In a lot of ways, the quarterback landscape in the SEC looks similar to the way it did last season and the season before.
It’s safe to say that Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett has a pretty good handle on his job after throwing 30 touchdown passes in his first season in the league a year ago.
The same goes for Alabama’s Greg McElroy after leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship last season. After all, the guy hasn’t lost a game as a starting quarterback since the eighth grade.
But after the top two, there’s a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of newness and a little bit of mystery elsewhere when you look at the quarterback position in the SEC.
Of course, it was the same way this time a year ago with Florida’s Tim Tebow and Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead. But Snead wound up throwing 20 interceptions and Mallett took the league by storm in his record-setting debut season. McElroy also went from a huge unknown to one of the pillars of Alabama's national championship team.
In 2008, Tebow and Georgia’s Matthew Stafford were sitting there at the head of the class, and both had terrific seasons. Out of the shadows, though, came Snead to throw 26 touchdown passes in his debut season in the SEC.
Who’s going to emerge this season?
Florida’s John Brantley would be the leading candidate. The Gators junior has turned heads the past two years in practice with his accurate throwing arm and presence in the pocket.
Now it’s time for him to do it in games.
Brantley admitted that he will be a little nervous running out there for the first time Saturday as the starter, but his head coach isn’t the least bit nervous about turning the keys to the Gators’ offense over to him.
In fact, Urban Meyer said during a recent practice that he texted Brantley’s father, John -- a former Florida quarterback himself -- to tell him how well his son was doing.
“I said, ‘Enjoy the ride. Your son is growing up to be a man,’” Meyer recounted. “I hope I get that same text someday from someone, because that’s pretty cool. That’s the truth. What he’s done here in the last year has been exactly what we needed to have happen. He’s grown up. He’s the leader of this team, and he’s Johnny Brantley, which is good enough for us.”
In other words, Tim Tebow is really gone.
“I’ve been waiting for three years for this moment to come,” Brantley said. “With the team I’m going to be entering the season with, I’m very excited.”
Brantley won’t be the SEC’s only first-time starter at quarterback this weekend.
So will the Mississippi State quarterback, although coach Dan Mullen has been super secretive about anything related to his team. Junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell are both going to play. Relf is the likely starter, but Mullen has yet to publicly say who it’s going to be.
For that matter, Mullen wouldn’t even confirm earlier this week that Relf was nursing an injured finger. That’s despite teammates saying he was, but that he would be ready to go Saturday.
Relf has practiced this week, but hasn’t been available for interviews.
South Carolina will also play two quarterbacks on Thursday night against Southern Miss and possibly for the entire season. Steve Spurrier said junior Stephen Garcia would start, but that true freshman Connor Shaw would also play in the first half.
Obviously, Spurrier has no issues with playing two quarterbacks and pointed out that of the eight conference championship teams he’s coached, on four of them two quarterbacks shared the duties throughout the season.
The quarterback who may be poised to make the biggest jump this season in the SEC is LSU’s Jordan Jefferson, who had respectable numbers last season, but was hesitant to pull the trigger at times and was sacked 32 times.
LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has said he plans on being more aggressive this season with Jefferson, who insists he has a much better feel of things entering his second season as the starter. The Tigers need him to make more big plays this season.
Hartline had his junior season cut short by a knee injury, and the Wildcats struggled mightily in the passing game. They finished last in the SEC in passing offense, averaging just 140.3 yards per game. For his career, Hartline has thrown 16 interceptions and 15 touchdown passes. Clearly, it’s been an up-and-down ride for Hartline, but this is his chance to end it with a bang.
Vanderbilt had similar struggles in the passing game a year ago, but junior Larry Smith will get another shot after beating out senior Jared Funk in the preseason. The Commodores had hoped that junior college newcomer Jordan Rodgers would come in and compete for the job, but he’s had shoulder issues.