Mississippi State, Auburn Top QB Battles To Watch In SEC

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 1:59 PM UTC

Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 1:59 PM UTC

There are a handful of intriguing first-team quarterback battles brewing this offseason in the SEC. Let's take a look, and bet confidently with tips from SBRpicks.com. 

The majority of SEC teams appear settled at the quarterback position headed into the 2019 campaign. A few programs, however, have compelling offseason battles under center. Here are the top five quarterback battles unfolding in the nation’s toughest college football conference, including potential front-runners and CFP national championship odds.

5. Tennessee (+30,000)

Projected starter: Jarrett Guarantano

Guarantano is the undisputed starter entering 2019, with freshmen J.T. Shrout and Brian Mauer backing up. The latter could challenge for playing time with a slow start, which is very possible. Guarantano is working with his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years, as Tyson Helton comes over from Western Kentucky to help the Vols put up points.

Guarantano made decent strides from 2017 to 2018 in Knoxville, but the bar was low and the offense inconsistent. The redshirt junior threw for 1,907 yards, 12 TDs, and 3 INTs, completing 153 of 246 passes, yet tossed for more than 200 yards only twice all season.

The future is Harrison Bailey, a 2020 four-star commit. If head coach Jeremy Pruitt wants to see Bailey blossom, he may be wise to give the young backups exposure as soon as possible.

4. Vanderbilt (+50,000)

Projected starter: Riley Neal

Five players are in the mix to fill the void left by Vanderbilt’s all-time leading passer Kyle Shurmer. Ball State grad transfer Riley Neal is the front-runner. Neal, a 6-foot-6 two-time Academic All-MAC team recipient, started 32 games for the Cardinals, throwing for 7,393 yards and 46 TDs on 731-of-1,219 passes (60 percent).

Rising junior Deuce Wallace is Neal’s primary competition, granted he’s in good standing. Head coach Derek Mason tapped Wallace as Shurmer’s backup last season before doling out a season-long suspension for violation of school policy. Junior college transfer Mo Hasan stepped in as second fiddle, and is one of three other scholarship signal-callers on the roster, including sophomore Allan Walters and incoming freshman Jamil Muhammad.

Whichever quarterback wins the first-team role, he’ll have a pair of stars to throw to. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb returns after finishing third in the SEC with 916 receiving yards and fifth in touchdown catches (9). Tight end Jared Pickney, meanwhile, bypassed early entry into the NFL Draft to compete. Pickney led the conference at his position with 50 receptions and finished second with 774 receiving yards.

3. Arkansas (+10,000)

Projected starter: Ben Hicks

Connor Noland, a local redshirt freshman, is likely the future under center at Arkansas, but he’ll have to wait one more year before assuming the first-team role full-time. That’s because of grad transfer Ben Hicks.

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Hicks comes over from SMU to reunite with head coach Chad Morris, who he started for in 2016 and 2017. The senior is the Mustangs' all-time passing leader, owning school records in passing yards (9,081), passing touchdowns (71), and completions (718). Noland flashed some brilliance in limited playing time at the end of last season, but this is a no-brainer battle.

2. Mississippi State (+5,000)

Projected starter: Keytaon Thompson

Starkville sees its first real quarterback battle in more than a decade with Nick Fitzgerald graduating. Dual-threat option Keytaon Thompson is the clear front-runner to win the first-team honors. Mississippi State’s read-option system is a perfect fit, and will allow the junior’s dynamic talents to shine. Thompson also has the most experience of the candidates.

Accuracy is an issue, however, which will always leave the door cracked for Garrett Shrader or Jalen Mayden to step in. Head coach Jay Moorhead needs a solid passer to stretch the field vertically for his offense to excel. Moorhead, who is high on Mayden’s arm, is making the first-team quarterback a true competition, but it’s clearly Thompson’s to lose.

1. Auburn (+5,000)

Projected starter: Bo Nix

Head coach Gus Malzahn failed to lure Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts to the War Eagles, tempted Arizona’s Khalil Tate to no avail, and hosted but missed on Oklahoma’s Austin Kendall to take over as first-team quarterback. Now Malzhan is facing one of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the nation to replace two-year starter Jarrett Stidham. The four candidates are junior Malik Willis, redshirt freshmen Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg, and true freshman Bo Nix.

Malzahn has a poor track record breaking in straight-from-high school signal-callers, but Nix is a special talent destined for a bright future. Don’t be shocked to see him leading the Tigers for the majority of the 2019 campaign. Nix, a dual-threat five-star recruit, guided Alabama’s Pinson Valley High School to back-to-back Class 6A state championships. He also owns the state’s high school record for total offense, racking up 12,000 career yards.

Kenny Dillingham comes in from Memphis to serve as the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator. Having Dillingham and Nix in a first-team working relationship from the get-go should be priority No. 1 for Malzhan, who announced he is returning to full-time play-calling in 2019. Expect him to hand off these duties after the Nix-Dillingham relationship matures.

Willis, also a dual threat, is a viable option to start at quarterback in Malzhan’s run-heavy offense. Sandberg may offer the most leadership. Nonetheless, expect Malzhan to test the new redshirt rules early with Nix, which allows players to participate in four games without burning their eligibility. Nix is the future, and Malzhan’s stay at Auburn might be cut short if he doesn’t get his quarterback situation resolved sooner rather than later.

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