Chad Kelly had a chance to shift the narrative.
The Ole Miss quarterback threw for 212 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half against No. 4 Florida State on Monday, and the Rebels had a 28-6 lead with less than a minute to play in the second quarter.
But over the next 12-plus minutes of game time, Kelly threw a touchdown, lost a fumble and led a 3-and-out as the Seminoles went on a wild 33-0 run to take a 39-28 lead early in the fourth quarter. Kelly eventually threw an interception late to help seal Florida State’s 45-34 win.
Kelly was far from the lone example of poor quarterback play this weekend. Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs completed just 55.2 percent of his passes and fumbled in the end zone in the Vols’ narrow win over Appalachian State. LSU QB Brandon Harris leads a team with title aspirations, but sealed a Tiger loss to Wisconsin with a brutal interception – his second of the day.
Auburn and Mississippi State’s inability to choose a quarterback eventually led to their losses against Clemson and South Alabama respectively. The Tigers tried to run a 3-quarterback set, but Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III combined for 175 yards, 2 interceptions and minus-20 rushing yards.
Mississippi State started Nick Fitzgerald, but pulled him after a pair of stalled drives to start the game. Backup Damian Williams started well, but wilted under pressure and failed to score in his last four scoring drives. The shadow of Dak Prescott stood tall over the program in an embarrassing loss to lowly South Alabama.
Kentucky QB Drew Barker, like Kelly, saw a double-digit lead dissipate in the second half. He mustered just 36 passing yards in 30 minutes and was outplayed by Sun Belt quarterback Nick Mullens down the stretch.
It seems like an eternity since Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron and Johnny Manziel ran the conference. If the mediocre quarterback play across the conference fails to improve, the entire SEC could be in trouble.
It isn’t a big surprise many quarterbacks struggled in Week 1. Ten of 14 SEC teams were starting a different quarterback than in last season’s opener. Four players were making their first career start, while Oklahoma grad transfer Trevor Knight was playing his first game with Texas A&M.
However, inconsistent play was a key factor in the conference’s struggles. The SEC went 6-6 in nonconference games the opening weekend, including 4-8 against the spread. Of those eight games, suspect quarterback play was the deciding factor in at least half — especially embarrassing losses by LSU and Mississippi State.
SEC starting quarterbacks averaged just 185 yards per game and 6.8 yards per attempt in Week 1. The latter number would rank No. 75 nationally out of 128 starters. Compare that to SEC starters averaging 203.2 yards and 8.7 yards per attempt in Week 1 of the 2015 season, when it’s no coincidence the conference went 12-1.
To see how important having quality quarterback play is, look no further than the list of recent national champions. Over the past eight seasons, three national title teams boasted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks: Florida (Tim Tebow), Auburn (Cam Newton) and Florida State (Jameis Winston).
In the College Football Playoff era, seven of the eight teams to qualify had an all-conference quarterback. The only exception was Alabama QB Jake Coker last season – and he had a Heisman-winning running back in the backfield.
First-half performances like Kelly’s and Barker’s provide optimism that some SEC teams have talent at quarterback. Perhaps the two best-looking quarterbacks in the conference were true freshmen: Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (186.5 passer rating) and Georgia’s Jacob Eason (185.9). Both came off the bench but led their respective teams to wins against ranked opponents. It’s no coincidence Alabama and Georgia are now the highest-ranked teams in the SEC.
There is still plenty of season left. As games go on, coaches will anoint permanent starters and build offenses that capitalizes on each of their strengths. Development along the offensive line and at wide receiver will also help.
But at this point, the SEC has the worst group of signal-callers among the power conferences. For the conference to take back the mantle of the best in college football, improvements have to come quickly.