Florida QB Austin Appleby
Heading into Week 11, the state of quarterback play in the SEC is bad and regressing.
Only one healthy SEC quarterback—Missouri’s Drew Lock—is in the top 30 nationally in passing yards per game, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (who is ninth) is out for the year with a knee injury, a shoulder injury sidelined Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight for the remainder of the regular season, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio won’t play this week against South Carolina and the Gamecocks were already forced to burn the redshirt of true freshman Jake Bentley—who should be a senior in high school right now.
What’s more, up to three more redshirts could be burned this week if Ole Miss goes with former 5-star Shea Patterson, Florida trots out Feleipe Franks and/or Texas A&M is forced to go to Nick Starkel—all of which are at least on the table.
“We’re not afraid at any point of [Franks] playing,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said. “Hopefully that answers your question. Austin is going to take those first snaps and we’ll see where that piece goes as we move forward. We need a spark and Feleipe could be that guy. You know, who knows?”
We can debate all day and all night whether burning redshirts this late in the season is a good idea or not—and the answer is different for each team based on specific circumstances. But the fact that three teams are having this debate, in addition to the quarterback futility shown this year by many in the SEC—there are eight transfer quarterbacks who have started games for SEC teams this year—is embarrassing.
|John Franklin III||Auburn||Vanderbilt||E. Miss. CC / Florida State|
|Luke Del Rio||Florida||Multiple||Oregon State / Alabama|
|Greyson Lambert||Georgia||North Carolina||Virginia|
|Stephen Johnson||Kentucky||Multiple||Grambling / College of the Desert|
|Chad Kelly||Ole Miss||Multiple||E. Miss. CC / Clemson|
|Trevor Knight||Texas A&M||Multiple||Oklahoma|
ESPN / Texas A&M will start JC transfer Jake Hubenak this weekend
That’s not acceptable.
So why is it happening?
Lack of identity is the biggest thing.
Former LSU head coach Les Miles signed dual-threat quarterbacks and tried to make them strictly pocket passers for nearly a decade, save for Zach Mettenberger—who also happened to be a transfer. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn struggled for more than a year to decide whether to run a pro-style offense or one that thrived with a mobile quarterback before pocket passer Sean White emerged as the leader in late September.
Alabama used Florida State transfer Jake Coker to bridge the gap from the old school to the new school during last season’s national title run. Florida’s switch to head coach Jim McElwain from Will Muschamp prior to the 2015 season has seen quarterbacks transfer, get suspended and hurt.
The SEC has evolved from the knockdown, drag-out conference it was when LSU topped Alabama 9-6 in 2011 into one that has creative offensive coaches like Malzahn, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze. Even the dinosaurs like Alabama have thrived with zone-read elements in the running game and playing with tempo.
That change, though, comes with inconsistency. That inconsistency, coupled with injuries, has made the state of the quarterback position in the SEC incredibly sad and left coaches constantly looking for some kind of spark.
More Than a 1-Man Show
Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway leads the SEC in rushing at 1,106 yards, but he’s far from a one-man show. Kerryon Johnson is the team leader in rushing touchdowns with nine, has added 616 yards of his own and is healthy enough to be available as a feature back if Pettway can’t go.
Malzahn said on Wednesday that Pettway didn’t practice Tuesday due to an undisclosed leg injury, and his status is up in the air.
“We’ll see today,” Malzahn said during the coaches teleconference. “He’s healing. So we’ll see.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Auburn’s rushing game is all Pettway. It’s not.
“I feel like defenses slip in tackling because they hit people less and less as the year goes on, and people are dinged up,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They’re exposing people. They’re running down downhill at ’em. Pettway does a great job of doing that. Kerryon runs really hard. They’ve always have backs that run hard. They give them the opportunity to do it because the structure is as such where the tempo plays are running plays, and they just run downhill at you.”
Butch Dill/Getty Images
While Pettway has been amazing over the last six games, the 211-pound Johnson is big enough to do some damage between the tackles, is more of a threat in space off the edge and is fully capable of being an every-down back—something he proved against LSU (93 yards) and Louisiana-Monroe (146).
Running between the tackles won’t be Auburn’s issue; it’ll be the quest to keep Johnson fresh for a full four quarters. That likely means more edge responsibilities for converted wide receiver Stanton Truitt and current wide receiver Eli Stove—who went 78 yards for a touchdown on Auburn’s first play from scrimmage against Arkansas.
“Kerryon Johnson started the season and played extremely well. Now he’s battling an [ankle] injury midseason. He’s working his way back to 100 percent,” Malzahn said. “We’ve had Stanton Truitt run really well since we moved him to tailback. We’re a run and play-action team, so no matter who our running back is, we need to be successful.”
Malzahn will make it work.
Pettway is his 14th 1,000-yard rusher in 11 seasons as a college head or assistant coach, and Auburn’s got plenty of weapons to withstand Pettway’s absence or limitations.
Finding a Cure to the Hangover
The inability to beat Alabama dating back to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game and a struggling offense led to the dismissal of LSU head coach Les Miles in the middle of the season.
But the Bama hangover played a part too. The Tigers went 3-4 and 1-3 in the SEC after losses to Alabama over the last two seasons, and interim head coach Ed Orgeron knows just how important preventing a similar skid is.
“In the past, we have not played well after the Alabama games,” Orgeron said. “We plan on changing that. Our staff has done a tremendous job.”
Orgeron doesn’t need to get creative with his medication. Just hand the Razorbacks a heavy dose of the running game.
Junior star Leonard Fournette was held in check by Alabama with just 35 yards, and sophomore Derrius Guice managed only two carries. But Arkansas’ defense has been about as Jekyll and Hyde as it gets against the run.
|Opponent||Rush Yds. Allowed||Rush TDs|
Orgeron needs to find out which version of the Arkansas defense is the real one—the version that let Auburn run wild or the one that shut down Florida. The way to do that is to get creative within the running game, mix in different formations that maximize the power of Fournette and the electricity of Guice, and keep Arkansas guessing.
“We have to give the ball to Fournette in certain situations, give the ball to Guice and let our offensive line block,” Orgeron said.
LSU should be fine as long as it doesn’t let the Alabama loss linger into game-week preparations.
Bigger Than Homecoming
Don’t remind South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp that he’s making a homecoming at The Swamp—where he spent four years as the head coach of the Florida Gators. He doesn’t know what his emotions will be when he walks out of the tunnel and, quite frankly, doesn’t care.
“We’ll see on Saturday, I guess,” he said on the teleconference.
There will likely be some goose bumps and a few old memories that pop up. But Muschamp has bigger fish to fry.
“It’s an important game for us because it’s an SEC East game, a game for us to get bowl-eligible and to stay alive in the SEC East,” Muschamp said. “We’re actually still a part of that. My focus is on our players and our football team.”
Tyler Lecka/Getty Images
The fact that South Carolina can legitimately say that it has a chance in the SEC East is a huge compliment to Muschamp. As Brad Crawford of 247Sports noted, the Gamecocks will win the East if they beat Florida, Auburn beats Georgia, LSU beats Florida next week and Tennessee beats Kentucky next week but loses to either Missouri or Kentucky.
None of that sounds incredibly far-fetched in a vacuum, but the likelihood of all of it happening is slim.
Whatever happens with South Carolina, fans should be thrilled with this team. After Muschamp burned Jake Bentley’s redshirt, the freshman quarterback has tossed six touchdowns and no picks. Freshman Rico Dowdle has rushed for 127 or more yards in two straight games and scored in four straight. The defense held Tennessee and Missouri to just 21 points each in consecutive conference wins.
That’s a foundation to build on, especially considering the division doesn’t look like it’s going to suddenly become a behemoth in just one offseason.
Explaining the Wide Gap
That gap between the SEC East and West? Yeah, it’s as wide as the Grand Canyon.
The East is just 1-9 this year against its better half, with the lone win being Kentucky’s win over Mississippi State on a last-second field goal late last month. It’s the worst Power Five division in college football, according to the S&P+, and is only slightly better than the Mountain West’s Mountain Division.
There’s an easy explanation for it.
Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina all have new head coaches, Vanderbilt and Kentucky always fight an uphill battle from a pure talent perspective and injuries have ravaged Tennessee and Florida in October and November, respectively.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
“From a talent perspective, we’re all looking to get better,” Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason said. “Mark Stoops at Kentucky, his team is better athletically. This team, it’s better and with a young quarterback. You look at South Carolina, we’re [all] building these programs. Those programs on the other side are established.”
It won’t stay that way forever.
Tennessee and Georgia finished in the top 20 in each of the last three recruiting cycles, and the only time Florida didn’t was in 2015, when it finished 29th, according to Scout.
If the powers can stay healthy and the new coaches get time, the East will be fine.
That won’t be this year though.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.