Quarterback play in the SEC has slipped the past few years and attrition doesn’t help. In all, 10 programs are starting a different quarterback than Week 1 last season.
Thanks to a brutal non-conference slate, many of these quarterbacks will get thrown right into the fire against live competition. Whether they sink or swim will depend on how they respond to elite defenses, or whether they can score enough points to keep up with the guy on the other sideline.
Here are four quarterbacks with the toughest tasks in week one of the season.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Taking the field with five new offensive starters is tough enough, but Kelly also faces off against No. 4 Florida State’s dominant defense. DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat combine to form an elite defensive end pairing, while safety Derwin James might be the country’s most versatile defender.
Kelly will have to lead an offense still breaking in skill position players. Wide receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow have experience, but both must take on a bigger role after losing Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core. Kelly’s backfield mate, RB Akeem Judd, has only 77 carries. Kelly will have his work cut out as he tries to lead Ole Miss to an upset win over FSU.
Sean White, Auburn
Not only does White have to face No. 2 Clemson – he has to do it while looking over his shoulder. Gus Malzahn named White the starter during camp, but John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson are sure to be options if White struggles out of the gate. Should White fail, not only could he lose the starting job – he could get Malzahn fired.
Clemson’s defensive front replaces several stars, but remains one of the best in football. Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano form a wall in the middle of the defensive line. The defense replaces seven starters, but it replaced nine last year and didn’t miss a beat. Losing the top three rushers from last season is a nightmare scenario for Auburn.
Perhaps what makes this game toughest is the guy standing on the opposing sideline. White is completely unequipped to lead Auburn’s offense to the results Deshaun Watson will for Clemson.
Cooper Bateman/Blake Barnett, Alabama
Although Alabama will win the game easily, facing USC in a first start will be a difficult test. Either Bateman or Barnett (Nick Saban hasn’t revealed as of yet) will have to move the ball and avoid mistakes while Alabama fans watch their every move.
Barnett has the better arm and playmaking potential, but Bateman knows the offense and makes the right play. Though he has been eliminated from starting the first game, true freshman Jalen Hurts could also throw a wrench into the mix. The pressure of starting for the defending national champion in front of a national TV audience will be a tall task.
USC’s secondary can also create problems. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is one of the nation’s best playmakers, both in the defense and return games.
Drew Lock, Missouri
Lock took over for Maty Mauk after his suspension, so he does have starting experience. But traveling to Morgantown, W.Va., for his first start of the year will almost certainly lead to mayhem.
West Virginia has improved considerably on defense in the past few years. This is no longer the same team that allowed 63 points to Baylor at home a few years ago. WVU lost star safety Karl Joseph to the NFL, but defensive end Noble Nwachukwu is ready to fill the leadership void.
Lock completed just 49 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions to just four touchdowns as a freshman, but this is his team now. He must get a variety of new players involved on offense, including Alabama transfer WR Chris Black and Oklahoma transfer RB Alex Ross. Even so, Mizzou probably doesn’t have enough firepower to keep up with West Virginia’s offense on the road.