Have your power Iron Bowl pair. Take your terrific two quarterbacks from the state of Alabama. Enjoy the electricity that will be produced in the pocket on the Plains and under Nick Saban’s watchful glare.
But the SEC’s most intriguing quarterback play this season will be found west of Auburn and Tuscaloosa.
Want delicious drama? Want the potential for major breakout production that could lift the SEC’s profile in a big way?
Search no further than Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald.
Look, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham should be fantastic. It’s hard to see Hurts taking a step back after he threw for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions last season as a freshman. Stidham made the hearts of Auburn fans flutter with a rock-star performance in the Tigers’ spring game, their first chance to see him on the field after transferring from Baylor. Both will be fun to watch after Alabama and Auburn begin their crash course toward that scintillating showdown on Nov. 25 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But Patterson and Fitzgerald offer deeper fascination, because both could add much-needed depth to the SEC’s national reputation.
After all, they have a chance to make Ole Miss and Mississippi State more than pundits expect this fall. Reporters picked the Bulldogs to finish sixth in the SEC West, and the Rebels are pegged to come in last. The Magnolia State has become the SEC West’s ground zero for preseason cellar-dweller depression.
No one expects the world from Patterson and Fitzgerald; the expectations of them are nothing like those of Hurts and Stidham. Many envision Alabama winning a fourth consecutive SEC title and threatening to claim another national championship under Saban. And Stidham has been asked to walk on water, despite totaling just 1,265 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions with Baylor in 2015.
Patterson and Fitzgerald, meanwhile, can provide a sneaky bump for the SEC with productive years.
Patterson, a former 5-star prospect, showed flashes of brilliance in three games last season when totaling 880 yards passing with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Fitzgerald can take a huge step forward under quarterback whisperer Dan Mullen. He threw for 2,423 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall.
Plus, both are part of early Heisman Trophy chatter.
“Shea’s a heckuva athlete, man,” Ole Miss offensive lineman Javon Patterson said of Shea Patterson at SEC Media Days. “He’s very special. He has done some things that I haven’t seen in a long time, since the Johnny Manziel era. Things like that, doing reverses on passes, going the other way and stopping and stuff. Stuff like that is special. When you see … players like that make stuff happen, it definitely makes them a Heisman candidate.”
“I see him taking a lot of steps forward,” Mississippi State offensive lineman Martinas Rankin said of Fitzgerald at SEC Media Days. “He’s working hard. He’s a great leader. He embracing the leadership role. You’re going to see a lot from him. You’re going to see big things from him.”
Face it, the SEC needs big things from both Patterson and Fitzgerald. True, Ole Miss is playing for little more than pride after a self-imposed bowl ban that was the result of recent NCAA trouble. True, Alabama and Auburn should be too much for Mississippi State to overcome in the journey to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
But the conference – and specifically the SEC West – would benefit more from better-than-anticipated rises by Patterson and Fitzgerald than from Hurts and Stidham meeting an already high bar.
That’s why the growth of Patterson and Fitzgerald will be fascinating to follow. The conference aches for more depth. Both quarterbacks in Mississippi have the talent to become difference-makers. Both have the physical tools to carry their teams to finishes that beat the disastrous outcomes most envision for them.
Already, Hurts and Stidham are expected to smash through the ceilings above them.
But if Patterson and Fitzgerald do the same, their respective launches toward national acclaim will create more noise.
Will it happen? It won’t be easy. A victory over Alabama for either would create a minor earthquake. But the road in the SEC West is as tough as a path through a cobra pit.
Still, Patterson and Fitzgerald can offer so much soon.
The SEC will be better off if both succeed.