In a season in which the quarterback play in this league was as good across the board as it’s ever been, a funny thing happened on the way to Saturday’s SEC championship game.
The marquee names, at least the marquee names when the season began, will be watching from home.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger combined to throw 48 touchdown passes this season, but their college careers are over. Sadly, they both suffered ACL tears and won’t be able to play in their teams’ bowl games.
South Carolina’s Connor Shaw was easily the most underrated quarterback in the SEC this season after throwing 21 touchdown passes and just one interception. But he, too, won’t be a part of the championship game festivities.
Nope, that distinction belongs to Auburn’s Nick Marshall, who began his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, and Missouri’s James Franklin, who absorbed a wicked beating a year ago in his first season in the SEC and had to win back his starting job this preseason in an open competition with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.
As unlikely an SEC championship game pairing as Auburn and Missouri might have been back in the summer, it would have been just as much of a stretch to predict this kind of success for Franklin and Marshall.
In Franklin’s case, it had very little to do with his talent or experience. But the wear and tear of last season would have taken its toll on any quarterback, and then Franklin was dealt yet another injury during the Georgia game this season when he separated his throwing shoulder and missed most of the next four games.
The frustrating thing for Franklin and the Tigers was that he was playing perhaps the best football of his career when he was hurt.
“If you want to play at a high level, your quarterback has to play at a high level,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I certainly thought he was capable after coming off the most injuries I’ve ever had a quarterback have the year before, and he did.
“His numbers were as good as anybody’s in the country.”
Even more importantly for the Tigers, their play at quarterback didn’t drop off dramatically while Franklin was out. Mauk came in and finished the Georgia win on the road and went 3-1 in the next four games while Franklin recovered.
“Honestly, for [Mauk] to be able to come in and play at that level, to keep our team going, our offense playing at a consistently high level -- not a great level, but a high level -- I think that was critical for us,” said Pinkel, whose two quarterbacks have combined to account for 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
“We didn’t have our starting quarterback for one-third of the season. I think for [Mauk] to go in and play, to maintain some degree of consistency, was really, really important for us.”
In returning to the starting lineup, Franklin was better last week against Texas A&M than he was the week before against Ole Miss and should be even better on Saturday. He had 313 yards of total offense and threw two touchdown passes in the 28-21 win over the Aggies and has turned it over only once since his return.
“Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole,” Missouri senior receiver L’Damian Washington said. “I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is. It’s not taking anything away from Maty Mauk. Maty came in and did tremendous things. But just having James there I know it does a lot for our team.”
Marshall, who was at junior college this time a year ago and didn’t even go through spring practice at Auburn, has easily been one of the most improved players in the SEC from the beginning of the season until now.
As an athlete, he’s every bit as explosive as Manziel (probably even more so) and has improved weekly as a quarterback. He’s made big throws when he’s had to and has carved teams apart in the zone-read part of Auburn’s package.
Marshall has passed for 11 touchdowns and run for 10 touchdowns. He enters the SEC championship game with 922 rushing yards and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
But where Marshall has really sparkled is in pressure situations. His 32-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates tied the Alabama game with 32 seconds left last weekend. In the Tigers’ SEC opener back in September, Marshall led Auburn down the field on the game-winning drive against Mississippi State and won it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to play.
There was also the game-winning, 75-yard touchdown drive to beat Texas A&M on the road and, of course, the Hail Mary to beat Georgia.
Something says Marshall won’t be fazed much by the bright lights of the SEC championship game stage. He’s delivered all season long for the Tigers.
“Without all those plays he’s made, I don’t think we’d be in the position we are,” Auburn running back Corey Grant said.
It’s a position all quarterbacks want to be in, playing for a championship, and nothing shapes a quarterback’s legacy quite like winning a championship.
They’ll remember this season as the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC, and it’s probably fitting that the two still standing weren’t on a lot of people’s radar when the season began.