It's never too early to look forward to the next college football season. This series is going to look at the top returning SEC players at each position group ahead of the 2018 campaign.
It might be a little cliché, but we are going to start at quarterback. This might not be the position most loaded with talent in the SEC next season, but as a certain recruit out of Hawaii proved in the 2018 National Championship Game, it is still the position that decides if games are won or lost.
Here are the best returning signal callers in the SEC next season.
Drew Lock – Missouri
There are a number of good returning quarterbacks in the SEC, but there is only one that could potentially push himself into the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft with a big season.
Drew Lock of Missouri isn’t just one of the best returners at his position in the SEC, he is one of the best in the entire country. In 2017 he led the entire nation in touchdown passes as he threw an SEC-record 44 as part of the Tigers high-powered offense. It is a number made even more amazing when you consider Lock had a stretch of three games early in the season – all Mizzou losses – where he threw just three touchdowns combined.
He threw for 304.9 yards per game and the Tigers return nine starters to what will be a formidable offensive unit.
Jarrett Stidham – Auburn
Stidham was an improvement for Auburn in 2017, but it could be argued that he never quite lived up to the giant expectations placed on his shoulders in his first season after transferring from Baylor.
Stidham was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle for Auburn, but more often than not – especially in big games – it was running back Kerryon Johnson that carried to load and gave the Tigers a chance to win. His greatest asset was his ability to protect the ball, with Stidham throwing only six interceptions last season. The offense though needs more scoring out of his arm and an improvement in his second year in the system should see Stidham throw for more than the 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns he connected on in 2017.
Tua Tagovailoa – Alabama
The top quarterback prospect in the 2017 class broke onto the college stage in the biggest way in the 2018 National Championship game. Tagovailoa went from uber-talented clipboard holder to Crimson Tide hero as he quarterbacked Alabama in the second half as they ran down Clemson to be crowned champions of college football. The question now is what can he possibly do for an encore?
Saban can clearly open up his offense more under Tagovailoa than he can with incumbent Jalen Hurts at the position. There were murmurs of a quarterback competition last summer and into the fall of 2017, with those noises now having developed into a situation similar to when Ohio State had Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller (among others) looking to start at quarterback.
Saban will go with Tagovaiola eventually. The question is whether the sophomore begins the year as the No. 1 choice at the position.
Kyle Shurmur – Vanderbilt
Shurmur is worthy of note here because of the huge leap he made from 2016 to 2017. After throwing for nine touchdowns and ten picks two years ago, no one thought much of Shurmur’s ability to grow, especially in a Vanderbilt offense that was based around the skills of running back Ralph Webb.
What actually happened is that Shurmur took much of the shine away from his backfield comrade, passing for 26 touchdowns – and remaining at ten interceptions – in 2017. With Webb – and a couple of the ‘Dores leading receivers – having moved on in 2018, it will be interesting to see if Shurmur is able to continue his growth and move on to the next level as a quarterback.
Nick Fitzgerald – Mississippi State
The Bulldogs need Fitzgerald to be much more like the 2016 Fitzgerald than the 2017 version that was struggling even before falling victim to a season-ending injury in the Egg Bowl.
Those numbers from two years ago – 2,423 passing yards, 1,375 rushing yards, and 37 total touchdowns – made Fitzgerald a dark horse Heisman guy in 2017 before his season never really got started. A coaching change could be just the tonic that Fitzgerald (and the Bulldogs) require, with Joe Moorhead coming in from Penn State to give the program new impetus and a new direction.
Moorhead’s first task will be getting his dual-threat quarterback back up to his best, a task that will (rightly) put fear in the rest of the SEC if successful.
Other notable quarterbacks: Jalen Hurts – Alabama, Jake Bentley – South Carolina, Jake Fromm – Georgia, Jordan Ta’amu – Ole Miss