, Mississippi State
Nick Fitzgerald is the biggest question mark in this group. The senior signal caller is coming off of a gruesome broken leg injury. But he’s also changed head coaches in the off-season. Dual-threat quarterback whisperer Dan Mullen departed Starkville for Gainesville and the Bulldogs brought in Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Moorhead had a great track record at Penn State, but with much different style quarterbacks. Can Moorhead coach a run-first, average-at-best passer to the top of the SEC West without Saquon Barkley or Mike Gesicki to help him out? While McSorley was mobile, he was also a far better passer than Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will also have to demonstrate that the broken leg hasn’t slowed him down.
But if he is healthy, and if Moorhead can work with him, there’s success to be had. Fitzgerald has over 4,100 passing yards and 2,200 rushing yards in the last two seasons. He’s accounted for 66 touchdowns total over the last two seasons. On the ground, he’s been fantastic, averaging over 6.5 yards per carry in 2016-2017. And at 6’5″, 230, he’s not a quarterback you want to tackle too often. In the air, he must improve. A 55.6% rate last season was only a slight improvement from the 54.3% he posted in 2016.
Fitzgerald is the most important quarterback for his team on this list. And he’s a great runner. But he must be better in the air to give Mississippi State a shot at winning the division.
3. Jalen Hurts, Junior, Alabama
Yes, Jalen Hurts is competing for the starting job. But he’s still the third best returning quarterback in the SEC. The reason Hurts makes the list and his roster competition Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t is simple. Tagovailoa has won one game for Alabama. Hurts, meanwhile, is 26-2 in two seasons under center for the Crimson Tide. And in one of those losses, to Clemson, he handed the lead over to the Tide defense on the last drive of the game.
You can call Hurts a system quarterback, but it doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Even in a run-first offense with a barn full of five-star running backs, Hurts was in the top five of several passing categories in the conference last season. His 60.6% completion rate is precisely what the Alabama offense needs from him. His 8.2 yards-per-attempt was also fifth in the league. And his one interception in 254 pass attempts, best in the league for anyone with 15 attempts, demonstrates his smarts in the pocket.
When handed the keys to dad’s Porsche, it’s best not to go speeding down a dangerous road.
On top of that, Hurts had 855 rush yards last season. He add eight rushing touchdowns to his 17 passing touchdowns. He added 50 first down runs — an absolutely crucial statistics when you have that type of defense.
The assumption that Tagovailoa secured the starting spot with one good half against Georgia is premature. Hurts still has a large body of work with tremendous returns. While he very well may not start, he’ll still be the third best returning SEC quarterback in 2018.
2. Jake Fromm, Sophomore, Georgia
What Jake Fromm did at Georgia last season was vastly underappreciated. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Fromm didn’t ride the running game to success. He came as a true freshman and was second in the SEC in completion percentage (62.2%), yards-per-attempt (9.0), and quarterback rating (160.9). Fromm was third in passing touchdowns (24) and fifth in passing yards (2,615). He did this, again, as a true freshman, against SEC defenses, and only averaging 19.4 attempts per game (10th).
Oh, and he had two (maybe three or four) NFL running backs behind him. He showed the intangibles as well — poise and leadership in most important games. He’s only going to get better as he moves into his sophomore year. Even with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel departed for the NFL, he’ll still have a formidable backfield behind him. Don’t be surprised to see Jake Fromm in the national conversation late in the 2018 season.
1. Drew Lock, Senior, Missouri
Clearly atop this list is Missouri’s gunslinger, Drew Lock. Lock lead the SEC last season in just about every meaningful passing category, including passing yards (3,964), yards-per-attempt (9.5), yards-per-game (305), passing touchdowns (44), and passer rating (165.67). With prototypical quarterback size at 6’4″, 225, and a cannon for an arm, there’s not much that Lock is missing. That’s 21% more passing yards than second-most in the conference and 41% more touchdowns than second-most in the conference. He wasn’t just statistically the best SEC quarterback in 2017, he absolutely dominated the conference statistics last season.
He has that Brett Favre confidence to him and that makes him exciting to watch. Unless, of course, he’s going against your team.
The only questions about Lock going into 2018 are his surroundings. He loses Ish Witter and J’mon Moore. But he’s still got Emanuel Hall and Albert Okwuegbunam to catch passes. However, Missouri hired Derek Dooley as offensive coordinator. Dooley has never been an offensive coordinator nor has he ever had play-calling responsibilities. Missouri’s offensive coaches might be the only coaches in the conference that can slow down Drew Lock in 2018.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama: If he can replicate his National Championship game performance and beat out Jalen Hurts, he could easily end up as the best by season’s end.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina: With Deebo Samuel back, Bentley will have an All-American talent to help him out.
Jordan Ta’amu: The talent is there. Ta’amu misses out on this list only because of career numbers and the loaded talent in front of him.
See my discussion with Mark Rogers TV about returning SEC Quarterbacks here:
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