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QB1 Picks

By Southern Pigskin Staff
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As fall camp ramps up, Southern Pigskin publisher B.J. Bennett and editor Jim Johnson decided to weigh in on some of the most hotly contested quarterback battles in the South.

As fall camp ramps up, Southern Pigskin publisher B.J. Bennett and editor Jim Johnson decided to weigh in on some of the most hotly contested quarterback battles in the South. Bear in mind, this is not necessarily who they think will​ win each respective job, rather who they think ​should​ win. (Each pick is bolded for clarity)

Alabama: Jalen Hurts vs Tua Tagovailoa

​B.J.: This is the most fascinating quarterback battle in all of college football, both because of the program and the players. Stunningly, Jalen Hurts has a 26-2 career record as a starter. Meanwhile, Tua Tagovailoa, his legend status already firmly in place, has a different set of abilities and can stretch the field. Hurts is the safer play and would give the Crimson Tide a more consistent, predictable product on offense. Given the dominance of Alabama's rushing attack and defense, going with the polished Hurts would stabilize the product and give the ultra-talented Tagovailoa more time to develop. In taking the Crimson Tide to consecutive national championship games in his two seasons under center, Hurts has thrown 40 touchdown passes compared to just ten interceptions, completed nearly 62% of his passes and added over 1,800 rushing yards with 21 scores on the ground; his resume really is remarkable. Undoubtedly, Tagovailoa's time will come, but Hurts deserves to carry this team forward and should be the number one choice.   

Jim: Tua Tagovailoa led Alabama to an incredible national championship victory, displaying borderline unfathomable poise throughout, under nearly unprecedented circumstances. To be fair, he did throw an awful interception and his touchdown to Calvin Ridley was not even intended for him, but still, there’s nothing anyone can take away from that sort of performance against one of the five best defenses in the country. The problem is, that’s about the extent of Tagovailoa’s sample size. Jalen Hurts' ​body of work consists of 26 wins as a starter, a top 20 passer rating in 2017, and a 17 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. There’s a perception that Tagovailoa may be a more talented passer than Hurts, and he did make an instantly legendary throw against Georgia in overtime, but that pass, like any other is just one data point in a series, and should carry no more weight than any other. For another team, there’s a case for rolling the dice with Tagovailoa, but this is Alabama. Even in what could be a transitional year on defense, the Tide are indisputably the most across-the-board talented team in the country. In fact, the idea that it could be a transitional year, albeit by Alabama’s standards, makes Hurts’ experience all the more valuable. With Bama’s three toughest opponents -- Auburn, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M -- all going to Tuscaloosa, there’s no reason to gamble. Even if Hurts is exactly the player he was last season, no better, that’s more than enough.

Arkansas: Cole Kelley vs Ty Storey

​B.J.: With new head coach Chad Morris implementing a spread, up-tempo system, the situation here could be very fluid. With a complete reset in scheme underway, maybe it's time to give Ty Storey his shot? On paper, at least, he seems like a better fit than Cole Kelley for what Morris hopes to do. One of the most prolific prep passers in Arkansas state history, compiling 12,856 career passing yards and 156 career passing touchdowns, not to mention going undefeated with two championships in his two upperclassman years, Storey could slide into Morris' scheme more seamlessly. Competition will clearly continue well into fall camp. If there is a time to make a change at the game's most important position, however, it feels like that time would be now. 

Jim: It seems like, while Chad Morris’ offensive approach is not especially talent dependent, it is scheme-fit dependent. It’s not that he needs world beaters, but the pieces have to fit into the puzzle that he has created. So, the question for Arkansas is not who the better quarterback is, rather which one is most well equipped to run that offense. Cole Kelley was not especially accurate a year ago, but neither was Tajh Boyd during his first year under Morris, at Clemson. Ben Hicks, at SMU last year, struggled with it, as well. Ultimately, Kelley is more physically gifted than Storey, seemingly more comfortable in the read option, and throws a better deep ball, which is important given Morris’ reliance on explosive plays. For those reasons, he deserves to be the starter, but it’s splitting hairs.

Clemson: Kelly Bryant vs Trevor Lawrence

​B.J.: Kelly Bryant, though not perfect, is very much underappreciated nationally. Remarkably, he has never lost a regular season game he has started and finished, bringing a leadership and savvy to the field that matters. Since 2000, just nine power five quarterbacks have had a single season with at least 2,800 passing yards and a completion percentage of 65% and at least 650 rushing yards and ten scores: Brett Hundley, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow (twice), Vince Young, Deshaun Watson and Bryant. As heralded and talented as Trevor Lawrence is, Bryant has earned the right to be the man for now. As is the case with any true freshman, Lawrence will face some ups and downs as he transitions to the college level. Bryant, as it currently stands, gives the Tigers the best chance to win and is a reason why Clemson is one of the favorites to win the national championship.  

Jim: There were two totally different versions of Kelly Bryant, in 2017. Over the first ten games of the season, Bryant completed 36% of his passes that travelled at least 15 yards downfield for an average of 10.5 yards per attempt, with a 78.3 QBR. In his last three games, prior to the playoff, he completed 64% of such passes for 18.1 yards per attempt, with a 100.0 QBR, including a 5/5 showing with a touchdown against Miami’s widely heralded secondary, in the ACC Championship. The College Football Playoff loss to Alabama aside, if the late season Bryant shows up, it’s a no-brainer. If the early season Bryant shows up, Trevor Lawrence is worth considering, but Bryant should still be the choice. Bryant has only ever lost one game that he started and finished, that being the Alabama game. There’s no reason to try to fix something that isn’t broken. Some people may compare the situation to when Cole Stoudt started over Deshaun Watson, but this isn’t that. Even if Bryant limits Clemson’s offensive potential, the defense is what will allow the Tigers to compete for a national title, yet again. Trevor Lawrence, by all accounts, is about as gifted a passer as they come, but the thing about freshman quarterbacks is, every now and then, they play like freshmen quarterbacks. In the hunt for rings, that can be the difference between achieving those goals and coming up short. Despite the sour taste that many fans may still have in their mouth from last January, Bryant doesn’t make Clemson worse. Lawrence occasionally may. Given the skill position and defensive talent, Bryant is exactly what Swinney and company need. If he gets to that level that he did late last year, Clemson should be the favorite to win it all.

Florida: Feleipe Franks vs Emory Jones vs Kyle Trask

​B.J.: With Dan Mullen's new offense, the skill set of the now-experienced Feleipe Franks might be better showcased and utilized. At 6'5'', 227 pounds, Franks is built similarly in stature to the likes of Nick Fitzgerald and Dak Prescott. While that doesn't mean corresponding success is coming, Franks, as the incumbent, should get the first opportunity to prove his worth after the staff change. His stature, as a relative-veteran, matters. Franks, the only option on the depth chart to have taken a college snap, should get the first chance with a different philosophy in place offensively. Though it feels like Emory Jones is the future, throwing him into the fire right away might actually hinder his overall development. Historically, very few true freshmen have stepped right into a season in the SEC and thrived. The Gators have September conference road games at Tennessee and at Mississippi State. Jones will most likely play, but don't completely overlook Franks.

Jim: New coaching staff. New system. New quarterback? Why not. Feleipe Franks did not show anything in 2017 that says he deserves to be the starter in 2018. And if everyone is starting from scratch, from the standpoint of understanding the playbook, the language, the system, etc., why not go young? Kyle Trask showed a lot during spring, but Emory Jones is the best athlete of the group. Dan Mullen typically relies on the quarterback to contribute as a ball carrier. The best bet for the future is to primarily focus on the one that can do that the best and improve as a passer with time. He may not be the same type of runner that Mullen had with Tim Tebow or Dak Prescott or Nick Fitzgerald, but each of the aforementioned were different from one another to varying degrees. Jones may struggle early, but Mullen will have a bit of a honeymoon period which ought to be utilized to develop a long term option behind center. That’s the most glaring failure of the past two staffs. If the quarterback whisperer can work his magic with Jones, that should be considered a successful first season, regardless of wins and losses. Jones feels like the least likely option, but Mullen has some leeway and the Franklin, Georgia-product is the best way to implement it.

Florida State: James Blackman vs Deondre Francois

​B.J.: New head coach Willie Taggart has two good players under center and both guys are capable of being starting signal callers. Fall camp may go a long way towards determining the depth chart as the Seminoles implement a new, more open and upbeat, offensive scheme. Though James Blackman played well in a difficult spot last season and has clear upside, Deondre Francois, now healthy, has won multiple big games and averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt as a freshman compared to Blackman's 7.5. Following Francois' successful debut year, many were expecting him to emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Timely play and toughness are among his top attributes, though there were some negative headlines over the off-season. Assuming Francois looks the part in upcoming practices, he should take back over Florida State's starting spot. That said, Blackman clearly has value and showed plenty of grit of his own in persevering through some difficult circumstances last fall, progressing in a chaotic season where he wasn't expected to play. A big decision for Taggart, this may be the closest quarterback competition in all of college football.  

Jim: The quarterback position is about accuracy. It’s about getting guys lined up properly. It’s about consistency. It’s about pocket presence, poise, and placement on those deep balls. There are a lot of attributes that comprise a successful signal caller, but first and foremost among them is leadership. With the exception of the latter, Deondre Francois would seem like the pick here, although it is close. Factor in the most important facet of the position, however, and it’s not that close anymore -- James Blackman. Fair or not, and it largely is, Francois’ off-the-field issues and concerns have to play a role in the conversation. Willie Taggart’s debut campaign will set the tone and lay the foundation for his entire tenure at Florida State. It is absolutely imperative that he make the correct decision. All things being equal, from a non-football perspective, Francois is probably the better quarterback. All things are not equal, though. This decision is about more than just picking a guy to take snaps and throw passes. This is about anointing a new face of the program.

Kentucky: Gunnar Hoak vs Terry Wilson

​B.J.: Originally signing with Oregon, Terry Wilson is in Lexington after a season in the JUCO ranks. On an unproven depth chart, he may have the most overall in-game experience based on what he just did at Garden City Community College in Kansas. Wilson is a dual-threat talent and brings a more wide-ranging set of skills to the field with his arm strength and mobility. While it's likely that the Wildcats play multiple quarterbacks the first couple of games, Wilson probably has the most potential. Hoak has not yet been able to seperate himself at Kentucky, though he very well may moving forward. The idea of Wilson and Benny Snell, two dynamic playmakers, in the same backfield would definitely present potential matchup problems. Previous starter Stephen Johnson was able to make some plays as a mobile signal caller, production Wilson could possibly build on. 

Jim: None of Kentucky’s potential starting quarterbacks have ever taken a real snap for the Wildcats. Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson appear to be the favorites to land the job, but Danny Clark and even Walker Wood are worth considering. Hoak, an early enrollee ahead of the 2016 season, will be the most familiar with the offense, having been a part of the program for three seasons, but Wilson offers a level of playmaking ability that none of the others possess. Obviously, whoever ends up earning the spot will benefit greatly from playing alongside Benny Snell, but with how close the competition is, Wilson’s athleticism should be the difference. If no quarterback is significantly better than any of the others, at least not to the extent that they separate themselves, why not play 11-on-11?

LSU: Myles Brennan vs Joe Burrow vs Justin McMillan vs Lowell Narcisse

​B.J.: Head coach Ed Orgeron has options under center. The addition of Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow, 29-of-39 for 287 yards and two touchdowns in his career with the Buckeyes, changes things. Many consider Burrow the favorite and that makes sense; he has the most live game experience of the group and appears ready for full-time responsibility. You have to assume Burrow picked the Tigers because he believes he has a great chance to be Orgeron's guy. LSU plans to be more balanced and well-rounded offensively this fall. Burrow, a more complete product, gives the Tigers the best chance to win right now. Additionally, he could be the centerpiece of a new schematic identity. 

Jim: Joe Burrow did not transfer from Ohio State because he wanted to sit on the bench in warmer weather. He expects to play and he should. Ed ORgeron maintains that this is a four-man competition, but it shouldn’t be. With a monster week one matchup against Miami, and two more conference games in the first month of the season, LSU has no choice but to start fast. Had Matt Canada still been there, and Burrow not transferred, this “battle” would be a lot more interesting. Now, it’s more interesting than it should be. Now, it’s a matter of whether or not Orgeron will mess this decision up, too. Under Steve Ensminger, the Tigers plan to utilize a more balanced attack than in years past. Fair enough, as there is no Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice on campus, as far as anyone knows. Burrow is a more developed passer than Justin McMillan or Myles Brennan, although the latter’s arm talent is certainly worthy of praise. Lowell Narcisse, meanwhile, would have been an interesting pick for a different system, given his dual-threat ability, but Orgeron is on a short leash and needs to compete now. Burrow checks all the measurable and intangible boxes. With more leeway, there may be a case for developing one of the returning players, but under the circumstances LSU has no choice but to go with most game ready passer. That’s Joe Burrow.

Tennessee: Keller Chryst vs Jarrett Guarantano

​B.J.: Jarrett Guarantano may look like the guy long-term, but turning to a proven veteran such as Keller Chryst early will only help the transition go more smoothly. At Stanford, he compiled a 19-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and played in a number of high-pressure, spotlight games. Chryst, while with some limitations, is prepared for the moment. Consistency from a veteran at the quarterback spot could help set the tone for the team and have a positive ripple-effect. Coming in, Chryst brings valuable experience to Knoxville and gives Guarantano more time to fine-tune his skills. Up through the end of October, especially, the Volunteers' schedule is quite harsh. The more proven player makes sense.  

Jim: Despite whatever Jeremy Pruitt is saying about a four man race, this battle comes down Jarrett Guarantano and transfer Keller Chryst. With the new staff instituting a more run based, pro style, play action passing attack, Tennessee really ought to be looking for the guy who makes fewer mistakes, as opposed to who makes more plays. That would point to Chryst. However, Chryst is also just a one year rental, and development will be paramount to future success. This is going to be a rough year for the Vols, regardless. Maybe it’s smarter to give Guarantano another shot, watch his progression, and then move on in 2019, if necessary. Frankly, with a four run stretch that includes the likes of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama, in the middle of the season, it may be best for Guarantano’s confidence to not actually let him face those defenses. Tennessee should start Chryst, as many expect, allow him to suffer through the meat of the schedule, and give the fans time to accept that this season is, and was always going to be, a wash, anyways. Then, let Guarantano get his reps against the much softer final third of the regular season, which, conveniently, would also allow him to get an extra year of eligibility, under the new redshirt rule, just in case he does prove to be of starting caliber.

Texas A&M: Kellen Mond vs Nick Starkel

​B.J.: The flurry of a finish to last season, for Nick Starkel, very much speaks for itself. From the start of November on, he had two 400-yard passing games, including a 499-yard, four-touchdown performance against Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl, and threw for 13 scores. Kellen Mond is a dynamic talent who puts pressure on opposing defenses, but Starkel is the more proven, proficient candidate. Under noted quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher, Starkel could be poised for truly big-time production. Past quarterbacks that Fisher has had great success with have abilities more similar to what Starkel can do. 

Jim: Jimbo Fisher has a well earned reputation as one of the premier quarterback gurus in all of college football and he’s got an extremely promising young passer to mold in Nick Starkel. Despite missing a significant portion of the 2017 season due to injury, Starkel flashed  the potential to become one of the game’s top flight signal callers, and should be expected to do just that under Fisher’s tutelage. Despite not being especially heavily recruited or highly touted -- he wasn’t even a top 20 pro-style quarterback according to 247’s composite rankings -- the only freshman in the country that would’ve posted a higher passer rating was Georgia’s Jake Fromm, had Starkel been eligible. Meanwhile, Kellen Mond struggled with accuracy issues and wasn’t enough of a plus as a runner to hold onto the job for very long after Starkel returned. If Kevin Sumlin was still in College Station this would be slightly more interesting, but in Fisher’s offense, this might be the easiest one on the list.

Troy: Kaleb Barker vs Sawyer Smith

​B.J.: Gone is accomplished veteran Brandon Silvers, fresh off a tremendous career, and there are two viable candidates to fill his shoes, both with limited playing experience. Kaleb Barker was the top reserve last season, while Sawyer Smith redshirted. Given that subtle benefit, Barker may have the slightest of advantages. Additionally, he has a little more mobility, which always helps; Barker averaged over 8.6 yards per rush in 2017 and scored two touchdowns. He gets the initial nod. 

Jim: Whomever takes the reins from Brandon Silvers as Troy’s quarterback of the future will have massive shoes to fill, but he will also have ample surrounding talent to do so. In either case, the new man will be able to bring an extra dimension to the offense that Silvers could not, in that both are threats to make plays with their feet. At this point, there’s not much to separate the two. Each threw a touchdown in the spring game, although Sawyer Smith did toss a pick. Still, that’s just one data point amongst an entire spring’s worth of reps, not to mention whatever happens in fall. This job is not yet won, nor should it be. It may come down to the wire, and perhaps even trickle into the season. For the purposes of this exercise, that being to determine who should start game one, without the benefit of fall practice to look at, it should be Kaleb Barker. In a race this close, experience has to be the tie breaker. Neither has much, but Barker at least saw some clean-up duty last year while Smith redshirted. It would not be a surprise to see both of them take snaps against Boise State, but Barker, for the time being, is the safest bet to take the first one.