It’s hard to overstate how much quarterback play has improved since Week 1 in the SEC. A bevy of new starters looked disastrous early, but have come into their own after gaining experience.
No longer is Chad Kelly the lone competent quarterback in the conference. Others have stepped up and perhaps even surpassed him. Kelly has a marquee opportunity on Saturday to prove he’s still the conference’s best. Another SEC West quarterback will also try and prove his lone win over Alabama in 2013 was no fluke in the most anticipated game in Texas A&M history.
Here are four quarterbacks with the toughest tasks in Week 8:
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Season stats: 115 of 215 for 1,500 yards, 9 TDs, 5 INTs; 65 carries for 502 yards, 9 TDs
No quarterback has surprised more this season than Knight. The Oklahoma graduate transfer is among the league leaders at the position after helping the Aggies to a surprising 6-0 record, including wins over three ranked opponents and five Power 5 teams. Texas A&M, now ranked sixth, has a real chance to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
However, Knight has not faced an opponent like Alabama with the Aggies. The Crimson Tide have one of the most devastating defenses in college football, with playmakers at every level of the field. Defensive end Johnathan Allen and linebacker Tim Williams combine for one of the most devastating pass-rush duos in the country, and all four defensive backs have All-SEC aspirations. Knight is also one of just two active college quarterbacks to lead their team to a win over Alabama – surely Nick Saban doesn’t forget.
Austin Allen, Arkansas
Season stats: 138 of 219 for 1,861 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs
Allen has quickly grown into a devastating playmaker under center. Even though Arkansas is traditionally a power run team under Bret Bielema, Allen has instantly replaced his brother and managed to lead the Razorbacks to a national ranking despite inconsistent play from his offensive line and running game. We even named him our Midseason All-SEC quarterback.
However, Auburn provides a difficult matchup defensively. Defensive end Carl Lawson has developed into the devastating force Auburn fans have been waiting for. The Tigers now boast the No. 10 defense in the nation per Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rating and No. 9 in passing defense efficiency. By comparison, Allen is augmented only by Arkansas’ No. 62 defense and No. 78 rushing offense.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Season stats: 113 of 213 for 1,849 yards, 14 TDs, 5 INTs; 52 carries for 213 yards, 3 TDs
Like Allen, Kelly has quickly discovered that the offense will almost be reliant on his performance. Kelly is responsible for more than 72 percent of Ole Miss’ offensive performance and has been forced to become a playmaker with both his arm and feet thanks to inconsistent performance and usage from his running backs.
Kelly made several mistakes against Arkansas in a 34-30 loss last weekend, and now faces a substantially better defense. LSU has one of the best secondaries in the conference, including all-world cornerback Tre’Davious White and likely first-round NFL draft pick safety Jamal Adams. Kelly simply can’t make the same mistakes and continue the same level of sloppy play and expect to lead the Rebels to a win on the road.
Sean White, Auburn
Season stats: 92 of 132 for 1,187 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs
While Allen’s task is probably tougher playing Auburn’s defense, White will have to step up in a big way to beat Arkansas on Saturday. Auburn might average 32.3 points per game, but the Tigers post just 15.7 points per game against the three ranked opponents they have played so far. The numbers are skewed by averaging 49.0 points per game against Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State.
Arkansas certainly has a worse defense than any of the three ranked teams Auburn has played this season, but the Razorbacks have the ability to make plays on defense. More importantly, the Razorbacks average 35 points per game against ranked opponents and have scored at least 24 points in three matchups. Can White lead the Auburn offense to more than three touchdowns against Arkansas? It remains to be seen.