Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Thursday, August 21, 2014
Updated: August 22, 10:03 AM ET
Grading each SEC QB situation

By David Ching
ESPN.com

Last year was possibly the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks. From Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron to Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, the conference was loaded with a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champ, school record-holders and NFL draft picks. Things are a little different this year. Outside of Auburn, most schools are dealing with major questions under center. Where do things stand as the season gets ready to kick off? Here's a look at how things went last year, what to watch for this year and a projected grade for how each team's quarterbacks will do in 2014.

The Established Star

Nick Marshall, Auburn Tigers
2013 in review: Marshall made a huge splash in his first season as the Tigers' starter, rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and passing for another 1,976 yards and 14 scores as Auburn stunned the college football world by reaching the BCS championship game. He also completed one of the most memorable plays in Auburn football history when his tipped pass to Ricardo Louis went for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to beat Georgia.
What to watch: One of the Tigers' big points of emphasis since the end of last season has been improving the passing game. Marshall and the rushing attack are lethal, but there were times Marshall was simply not accurate enough when the Tigers desperately needed a completion. If he shows in the opener against Arkansas that he's more than just a runner who can occasionally pull a rabbit out of his hat with one of his highlight-reel completions, Marshall might actually contend for the Heisman.
Projected 2014 grade: A

The Heisman Darkhorse

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State Bulldogs
2013 in review: Although he dealt with an elbow injury for part of the season, Prescott (829 rushing yards, 13 TDs, 156-267 passing, 1,940 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs) emerged as one of the SEC's top dual-threat quarterbacks. In 11 games, he led the Bulldogs in rushing and passing and finished the year by leading Mississippi State to an overtime win against rival Ole Miss; he then won MVP honors in the Liberty Bowl victory against Rice by going 17-for-28 for 283 yards, rushing for 78 yards and accounting for five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing).
What to watch: Health is the key factor with Prescott, who sometimes looks like Cam Newton when he's healthy. He got some horrible news earlier this week, though, when the guys entrusted with protecting him -- the offensive line -- learned they will be without right tackle Damien Robinson this season because of a torn ACL. Mississippi State's offensive line depth was already razor thin, so keep an eye on that group early in the season. If the Bulldogs are still able to move the ball effectively, they could have a big season with Prescott leading the way.
Projected 2014 grade: B+

Potential Breakout Stars

Maty Mauk, Missouri Tigers
2013 in review: Mauk (68-133, 1,071 yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs) came off the bench for an injured James Franklin and led Missouri to a big win at Georgia. He then went 3-1 as a starter (with wins against Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky and an overtime loss to South Carolina) before Franklin returned to the lineup. Mauk was an easy choice as the quarterback on the SEC All-Freshman team.
What to watch: We know Mauk can chuck it, but who will catch those passes? Luckily, he has several weeks to figure out a solution. Mirroring last season's schedule that paved the way for an SEC East title run, the Tigers open the season with a paper-thin slate of four straight nonconference games (South Dakota State, Toledo, a Central Florida team that lost major firepower, and Indiana). By the time the Tigers visit South Carolina on Sept. 27, Mauk needs to have developed a strong rapport with the receiving corps. Otherwise, this might become a middling season at Mizzou.
Projected 2014 grade: A-

Bo Wallace, Ole Miss Rebels
2013 in review: The old man among quarterbacks in the league, Wallace (283-437, 3,346 yards, 18 TDs, 10 INTs, 355 rushing yards, 6 TDs) is far and away the SEC's most experienced starter with 26 starts (Florida's Jeff Driskel is second with 15). This will be Wallace's third season as the Rebels' starter after taking nearly every important snap last season and leading Ole Miss to its second straight bowl win.
What to watch: The Rebels will face Boise State in one of the marquee games of college football season's opening weekend, Aug. 28. The Broncos finished 88th nationally in pass defense last season (249.2 yards per game) and 75th in total defense (413.4 ypg), so this might be Wallace's night to shine. Ole Miss can use September as a warm-up, but the schedule gets brutal starting in October. The Rebels need Wallace and the offense to be in full gear by then. If things are clicking when Alabama arrives in Oxford on Oct. 4, Ole Miss might actually turn out to be the SEC West contender some believe it can be.
Projected 2014 grade: B+

It's Now Or Never

Hutson Mason, Georgia Bulldogs
2013 in review: Mason (67-110, 968 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs) went 1-1 as a starter at the end of last season after replacing the injured Aaron Murray. He rallied the Bulldogs from 20 points down to beat rival Georgia Tech before falling against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
What to watch: The first two games will probably tell the tale on Mason. The Bulldogs open at home against Clemson and then visit South Carolina two weeks later. That's as tough a two-game stretch to open the season as any quarterback in the country will face. He'll benefit from the experience he gained at the end of last season, but it wasn't all good. Mason must play much more consistently than he did in those two games in order for the Bulldogs to start 2-0.

Projected 2014 grade: B+

Dylan Thompson, South Carolina Gamecocks
2013 in review: Thompson (52-89, 783 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs) played in 10 games last season and started once. Among the highlights were his performances off the bench against Central Florida (15-32, 261 yards, INT, TD run) and Vanderbilt (7-9, 75 yards, INT, TD run).
What to watch: Thompson is 3-0 as a starter at South Carolina, including 1-0 last season -- but that's a slightly deceptive stat. The win last season came against Missouri, and it was an enormous victory, but it was 2013 senior Connor Shaw who led the Gamecocks' rally to an overtime win. Thompson was 15-for-27 for 222 yards and an interception, but he made a couple of bad decisions that caused Steve Spurrier to turn to Shaw in the third quarter. South Carolina has plenty of talent on offense, so it can't afford to have Thompson playing like a gunslinger very often. If he plays with composure, the Gamecocks should contend for the Eastern Division title.
Projected 2014 grade: B

Welcome To The Club

Jake Coker, Alabama Crimson Tide
2013 in review: Coker hasn't beaten out Blake Sims for the starting job yet, but his move to Tuscaloosa is the talk of the conference. After losing the quarterback battle against Jameis Winston at Florida State, Coker (18-36, 250 yards, INT) played in seven games as a backup for the national champion Seminoles. With Heisman Trophy winner Winston still entrenched as the starter, Coker graduated from FSU over the summer and transferred to Alabama, where he'll have two seasons of eligibility remaining. 
What to watch: We're operating under the assumption Coker actually wins this job. That was a common supposition over the summer, but Saban hasn't gone so far as to name him the starter yet. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see both Coker and Sims play in the opener against West Virginia -- and if one of them outplays the other, this battle might swing severely in one direction.
Projected 2014 grade: B

Something To Prove

Brandon Allen, Arkansas Razorbacks
2013 in review: Allen (128-258, 1,552 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs) was at the offensive helm for one of the worst seasons in the modern era of Arkansas football. The Fayetteville native's first season as a starter could not have been much rockier than it was, but he has reportedly progressed since an injury-filled 2013 -- and nobody else is ready to threaten the veteran for the starting job.
What to watch: Allen has described Arkansas' SEC-worst average of 148.5 passing yards per game last season as "rock bottom." It didn't help that he struggled all season with a shoulder injury suffered in Game 3 against Southern Miss. We'll get a good idea of whether Allen is a changed man this season when the Razorbacks open against defending SEC champion Auburn. If he's got some zip on his passes and is in command of the offense on Aug. 30, the Razorbacks' offense might have some extra punch this fall.
Projected 2014 grade: D

Jeff Driskel, Florida Gators
2013 in review: Florida was already off to a rocky start on offense last season when Driskel (42-61, 477 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) broke his leg while throwing a pick-six in Game 3 against Tennessee. Driskel had a decent first season as the Gators' starter in 2012, passing for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions while also rushing for 408 yards and four scores on a team that played in the Sugar Bowl.
What to watch: After ranking 107th nationally with 170.9 passing yards per game last season, Florida coach Will Muschamp hired Kurt Roper as his new offensive coordinator to call plays that suit Driskel's spread-centric skill set. His up-tempo attack will be on full display in a manageable opener against Idaho. In fact, the Gators start with three home games (Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Kentucky) that should be a nice warm-up for Roper's offense before a Sept. 20 date at Alabama. If the Gators are clicking by then, this could be a much more interesting season than last fall's 4-8 record would indicate.
Projected 2014 grade: C+

Competition Winners

Kenny Hill, Texas A&M Aggies
2013 in review: A sophomore, Hill (16-22, 183 yards, TD) played a small role behind Johnny Manziel and Matt Joeckel last season, appearing in four games as a reserve. But Hill's experience helped him outpace Kyle Allen in the race to succeed Johnny Football.
What to watch: Hill, the son of former Major League Baseball pitcher Ken Hill, was a dual-threat superstar in high school at Texas prep powerhouse Southlake Carroll but did not rank among the biggest names in recruiting circles. Sound familiar? That was the general narrative concerning Manziel when he stormed onto the scene and won a Heisman Trophy in 2012. We're not saying Hill is the next Manziel-type playmaker -- those guys don't come around often -- but if he can simulate some of Johnny Football's skills as a runner and thrower and maintain the up-tempo pace, the Aggies' offense could still remain lethal.
Projected 2014 grade: B-

Patton Robinette, Vanderbilt Commodores
2013 in review: Robinette, a sophomore, completed 46 of 88 passes for 642 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions in 2013. He was named starting quarterback by new coach Derek Mason on Thursday, beating out a list of competitors including LSU transfer Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Mason said on Monday that he wants to make a decision on the starter soon.
What to watch: Robinette will need to catch up quickly. The Commodores host Temple in their Aug. 28 opener, but then Ole Miss will visit Nashville the following week. Because Mason is a brand-new coach at Vandy, and because the Commodores will break in a brand-new quarterback and numerous new players at the skill positions, it's nearly impossible to know what to expect from this team. But if the Commodores start with a bang against Temple, that Sept. 6 Ole Miss game instantly becomes more intriguing.
Projected 2014 grade: C

Patrick Towles, Kentucky Wildcats
2013 in review: Towles redshirted last season as a sophomore and used the time since then to smooth out the rough edges offensive coordinator Neal Brown and coach Mark Stoops identified in his game after he lost a preseason quarterback competition. He played in five games as a freshman in 2012 and completed 19 of 40 passes for 233 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
What to watch: Kentucky hasn't had a quarterback go a full season as the starter since Andre Woodson in 2007. Not a great sign for Mr. Towles. So if the offensive line fails to keep the current starter upright, the ongoing competition for the backup job will be worth watching. Not that competition is particularly new for Kentucky's quarterbacks. This was the third quarterback competition in which Towles had participated, and he was finally the victor.
Projected 2014 grade: C-

Justin Worley, Tennessee Volunteers
2013 in review: Worley (109-196, 1,239 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs) started seven of the first eight games before suffering a season-ending thumb injury in the first half of the Alabama game. After an unimpressive start to the season, Worley had started to come on by nearly leading the Volunteers to an upset of Georgia and then beating South Carolina in the very next game. With 10 career starts, Worley won out in a preseason quarterback competition over a host of less experienced candidates.
What to watch: Worley acknowledged this summer that building some early continuity will be the key to whether Tennessee experiences any offensive success this season. The Vols had better get cracking early against Utah State and Arkansas State because there are a couple of tough stretches on the schedule after that -- namely the Oklahoma-Georgia-Florida run with a stretch of Ole Miss-Alabama-South Carolina not long after that. If the line comes together and the Vols' young playmakers build some early confidence, perhaps they'll have a chance against those conference heavyweights. Otherwise, it might be a "wait-till-next-year" kind of season in Knoxville.
Projected 2014 grade: C-

Still On The Clock

LSU Tigers
Contenders: Anthony Jennings (13-29, 181 yards, TD, INT) seemed like a solid bet to succeed Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter when he led the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive last season against Arkansas after Mettenberger went down with a knee injury. That was before Jennings gave a flat performance against Iowa in the Outback Bowl and then tossed a pair of pick-sixes in the Tigers' spring game -- a day when he was clearly outplayed by early enrollee Brandon Harris. The two quarterbacks have battled for the starting position since Harris arrived in January, and LSU's coaches have yet to name a starter.
What to watch: It's entirely possible that Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron won't name a starter until just before the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. And once the Tigers take the field, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for both players to line up under center at some point. If that happens, the competition might play out in front of our eyes. But the coaches have not tipped their hands about what to expect just yet.
Projected 2014 grade: B-