The 2016 season might have been a down year for the SEC as a whole, but things are looking up with some of the league’s young quarterbacks who emerged last fall.
By the end of the season, there were four true freshmen -- Jake Bentley, Jacob Eason, Jalen Hurts and Shea Patterson -- starting for their respective teams. All four were ranked in the ESPN 300 the year before, and it’s easy to see that all four have bright futures.
So for Friday's roundtable, we asked our SEC panel which of those four has the best long-term potential.
Edward Aschoff: Jacob Eason, Georgia
This is a tough one when you consider that Hurts helped Alabama to a national championship berth and Bentley dazzled at South Carolina during what should have been his senior year of high school. Then there's Eason. He can spin the ball better than any of his 2016 classmates, but his decision-making was an issue against good defense. Still, I'll take that arm strength and his potential all day. Eason, who started all but one game last season, threw for 2,430 with 16 touchdowns. He completed only 55 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions, but you just can't ignore his arm talent. Also, he didn't have elite receivers or offensive linemen around him. He must learn how to read defenses better, but think back to how he led that victory at Missouri. Think about the grit he showed against Auburn. Go back to that perfect Hail Mary against Tennessee. Eason took his lumps, but he might be the SEC's most improved player in 2017, and he'll battle for an All-America spot soon enough.
David Ching: Jacob Eason, Georgia
Give me Eason. I know his true freshman season was not perfect, but he still passed for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions behind a shaky offensive line and with limited weapons at wide receiver. Kirby Smart’s staff is improving the talent around its blue-chip quarterback, and I expect to see the kid get better and better as time passes.
Sam Khan: Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
I got a chance to see Patterson in person last season and I was thoroughly impressed. He can sling it and he has some wheels, too. The way he plays reminded me a lot of Johnny Manziel. I think with new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who runs the Air Raid, it could be a perfect match. Manziel was operating the Air Raid the year he won the Heisman in 2012, and I'm not saying that's necessarily going to happen in Oxford, but I think the marriage of Patterson's skills with Longo's offense can work out really well. I think the sky's the limit for Patterson.
Greg Ostendorf: Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
It depends on the question. If it's "Who's the better pro?" I'm taking Eason or Bentley. They're both big with strong arms, and they are more of your prototypical NFL quarterback. If it's "Who wins the most career games?" you have to lean toward Hurts because he plays for Alabama. But as far as long-term potential at the college level, I love Patterson. We don't know what'’s going to happen to Hugh Freeze or the Ole Miss program. What I do know is that Patterson can play. As Sam alluded to, he reminds you a lot of Manziel with the way he keeps plays alive with his feet. It also doesn't hurt that he's got arguably one of the best young corps of receivers in college football. Who wouldn't want to throw to Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf the next two seasons? He also proved he can deliver in the clutch with that come-from-behind victory at Texas A&M in his first college start. What's not to love?
Alex Scarborough: Jalen Hurts, Alabama
Look, I know you guys are all going to make your arguments for Eason and Patterson, and that's fine. Those guys look the part and ooze potential. But let me take a second and play devil's advocate for Jalen Hurts here. I've been as critical of Hurts as anyone, pointing out his inconsistencies as a passer during his freshman season, but the negativity is starting to go overboard. I know he struggled down the stretch, but let's not forget that the kid won SEC Offensive Player of the Year for a reason and nearly helped his team to a national championship. And what's more, let's remember that he was learning in front of our eyes and growing pains should have been expected. At the end of the day, he was a true freshman under incredible pressure who threw more touchdowns than interceptions and completed more than 60 percent of his passes. With a new offensive coordinator and a year of experience under his belt, there's no telling how much he'll improve. He already has the athleticism, and he's a lot bigger than people think. If he can refine his passing (and he's the son of a coach, so he shouldn't be averse to practice), he has plenty of time to prove his pro potential. I know a lot of people are ready to write him off and look ahead to Tua Tagovailoa, but for goodness' sake let's give Hurts a little time to mature.