What do Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi, and Mississippi State have in common?
They will all need to decided on a starter at quarterback – arguably the most important position on the field – heading in to the 2010 season. South Carolina has the most experienced starter returning in Stephen Garcia. LSU's Jordan Jefferson has shown signs of capability in an offense desperately lacking identity and will need to step up heading into his junior season. Arkansas's Ryan Mallett is sitting out the spring with a broken foot which gives the Hogs time to develop a quality backup option. Alabama, who won the national championship, returns Greg McElroy and is also looking to develop depth at the position. Those teams are fine.
Of all the other teams, Florida is in the best position to succeed. John Brantley is a highly-touted player who played a little mop-up last season backing up Tim Tebow and has a solid coaching staff in place. Florida still needs receivers and an SEC quality back/running game option to balance the offense. Allegedly, this offense will be more "balanced" with Brantley at the helm, but Florida also said the same for Tebow's senior year and that didn't happen. (In fairness, having watched Tebow's Senior Bowl, that may have been a function of who was starting more than desire of the coaching staff.)
Georgia needs to choose wisely.
Joe Cox started for one year and threw for a bunch of yards, touchdowns, and INTs. He was also wildly inconsistent, hitting only 56% of his passes. Georgia has three competitors for the position this spring – Freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger (who was recently arrested for underage drinking) as well as sophomore Logan Gray who actually played in 2009. Gray seems to be the odd man out in this as word from multiple places is this will come down to Murray and Mettenberger.
Murray is said to have an edge because he's got more all-around skills to work with – he's an athlete who can make plays with his arm and legs while Mettenberger is more of a traditional pocket passer. Couple all of that with Mettenberger's seemingly questionable judgment and I can see why Mark Richt is looking Murray's way. As for Gray, he may end up at another position when the smoke settles on spring practice. No matter what, Richt needs to choose wisely this off-season or 2010 will be his last in Athens. That seat is smoking hot!
Tennessee needs someone – anyone – to step up to the plate.
The Vols will once again have a new signal caller as well as another new offensive coordinator. From all reports and rumors, it's a three-way dance between returning player Nick Stephens (who has some playing/starting experience), touted recruit Tyler Bray, and JUCO transfer Matt Simms (the younger son of the NFL's Phil Simms). Stephens accuracy is a concern for Derek Dooley's staff. Bray, while already enrolled at UT, needs to get bigger and stronger, and Simms is a bit of an unknown.
Tennessee has a decent line and a stable of good backs so they don't need the second coming of Peyton Manning back there. However, the Vols offense needs to move past the inconsistent turnover prone play that has been a mark of the guys under center in recent years.
Vandy and Kentucky challenge incumbent starters.
Larry Smith played as good as can be expected for the 'Dores last year before being sidelined with a hamstring injury. While Bobby Johnson is still confident his quarterback, a former Mr. Football from Prattville, Alabama, he and his staff have hedged that confidence by bringing in Jordan Rodgers (brother of the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers) in January to give Smith a push. Rodgers is more in line with what Jay Cutler was at Vandy; Smith offers that "athletic" edge to his skill set. The real question is what do either of these guys have to work with?
Kentucky won it's way to another bowl game in spite of losing starter Mike Hartline early in the season to injury. Morgan Newton stepped in and played okay at times, but was aided greatly by what Randall Cobb did at various positions. The wildcard for the 'Cats is Ryan Mossakowski, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury and couldn't compete last year. Word is he may be better than either of the other options though smart money says Joker Phillips is going to look to for a starter with experience.
Will Mississippi State go with youth over (limited) experience?
The fact that Dan Mullen got any production from the Bulldogs quarterbacks last season while installing the spread offense is a testament to how good of a coach he is. Eyes are all on redshirt freshman Tyler Russell this spring to see if he can live up to the hype as the prized recruit of the 2009 class. Chris Relf was used effectively as the running option at quarterback but is still very raw as a passer. It's a question of talent vs. game experience for Mullen. State should do itself a favor and not string this out past spring, because a quarterback controversy is a mighty tall distraction for a very young team.
Nutt, Ole Miss search for answers after Snead bolts.
I am as surprised as anyone that Jevan Snead decided his 20 TD/20 INT, 54% completion performance as a junior year was good enough to propel him to the NFL. Houston Nutt's Rebels are always going to be a run-first team, but they will need someone to step up who can at the very least hold serve behind center. In the mix are sophomore Nathan Stanley who is built and plays a lot like Snead. Redshirt Freshmen Raymond Cotton and JUCO transfer Randall Mackey (who arrives in the summer) will also get a look in the preseason. I think it's Stanley's job to lose but Cotton or Mackey could wind up with a package of plays by the time toe meets leather in September.
Auburn is hoping Cam can.
All signs point to Cameron Newton (former Florida quarterback and JUCO standout) to pick up the torch in Gus Malzhan's second year on the Plains. However, senior Neil Caudle may not be out of it altogether. There is a growing sentiment of support for Caudle who may do what Chris Todd did last year and come from the back of the pack to take the reins. Tyrik Rollison, who was the heir apparent at one time, decided to transfer after his season ended with a suspension. Redshirt freshmen Clint Mosley and redshirt sophomore Barrett Trotter will battle for a spot but probably won't push for starting time. Senior Kodi Burns, who played as the running quarterback option last year as well as wide receiver, is an unknown when it comes to this. Some say he'll work exclusively at wideout while others insist he'll still provide that change-up option. The only way Burns sees the field is if Cam Newton doesn't pan out and Caudle is named the starter. If Newton starts, he has the ability to run and throw in the offense which could limit the need for a guy like Burns.
Regardless, expect Auburn and Malzhan to make this decision by the end of spring practice in order to give the new starter plenty of time to work with the first team heading into 2010.