We begin our position breakdown in the SEC today with the quarterbacks.
We’ll rank the teams 1-12 at each position based on talent level, depth, experience and what they've accomplished in the league to this point. The starter (or starters) obviously carries most of the weight, but isn’t the only factor.
Here’s a look at the quarterbacks:
1. Arkansas: When your top guy is one of the most feared passers in the country, that’s a pretty good place to start. The only concern with Ryan Mallett is that he’s still recovering from a broken bone in his left foot. He threw 30 touchdown passes last season and should be even better his second tour through the SEC. His backup, Tyler Wilson, can also throw it and received all the first-team snaps in the spring.
2. Alabama: This time a year ago, everybody wondered if Greg McElroy could get it done. Fourteen wins and zero losses later -- capped by a national championship -- it’s safe to say that he’s answered that question. McElroy will be one of the strongest leaders on the team in 2010 and played some of his best football on the biggest stages last season. He also has two immensely talented guys behind him in A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims.
3. Florida: Ranking the Gators this high says a couple of different things. For one, there’s still a good bit of uncertainty at the quarterback position throughout the SEC. And secondly, John Brantley has looked like the real deal the last two springs. With Tim Tebow gone, Brantley now gets his chance to show his stuff to the rest of the league. Trey Burton and Jordan Reed will both be options in the “Tebow” package when Urban Meyer wants to change it up.
4. South Carolina: If you just looked at Stephen Garcia’s stats from a year ago, especially in SEC games, you’d think the Gamecocks were in pretty good shape at the quarterback position. Garcia may very well be one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the league. But then you listen to Steve Spurrier grumble about Garcia’s work ethic and commitment level, and it’s not too far-fetched to think that true freshman Connor Shaw could get some time after his impressive showing in the spring. Imagine that … the Head Ball Coach shuffling quarterbacks.
5. LSU: Even though Jordan Jefferson didn’t clearly separate himself this spring, he’s coming off a decent season numbers-wise. He just needs to take that next step and be more instinctive. Part of the reason the Tigers gave up so many sacks a year ago was because he held onto the ball too long. If Jefferson doesn’t play well early, he has Jarrett Lee on his heels. Lee outplayed Jefferson at times this spring, but he’s also the same guy who threw 16 interceptions two years ago -- seven of those returned for touchdowns.
6. Auburn: They can’t wait down on the Plains to get a look at Cameron Newton in Gus Malzahn’s spread offense. Newton is a big, athletic guy who can both run and pass and has at least seen SEC defenses up close when he was at Florida before making a stopover at junior college. Senior Neil Caudle, sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley pushed Newton this spring and provide quality depth.
7. Georgia: When spring practice began for the Bulldogs, they had two talented redshirt freshmen poised to slug it out for the starting job along with versatile junior Logan Gray. But Zach Mettenberger was dismissed from the team following the spring, which left Aaron Murray as the guy. He has a ton of talent, but no experience and doesn’t have much behind him in the way of depth. Gray is moving to receiver, although he would still be the backup if something happened to Murray. That’s a lot of pressure on a guy who’s never taken a college snap, but the Georgia coaches think Murray is a special player. He just can’t get hurt.
8. Kentucky: Senior Mike Hartline has been much maligned at times, but go back and look at how much the Kentucky offense suffered once he injured his knee last season. He’s back healthy and determined to go out the right way. Sophomore Morgan Newton filled in for Hartline last season, and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski will also be a factor if his shoulder is indeed 100 percent. Of course, if all else fails, there’s always Mr. Versatile -- Randall Cobb.
9. Mississippi State: Last season Chris Relf was more of a specialty player for the Bulldogs and used primarily in running situations. The 6-4, 240-pound junior is a powerful athlete who becomes more of a fullback in short-yardage and goal-line situations. But this past spring, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was pleased with the way Relf improved as a passer, and the Bulldogs also have heralded redshirt-freshman Tyler Russell waiting in the wings. Russell’s forte is throwing the ball, so the two should complement each other well.
10. Ole Miss: There’s not much experience to speak of, as sophomore Nathan Stanley takes over at quarterback for the Rebels. But, then, some Ole Miss fans might ask: Why the fuss over experience? Jevan Snead was coming back as the starter a year ago and threw 20 interceptions. That’s going to be the main challenge for Stanley, protecting the ball and not giving teams anything easy. Redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton appears to be over his shoulder problems and looked good in the spring game. The X-factor may be junior college newcomer Randall Mackey in specialty situations.
11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores went out and got some insurance with junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Still, it’s Larry Smith’s job to lose. He struggled mightily last season, as the Commodores completed just 48.3 percent of their passes. It wasn’t all Smith’s fault. He wasn’t exactly surrounded by a plethora of playmakers at receiver. In the end, whether it’s Smith or Rodgers next season, the Commodores have to improve significantly in the passing game if they want to improve on last season’s 2-10 record.
12. Tennessee: So much will be new at Tennessee this season, and it starts at quarterback. Junior college transfer Matt Simms is the probable starter to begin the season, but will have to hold off true freshman Tyler Bray, who also went through spring practice. It doesn’t help that both guys will be operating behind five new offensive line starters and doing so without any previous experience in the SEC. Simms has worked hard to be a leader, and Bray has a big arm. But it’s never ideal to be forced into action at quarterback in your debut season in the SEC.