Depending on the part of the country you’re from, what happened New Year’s Day – Big Ten 2, State of Alabama 0 – is a sure sign that the king is king no more, that the demise of the Southeastern Conference is inevitable. If you throw in Michigan State’s win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to the wins by Ohio State and Wisconsin on New Year’s Day, then the Big Ten is feeling a surge of confidence it hasn’t felt in years. In the far west, the fact that Oregon is back in the national championship game for the second time since 2010 and favored to knock off Ohio State and you’ve got a national perception that the SEC has hit its plateau and it’s going to be a downhill slide for the next few years.
It’s probably a bit hasty to write off the SEC. Sure, it was a down year overall, evidenced by the SEC West going 2-5 in the bowls but the SEC East did go 5-0, which came as a major shock to everyone. And, if you read future performance into recruiting rankings, then the SEC won’t be down very long.
But, let’s talk about 2014 and what happened. There was no dominant team in the league this year largely because of two factors: (1) lack of outstanding quarterbacks and (2) the lack of lock down defenses. In 2013, the SEC had quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, all of whom were on NFL rosters in 2014. As for the defenses, just take a look at what happened during the bowl season. Arkansas and Georgia are the only teams that held a bowl opponent to less than 14 or fewer points and fewer than 400 yards. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama combined to give up 167 points.
Today, let’s look at the quarterbacks – what happened in 2014 and what’s in store for the future.
Florida: Treon Harris supplanted Jeff Driskel as the starter midway through the season and was an upgrade. He threw for 1,019 yards, nine touchdowns (four picks) and ran for 322 yards and three more TDs. Driskel threw for nine TDs to the good guys and threw 10 balls to the bad guys. He transferred to Louisiana Tech after the bowl game. Will Grier, the 2013 national high school player of the year, took a redshirt.
Analysis (Treading Water): Harris was adequate but was that the offense or that he’s just too small (5-10) for the position. Grier has better size and a terrific arm, but he played against poor high school competition. Both will be working under head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who both have a good track record working with quarterbacks. Florida desperately needs to sign one or two quarterbacks for this incoming class.
ALABAMA: It wasn’t until the Ohio State game that Blake Sims was exposed as an average quarterback surrounded by some outstanding talent. Sims did throw for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns but he threw 10 picks. Next year, Bama will turn to FSU transfer Jacob Coker, who languished on the bench behind Sims. The Tide is bringing in freshman recruit Blake Barnett, Scout.com’s #3 rated quarterback.
Analysis (Teading Water): Unless Coker is vastly improved or Barnett is ready to step in, Alabama is going to turn its quarterbacks into game managers.
ARKANSAS: Brandon Allen might have been the SEC’s most improved player in 2014 when he threw for 20 TDs and only five picks after completing less than 50% of his passes in 2013. He will return as the starter and should be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Allen’s younger brother Austin is the backup. The Razorbacks are bringing in recruit Ty Story, the #1 ranked quarterback in Arkansas and the #16 quarterback nationally by Scout.com.
Analysis (Trending Up): Allen is one of the reasons Arkansas will start the season ranked in everybody’s top 20.
AUBURN: Senior Nick Marshall passed for 20 touchdowns and ran for 11 but made crucial mistakes that cost the Tigers a couple of winnable games. Jeremy Johnson, who started the Arkansas game, isn’t the runner that Marshall was but he’s got a rocket of an arm. Watch for Auburn to throw more and run less option. Backup should be Jonathan Wallace. Top recruit Tyler Queen is the #1 quarterback recruit in Georgia and the #21 recruit nationally by Scout.com.
Analysis (Treading Water): Johnson will give the Tigers more of a vertical passing game but won’t be a threat in the read option. Queen probably isn’t going to redshirt.
GEORGIA: Hutson Mason was a game manager who rarely turned the ball over, but wasn’t the dynamic playmaker the Bulldogs needed. Brice Ramsey will enter spring football as the man to beat but he will be challenged by redshirt freshman Jacob Park.
Analysis (Treading Water): Ramsey has a better upside than Mason, but is going to have to fend off a challenge by Park. Both Ramsey and Park will be working under a new offensive coordinator although the offense shouldn’t change much. Unless one of these two can establish himself as a playmaker, expect their main job to be handing the ball off to Nick Chubb.
Kentucky: Sophomore Patrick Towles played brilliantly at times in a season in which he threw for 14 touchdowns and ran for 303 yards and six more. He will be the incumbent starter but will face a stiff challenge in the spring from redshirt freshman Drew Barker. Reese Phillips, the 2014 backup, will probably drop down to third string in the spring.
Analysis (Trending Up): Towles has a strong arm and good instincts as a runner, but he’s going to have a fight on his hands with Barker, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2014. Overall, Kentucky should be improved at the position.
LSU: Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris have shown flashes of playmaking ability but neither one has been able to play with any consistency. Of the two, Harris has the greater upside. Recruit Justin McMillan is Scout.com’s #48 quarterback in the nation.
Analysis (Treading Water): LSU has studs at running back and an outstanding wide receiver trio in Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn. If Jennings, Harris or McMillan can get the ball to the wide receivers with any consistency, the Tigers will have a vastly improved offense.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Dak Prescott was among the Heisman favorites until some late season mishaps. Still, he threw for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for 986 and 14 more. Dan Mullen really likes sophomore backup Damian Williams. Freshman recruit Nick Tiano, the #1 quarterback in Tennessee by Scout.com.
Analysis (Trending Up): Prescott is perhaps the nation’s #1 dual threat quarterback. He’s got to improve his accuracy throwing the ball, but he’s a playmaker. Williams is a star in the making.
Missouri: Maty Mauk won 11 games even though he was awful at times. Even so, he threw for 2,648 yards and 25 touchdowns although he was picked off 13 times. Backup is Eddie Printz, who rarely saw the field. Recruit Drew Lock is the #1 quarterback in Missouri and the #7 quarterback nationally by Scout.com.
Analysis (Trending Up): Mauk will be one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the league. If he learns not to force the ball into coverage he could be outstanding. Drew Lock might be too good to redshirt.
OLE MISS: The Rebels lose their three-year starter in Bo Wallace, who ranged from brilliant to bad. Davante Kincaid and Ryan Buchanan both saw the field in 2014 but they might remain backups behind incoming juco Chad Kelly, nephew of Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly. Recruit Jason Pellerin, Scout.com’s #32 quarterback in the nation.
Analysis (Trending Down): Kelly is being brought in to start but he’s already had a run-in with the law that is unsettled at this time. Kincade is a fine runner while Buchanan is a pocket passer. Unless Kelly resolves his issues, this will be a position of need in 2015.
South Carolina: Dylan Thompson threw for 3,574 yards and 26 touchdowns but couldn’t deliver in some of the bigger games. Connor Mitch is the designated replacement. As a prep, Mitch threw for more than 12,000 yards and 153 touchdowns. Recruit Lorenzo Nunez is the #2 quarterback in Georgia and the #22 quarterback nationally by Scout.com, should be fast tracked.
Analysis (Trending Down): Mitch is the dropback quarterback that Spurrier used to be in love with but Nunez is a dual threat who will remind the Head Ball Coach of Connor Shaw. It’s doubtful he will redshirt.
TENNESSEE: Once Josh Dobbs took over, the Vols took off. He was 4-2 as a starter throwing 12 touchdown passes and running for 469 yards and eight TDs. Nathan Peterman will be the backup. Recruit Quinten Dormady is Scout.com’s #28 quarterback in the nation.
Analysis (Trending Up): Dobbs is dynamic and will turn Tennessee into a contender to win the SEC title.
Texas A&M: Kyle Allen took over when Kenny Hill ran into problems with Kevin Sumlin. Allen threw for 16 touchdowns and 1,322 yards. Before he ran into problems, Hill threw for 2,649 yards and 23 touchdowns. Recruit Kyler Murray, the #4 quarterback nationally and #2 in the state of Texas.
Analysis (Trending Up): No one should be shocked if Hill transfers out. Allen is going to be the starter. Murray is a serious dual threat so he’s going to get a lot of reps and probably will emerge as the backup. Allen has real NFL potential.
Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt started four quarterbacks during the season. Johnny McCrary saw the most action, throwing for nine touchdowns while getting picked eight times. Oft-injured Patton Robinette threw for three and was picked three times. Neither those two or Wade Freebeck excites anyone. Recruit Kyle Shurmur, the #1 ranked quarterback in Pennsylvania and the #63 quarterback nationally by Scout.com.
Analysis (Trending Down): McCrary has some playmaking skills but he makes a ton of bad decisions. Robinette doesn’t make many mistakes but he’s not exactly going to make a lot of plays. Shurmur actually could start as a freshman.
COMINGS AND GOINGS: D.J. Durkin is expected to join Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan coaching staff, probably in the capacity of co-coordinator. Harbaugh has also offered Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. Greg Mattison is likely to assume the position of assistant head coach and defensive line coach … Kurt Roper will interview for the Georgia offensive coordinator job along with Western Kentucky OC Tyson Helton. There is a lot of sentiment that Helton will get the job … With Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson on the Auburn defensive staff, odd men out were Charlie Harbison, who coached safeties and Melvin Smith, who coached corners … Expect Manny Diaz to leave Louisiana Tech to return to Mississippi State as the defensive coordinator. Diaz was the DC at Mississippi State in 2010 … Former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast has withdrawn his name for DC at LSU. Pendergrast is likely to go to the Seattle Seahawks if former UF DC Dan Quinn is named head coach of the Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills or Atlanta Falcons. Mike Stoops seems to be the hot name now at LSU, which is also interviewing Penn State DC Bob Shoop … Kentucky will keep tight ends coach Vince Marrow after matching the deal he was offered by Michigan.
When you assess Florida’s problems on offense the last four years, do you think it was the offensive scheme or was it development of a quarterback that was the biggest issue?
My best musical discovery of 2014 was The California Honeydrops. The more I listen to their music, the more addicted to their fusion of rock and roll, soul and the blues. Lead singer Lech Wierzynski started the band playing in the subway station of Oakland and they’ve gradually built a strong following. Their “Honeydrops Live” album is terrific.