Few Arkansas fans would have been bold enough to predict last summer that Razorbacks senior Brandon Allen would arguably rank as the best quarterback in college football.
However, going by ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating metric, that’s exactly what Allen was in 2015. He 87.9 adjusted QBR (accounting for quality of defenses faced) was the best of any FBS quarterback, and his 81.6 raw QBR (not weighted by the strength of opposing defenses) still ranked fourth nationally.
Now Allen is chasing an NFL paycheck -- and he’s not alone among the SEC’s top quarterbacks. The conference had five of the nation’s top 24 quarterbacks in Total QBR last season, and three -- Allen, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Alabama’s Jake Coker -- were seniors.
Today we’ll look at the statistical void they leave behind and the players who could replace them, plus another handful of the SEC’s top quarterback battles as spring practice approaches.
1. ARKANSAS: On one hand, Arkansas has some promising options to replace Allen. On the other, there is a tremendous experience void since he took nearly every snap last season. Allen handled the ball on 454 action plays while passing for 3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His backup, younger brother Austin Allen, posted a 71.5 QBR while handling all of three action plays. Perhaps the younger Allen is the favorite since he has been around longer, but redshirt freshmen Ricky Town and Ty Storey should make this a battle despite their lack of college experience.
2. MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs’ offense for the last two-plus season was essentially the Dak Prescott Show, so Mississippi State’s dual-threat QB might be the conference’s single most difficult player to replace in 2016. He ranked 11th nationally in Total QBR (81.1) last season, and between running and passing, few quarterbacks had to make a decision with the ball more frequently than Prescott, who was sixth nationally with 660 action plays. No matter who wins the job -- sophomores Nick Fitzgerald (85.8 QBR) and Elijah Staley (79.3) and junior Damian Williams (13.3 in 2014 before redshirting last season) are the leading candidates -- he won’t have anywhere near Prescott’s on-field experience.
3. ALABAMA: Say what you will about Alabama being mediocre at quarterback last season -- you would not be entirely wrong -- Coker was outstanding when it mattered most. The senior was a combined 59-for-81 (72.8 percent) for 825 yards and six touchdowns against Florida, Michigan State and Clemson as the Crimson Tide claimed a national title. Among the contenders to replace Coker are his leading competitor last year, Cooper Bateman (54.7), as well as David Cornwell. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett is another intriguing contender here.
4. TEXAS A&M: The Aggies are basically starting from scratch since both Kyle Allen (62.9) and Kyler Murray (55.0) opted to transfer after the season. Those are two enormous losses since Allen and Murray were among the top quarterback prospects in their respective recruiting classes, but the cupboard is not bare. In fact, A&M will actually start an upperclassman for the first time in years since Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight (36.7) and Jake Hubenak (59.6) appear to be the top two options.
5. FLORIDA: Just when it seemed Florida had found its quarterback of the future in Will Grier (67.9), he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs after six games and eventually transferred. His 2015 replacement, Treon Harris (54.0), was so obviously not the answer that he might play receiver this season. So in Florida’s case, the issue is not so much that it will be difficult to replace last season’s quarterback production as it is to find someone who will not be a liability. Purdue transfer Austin Appleby (44.8) is a veteran option along with Luke Del Rio (67.2 QBR in 2014 at Oregon State), plus freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks are already enrolled.
OTHER COMPETITIONS: Several other SEC programs are also preparing for some type of QB battle.
Take Georgia for example. Starter Greyson Lambert (67.6) and Brice Ramsey (38.2) are both back, and now they will battle early enrollee Jacob Eason, ESPN’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect for 2016 in one of the SEC’s most highly-anticipated competitions.
Then there are schools that added new faces to the mix this year. Auburn and South Carolina return quarterbacks who split snaps last season, although newcomers (namely John Franklin III at Auburn and Brandon McIlwain at South Carolina) will get their shots. Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Missouri and LSU all return quarterbacks who ended last season as starters, but new contenders could make things interesting there as well.
The bottom line is that the conference is littered with quarterback questions this spring. Some 2015 starters will be far more difficult to replace than others, but nearly every SEC school enters the 2016 season with some level of uncertainty at the position.
SEC QBs’ TOTAL QBR NATIONAL RANKINGS
1. Brandon Allen, Arkansas/87.9
4. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss */87.0
11. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State/81.1
16. Josh Dobbs, Tennessee */78.0
24. Jake Coker, Alabama/74.9
41. Brandon Harris, LSU */67.7
43. Greyson Lambert, Georgia */67.6
55. Perry Orth, South Carolina */63.5
58. Kyle Allen, Texas A&M/62.9
74. Patrick Towles, Kentucky/54.8
77. Treon Harris, Florida */54.0
109. Johnny McCrary, Vanderbilt/40.1
117. Drew Lock, Missouri */33.3
* -- Returning player