Auburn Athletics
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (left) has a decision to make at quarterback with Jarrett Stidham (No. 8) and Sean White (No. 13).

2017 SEC Football Countdown: Handicapping the QB battles, Week 1 preview and news links

Alec Shirkey

In 27 days, Arkansas will host Florida A&M in what amounts to the soft opening of the 2017 SEC football schedule. The real action begins two days later, with a tantalizing 11-game slate set for Saturday, Sept. 2.

College football is close. So close.

As we inch through fall camp toward Week 1, SEC Country will post a weekly roundup every Friday packed with news, storylines, players to watch, game previews and plenty more that’ll interest football fans.

Here’s what you need to know this week.

Rank ’em: The SEC’s most interesting preseason QB battles

As fall camp began for several programs this week, so too did a handful of notable quarterback competitions. Some carry more intrigue than others, but the outcomes will have an effect on what those offenses will look like come Week 1.

Last month, an offshore sportsbook (Bookmaker.eu) set odds on five SEC quarterback battles. Here, we’ll rank each by interest level and offer our take on the eventual winner.

6. Auburn: Jarrett Stidham vs. Sean White

  • Odds say: Stidham -750, White +500
  • SECC says: Stidham by a mile

Months ago, when discussing this subject, I wrote: “This has to be Stidham’s job to lose.” That remains true. White hasn’t stayed healthy, and Stidham has him beat in terms of arm talent and upside. With the ex-Baylor quarterback under center, Auburn has a chance to challenge Alabama in the SEC West. Without him, this team isn’t much better than last year’s squad.

5. Kentucky: Stephen Johnson vs. Drew Barker

  • Odds say: N/A
  • SECC says: Johnson now, Barker later

A strange situation has unfolded in Lexington. Drew Barker began 2016 as the Wildcats’ starter before a back injury ended his season in Week 3. Johnson, a JUCO transfer, took over and won 7 of 10 games as starter, thanks largely to a punishing ground game led by Benny Snell and Boom Williams. Johnson will in all likelihood start Week 1, but Barker will get preseason reps with the first-team offense, as well. From a talent standpoint, Barker has an edge, but Johnson (deservedly) remains the starter.

4. LSU: Danny Etling vs. the pack

  • Odds say: Etling -105, Myles Brennan +300, Justin McMillan +365
  • SECC says: Etling for the time being

The Purdue transfer says he feels “great” following offseason back surgery, and Ed Orgeron has been clear Etling is the favorite to start against BYU on Sept. 2. With Derrius Guice at running back and major question marks at receiver, starting the experienced — albeit limited — senior is the prudent move. If Etling is ineffective, coordinator Matt Canada would be wise to get meaningful snaps under the belt of Brennan, a former 4-star prospect.

3. Tennessee: Quinten Dormady vs. Jarrett Guarantano

  • Odds say: Dormady -160, Guarantano +130
  • SECC says: Dormady, with a couple drives per game for Guarantano

On multiple occasions, the Tennessee coaching staff has expressed willingness to roll with two quarterbacks “if it takes two.” That’s not something Butch Jones has done at Tennessee, nor did he do it at Cincinnati. What he has done at both stops, in most situations, is roll with the quarterback with more experience.

So what can Vols fans expect? Here’s a guess: Guarantano sees a drive or two per game at the outset, while Dormady serves as the de facto starter. Guarantano may have more upside, but for now, Dormady is the safer pick with Georgia Tech and Florida on tap in Weeks 1 and 3.

2. Texas A&M: Jake Hubenak vs. Nick Starkel vs. Kellen Mond

  • Odds say: Hubenak +135, Starkel +215, Mond +225
  • SECC says: Watch out for Mond

Talk about differing skill sets. Starkel is a big-armed pocket passer with athleticism, Mond is a dual-threat with “limitless” upside and Hubenak is the experienced, well-rounded journeyman. Unlike Jones, Kevin Sumlin has been unafraid to start freshmen at quarterback. Given Hubenak’s limited abilities and the run Starkel and Mond received during the spring, both have to be considered competitors for the job — maybe more so than Hubenak. You cannot rule out Mond, whose talents fit the Sumlin/Noel Mazzone offense better than the other two.

1. Florida: Malik Zaire vs. Feleipe Franks

  • Odds say: Zaire +165, Franks +175, Kyle Trask +380, Luke Del Rio +850
  • SECC says: The grad transfer

The SEC changed one of its rules so Zaire could join the Gators this offseason. While starting Franks might benefit the UF offense more in the long term, Jim McElwain isn’t going to risk starting a talented-but-raw redshirt freshman against Michigan and Tennessee. Zaire isn’t guaranteed to win the job, but you don’t bring in a graduate transfer if you feel great about your situation under center.

Opening week spotlight: Texas A&M vs. UCLA

  • Kickoff time: Sunday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
  • Location: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.)
  • Last meeting: Sept. 3, 2016 (Texas A&M won 31-24 in overtime)

Texas A&M player to know: Zaycoven Henderson. There’s no replacing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall on the edge, try as the Aggies might, but their interior defensive line is one of the SEC’s best and deepest. Henderson, a senior who recorded 40 tackles, 10 TFLs and 3 sacks last season, returns to anchor a front seven that was pulverized by Mississippi State and LSU last November. Run defense has rarely been a strength for Texas A&M, but with Henderson, Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack in the fold, that could be the case in 2017.

UCLA player(s) to know: By now, everyone knows about quarterback Josh Rosen. He and the Bruins inexplicably finished 2016 at 4-8, despite having enough offensive talent to be far better. The UCLA front seven, however, should feature two tantalizing 5-stars: outside linebacker Mique Juarez, a redshirt freshman, and defensive end Jaelan Phillips, the country’s No. 1 prospect in 2017. Last year’s clash saw UCLA record zero sacks against the Aggies. With A&M likely to start a young quarterback, pressure will be key.

Key matchup: UCLA RB Soso Jamabo vs. Aggies LB Otaro Alaka. The Bruins couldn’t run the ball in College Station last year. If that holds true again, expect a similar result.

Quote of note: “I don’t think there’s a more pivotal game in college football in the opening weekend than the UCLA-Texas A&M game as it pertains to the livelihood of the two coaches, Jim Mora and Kevin Sumlin.” — Rick Neuheisel, via CBS Sports

Two true freshmen to watch: Linebacker

Anthony Hines, Texas A&M: Inside linebacker has been an area of weakness for the Aggies in recent seasons, and while Alaka could be poised for a big year, the offseason signing of Hines was vital. Sumlin gushed about the 4-star Plano East (Texas) product when speaking with reporters, noting  he’s “really comfortable” and has “gotten stronger.” It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hines start against UCLA.

Willie Gay, Mississippi State: The most high-profile addition to MSU’s 2017 signing class, Gay is impressing new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with his work ethic, athleticism and instincts. The Bulldogs have significant talent at inside linebacker with rising star Leo Lewis and senior Dez Harris, but true to Dan Mullen’s expectation that Gay would see early playing time, the defensive newcomer seems on track to do just that.

Hitting the links: SEC Country news you don’t want to miss

SEC BBQ spot of the week: Handy Andy Grocery

The football program has seen better days, but Oxford, Miss., remains a lovely college town and Handy Andy has some tasty slaw-topped BBQ sandwiches for those passing through (this is only way to eat a BBQ sandwich; I reject all other opinions). The place was packed during my visit, which is always a good sign, and it’s low-key lunch counter vibe made for a cool atmosphere. Worth a stop.