LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt will begin the 2013 football season in a hole, spotting the other 11 teams in the Southeastern Conference a returning starter at quarterback.
Eight of the quarterbacks who are back guided their teams to bowl games in 2012 and the quality is such that Tyler Russell, who is likely to end his career as the most decorated quarterback in Mississippi State history, is no better than No. 7 or so in the league.
Arkansas fans know all too well that the return of a productive, experienced quarterback is no guarantee of success, but I’d rather start the season with one than without one. Burdened with the most unusual of circumstances and limited pretty much to targeting wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, Tyler Wilson went from 24-6 touchdowns to interceptions in 2011 to 21-13 in 2012.
From year to year, the supporting cast changes. The departure of several offensive linemen at Alabama and one superior tackle at Texas A&M, the influx of talent at Ole Miss — those are factors that could affect the performances of A.J. McCarron, Johnny Manziel, and Bo Wallace.
From the top, one man’s rankings of the SEC quarterbacks in 2012 and whether they will progress, regress or tread water:
No. 1 Manziel (down). As a freshman, his numbers were so humongous — 3,706 passing and 1,410 running — that there is no room for improvement. Opponents will scheme to keep him from running and anything above 4,500 yards total offense would be a surprise.
No. 2, McCarron (down). Because he plays for Alabama, McCarron is measured differently. Only a third national championship will do and the loss of Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, and those other offensive linemen will catch up with the Crimson Tide.
No. 3, Aaron Murray (up). Georgia’s close loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship kept Murray up at night. He might not improve on 36-10 TD passes to interceptions, but it won’t matter if the Bulldogs win in Atlanta.
No. 4, Jeff Driskel (steady). Florida will ask Driskel to do more with the departure of running back Mike Gillislee, who had 34 carries for 146 and 24 for 140 in victories over LSU and Florida State. With Gillislee, the norm for Driskel was about 20 passes per game. When he threw 27 times or more, the Gators lost two of three.
No. 5, Connor Shaw (up). Healthy, he can run and throw. Brandon Wilds, who sat out 2012, had three 100-yard games when Marcus Lattimore was injured in 2011 and there is that South Carolina defense.
No. 6, Zach Mettenberger (down). He looks the part, a polite way of saying I am not sold on him. Yes, he played well in the second half vs. Alabama, but he was 16-of-29 against Arkansas, missed a wide-open receiver in the right flat when he could have clinched the bowl game vs. Clemson, and 10 teammates declared early for the NFL.
No. 7, Bo Wallace (up). The Ole Miss quarterback will benefit from another year with Hugh Freeze, plus a Top 10 recruiting class that includes defensive help and Parade All-American running back Mark Dodson Jr.
No. 8, Tyler Russell (steady). Mississippi State also signed a highly touted running back, Ashton Shumpert, and that might help Russell, who owns nine single-season passing records even though he has only started 17 games.
No. 9, James Franklin (up). Brilliant as a sophomore, the Missouri quarterback was injured off and on. He sat out three games and threw fewer than 10 passes in two other games.
No. 10, Kiehl Frazier. (up) Progress is based on listening to then-Arkansas State University coach Gus Malzahn gush about Frazier and the fact that Frazier has nowhere to go but up.
No. 11, Maxwell Smith (steady). Like Franklin and others, Smith was hurt much of the year. Even healthy, he is handicapped by being at Kentucky.