Our Summer Simmer series continues with a look at the five best returning SEC quarterbacks.
Caution: No Diving
In our previous position rankings, we’ve seen some incredible talent returning to the conference this season. But, as in recent previous years, the talent at quarterback is shallow. With the loss of Chad Kelly and Joshua Dobbs, the SEC lost their top two statistical signal callers from 2016.
Sure, the defenses and run-first offensive orientations in the SEC can contribute to this lack of talent. But there’s no reason why the SEC can’t have better quarterbacks than in the past decade. On this list, much of the rankings is done on potential alone. While the numbers may not necessarily be great, many of the results from these quarterbacks have been great. With due respect to honorable mentions Drew Lock, Danny Etling, and Sean White, here are the top five returning SEC quarterbacks for 2017.
Here’s a look at our previous position rankings:
Five Best Returning SEC Quarterbacks
Jacob Eason, Sophomore, Georgia
Jacob Eason came to Athens as one of the most highly touted recruits in the 2016 recruiting cycle. There’s no denying that the true sophomore has a cannon for an arm and tremendous talent. And he had a decent 2016 season, especially for being a true freshman. He finished in the top ten in the SEC in several statistical categories, including yards (7th), completion percentage (7th), and passing touchdowns (8th).
But in a conference that’s relatively weak at this position, a quarterback with Eason’s talents needs to be higher. Eason’s completion percentage of 55.1% is concerning for Georgia fans. With Sony Michel and Nick Chubb leading the nation’s most potent backfield, Eason doesn’t have to win games on his own in 2017. To reach the top, Eason will have to be better on third downs and be a little more accurate.
If he can make those improvements, he might not be the only thing in Athens competing for a top spot.
Jarrett Stidham, Sophomore, Auburn
There’s a lot of excitement on The Plains about the arrival of Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. Adding Stidham’s passing abilities with Auburn‘s dominate rushing attack could be championship pairing for Auburn in 2017. And while Stidham is clearly talented, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Stidham only has three starts in his collegiate career. His total 2015 stats are impressive, with a 68% completion rate and a 12-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he was surrounded by a ton of talent on the offense and played mediocre defenses. He’ll certainly play against better defenses in the SEC.
He’s got a great arm, he’ll be a little more mature after sitting out 2016, and he’s got great size at 6’2″ and 210. Stidham is surprisingly mobile as well, although he won’t put up rushing numbers like some of his SEC West counterparts. He still hasn’t been named the starter over Sean White (who would be the fourth best if not for Stidham), but he’s good enough to be one of the top five returning quarterbacks this season — even if he’s returning from a year off.
Nick Fitzgerald, Junior, Mississippi State
Nick Fitzgerald might be the most underrated quarterback in the conference. Fitzgerald did his best Dak Prescott impression in 2016, single-handedly carrying the Bulldogs over the course of the season. Fitzgerald’s real strength is his rushing ability. The rising Junior rushed for 1,375 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 7.05 yards/carry in 2016. Those numbers put him second, first, and fourth respectively in rushing for the conference last season. And this is a conference very deep in rushing talent.
Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, his passing numbers aren’t quite that great. He had a paltry 54% completion rate and managed just 6.7 yards per attempt. To make matters worse, his passing numbers were very skewed to lesser competition. Fitzgerald only had two passing touchdowns against ranked teams last season. And he was 6% less accurate against ranked teams. As athletic and talented as Fitzgerald is, if Mississippi State wants to compete in the SEC West, he must be better through the air in 2017.
Sure, there’s an argument that he doesn’t have a lot of talent around him. Fitzgerald’s ability with his legs is undeniable. But to win consistently, he must get better at winning through the air.
Austin Allen, Senior, Arkansas
If Nick Fitzgerald isn’t the most underrated quarterback in the SEC, then it’s Austin Allen. Which would be fitting, as Allen would again be following in the footsteps of his older brother, Brandon. Brandon was the best quarterback in the SEC in 2014, but because he played at Arkansas with two thousand yard rushers no one noticed.
Austin hasn’t quite played up to Brandon’s level in Fayetteville, however. While he did lead the league in passing yards and yards per attempt last season, he also had the most interceptions of any quarterback in the league. His 146.64 rating was good for third best in the league.
While Allen’s numbers are consistent between home and away performances, his other splits aren’t as good. His stats dropped as the season progressed and he played much better against inferior opponents. He was also better in the first half of games, and his numbers when trailing are concerning. Without the potent run game that Arkansas is known for, Allen might be in for a season of regression.
If Arkansas is going to surprise in the West, Allen will have to be better in the clutch as he is early in the game.
Jalen Hurts, Sophomore, Alabama
Jalen Hurts returns to Alabama with a sour taste in his mouth. Hurts wasn’t very good in the national championship loss to Clemson last season. After a very solid freshman season, that’s a tough game to think about all off-season.
The Hurts era at Alabama started in the opener against USC, and Hurts never looked back. He had a 62.8% completion rate in his freshman campaign, which is good normally. It’s exceptional when you play against the schedule Hurts played against and you are only a freshman. He was in the top five in the conference last season in completion percentage (3rd), yards (4th), touchdowns (3rd), and passer rating (5th).
In addition to his passing numbers, he was 12th in the league in rushing with 954 yards last season. His rushing splits are insane. Over 25% of his rushes were for first downs (49/191). He had 34 rushes that went for ten yards or more. And he had a 9.15 yards per carry average on third down. When you play against Alabama’s defense, you’ve got to get every offensive chance you can get. It’s hard when a quarterback like Jalen Hurts can beat you through the air or with his legs.
He needs to improve with consistency. His passer rating was 30 points higher against non-ranked opponents and he regressed later in the season. And some critics will point to conservative play calling helping his numbers out. That’s fair — but he still made the plays he needed to make all season long. That’s why he is the best returning quarterback in the SEC going into the 2017 season.