The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the quarterbacks in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel.
Here's how Athlon ranks the 14 quarterbacks in the SEC for 2012:
1. Aaron Murray, Georgia (JR)
Passing Stats: 3,149 yards, 35 TD, 14 INT, 59.1%
Rushing Stats: 87 att., 103 yards, 2 TD
Only USC quarterback Matt Barkley returns to college football with more touchdown passes than Murray’s 35. In fact, he nearly lapped the entire SEC field as only Tyler Wilson topped 20 scoring strikes a year ago. He has now posted back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons and has accounted for 65 total touchdowns over the last two years. He also led his team to its first SEC Championship game since 2005. As an upperclassman now, he will face his tallest order as the heavy SEC East favorite without his three best offensive linemen protecting him. The junior quarterback from Tampa, Fla., needs to cut down on his mistakes, but like most gunslingers, he is willing to make the tough play and, at times, it costs him. Murray is a gamey, tough, poised leader who has competed for championships at every level of play. He will only get better in 2012.
2. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas (SR)
Passing Stats: 3,638 yards, 24 TDs, 6 INTs, 63.2%
Rushing Stats: 60 att., -3 yards, 4 TDs
Wilson patiently waited his turn behind Ryan Mallett and emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks last season. In his first year as the starter, Wilson led the SEC with an average of 261.2 passing yards per game in conference play and posted a 141.4 passer efficiency rating. He finished second to Georgia’s Aaron Murray in passing touchdowns in conference play, but led the SEC in total offense per game. Although Wilson was voted first-team All-SEC last season, the senior could struggle to repeat his 2011 passing totals, especially without Bobby Petrino calling the plays in Fayetteville. Wilson also loses receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, so new weapons will be forced to emerge. Don’t expect the Arkansas’ offense to fall completely off the map, but Petrino’s playcalling and gameplans will be missed.
3. AJ McCarron, Alabama (JR)
Passing Stats: 2,634 yards, 16 TDs, 5 INTs, 66.8%
Rushing Stats: 30 att., -22 yards, 2 TDs
McCarron went into last season as an unknown, but finished as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. He wrestled control of the No. 1 spot away from Phillip Sims early in the year, throwing for 226 yards against Kent State and leading Alabama to a 27-11 victory over Penn State in Week 2. McCarron threw for 200 yards and two scores in a 38-14 blowout win over Arkansas and posted three touchdown passes in games against Auburn and Georgia Southern. In the first matchup against LSU, McCarron threw for only 199 yards and tossed one interception. However, his play in the national title game was a huge factor in Alabama’s win, as McCarron finished with 234 yards on 23 completions. Although offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has departed, McCarron should easily surpass last season’s totals. The junior also has an improving group of receivers and will be playing behind one of the top offensive lines in college football.
4. Tyler Bray, Tennessee (JR)
Passing Stats: 1,983 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT, 59.5%
Rushing Stats: 26 att., -70 yards, 1 TD
The Vols passer finished third in the SEC in touchdown passes — and he only played seven games. Bray was off to a scorching start with 14 touchdowns in his first four games. But the loss of star wideout Justin Hunter, and then a broken thumb against Georgia, cost Bray most of his potential in 2011. He returned to play the final two games of the season but was clearly aggravated by the injury — he completed only 43.6% of his passes in the final two contests. In order to be considered a great player nationally, Bray needed to mature as a leader and get stronger. It appears that he is finally taking conscious steps to accomplish both of these goals. With Hunter back leading a loaded receiving corps in Knoxville this fall, the sky is the limit for the 6-foot-6, 213 pound California native.
5. James Franklin, Missouri (JR)
Passing Stats: 2,865 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT, 63.3%
Rushing Stats: 217 att., 981 yards, 15 TD
Franklin made some early mistakes in his first year as the starter, but at season’s end, had eclipsed all expectations. He scored a rushing touchdown in all but three games last fall and threw an interception in only six of his 13 starts. The electric athlete finished his first year by pounding an SEC-esque front seven from North Carolina to the tune of 142 yards rushing, 132 yards passing and three total touchdowns in the Independence Bowl. However, Gary Pinkel and Mizzou nation got some horrible news this spring when Franklin injured his throwing shoulder (a sprained GH joint) and had to have surgery. The expected timetable for his return to the field is August — putting his availability for Mizzou’s first SEC season in jeopardy. It is unknown what type of player he will be in 2012, since the injury has been known to sap arm strength. The Tigers will host East Division favorite Georgia in their first SEC game in Week 2.
6. Connor Shaw, South Carolina (JR)
Passing Stats: 1,448 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT, 65.4%
Rushing Stats: 135 att., 525 yards, 8 TD
Shaw got 16 touches in the season opener against East Carolina and totaled 47 yards. So Steve Spurrier’s apparent love of Stephen Garcia essentially kept Shaw off the field for the first month of the season. Eventually, the troubled signal caller was officially kicked off the team and the huddle was given to Shaw full-time. He flourished in his role as the starter, throwing for 311 yards and four touchdowns in his first start as the new executive of the Gamecocks offense. He was also the team's leading rusher once running back Marcus Lattimore was sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Shaw continued to develop over the course of the season, culminating in his best career game against rival Clemson. In the 34-13 win over the Tigers, Shaw completed 14-of-20 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 107 yards rushing and another score on 19 carries. He scored a rushing touchdown in each of his last six games and posted a nasty 8:1 TD:INT ratio in the final three contests. Most importantly, Shaw was 7-1 after Garcia was given the boot. With Lattimore returning to the field, Shaw could be in for big things in 2012.
7. Zach Mettenberger, LSU (JR)
Passing Stats: 92 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 72.7%
Rushing Stats: 2 att., 28 yards
After watching Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson struggle over the last few years to consistently produce a passing attack, LSU fans are anxious to get an extended look at Mettenberger. Although the junior passer has zero career starts, he figures to be an upgrade and should help the Tigers easily exceed last season’s average passing yards per game (152.5). Mettenberger began his career at Georgia, but was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. After one season at Butler Community College, he landed back in the SEC with LSU and is the clear-cut starter in Baton Rouge this year. Mettenberger is unproven, but has plenty of talent and should give the Tigers a much-needed boost in the passing attack.
8. Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt (JR)
Passing Stats: 1,524 yards, 9 TD, 10 INT, 50.0%
Rushing Stats: 117 att., 420 yards, 4 TD
While the younger brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers is nowhere near as physically gifted as his older sibling, Jordan Rodgers proved to be a gritty, hard-nosed, poised leader of his team. He struggled in his first two starts against Alabama and Georgia — he totaled 151 yards passing, 0 TDs and three INTs — but most players were stymied by those two defensive units. Beginning with the Army game, Rodgers began to find his legs – both literally and figuratively. He led the Dores to a 3-3 record to finish the season while rushing for nearly 50 yards per game and scoring all four of his ground touchdowns. This roster is more talented at the skill positions than it has been in decades, so Rodgers will have plenty of toys to work with in 2012 — if he can hold off Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels.
9. Tyler Russell, Mississippi State (JR)
Passing Stats: 1,034 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, 53.5%
Rushing Stats: 33 att., 45 yards, 1 TD
Chris Relf has expired his eligibility in Starkville, leaving the starting job to Russell this spring. The junior has thrown for 1,669 yards and 13 touchdowns over the last two seasons, but this will be his first year as the full-time No. 1 passer. Russell ranked as one of the top 15 quarterbacks coming out of high school and has shown flashes of promise in limited duty. The junior has a lot to prove in his first year as the starter, but Mississippi State has improved the depth and talent in the receiving corps, which should help Russell’s transition into the No. 1 role.
10. Jameill Showers, Texas A&M (SO)
Passing Stats: 40 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 80%
Rushing Stats: 33 yards, 1 TD
Not only is Texas A&M making a difficult transition from the Big 12 to the SEC, the Aggies have to break in a new quarterback. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and head coach Kevin Sumlin hope to establish an offense in College Station similar to the one they had at Houston, but it won’t be easy in the SEC. Showers has the most experience of the four quarterbacks competing for time, but it’s no slam dunk that he wins the job. He finished with 40 passing yards and added 33 on the ground last year in limited action. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and true freshman Matt Davis are the two candidates pushing Showers the most for playing time, but this battle is expected to go deep into fall practice. Despite the uncertainty entering the season, Sumlin and Kingsbury’s track record at Houston suggests the passing attack will be fine by midseason.
11. Jacoby Brissett, Florida (SO)
Passing Stats: 206 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs
Rushing Stats: 13 att., 7 yards, 2 TDs
New offensive coordinator Brent Pease has a difficult decision facing him this summer. He has two talented sophomores who were clearly not ready for the bright lights of SEC football last fall. And there is little separating Brissett from Jeff Driskel. Both have strong arms and both have above average athletic ability. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Brissett is the better passer and likely has a better grasp of working through progressions. The 6-foot-4, 232-pound Driskel has more raw athletic ability and is the better runner of the two. Brissett would have to be considered the favorite to win the job, but both players will get plenty of reps leading up to fall camp. The fact both players were prematurely forced into game action as freshman works as a positive, as neither will be overwhelmed when SEC play arrives in September.
12. Kiehl Frazier, Auburn (SO)
Passing Stats: 34 yards, 0 TD, 2 INTs, 41.7%
Rushing Stats: 76 att., 327 yards, 3 TDs
A year after owning one of the top offenses in college football, Auburn finished seventh in the SEC in scoring and ranked 10th in passing. Youth and roster turnover contributed to the offensive struggles, but the Tigers failed to show much progress last year. If Auburn wants to contend for the SEC West crown once again, new coordinator Scot Loeffler will have to find some improvement from the passing attack. Frazier played in all 13 games last season, but completed only 41.7 percent of his throws. He was used mostly as a runner, recording 327 yards and three scores on the ground. Frazier ranked as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2011 recruiting class, but is far from a finished product. With a talented offensive line and receiver Emory Blake returning, Frazier has some pieces to work with, but has to prove he can be a consistent passer to move higher on this list.
13. Maxwell Smith, Kentucky (SO)
Passing Stats: 819 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 54.9%
Rushing Stats: 20 att., -109 yards, 0 TD
Smith heads into his sophomore year as the default starter for Joker Phillips. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder got his baptism into SEC football in November last year. Smith went 1-3 in four games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia. He attempted between 31 and 36 passes in each game and posted easily his best performance in the win over the Rebels. He threw for a career high 283 yards and two scores in the 30-13 drubbing. With Morgan Newton recovering from injury, Smith is the leader in the clubhouse to start. However, anything could go with Phillips’ offense in 2012 as the head coach tries to save his job.
14. Barry Brunetti, Ole Miss (JR)
Passing Stats: 144 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 54.3%
Rushing Stats: 33 att., 110 yards, 0 TD
It was a miserable all-around season last year in Oxford. The Rebels finished 2-10, which included a winless season in SEC play. The offense was largely to blame, as three quarterbacks received extended snaps, but none was able to emerge as the No. 1 starter. Brunetti completed 19 of 35 throws for 144 yards last year and added 110 yards on the ground. New coach Hugh Freeze had a high-scoring offense at Arkansas State but has a lot of work to do to replicate that at Ole Miss. Junior college transfer Bo Wallace is neck-and-neck with Brunetti for the No. 1 spot and both passers could see significant snaps. Until proven otherwise, the Rebels have one of the worst quarterback situations in the SEC.
Other SEC Spring Preview Content:
Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012
Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat