LITTLE ROCK — Published in July, assessment of the Southeastern Conference has been altered by the unexpected performance of one quarterback and the non-performance of another.
Texas A&M gets an up arrow because of Johnny Manziel and LSU is knocked down because of Zach Mettenberger. For context on the rise and fall, here is the vote that coincided with SEC media days:
Western Division — LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn, A&M, Ole Miss.
Eastern Division — South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Sticking with the picks in the East, a couple of do-overs are needed in the West. There is a long way to go, but LSU is on the verge of a free fall and A&M — dismissed because of a new coach and a new quarterback in a new league — leap-frogs Arkansas and Auburn. By default, Mississippi State also advances.
Revamped, the prediction would be Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn.
Responsible for an SEC record 557 yards against Arkansas, redshirt freshman Manziel was good again on Saturday and what he did in the fourth quarter in Oxford is a testament to his maturity beyond his games on the job. He suffered two second-half turnovers and with less than eight minutes to play, the Aggies were on their 1, trailing 27-17. Manziel completed a 32-yard pass on third down and finished a five-play drive with a 29-yard run. Four plays after Ole Miss failed on fourth-and-1, Manziel threw a 20-yard touchdown pass.
At 4-1 and 2-1 in the SEC, the Aggies’ next game is Oct. 20 vs. LSU.
Touted as the quarterback who would elevate LSU to the BCS title, Mettenberger has been a disappointment. The 12-10 victory over Auburn on Sept. 22 was dismissed as a combination of an offense still growing against a good defense and his breakthrough game was expected against Florida. Instead, Mettenberger was 11-of-25 with an interception, the Tigers were 1-of-13 on third down, and three of their eight first downs came on penalties.
Considering the way Tyler Wilson picked apart Auburn, the conclusion is that Mettenberger is no better than his maligned predecessors. He has ample opportunity to change that because the Tigers’ next four games are against teams who are 10-1 in the SEC.
The quarterback is not alone in determining the success of a team, but the difference in the play at that position is there for all to see and often easy to measure. Take Arkansas 24, Auburn 7, for example.
Other than one bad pass in 27 attempts, Tyler Wilson was patient, instructed his receivers while on the move, outmaneuvered a couple of rushers, and completed better than 73 percent. Arkansas’ defense recorded eight sacks and five turnovers, but the Auburn combo of Kiehl Frazier-Clint Moseley was complicit in those stats. Both underclassmen made poor decisions and overthrew receivers raising the question whether Auburn’s 2013 quarterback was on the field.
Other results from the weekend in the SEC underscore the point about quarterbacks. By the time I got to a TV, South Carolina led Georgia by 28. Checking the stats, winning quarterback Connor Shaw had 14 carries for 78 yards and completed 6-of-10 for 162 yards and two touchdowns. On the other side, Aaron Murray was 11-of-31 with an interception. Shaw did benefit from Marcus Lattimore’s 24 for 109 and Murray was hampered by Todd Gurley’s 13 for 39.
In a less meaningful encounter, Missouri quarterback James Franklin sprained his left knee in the first quarter and left the Vanderbilt game. His backup was 9-of-30 and the Tigers lost 19-15.
One reason Arkansas is a big favorite this week is the accomplished Wilson vs. a freshman quarterback and a senior pressed into service.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.