As expected, the lead-up to Week 1 of SEC football is fraught with unknowns. That’s particularly true with the quarterbacks this season.
At least 10 schools are expected to start a different passer than the one who started Week 1 in 2015. Four quarterbacks (Austin Allen, Nick Fitzgerald, Luke Del Rio and Jacob Eason) will be making their first college starts — assuming they are indeed the guy under center.
With all that turnover, there is bound to be some questions. Fortunately, we’ve got some answers.
What’s going on at Alabama, and does it matter?
The top-ranked defending national champions have not yet named a starting quarterback. A lesser program’s fan base might be worried, but the Crimson Tide is so stacked on defense and at every other offensive position that Nick Saban could put John Parker Wilson under center and still win 12 games.
Oh wait, he already did that in 2008.
Alabama is down to junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. True freshman dual-threat Jalen Hurts is not a candidate to start against Southern Cal according to Saban, but some believe the job could be his by midseason. That would be incredibly surprising for a Saban-coached team, given that his No. 1 guys almost always start the whole season.
Sure, Saban can be unpredictable. But we’re talking about a man who’s eaten the same meals every day for who knows how long. The Process hasn’t let him down yet, and The Process tells us Bateman is the safest pick, by virtue of his experience and athleticism. He’s taken hits in SEC contests and went 11 for 14 against Ole Miss last season. Keep in mind this was when the Rebels still had defensive back Tony Conner, too.
Barnett is the hotshot former 5-star talent from Cali. If Bateman struggles against Southern Cal, one has to imagine the leash will be especially short, as it was against Ole Miss last year. Barnett was hand-picked by Lane Kiffin. Despite all the recent hubbub about Hurts, the West Coast kid will get every chance to “win the team,” as they say in Tuscaloosa.
Again, this is Alabama. The starting quarterback is only slightly more consequential than, say, the starting running back at Texas A&M. Between-the-tackle runs and fundamental defense are your mainstay ingredients. If Bateman can add some flavor without spoiling the broth, even better.
Can Brandon Harris beat the Badgers with his arm?
LSU plays a few teams with stout run defenses. Wisconsin is certainly one of them.
Last season, the Badgers held opponents to 3.13 yards per carry, fourth best in the nation. They also allowed the fewest runs of 10-plus yards in the nation (27). Most of that unit’s front seven returns in 2016, too.
Leonard Fournette will net his yards, but the spotlight should find Harris in this critical contest. Wisconsin lost three of its starters in the secondary, while the LSU offense features studly receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural.
Matchup opportunities will present themselves as the Badgers key on stopping the run. Harris will have to shoulder some of the offensive burden and connect with Dupre or Dural in one-on-one situations. If not, this could become the type of low-scoring contest that plays right into Wisconsin’s hands.
Does Chad Kelly stay poised against an improved ‘Noles defense?
The star Ole Miss quarterback ended 2015 on a tear. Over his last four games — Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State — Kelly threw for 1,186 yards and rushed for an additional 338 while scoring 17 total touchdowns.
He returns this fall as the SEC’s unquestioned top passer and a Heisman Trophy candidate, one whose bravado would make Cam Newton proud.
Kelly’s first test will be a toughie, though. Florida State might be without star cornerback Jalen Ramsey this year, but the defense returns seven other starters and a wealth of pass rushing talent. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has to overcome major turnover on the offensive line. Three of its projected starters are sophomores, and Laremy Tunsil is obviously long gone.
Kelly lost his cool at times last year when flushed from the pocket. He’ll need to keep himself collected under pressure in order to avoid stumbling out of the gate.
How soon does Jacob Eason start at Georgia?
Fans have been asking this question around Athens for months now. The tea leaves suggest that Eason starts on Saturday against North Carolina, according to DawgNation, even though senior Greyson Lambert has been running with the first-team offense during practice.
The Georgia staff obviously believes in Eason — he was the first recruit Kirby Smart contacted once hired — and having Lambert practice with the ones during game week is classic preseason subterfuge.
After all, half of Georgia’s public depth chart listed starters as “Player 1 OR Player 2.” Welcome to the
Saban, er, Smart era in Athens.
Eason has the arm talent to play right away, and starting him Week 1 might not be as daunting of a task as some think.
North Carolina’s defense gave up nearly 250 yards rushing per game last season, and according to Smart, recovering tailback Nick Chubb won’t be on any sort of “pitch count” this weekend. Whoever starts at quarterback needs only to put the ball in No. 27’s belly and let the big boys up front do the rest.
If he does have to throw, Terry Godwin and Jeb Blazevich make pretty reliable targets. And the game is at a fairly Bulldog-friendly neutral site (Atlanta’s Georgia Dome).
Eason’s first taste of college action should produce butterflies regardless of the opponent, and his pedigree suggests he can play now. Why not send him out there and see how he handles it?
Does any team turn to a different starter in Week 2?
Obviously, this depends entirely on how Week 1 shakes out. But if I had to pick a candidate right now, South Carolina comes to mind.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has already stated that two quarterbacks will play against Vanderbilt on Thursday night. More than likely, the pair will be former walk-on Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain. If the latter keeps things together in what is clearly a rebuilding year, well, why should South Carolina wait?
Projected Week 1 starters
- Alabama: Cooper Bateman (Blake Barnett plays one or two drives)
- Arkansas: Austin Allen
- Auburn: Sean White (John Franklin III used in select packages)
- LSU: Brandon Harris
- Ole Miss: Chad Kelly
- Mississippi St: Nick Fitzgerald (Damian Williams plays significant snaps)
- Texas A&M: Trevor Knight
- Florida: Luke Del Rio
- Georgia: Jacob Eason (Greyson Lambert plays a couple of drives)
- Kentucky: Drew Barker
- Missouri: Drew Lock
- South Carolina: Perry Orth (Brandon McIlwain plays significant snaps)
- Tennessee: Josh Dobbs
- Vanderbilt: Kyle Shurmur