HOOVER, Ala. — If there’s a historical pivot point for the necessity of downfield dynamism in order to win a national title, it came when Tua Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime of the 2017 season's national title game. Tagovailoa rescued Alabama from a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat Georgia in overtime, fittingly on a 41-yard heave to DeVonta Smith.
The next three quarterbacks to win the national title — Mac Jones (Alabama), Joe Burrow (LSU) and Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) – all smashed records, stretched fields and redefined historical norms for the position. The days of metaphorical Jake Cokers, Greg McElroys and Matt Maucks hoisting title trophies appear to have gone the way of star fullbacks.
As the SEC enters the 2021 season, it does so with a quarterback problem. Certainly, there are talented quarterbacks like Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Georgia’s JT Daniels. But there’s no established, sure-fire, paradigm-changing quarterback who anyone would mistake for Deshaun Watson at Clemson.
When the venerable Phil Steele, the maestro of minutiae, has two starting SEC quarterbacks with zero career starts among his four preseason All-SEC teams – Florida’s Emory Jones and Alabama’s Bryce Young – there’s a sign the league lacks star power at that position.
Which SEC signal-caller can emerge as this year’s re-writer of record books? Daniels has the best chance, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart said that the arm talent is there for Daniels to join that group. But he added: “I don't think that arm talent is the No. 1 quality for being a great quarterback.”
Yahoo Sports polled five coaches/assistants who faced Daniels last year, and they all gushed about his talent and potential. Whether he can be a transformative player like those title-winning quarterbacks remains a debate.
One assistant said Daniels had the strongest arm of any player he’d faced in his career and added that he’d be “the ultimate seven-on-seven quarterback.” Another pointed out that Daniels handled in-game adversity well and showed toughness, which were knocks on him at USC.
Can he actually leap into that rarest of quarterback air? Coaches pointed to Georgia’s skill position weapons being inferior to the past few title winners. “He ain’t one of those guys,” one assistant said of Daniels. “He’s not an upper-end NFL guy in my opinion.”
In fairness to Daniels and the rest of the SEC crew, no one thought Burrow could win the Heisman entering 2019 after one pedestrian year starting. Even the most optimistic Alabama fan wouldn’t have projected Jones to set the SEC single-season record for completion percentage (77.4) in 2020 after his four starts in 2019.
Corral has the most pure arm talent of any returning quarterback in the league, as Daniels admires that Corral has “always had a cannon.” But he also led the league with 14 interceptions and maintains a reputation for erratic play.
What does the SEC’s lack of proven quarterbacks mean? To dethrone Alabama, as we’ve seen over the years, it takes a generational player (Burrow, Lawrence, Watson, Cam Newton), an ahead-of-the-curve scheme (Ole Miss) or a hypnotizing once-a-century play that still bends the mind to comprehend (Kick Six.)
There’s a flurry of proven quarterbacks in other corners of the country with bigger resumes than this current SEC crew: Sam Howell (UNC), Kedon Slovis (who beat out Daniels at USC), Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), D’Eriq King (Miami), Malik Willis (Liberty), Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana) and Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati).
If you wince when reading this top quarterback list one season after having Lawrence and Justin Fields headline the sport, you aren’t alone. Multiple NFL scouts have told Yahoo Sports they consider this quarterback draft class a bit of a motley crew, begging for some prospects to emerge the way Zach Wilson did last year. (Nevada’s Carson Strong is the trendy pick among smart scouts and Kansas State veteran Skylar Thompson was the buzzy quarterback from the Manning Academy.)
The lack of a notable Big Ten quarterback returning outside of Penix and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan means perhaps this same column could be written from Big Ten media days later in the week. In a year when there’s more roster certainty than ever via Super Senior eligibility, quarterback uncertainty will shroud the early season storylines in the SEC and Big Ten.
What does this mean for Alabama in the big picture? Young is a resplendent talent from the same Southern California five-star factory (Mater Dei in Santa Ana) as Daniels, Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley, Colt Brennan and numerous others. But Young’s inexperience (22 pass attempts) combined with the volume of talent that has left Alabama – five first-round NFL draft picks on offense, including Heisman Trophy winner Smith – hints at a learning curve.
Don’t be surprised if it takes a quarter or two for Young and new coordinator Bill O’Brien to find some synch against Miami in the opener. Even the Alabama Death Star hits occasional turbulence, and it’d be naïve to think there won’t be a few pinches as the offense finds a new identity.
For Alabama to win the title, Young’s development trajectory needs to be steep. And while the talent is unquestionably there, you can’t microwave experience.
The team best positioned to test Alabama in the SEC West is Texas A&M, which epitomizes the SEC’s quarterback problem. A&M’s hopes ride on second-year quarterback Haynes King’s two career completions. His one touchdown and one interception is a nice way to symbolize the feast-or-famine nature of A&M’s future.
Can the Aggies stop Bama? A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko has the league’s best returning defense with nine starters back from the SEC’s top total defense (317 ypg) in 2020. That includes freaky end DeMarvin Leal, who’ll duel with LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. for the league’s best defensive NFL prospect this season.
A&M should be two-touchdown favorites in its first five games. But will King and the rest of a makeshift offensive line be ready to handle Alabama on Oct. 9 in College Station?
Then there’s Georgia, who arguably has the most overall roster talent in the league. It opens at Clemson, the ultimate championship litmus test. The schedule from there is sponsored by Charmin, as UGA won’t be an underdog until the SEC title game.
Whoever emerges from the SEC to the playoff will likely face a program with similar experience issues. Clemson sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei is young but raw, Ohio State’s quarterbacks room is a muddle of inexperience and Notre Dame plans to start a graduate transfer. Oklahoma’s Rattler projects as one of the sport’s faces, but he got pulled in the Texas game last season and threw interceptions to end losses to Kansas State and Iowa State.
Surely, stars will emerge. For now, the quarterback uncertainty will define the early weeks of the season in the SEC and beyond.
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