OXFORD, Miss. — Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has the Heisman Trophy. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron has the national championships.
Those two are the Southeastern Conference’s most famous quarterbacks, but they’re just the main headliners – there’s a host of talented signal-callers that have offenses rolling across the league.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Mississippi’s Bo Wallace and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw are among the many quarterbacks who have had a good start this season, turning the usually smash-mouth conference into an offensive paradise.
“We’re putting so much emphasis on quarterback play, functioning and taking care of the ball in the system in which we’re asked to run,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I know how hard we worked at it, and I’m sure others have done the same. It seems to me that it’s been raised to another level.”
Last week’s Manziel-McCarron showdown, whose teams combined for 1,196 total yards in the Tide’s 49-42 victory, was the most obvious sign that this might be a banner year for SEC offenses – and especially quarterbacks.
But the gaudy stats are popping up everywhere:
• Georgia’s Murray threw for 323 yards against Clemson and 309 yards against South Carolina. He’s on pace to become the only SEC quarterback in history to have four straight 3,000-yard passing seasons.
• Mississippi’s Wallace threw for 177 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for 57 yards and a touchdown, as the Rebels walloped Texas 44-23. Wallace hasn’t thrown an interception this season.
• LSU’s Mettenberger needed just 18 pass attempts to throw for 264 yards and three touchdowns against Kent State on Saturday. He has the highest efficiency rating in the SEC so far this season, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for 797 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
• South Carolina’s Shaw picked apart Vanderbilt’s defense, completing 21 of 29 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 84 yards.
• Even the Mississippi State-Auburn game provided offensive fireworks. Auburn’s Nick Marshall threw for a career-high 339 yards and two touchdowns while Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott countered with 213 passing yards, 133 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Quarterbacks will make this season awfully tough for proud, traditionally stout SEC defenses.
“What I’ve noticed the most is that quarterbacks now in the SEC are becoming more and more mobile as the years advance,” Tennessee senior defensive end Corey Miller said. “I feel like these guys are now able to make plays not only with their arms but with their feet. They’re able to get outside the pocket, prolong drives, prolong passing plays.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson agreed, saying the rise of the mobile quarterback has defenses scrambling to make adjustments.
Seven SEC teams averaged at least 30 points per game last season. So far this season, 10 teams are above that threshold.
“There are so many really good dual-threat quarterbacks coming out right now in our conference,” Johnson said. “There have been some good ones in the past, but I don’t know if there’s been as many. It’s going to be a challenge.”
The SEC’s quality and depth under center has also attracted the attention of NFL scouts.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said the SEC doesn’t have a quarterback who is considered a sure-fire first round pick, but at least a half dozen are drawing considerable interest from teams.
He said McCarron, Manziel and Murray are likely to go highest in the draft, but Wallace, Mettenberger and Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell – who has been sidelined with a concussion – are also legitimate prospects.
“Obviously, with the level of the competition in the SEC, it’s a good league to scout,” Kiper said. “They’re playing against good defenses and these schools have a history of turning out quality NFL players.”
Wallace said he knows most of the SEC’s quarterbacks through summer events like the Manning Camp and developed friendships. One of his habits is peaking at box scores to see how his friends are doing league-wide and he enjoys seeing all the big numbers.
“I don’t think you’ve seen quarterback play in the SEC this good in a long time,” Wallace said.