The SEC was home to some of college football’s top quarterbacks in the nation last year. However, one offseason later, and the conference is essentially rebuilding from scratch at the quarterback spot.
The list of names departing is heavy: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Missouri’s James Franklin, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Georgia’s Aaron Murray.
After one of the best seasons from the quarterback spot in recent years for the SEC, it will be tough for the league to match that production in 2014. However, the cupboard isn’t entirely bare, as Auburn’s Nick Marshall is a fringe candidate for All-America honors, and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott are primed for big seasons.
The conference also has several intriguing options in Alabama’s Jacob Coker, Vanderbilt’s Stephen Rivers, Kentucky’s Drew Barker and LSU’s Brandon Harris.
To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2014. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks based on accomplishments so far.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Writeups compiled by Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven).
Ranking the SEC's Starting Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Nick Marshall, Auburn (SR)
Marshall’s career path is one of the most interesting stories for a starting quarterback on the FBS level. After playing at Georgia as a defensive back in 2011, he was dismissed from the team and landed at Garden City Community College in 2012. And after one season on the junior college ranks, Marshall landed at Auburn and led the Tigers to a berth in the national championship game against Florida State. Marshall finished 2013 by throwing for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding 1,068 yards and 12 scores on the ground – all impressive totals when you consider that was his first taste of action on the FBS level. With another offseason to work under offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn, look for Marshall to take the top spot in the SEC quarterback rankings this year.
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss (SR)
With 14 starters back, there is plenty of buzz surrounding this Ole Miss team in 2014. With LSU, Alabama and Auburn each losing some key personnel from last year’s teams, the door is open for the Rebels to make some noise in the SEC West. In order for Ole Miss to climb in the division standings, Wallace has to have a huge season. The Tennessee native threw for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and added 355 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior has thrown for 40 touchdowns over the last two years but has also tossed 27 picks during that span. Finding more overall consistency as a passer, along with eliminating the turnovers will be a key to watch for Wallace in 2014. Of course, it should help that he is now a full year removed from shoulder surgery (see Missouri’s James Franklin in 2013).
3. Maty Mauk, Missouri (SO)
Mauk owns every major high school passing record from his days in Ohio, and his short time under center as a freshman a year ago proved his gaudy prep numbers were no fluke. He isn’t the largest quarterback - cut more from the Aaron Murray cloth rather than the Zach Mettenberger mold - but he has loads of confidence, moxie, leadership and even some athletic ability. He was thrust into a nasty situation on the road against Georgia and delivered a huge win before leading his team to easy wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Mauk finished his freshman season with 1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and 229 yards rushing. In Gary Pinkel’s system, Mauk has a chance to blossom into one of the SEC’s best.
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (JR)
After coming off the bench to lead Mississippi State to an Egg Bowl victory over rival Ole Miss, and a standout performance in the Liberty Bowl, Prescott is poised for a breakout year. The Louisiana native threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and added 829 yards and 13 scores. Prescott averaged 269.3 total yards per game through eight SEC contests and should build off of those totals with a full offseason to recover from a shoulder injury. There’s a ton of upside with Prescott in 2014, especially with a strong supporting cast at his disposal. If all of the pieces come together at Mississippi State, there’s a good chance Prescott ranks higher on this list at the end of the year.
5. Jacob Coker, Alabama (JR)
Despite not taking a snap in an Alabama uniform until this summer, all signs point to Coker as the frontrunner to replace AJ McCarron in Tuscaloosa. Coker graduated from Florida State this spring, and with Jameis Winston entrenched as the starter, he decided to transfer and play immediately at another school. In two years as a backup with the Seminoles, Coker threw for 295 yards and one touchdown on 21 completions. The Alabama native isn’t short on all of the physical attributes coaches are looking for in a quarterback. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Coker is ready to handle the rigors of the SEC. Despite the lack of overall experience, Coker has the talent to make an instant impact at Alabama. And if he fails to claim the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, look for Blake Sims or Cooper Bateman to start in the opener against West Virginia.
6. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina (SR)
Much like Mason at Georgia, Thompson has been in the Gamecocks system for years and is ready to take over as the starter after sitting behind a historically great player. Thompson got a few starts behind Connor Shaw, and his big arm fits the downfield gameplan Steve Spurrier so desperately enjoys. The South Carolina native threw 127 passes in 2012 and 89 a year ago with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in spot duty for South Carolina. He has an elite O-Line returning in front of him and a great back in Mike Davis behind him, so success should find the first-year starter in Columbia.
7. Hutson Mason, Georgia (SR)
Mark Richt was very clear when Aaron Murray was lost for the season against Kentucky with one regular season game left to play: Mason has been ready to be a starter for quite sometime. And after a very shaky start to the Georgia Tech game, Mason proved his coach right by leading a miraculous comeback to top the Dawgs rival in overtime. In his two starts, the Marietta (Ga.) Lassiter senior averaged over 300 yards passing per game and completed over 60-percent of his passes. With a supporting cast that should be even healthier and more talented in ’14, Mason could be poised to pick up right where Murray left off.
8. Jeff Driskel, Florida (JR)
Driskel is obviously not as good as his five-star ranking indicated when he signed with Florida out of Oviedo, Fla. But he also isn’t as bad as fans like to think. He’s dealing with his third offensive coordinator during his college career and has shown the ability to make big plays outside of the pocket (ask Tennessee) — something the new offensive system will foster rather than discourage. Driskel was completing nearly 70 percent of his passes when he was lost for the year in the third game of last season. So if he can prove to stay healthy, his dynamic skillset should flourish in Kurt Roper’s up-tempo, spread scheme.
9. Kyle Allen, Texas A&M (FR)
With Matt Joeckel’s decision to transfer, combined with Kenny Hill’s suspension in the spring, Allen appears to be the likely starter for Texas A&M when it opens the year against South Carolina. Breaking in a true freshman quarterback on the road is never easy, but Allen will have one of the SEC’s top offensive lines blocking for him, along with a talented group of skill players. The Arizona native ranked as the No. 10 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete this spring. Expect a few ups and downs as a true freshman. However, the future looks bright in College Station with Allen leading the offense.
10. Justin Worley, Tennessee (SR)
There is little doubt that Worley will be the starter in Week 1 against a talented and upset-minded Utah State squad. He is the most experienced and poised quarterback on the Tennessee roster. That said, he will have to play well against a brutal early schedule to keep his job. Riley Ferguson is regarded as the best pure passer on the roster, but he has yet to play a snap in a college game, while Joshua Dobbs is easily the best combination of athletic ability and maturity. Dobbs' poise, polish, intelligence and work ethic make him a darkhorse to win the job sometime in the first half of the season. Much like last year, fans in Knoxville should expect two — maybe three — starting quarterbacks in 2014.
11. Brandon Allen, Arkansas (JR)
Allen had his share of struggles in his first season as Arkansas’ No. 1 quarterback, but he also didn’t have much help from an inexperienced receiving corps and remodeled offensive line. Allen’s final totals weren’t particularly impressive, as he threw for 1,552 yards and 13 touchdowns on 128 completions. He also tossed 10 picks and completed just 49.6 percent of his passes – two numbers that have to improve in 2014. With another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, combined with the development of the offensive line and rushing attack, Allen figures to have more help from his supporting cast and improvement should be noticeable. However, if he struggles, touted freshman Rafe Peavey will be a name to watch this fall.
12. Brandon Harris, LSU (FR)
It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot in Baton Rouge. Anthony Jennings has the edge over Harris in experience, but he didn’t claim the starting spot in the spring, so the battle will continue into the fall. Harris – a true freshman – enrolled early to compete in spring practice. And the Louisiana native showed plenty of promise, completing 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards in LSU’s spring game. Jennings didn’t play well in the spring game but guided the Tigers to a touchdown in the final minute to beat Arkansas and helped LSU win the Outback Bowl against Iowa. If neither quarterback claims the job this fall, it’s possible both will see a lot of playing time this year. We will take the upside and list Harris here, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jennings take the opening snap.
13. Drew Barker, Kentucky (FR)
Barker is a highly-touted four-star early enrollee who had offers from Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisville, Miami and both Magnolia State schools from the SEC. Needless to say, he is a gifted athlete. And his showing in Kentucky’s spring practice thus far has generated plenty of buzz about his ability to handle the rigors of the SEC as just a true freshman. The 6-foot-4 in-state talent will battle with former starter Maxwell Smith and rising sophomore Patrick Towles for the reigns of Neal Brown’s offense in Lexington (Jalen Whitlow has transferred). Barker has the most upside and raw physical talent of the group but is lacking in experience. Should his maturity, confidence and poise develop quickly, he could become one of the nation’s better true freshman signal-callers.
14. Stephen Rivers, Vanderbilt (JR)
Assuming all of his T’s and I’s are correct at LSU, Rivers will show up in Nashville this summer as the frontrunner to start at Vanderbilt. The Athens, Ala., prospect has very little experience, playing just four games in his Tigers career but has graduated in three years and will transfer to West End with the best combination of experience and talent on the roster. Derek Mason will give a long look to talented redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, who has loads of talent but has yet to take an SEC snap, while Patton Robinette proved last year that his upside is fairly limited despite winning games for the Dores down the stretch.