SEC position rankings: Quarterbacks

We’re kicking off our SEC position rankings today heading into the 2011 season.

The hard part of this is that somebody has to be last, and there aren’t many truly bad units in the SEC at any position.

How did we arrive at our conclusions, which we freely admit are extremely subjective?

We talked among ourselves and checked with colleagues and coaches in the league.

The three most important factors at every position were great players, guys who were true game-changers, as well as depth and experience.

We considered past performance, but there’s also a certain amount of projection involved.

We’ll start with the quarterback position:

1. Georgia: Aaron Murray is the premier quarterback in the league, and he’s entering his third year in the program. He’s also the kind of performer and leader who makes everybody else around him better. In addition, the Bulldogs have some young talent at the position they really like in sophomore Hutson Mason and incoming freshman Christian LeMay. But what separates Georgia from the other teams at the top of this list is Murray.

2. South Carolina: Maybe this is a bit of a gamble, especially with Stephen Garcia coming off yet another suspension. But Steve Spurrier insists Garcia’s a changed person. If that’s truly the case, then the Gamecocks should be in excellent shape with both Garcia and sophomore Connor Shaw. Garcia is South Carolina’s third all-time leading passer, but still has to wrest the starting job away from Shaw this August.

3. LSU: The combination of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee’s experience and junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger’s talent is what gets the Tigers the No. 3 spot. It sounds like Jefferson made huge strides in the spring under new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe. Of course, all that really matters is how he plays in the games this fall. Either way, LSU has some options. Mettenberger is a big-time talent and will be difficult to keep off the field.

4. Mississippi State: This time a year ago, Mississippi State was near the bottom of these rankings. Not anymore. Senior Chris Relf was one of the most-improved players in the league last season, especially with regard to his passing. He’s always been a bruising running threat at 250 pounds. Dan Mullen was equally pleased with what sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dylan Favre got done this spring. That latter name sure sounds familiar.

5. Tennessee: Tyler Bray’s performance during the last month of the 2010 season helped to revive the Vols and get them to a bowl game. He made some mistakes that were typical of a true freshman, but there’s no mistaking his arm talent. Senior Matt Simms also returns and didn’t play as badly as some would lead you to believe when he was the starter. The guy to watch down the road is true freshman Justin Worley, who enrolled early and really impressed the Tennessee coaches in the spring.

6. Arkansas: There are big shoes to fill for junior Tyler Wilson, but he demonstrated last season that he was up to that challenge. Wilson stepped in for an injured Ryan Mallett on the road against Auburn and played brilliantly until a pair of late interceptions. A better overall athlete than Mallett, Wilson has everything it takes to put up big numbers in Bobby Petrino’s offense. He also has somebody pushing him. Sophomore Brandon Mitchell, an even better athlete, is one of those guys who can extend the play and gives the Hogs a different dimension at quarterback.

7. Florida: We ranked the Gators way too high a year ago, and this may be too low. But until we see John Brantley have some sustained success and throw the ball with confidence, it’s difficult to rank the Gators much higher. He was never comfortable in the spread offense and is much better suited for Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense. He still has to prove it in games. True freshman Jeff Driskel can do it all and has a chance to be special. He also has the benefit of a spring practice. Redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy provides depth.

8. Alabama: This is where it gets tough. Arkansas got the nod over Alabama because Wilson has at least played when it counts in the SEC and performed well. It was a toss-up with Florida, but Brantley has also played an entire season. The Crimson Tide have two players they’re confident they can win with in sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, but both guys are untested in meaningful SEC competition. The good news is that they’re pushing each other, and it’s very likely that Alabama will open the season with both players sharing the quarterback duties.

9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have very little experience, but they do have options. Randall Mackey, who redshirted last season after coming over from junior college, is one of the more dynamic athletes on the team and improved dramatically in the spring as a passer. But the leader in the clubhouse to start is West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, who won his appeal to be eligible and is the kind of run-pass threat the Rebels were looking for. Ole Miss could also turn to junior college transfer Zack Stoudt, who at 6-foot-4 is a pure pocket passer.

10. Kentucky: Morgan Newton was forced into some tough situations over the past few years, filling in as a true freshman when Mike Hartline was hurt and then filling in a year ago in the bowl game when Hartline was suspended. Now, it’s Newton’s job, and with most of his key playmakers gone, he faces a stiff challenge in 2011. Consistency will be the key for him, though, and the Wildcats don’t have any proven depth behind him now that Ryan Mossakowski has transferred.

11. Auburn: Let’s preface everything with Auburn’s ranking by conceding that the Tigers were ranked embarrassingly low in these rankings a year ago. Who knew Cam Newton would come in and have one of the greatest individual seasons in SEC history? But after one season, he’s gone, and Auburn didn’t see enough from junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley in the spring to make a decision. Heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier could be a factor later in the season, but he doesn’t have the benefit of spring practice. The Tigers are also involved in the Russell Wilson sweepstakes.

12. Vanderbilt: Larry Smith, now a senior, has received much of the blame the past couple of years for Vanderbilt’s offensive woes, and that’s not completely fair. Granted, he’s had his struggles, but he hasn’t had much help, either, when it comes to guys around him making plays in the passing game. It also remains to be seen how healthy Jordan Rodgers’ shoulder is after coming off surgery, and the Commodores signed three freshman quarterbacks. Lafonte Thourogood was initially committed to Virginia Tech before switching to Vanderbilt.