Tennessee kicks off the 2019 season with a match-up against Georgia State on August 31st in Knoxville. With kickoff just days away, Rocky Top Insider is taking a look at the best players the Vols will face at each position.
First up is our look at the 10 best quarterbacks the Vols will take on this upcoming season. The group of quarterbacks Tennessee will face this season isn’t as deep or imposing as last year’s group, but the Vols still have plenty of talented signal callers on their upcoming schedule.
Here’s a look at the top 10 quarterbacks Tennessee will face in year two under Jeremy Pruitt.
No. 1 — Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (Oct. 19)
Is there a more obvious No. 1? Trevor Lawrence is probably the best quarterback in the country, but someone could make the case that Tua Tagovailoa is the best and wouldn’t sound crazy doing so.
Last season, Tagovailoa won the Walter Camp Award and Maxwell Player of the Year award following a breakout sophomore season where he threw for 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the first eight games of the season. He would go on to throw for a school record 3,966 yards despite not playing in many fourth quarters and being hobbled at the end of the season. Tagovailoa added 43 touchdowns, six interceptions and completed 69 percent of his passes.
Last season against the Vols, Tagovailoa completed 19 of his 29 pass attempts for 306 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions.
No. 2 — Jake Fromm, Georgia (Oct. 5)
Some NFL media members have made the case that Jake Fromm will actually be the better NFL quarterback than Tagovailoa, citing Fromm’s football IQ and ability to lead. According to SEC Network analyst Jordan Rodgers, no quarterback in the SEC has more freedom than Fromm at the line of scrimmage. As a result, Fromm threw for 2,749 yards, 30 touchdowns, six interceptions, and completed 67.3 percent of his passes last season.
Fromm’s freshman and sophomore seasons ranked third and second in school history, respectively, in passing efficiency.
As a sophomore last season, Fromm was harassed by Darrell Taylor when the Vols played the Bulldogs in Athens. Georgia’s rushing attack and defense won the game for them, as Fromm fumbled the ball away a couple times and finished 16-of-22 for 185 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
No. 3 — Kelly Bryant, Missouri (Nov. 23)
The Clemson graduate transfer will be the reason Missouri doesn’t take a step back this season despite losing Drew Lock. While at Clemson, Bryant was actually more accurate than Lock, completing 66 percent of his passes to Lock’s 56 completion percentage. Bryant threw for 2,082 yards in 2017, the season he guided Clemson to the college football playoffs, and rushed for 1,037 non-sack yards.
No. 4 — Feleipe Franks, Florida (Sept. 21)
Feleipe Franks gets a bad wrap, but if what we saw from the Florida starting quarterback in the month of November and the Gators’ bowl game in 2018 shows up in 2019, he’s going to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC.
Franks started the first nine games for Florida and was frequently booed by fans. In the Gators’ three losses, he threw for three touchdowns and four interceptions while completing just 48.1 percent of his passes. For the season, he completed 58.4 percent of his pass attempts and threw for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns, and six interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 501 yards and seven touchdowns on 110 carries.
Against Tennessee last season, Franks only completed nine of his 18 pass attempts, but he tossed three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for a score.
No. 5 — Jake Bentley, South Carolina (Oct. 26)
Bentley is boom-or-bust for the Gamecocks. Last season, he threw for 3,171 yards and 27 touchdowns, but he also threw 14 interceptions. Bentley completed 61.9 percent of his passes and showed quite a bit of moxie when he threw for over 500 yards and five touchdowns against Clemson. But in games against ranked opponents, he’s 1-10 in 11 career starts.
Other than throwing an interception, Bentley was fairly efficient against the Vols last season. He was 11-of-16 for 152 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He totaled 20 yards on four carries as well.
No. 6 — Zach Wilson, BYU (Sept. 7)
Wilson took over the starting QB position for BYU with six games remaining in the regular season, and as a result, the BYU offense took quite a step forward. Compared to the previous seven games, the offense scored 11.3 more points per game, rushed for 77.4 more yards, totaled 109.4 more yards, and scored 1.8 more touchdowns per game.
For the season, Wilson threw for 1,578 yards, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions, and completed 65.9 percent of his passes in nine games. He was a perfect 18-of-18 in BYU’s bowl game to close out the year.
No. 7 — Terry Wilson, Kentucky (Nov. 9)
Wilson completed 67.1 percent of his passes last season, but that’s also in part because Kentucky didn’t take too many chances through the air. He only threw for 200 yards on three different occasions and averaged 145 passing yards per game. For the season, Wilson was 180-of-268 for 1,889 yards, 11 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 547 yards and four touchdowns. Wilson rushed for just one touchdown over the last eight games, though.
If Wilson can prove himself as a passer, he’ll finish much higher on this list by the end of the season.
Against Tennessee, Wilson was stymied. He completed 21 of his 34 passes for 172 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He finished with 10 carries for negative six yards, marking the only game all season last year where he didn’t finish with positive rushing yards.
No. 8 — Tommy Stevens, Mississippi State (Oct. 12)
The only reason Stevens didn’t have a successful career at Penn State is because Trace McSorely beat him out and had a tremendous career. In fact, McSorely barely beat out Stevens for the job, but he impressed so much in his debut game that from that point on, the job was never in question.
Stevens was just 24-of-41 for 304 yards and four touchdowns last season, but the Penn State transfer rushed for 506 yards and 8 touchdowns in 23 career games. The benchmark for Joe Moorhead quarterbacks is a 65 percent completion percentage. Last year, Mississippi State completed just 51.1 percent of its passes with Nick Fitzgerald as the starting quarterback. With Stevens, that number will be greatly improved. That is, if he wins the quarterback competition.
If he doesn’t…
No. 9 — Keytaon Thompson, Mississippi State (Oct. 12)
…then Keytaon Thompson will likely be Mississippi State’s starter at quarterback.
Stevens must beat out Thompson for the starting job, which won’t be an easy task. Both are capable starting quarterbacks and have the potential to be one of the better ones in the SEC. Last season, Thompson was 18-of-39 for 458 yards and six touchdowns to go along with just one interception. He added 226 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 24 carries.
For his career, Thompson is 2-0 as a starter and has accounted for 18 touchdowns. He also has three career 100-yard rushing games.
No. 10 — Riley Neal, Vanderbilt (Nov. 30)
With the graduation of Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt was forced to go out and search for a grad transfer. Derek Mason ended up landing Ball State transfer Riley Neal. While it’ll be a tough task replacing Shurmur, who was one of the best ever to play quarterback for the Commodores, Neal has the pedigree and weapons to do so.
At Ball State, he completed 60.0 percent of his passes and threw for 7,393 yards to go along with 46 touchdowns. Neal accounted for 8,756 total yards. With the dynamic trio of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and Kalija Lipscomb at his disposal, Neal should have a solid season. That is, if Vanderbilt’s offensive line can replace three starters efficiently and protect Neal.