Quarterback is often cited as the most important position in sports.
Below we rank the QB situation at each Southeastern Conference football program. Obviously, an entrenched and established proven starter is the most valuable commodity, but those are in short supply this season.
Mississippi with Chad Kelly and Tennessee with Joshua Dobbs feel good, but there are reasons for cautious optimism or panic at the SEC’s other 12 schools — including Missouri, where sophomore Lee’s Summit High graduate Drew Lock returns for his second season as starter.
This isn’t meant to be a ranking of who has the best NFL prospects or even who will have the best season, but of how comfortable the staff might feel about the QB position as 2016 dawns.
Talent, experience, depth, a team’s track record developing the position and history of success with quarterbacks at the college level all factored into where each team ultimately landed in The Star’s unscientific ranking:
THE STAR’S SEC QB POSITION GROUP RANKINGS
Editor’s note: () indicates first, second or third team on team depth chart
1. Mississippi Rebels
Depth chart: (1) Chad Kelly, senior, 6-2, 224; (2) Shea Patterson, freshman, 6-2, 200; -OR- Jason Pellerin, redshirt freshman, 6-4, 230.
Stats & analysis: Kelly is the only returning QB with SEC experience on Ole Miss’ roster, but after throwing for 4,042 yards — 10th-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season — that’s a pretty good place to start. Kelly completed 298 of 458 passes, a brisk 65.1 completion percentage, with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. He’s the best returning starter at the position in the conference.
Insider’s view from Daniel Paulling, The Clarion-Ledger beat writer: Chad Kelly returned to Ole Miss for his final season after experiencing perhaps the best year for an Ole Miss quarterback. The SEC hasn’t seen somebody produce like him since Johnny Manziel in 2012-13 — in a good way. Kelly threw for more than 4,000 yards and will have a group of talented wide receivers, even if he doesn’t have Laquon Treadwell anymore. Kelly should only be better in his second season in the offense, which was the best in the SEC last season.
2. Tennessee Volunteers
Depth chart: (1) Joshua Dobbs, senior, 6-3, 210; (2) Quinten Dormady, sophomore, 6-4, 216.
Stats & analysis: Dobbs is the unquestioned leader of the Volunteers and his performance will dictate if many ways if coach Butch Jones’ squad finally cashes in its potential for a trip to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee hasn’t appeared in the conference title game since 2007. He was 205 of 344 for 2,291 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions last season, adding another 671 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Dormady appeared in seven games, going 13 of 22 for 209 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions last season in spot duty.
Insider’s view from Grant Ramey, Tennessee beat writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel: Senior Joshua Dobbs, one of four team captains, returns for his second year as the starting quarterback. He has over 4,000 passing yards and over 1,700 rushing yards in his Tennessee career and has 46 total touchdowns. Tennessee’s offense goes as he goes, both through the air and on the ground.
Sophomore Quinten Dormady, the No. 2 QB as Butch Jones announced this week, is a strong-armed pocket passer. Maybe has the best arm of any Tennessee QB.
Freshman Jarrett Guarantano pushed Dormady for the backup role. He’s a 4-star signee from the suburbs of New York City and is the future at the position for Tennessee with a strong, accurate arm and a natural athlete with constant threat to run. If you built a QB to run Butch Jones’ offense, it’s Guarantano.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Depth chart: (1) Cooper Bateman, junior, 6-3, 220; -OR- Blake Barnett, redshirt freshman, 6-5, 211; -OR- Jalen Hurts, freshman, 6-2, 209.
Stats & analysis: Bateman backed up Jake Coker last season and appeared in all 15 games, going 37 of 52 for 291 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. All three guys in the starting mix on the official depth chart are four-star prospects, so there’s plenty of talent offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to work with and the Tide’s track record with first-year starters under Nick Saban is terrific. Three of Bama’s last four first-year starters — Greg McElroy (2009), A.J. McCarron (2011) and Coker (2015) — have won national titles. That’s probably more a reflection of the talent around the QBs and within the program than a statement about the QBs as first-year starters, but Saban doesn’t rebuild. He reloads.
Insider’s view from Rainer Sabin, Alabama beat writer for AL.com: Nick Saban has remained coy about who will start the season opener against Southern California. But he narrowed the field of candidates down to two players — Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett. Bateman, a redshirt junior, is the only quarterback with any experience on the roster. Last season, he completed 71 percent of his 52 pass attempts for 291 yards.
Barnett, a redshirt freshman from California, was a five-star prospect. Saban has shown in the past he’s hesitant to throw young players into the fire. So, Bateman appears the favorite to win the job and take the field against the Trojans.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
Depth chart: (1) Trevor Knight, senior, 6-1, 215; (2) Jake Hubenak, junior, 6-3, 215.
Stats & analysis: Quarterback defections were big issue for A&M last season, which lost two star recruits at the position in Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen. That was on the heels of Kenny Hill’s departure after the 2014 season. Fortunately for coach Kevin Sumlin, Murray’s exit for Oklahoma almost worked out like a trade with the Aggies landing Knight in return.
Knight was a two-year starter, at least part-time for the Sooners, before being supplanted by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield last season. Knight was only 22 of 40 for 305 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in six games last season.
Before that, he completed 79 of 134 passes for 819 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions as a freshman in 2013, including an MVP performance as the Sooners upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that season. As a sophomore, Knight was 179 of 316 for 2,300 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 10 starts.
Hubenak appeared in six games, completing 40 of 75 passes for 399 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in limited duty last season.
Insider’s view from Ben Baby, colleges beat writer for The Dallas Morning News: Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight’s career game came against an SEC program. But after he helped the Sooners beat Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl to cap his sophomore season, he lost his job to Baker Mayfield. Now at A&M, he’s out to show he can be a starter at the Power Five level. Jake Hubenak, who started last year’s bowl loss to Louisville after Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) and Kyle Allen (Houston) transferred, is next up on the depth chart.
5. LSU Tigers
Depth chart: (1) Brandon Harris, junior, 6-3, 218; (2) Danny Etling, junior, 6-0, 215; (3) Lindsey Scott Jr., freshman, 5-11, 210; -OR- Justin McMillan, redshirt freshman, 6-2, 196; -OR- Caleb Lewis, redshirt freshman, 6-4, 218.
Stats & analysis: Harris went 148 of 276 for 2,158 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions last season as a first-time starter. The numbers aren’t horrifying, but considering the run game LSU had he was viewed as the weak link for a disappointing offense. Harris appeared in eight games as a freshman, finishing 25 of 45 for 452 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions, but he’s going to need to make a big leap if coach Les Miles’ crew is going to realize its national-title dreams.
Insider’s view from Jim Kleinpeter, LSU beat writer for The Times-Picayune: Brandon Harris is the key to the LSU offense. He made strides with his poise last year, his first as a starter, but needs to improve his decision-making. His ability to check down to tight ends and backs will improve his short game, the missing piece of the LSU offense in 2015.
6. Georgia Bulldogs
Depth chart: (1) Greyson Lambert, senior, 6-5, 234; -OR- Brice Ramsey, junior, 6-3, 210; -OR- Jacob Eason, freshman, 6-5, 235.
Stats & analysis: Lambert, a graduate-student transfer from Virginia before the 2015 season, completed 162 of 256 passes for 1,959 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 games last season. He was effective, but didn’t provide much dynamic playmaking ability and probably has the least upside on the roster.
Eason is clearly the future and almost certainly will play some, even if he doesn’t start, but there’s ample evidence that slogging through the SEC is an exceedingly tough road for a true freshman quarterback. Lambert’s experience might give him an edge early in the season as first-year coach Kirby Smart evaluates Eason’s development.
The seldom-used Ramsey, who is 45 of 74 for 582 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions in 19 games during the last two seasons, is a luxury to have for depth purposes.
Insider’s view Marc Weiszer, Georgia beat writer for the Athens Banner-Herald: Heralded freshman Jacob Eason could start the opener against North Carolina, a move that is sure to excite fans. First-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart hasn’t announced a decision yet, but Eason worked as the No. 1 quarterback last week. Then, fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert got first-team reps beginning Monday of game week. Lambert went 10-2 as the starter last year but is more of a game manager and the Bulldogs were 104th in the nation in passing last season.
7. Florida Gators
Depth chart: (1) Luke Del Rio, sophomore, 6-1, 211; (2) Austin Appleby, senior, 6-4, 240; (3) Feleipe Franks, freshman, 6-6, 219; -OR- Kyle Trask, freshman, 6-4, 238.
Stats & analysis: Former Florida starting quarterback Treon Harris decided to transfer in July rather than go through with the switch to wide receiver, a move the Gators tinkered with in spring practice. He was 9-6 as Florida’s quarterback, but he’s gone and a new era of incoming transfer quarterbacks begins.
Del Rio — the son of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, who started his career as a walk-on at Alabama in 2013 — went 8 of 18 for 141 yards as a freshman at Oregon State in 2014 then sat out last season after heading 3,000 miles south and east. He’ll be making his first career start Saturday against Massachusetts. “At age 21, he is unproven but has won the confidence of coaches and teammates,” Edgar Thompson, Florida beat writer for the Orlando Sentinel, said.
Meanwhile, Appleby, a graduate-student transfer from Purdue, has logged considerably more time, going 119 of 207 for 1,260 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in five games last season. For his three-year career with the Boilermakers, he completed 268 of 485 passes — 55.5 percent — for 2,777 yards with 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 17 games. He’s a more-than-suitable backup.
It remains to be seen how either fares in second-year UF coach Jim McElwain’s system, but there’s certainly depth at the position with true freshman Feleipe Franks — who also had offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, LSU and dozens of other schools — possibly have the highest ceiling at the position for the reigning SEC East champs.
Insider’s view from Kevin Brockway, Florida beat writer at the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun: Florida coach Jim McElwain named redshirt sophomore QB Luke Del Rio the starter last week. Del Rio, a transfer from Oregon State and the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, beat out Purdue transfer and redshirt senior Austin Appleby and true freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.
Del Rio redshirted at UF last season and was on the scout team, which gave him a leg up in the competition. In UF’s spring game, Del Rio had the best numbers of the four quarterbacks, completing 10 of 11 passes for 176 yards and 2 TDs. McElwain said he’s open to playing all four QBs in UF’s opener against Massachusetts.
8. Missouri Tigers
Depth chart: (1) Drew Lock, sophomore, 6-4, 220; (2) Marvin Zanders, sophomore, 6-1, 200.
Stats & analysis: Lock went 2-6 as a starter last season, finishing the season with six straight losses during conference play. It was a struggle as Lock’s final stats — 129 of 263 for 1,332 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions — attest. But he’s benefitted from new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s tutelage and, by the coach staff’s accounts, is a transformed player physically and in his approach to the position.
Zanders brings a higher degree of athleticism and figures to see the field more in 2016 n after appearing only once — in a goal-line set during a downpour against Mississippi State — last season.
Insider’s view from Tod Palmer, Mizzou beat writer for The Kansas City Star: Lock is the only player with starting experience, but he was widely consider a future NFL prospect entering college and still has the physical tools that merited such lofty expectations. If there’s a quarterback in the league poised to make the biggest leap in 2016, it probably is Lock. Of course, his performance won’t occur in a vacuum. The Tigers’ offensive line must play better, the running game must contribute and the wide receivers need to get open then make plays after the ball’s delivered.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks
Depth chart: (1) Austin Allen, junior, 6-1, 209; (2) Ty Storey, redshirt freshman, 6-2, 212.
Stats & analysis: Allen is the younger brother of former Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen, a three-year starter and current Jaguars rookie. The elder Allen turned into one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks last season, but it took several seasons of hard knocks to get there. The younger Allen wasn’t thrown into the fire quite as quickly, but he’s also only 9 of 19 for 188 yards with a touchdown and interception in eight career games, three of which came last season. The backup entering spring football, Rafe Peavey from Bolivar, Mo., opted to transfer to SMU during training camp.
Insider’s view from Bob Holt, Arkansas beat writer at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Bret Bielema named Austin Allen the starter about midway through spring practice and he’s done nothing to lose the job. He’s by far the best QB right now and the only one on the team with any game experience, but he doesn’t have much. He’s played just eight games off the bench in two seasons as the No. 2 QB … (but) Austin has a strong arm and is a confident guy.
The No. 2 QB is Ty Storey, a redshirt freshman. True freshman Cole Kelley is 6-feet-7 and has a big arm. He might play this season if needed, but ideally he’d redshirt. Ricky Town, the hotshot transfer from USC, hasn’t been so hot. He’s fourth-team, but just a redshirt freshman. He enrolled at USC in January 2015, but transferred to Arkansas in August 2015 right when school started, so he was a true freshman last year but had to redshirt after he transferred. Not that he would have played anyway.
10. Auburn Tigers
Depth chart: (1) Sean White, sophomore, 6-0, 200; (2) Jeremy Johnson, senior, 6-5, 234; -OR- John Franklin III, junior, 6-1, 186.
Stats & analysis: If the theory that all experience is good experience, Auburn’s in decent shape. White went 83 of 143 for 1,167 yards with a touchdown and four interceptions last season. Johnson was 95 of 157 for 1,054 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Both surely learned from last season despite the team’s offensive struggles. It’s a bit like Missouri QB Drew Lock, who wasn’t good last season but got a taste of the college game and hopes to put some hard lessons to use in a better 2016 season.
Insider’s view from Tom Green, Auburn beat reporter for AL.com: Auburn just named a starter last Thursday, nine days before it opens against Clemson. It was the most drawn-out QB battle of coach Gus Malzahn’s coaching career. Third-year sophomore Sean White came out on top, edging senior Jeremy Johnson (last year’s starter entering the year) and junior college transfer John Franklin III.
White started six games last year after Johnson was benched and was a steady hand for the offense, but never really wowed. He dealt with a knee and foot injury most of the second half of the season, and that affected his play. He’s healthy now and is probably the safest choice Auburn could have made. He should be an efficient passer and game-manager, but questions remain as to whether he can bring that added dimension with his legs running the zone-read — and Malzahn stressed as recent as last week that the QB is going to have to run more this year.
They’ll still likely have packages for Franklin and, if White struggles or is injured, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Franklin take over at some point this season.
11. Vanderbilt Commodores
Depth chart: (1) Kyle Shurmur, sophomore, 6-4, 223; (2) Wade Freebeck, junior, 6-5, 225.
Stats & analysis: Shurmur emerged as Vandy’s starter late last season and finished the campaign 44 of 103 for 503 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Much like Missouri’s Drew Lock, it was a rough introduction to college football, but also perhaps provides a launching point for better things.
Freebeck has appeared in seven games during the last two seasons, completing 36 of 78 passes for 402 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions, so the Commodores are counting on Shurmur big time.
Insider’s view from Adam Sparks, Vanderbilt beat writer for The Tennessean: Sophomore Kyle Shurmur is the undisputed starter. He started five of the final six games in 2015 after taking off his redshirt at midseason, and he was clearly the best of the bunch at season’s end. He must raise his completion percentage from 42.7 last season, but he’s looked pretty good in preseason camp. (I think that number was somewhat a product of a small sample size.) Anyway, Shurmur was named the starter in July, and he’s only solidified that spot in camp.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig gave him “one-third” more of a playbook than a year ago, and he’s grasped it well. They believe they can be competitive in the SEC with Shurmur under center. His priority is ball protection, because Vandy has suffered through terrible turnover issues in Derek Mason’s two seasons.
The best stat on Shurmur so far is that he’s 2-2 in SEC games as a starter. The other four starting QBs under Mason were 0-12 in SEC play. Shurmur should have a little more help this year. C.J. Duncan, the team's best WR in 2014, is back after a torn Achilles’ kept him out last season. And athletic tight ends DeAndre Woods (torn ACL) and Jared Pinkney (collarbone) are also back after 2015 injuries.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks
Depth chart: (1) Perry Orth, senior, 6-1, 200; -OR- Brandon McIlwain, freshman, 6-0, 205; -OR- Jake Bentley, freshman, 6-3, 223.
Stats & analysis: Orth went 1-7 as a starter last season, finishing his junior campaign 143 of 261 for 1,929 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. They are eye-popping numbers, but he’s a heady player and the only veteran presence the Gamecocks have under center. Orth’s backups — including highly touted Brandon McIlwain, the No. 118 player in the 2016 ESPN 300 recruiting rankings — are both true freshmen.
Insider’s view from Ben Breiner, South Carolina beat writer at The State: The Gamecocks are going into their season-opener against Vanderbilt with a high possibility of playing two passers. Veteran Perry Orth has the experience, but true freshman Brandon McIlwain has a higher ceiling and adds an element with his legs. First-year coach Will Muschamp said he might not tell the players who is starting until the team is in Nashville.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
Depth chart: (1) Drew Barker, sophomore, 6-3, 225; (2) Stephen Johnson, junior, 6-2, 183.
Stats & analysis: Last season’s starter, Patrick Towles, opted to transfer to Boston College for his final season after graduating from Kentucky. That leaves Barker as the heir apparent for the Wildcats. He completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions as a freshman last season.
Johnson started his career at Grambling, where he was a redshirt in 2013 and completed 59 of 105 passes for 723 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions in nine games.
Insider’s view from John Clay, sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader: For the first time in Mark Stoops’ four years as head coach, Kentucky came into camp knowing the identity of its starting quarterback. A highly-touted recruit in 2014, sophomore Drew Barker takes over an offense expected to improve. Barker just needs to live up to his press clippings.
14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Depth chart: (1) Damian Williams, junior, 6-1, 229; -OR- Nick Fitzgerald, sophomore, 6-5, 230; -OR- Nick Tiano, redshirt freshman, 6-4, 239.
Stats & analysis: Cowboys rookie (and possible starting QB) Dak Prescott was one of the most dynamic playmakers in the SEC last season, but Mississippi State is the poster child for returning to ground zero thanks to graduation. Williams started the Egg Bowl against rival Mississippi as a true freshman in 2013, but he redshirted last season. In 13 career games, Williams has completed 37 of 70 passes for 434 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Fitzgerald has appeared in eight games, completing 11 of 14 passes for 235 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s never played snaps with the game’s outcome still undecided.
Insider’s view from Michael Bonner, Mississippi State beat writer for The Clarion-Ledger: Mississippi State began preseason practices with four quarterback contenders, but Elijah Staley transferring left Damian Williams, Nick Fitzgerald and Nick Tiano as the remaining candidates. Bulldogs practices are closed until game week on Thursday. Dan Mullen expects to name a starter on Monday. Williams, a fourth-year junior, owns the most experience but the lowest ceiling. Fitzgerald, a redshirt sophomore, has the highest ceiling and biggest arm, but struggled in the spring producing the worst numbers. Tiano, a redshirt freshman, hasn't seen the field yet but many are already comparing his intangibles to Dak Prescott.