The most exciting part of any college football offseason is examining which new quarterbacks will emerge as starters, and that’s certainly true for the SEC this upcoming season — especially since so many of the jobs are up for grabs.
Of course, coaches have become notorious for revealing little about how they view their signal callers during spring practice for reasons ranging from wanting to stage an intense competition to being fearful that the players who are placed lower on the depth chart will decide to transfer out of the program. Nonetheless, before spring practice gets going around SEC Country, here are some predictions about how the quarterback battles will eventually end:
The Sure Things:
Brandon Harris – LSU
Harris certainly didn’t win many accolades for his performance last season, but the decision has been made at LSU to value continuity. Les Miles is coming back as head coach, and he’s keeping offensive coordinator Cam Cameron too. Shouldn’t Harris get another chance as well then?
Drew Lock – Missouri
If Lock is a sure thing, he’s one of the few players on Missouri’s roster for which that statement can be made. The Tigers are a program in turmoil. There’s a new head coach, tension on campus stemming from last season’s protests and a general feeling that two consecutive trips to the SEC Championship Game are now a distant memory.
Chad Kelly – Ole Miss
Kelly was the best quarterback in the league last season and looks to add to that resume this year. The big question, though, is how he’ll handle the departure of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
Joshua Dobbs – Tennessee
Dobbs is undoubtedly facing more pressure than any other quarterback in the SEC in 2016. His Vols are expected to compete for a conference title — at least — and Dobbs will be asked to add a potent passing attack to what’s already a formidable running game for Tennessee in order to make those championship dreams a reality.
The Safe Bets:
John Franklin III – Auburn
Gus Malzahn could be coaching for his job this year, and if so, he’ll need to be mindful that Auburn fans will have little patience with an attempt to return to either of last season’s quarterbacks — Jeremy Johnson or Sean White — whose collective ineffectiveness was well-documented in 2015. Franklin wasn’t a full-time quarterback at the junior college level last year, but neither was Nick Marshall before Malzahn used him to win the SEC in 2013.
Drew Barker – Kentucky
Kentucky brought in two quarterbacks with its most recent recruiting class — Stephen Johnson, a well-traveled junior college transfer and Gunnar Hoak, a highly regarded true freshman. However, Barker has plenty of game experience that should give him a big advantage in the quarterback competition.
Nick Fitzgerald — Mississippi State
There are few jobs in the country less enviable than having to be the quarterback that replaces Dak Prescott for MSU. Fitzgerald seems to be in the best position because he was Prescott’s primary backup last season, but Damian Williams got significant playing time in 2013. This should truly be a competition that extends deep into the summer at the very least. Expect Fitzgerald to ultimately get the nod due to the fact that he’s much bigger than Williams and more capable of doing some of the things Prescott did during his record-setting career.
Trevor Knight – Texas A&M
Just because a player transfers from a major program doesn’t mean he’ll automatically earn the starting job, and the Aggies will almost certainly give a long look to the incumbent starter Jake Hubenak before making a final decision. Yet if there was ever a coach who would benefit from outsourcing his quarterback job, it’s Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who watched the careers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray end prematurely after each player decided to leave the Aggies after last season. Knight — a former starter at Oklahoma — would seem to be the kind of replacement that could give Texas A&M the fresh start it needs.
Kyle Shurmur – Vanderbilt
The Commodores offense was pretty dreadful a year ago, but Shurmur earned some valuable experience playing as a true freshman. His leadership skills have been praised, and there seems to be little reason to assume Vanderbilt has a better option on its roster.
The Long Shots:
David Cornwell – Alabama
Conventional wisdom would suggest the Crimson Tide will turn to Cooper Bateman or former five-star prospect Blake Barnett to replace last year’s starter Jake Coker. However, Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban have made surprising quarterback decisions before. Almost no one expected Blake Sims to win the job in 2014 and yet that’s exactly what happened. A similar scenario seems more than possible this season.
Ricky Town – Arkansas
Austin Allen — the brother of last season’s starter, Brandon Allen — seems like the obvious choice to take over the Razorbacks offensive huddle this year, but the skill set of Ricky Town could prove to be too enticing to ignore. Town was one of the most heavily recruited players from the 2015 signing class and transferred to Arkansas a year ago after initially signing with USC.
Austin Appleby – Florida
The smart money might be on another transfer — Luke Del Rio, who joined the Gators after having previously played for Oregon State — winning the starting job this season, and the fans’ choice may very well be true freshman Feleipe Franks — a former four-star prospect and U.S. Army All-American. But don’t be surprised if Appleby uses the playing time he got during his four years at Purdue to beat out Franks and Del Rio. Florida’s offense had no shortage of troubles last season, and things could be just as dicey this year.
Jacob Eason – UGA
Many UGA fans have compared Eason — a five-star member of the 2016 recruiting class — to former UGA quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was also a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Stafford did play as a true freshman in 2006, but didn’t earn the full-time starting role until later in the season. The assumption is that Eason could be handled the same way, thus paving the way for last year’s starter — Greyson Lambert — to fill that role again this year. However, Lambert struggled in road games in 2015, and early season trips to Missouri, Ole Miss and South Carolina could motivate new coach Kirby Smart to begin the Eason era as quickly as possible.
Brandon McIlwain – South Carolina
The Gamecocks played a lot of quarterbacks in 2015 — including Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and Lorenzo Nunez, who are all back for this season. Unfortunately, all four of these signal callers will be tasked with impressing a new head coach — Will Muschamp — who probably has an eye on the future, and the best way to ensure that future for Muschamp is probably to allow true freshman Brandon McIlwain to take some lumps early as the South Carolina starter. The 2016 season may end up being a lost cause for the Gamecocks, but getting McIwain some much-needed experience could give South Carolina fans a reason to be excited about 2017.