UGA’s Faton Bauta became the 23rd quarterback to start a game for an SEC team during the 2015 season when the Bulldogs were soundly defeated by Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday.
The Bulldogs have struggled mightily at the quarterback position, and they are not alone. The SEC continues to have the deepest collection of elite football players in the country, but for a second straight season, inconsistent quarterback play has also become a dominant theme for the conference.
In many instances, the biggest issue is not talent, or play-calling (though both of those are absolutely among the issues for UGA). The problem is experience, or lack of it.
Bauta became the 12th SEC quarterback to make his first career start this year. More than half of the starting quarterbacks in the league this season had never started a college game before 2015. Another, UGA’s Greyson Lambert had never started in the SEC. His nine starts came at Virginia.
LSU’s Brandon Harris had one start. Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson had two. Only four had started more than nine college games, and one of them, Missouri’s Maty Mauk, has now been suspended twice.
Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (25 starts before 2015) and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott (20) were the grizzled veterans of a largely green group of opening-day quarterbacks. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones famously had three wins on his resume entering this season, and he would have tied for seventh-most among SEC starters.
Many SEC schools have actually gotten less experienced as the season has progressed. Only three of the 12 quarterbacks who have made their first college start did so on opening day. Eight teams have made a quarterback change. South Carolina has made two.
Nick Saban can win SEC and national championships at Alabama and Urban Meyer won them at Florida without NFL-caliber quarterbacks, but even in such a talent-rich conference, quarterback play remains of paramount importance for most of the league.
LSU had a great team last season, but was undone by quarterback play. Ditto for Ole Miss. Mississippi State had a pretty good team that looked great for a while because of Prescott, similar to what Johnny Manziel was able to do during his time at Texas A&M.
Auburn’s Johnson and Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen were expected to become great quarterbacks this season, but both have lost their starting jobs. Prescott is still fantastic, but likely does not have the troops around him to win big.
Florida’s Will Grier looked like he was rapidly developing into the next great SEC quarterback, but he’s now suspended for a full year. One of Florida, Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss is going to win the SEC, and their four quarterbacks had a combined nine starts and six wins before this season.
However, the outlook at the quarterback position in the SEC could be significantly stronger as soon as next season.
Chad Kelly is having a big season for Ole Miss, and he’ll be a senior in 2016. Texas A&M’s Allen was considered the best NFL prospect among those eligible in 2017 before his season went sideways, and either he or Kyler Murray will be experienced and exciting for the Aggies.
Auburn’s Sean White, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and Missouri’s Drew Lock could all blossom into above-average quarterbacks. Grier will be back for the second half of the season. Kentucky’s Patrick Towles could be in his third season as a starter, if he holds off talented freshman Drew Barker. Alabama’s ultra-talented Blake Barnett might be ready after a season of watching and learning.
The SEC might also be having its best recruiting season at the quarterback position in several years. The top two pro-style quarterbacks, and three of the top five in the Class of 2016, are committed to SEC schools. Three of the top five dual-threat quarterbacks are, as well.
There is plenty of young talent sprinkled around the conference for the future at quarterback to be pretty positive. There are several exciting prospects and more are on the way. They’re all going to need time to develop, but the SEC can become a strong quarterback conference again.