SEC: Michael Scarnecchia

You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.

South Carolina spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
4/30/14
6:00
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the South Carolina Gamecocks:

1. Offense is deep: As long as fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson stays healthy, South Carolina shouldn’t have many issues on offense. The backfield is deep and talented with Mike Davis leading the way. The offensive line is loaded with future NFL players. Although Bruce Ellington turned pro, the receiving corps features plenty of explosive options. With Steve Spurrier at the controls, it should be an entertaining year to watch the Gamecocks move the ball in a wide variety of ways.

2. Linebacker will be a strength: South Carolina’s defense certainly has some holes to fill, but the linebackers are a proven commodity. Three of the Gamecocks’ top-five tacklers return in Skai Moore, Kaiwan Lewis and Marcquis Roberts. It's a deep group of playmakers who could carry the defense while some new faces finds their way early in the season.

3. Defense has a lot to prove: Losing one of the best defensive talents ever to don garnet and black, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will obviously be a blow. Same with defensive linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton and cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Those guys were the rocks of a solid South Carolina defense last season, and their absences were evident in the spring game when the defenses surrendered 6.5 yards per play and 16.8 yards per completion. The cupboard isn’t bare, but the Gamecocks still must fill a lot of holes.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Who takes over at cornerback? This seems to be the most likely position where a freshman might earn immediate playing time. The Gamecocks added a slew of talented cornerbacks -- including three of their four highest-rated signees in ESPN’s rankings, Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith and Wesley Green -- and struggled a bit at the position during the spring without Hampton and Legree. Safety Brison Williams and Rico McWilliams started at corner in the spring game, and Jamari Smith might be another name to watch. But it’s clear that nothing is settled at the position as of now.

2. Who backs up Thompson? Spring practice proved that Thompson is head and shoulders above the competition at quarterback. But who steps in if the senior suffers an injury? Connor Mitch is one option. Brendan Nosovitch and Perry Orth are others. Not yet on campus is a fourth option, signee Michael Scarnecchia. Thompson has already played a lot while sharing time with the departed Connor Shaw, but the reserves are a completely unproven bunch.

3. Might this be the SEC’s best backfield? The star power at Alabama and Georgia attracts more attention, but the talent in South Carolina’s backfield is nothing to sneeze at. Davis proved himself as a tough runner and home run threat last season, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns before fading late because of injury issues. In Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson, the Gamecocks have another two SEC-caliber backs, and the Gamecocks’ coaches seem excited about adding redshirt freshman David Williams to the mix. The depth here is excellent, and the backs will be running behind a stout offensive line. That should make for a highly productive running game in the fall.

One way-too-early prediction:

This is the golden age of South Carolina football, and Spurrier will add another impressive chapter this season. Namely, the Gamecocks’ streak of three straight seasons with at least 11 wins will grow to four. Although Lorenzo Ward’s defense has a lot to prove, the offense should be good enough to help the D hit its stride like it did as last season progressed. Plenty of preseason publications will name South Carolina as the favorite to win the SEC East, and that’s for good reason. Spurrier’s staff has built one of the league’s most consistent programs, and it should once again rank among the top contenders this season.

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