Tennessee Football: 5 Best QBs Volunteers Will Face in 2014
The SEC's quarterback talent pool isn't as deep in 2014 as fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the league's past few decorated seasons.
Couple that with the Tennessee Volunteers not having to face Auburn (and Nick Marshall) this season, and head coach Butch Jones' youthful defense can be thankful that its schedule isn't brimming with top-shelf signal-callers.
That doesn't mean that the Vols can breathe easy, though.
Even with stars such as Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron gone and stalwarts Connor Shaw and Zach Mettenberger moving on as well, UT must face plenty of capable quarterbacks.
That Florida's Jeff Driskel—who threw up career numbers against the Vols two seasons ago—didn't make the list of most dangerous quarterbacks on UT's schedule is enough evidence that there are plenty of defensive tests looming.
From speedy dual-threat players who've given the Vols fits for years to dropback passers with the players around them to produce big numbers, UT's schedule is rife with capable field generals.
A couple of out-of-conference quarterbacks carrying plenty of preseason hype will boost the competition as well.
So, let's take a look at the top five quarterbacks the Vols will face in 2014.
The ranking criteria were based on several factors, including the quarterbacks' skill sets versus Tennessee's perceived defensive weaknesses, as well as the weapons around them and their ability to get them the football.
5. Hutson Mason, Georgia
Replacing a legend is rarely fun.
After biding his time behind workhorse Aaron Murray, Hutson Mason is probably just thankful for a chance. He finally gets his first full season's worth of opportunities to lead the Georgia Bulldogs in 2014.
Mason's on-the-job audition occurred a little earlier than anybody wanted, as Murray's record-breaking career was cut short when he tore his ACL late last year against Kentucky.
The 6'3", 209-pound Mason responded by leading the Dawgs to a double-overtime victory over Georgia Tech before ending the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. In relief throughout the season, the senior from Marietta, Ga., completed 67 of 110 passes for 968 yards and five touchdowns.
While it's asking too much of Mason to put up Murray-like numbers, head coach Mark Richt didn't show any concerns at SEC media days.
"The blessing for us is Hutson Mason being in the program going into his fifth season," Richt told the media in Hoover, Ala., (according to the transcript posted by ASAP Sports).
UGA linebacker Ramik Wilson told Jacksonville's 1010 XL Primetime radio personality Andrew Gibson that Mason knows Georgia's playbook "like the Bible."
If that's the case, a revival of the Dawgs offense might not be out of the question.
Georgia returns three receivers who've caught 40 or more passes in a season. The Bulldogs have (for the most part) recovered from an injury-riddled 2013, though Malcolm Mitchell is sidelined again after having his knee scoped, acccording to CBS Sports' Chip Patterson.
Tennessee has played Georgia extremely close the past two seasons, but it hasn't broken through with a win. Getting pressure on Mason could force the veteran to show his relative inexperience. It's vital the Vols do that if they're going to upset the Dawgs in Athens.
4. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina
Much like Mason, fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has waited his turn behind a beloved star. In this case, Connor Shaw moved on to the NFL after leading South Carolina to a 33-6 run over the past three seasons.
But the new Gamecocks signal-caller has all the tools to put up his own big numbers this year.
As a pure pocket passer, Thompson also fits the Steve Spurrier prototype that the Ol' Ball Coach molded into college stars throughout his years at Florida.
With the rugged Shaw putting his body on the line throughout his career, Thompson saw plenty of action. He is 3-0 as a starter and threw for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. But he's nothing like his predecessor.
"It got called back, but Connor had like an 80-yard touchdown run against Missouri a couple of years ago," Thompson said at SEC media days, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' David Paschall. "Don't expect to be seeing that from me."
Thompson will stay between the tackles as much as possible, and he has plenty of weapons to throw to, including receivers Shaq Roland, Damiere Boyd, Nick Jones, Pharoh Cooper and tight end Rory Anderson.
Throw in star running back Mike Davis to keep defenses honest and a loaded offensive line which ESPN's Chris Low believes is the top unit in the league, and Thompson has every reason to thrive.
The Vols must travel to Columbia to face a Gamecocks team that will have plenty of payback on its mind after UT's breakthrough win over Spurrier's team last season. If the Vols are to make it two consecutive wins over Carolina, they'll have to stop Thompson first.
3. Maty Mauk, Missouri
Maty Mauk ran all over Tennessee. For good measure, he threw all over the Vols, too.
Last November, in the midst of Mizzou's magical (and seemingly improbable) run to the SEC Championship Game, Mauk led the Tigers to a 31-3 slugging of Tennessee in which he stole the show.
The then-redshirt freshman was on the tail end of his James Franklin-replacement parade, and he enjoyed his best game as a collegian, rushing for 114 yards on 13 carries and completing 12 of 25 passes for 163 yards and three scores.
Because of his success against the Vols, Mauk gets the nod this high on the list over the two upperclassmen. Even though the 6'0", 200-pound sophomore must replace most of his offensive firepower from a season ago, his added dual-threat abilities make him a dangerous opponent.
Tennessee's inefficiencies make him even scarier.
UT was embarrassingly slow on defense a season ago, and even though coach Butch Jones told Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs and John Brice that this year's rendition of UT is faster, the Vols will have to prove it on the field. Team speed has been a major flaw for years on Rocky Top.
"I saw a much faster football team in all areas in moving around," Jones said. "But now it's being able to get off blocks and make plays. But just our overall team speed, I could see much improvement."
The Vols weren't on the same level of athleticism as Mauk a season ago. Though he'll have to come to Neyland Stadium without as many weapons, the Missouri QB will keep improving as the season matures.
By the time the two square off, Mauk will be hard to handle again. Thankfully for the Vols, their own young contributors will have plenty of seasoning by then, too.
2. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
The freshman statistics leading up to last year's Sugar Bowl for Trevor Knight read like what you'd expect from an inconsistent (but talented) youngster's introduction to big-time college football.
He didn't play in five games. After starting the season with an erratic performance against Louisiana-Monroe, he was benched during a poor performance in a 16-7 win over West Virginia.
Knight spent much of the season's middle on the bench before returning in the Iowa State game to throw for 61 yards and run for 123 more.
Flashes of brilliance were evident in the following game, as he threw for 171 yards and ran for 82 in a domination of Kansas State, but he again lulled through the Oklahoma State game.
Then, everything came together in his coming-out party as Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 win over Alabama. Overnight, Knight went from little-known freshman splitting time to a household name.
Now, entering his sophomore season, the question for Tennessee (and Oklahoma opponents everywhere): Which Knight is the real Knight?
If he performs the way he did against the Tide, the Vols won't be able to do anything to stop it, and the game could get ugly. But Knight has a history of clunkers and struggled in the spring game, completing just five of 14 passes with an interception, according to SoonerScoop's RJ Young.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has mishandled his quarterback situation before, though, and Knight got off to a slow start a season ago. There will be even more intrigue if Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield gains immediate eligibility in Norman.
It's those uncertainties that keep Knight from the top spot on the list. There's no denying his dual-threat capabilities and the idea that he's possibly the most talented quarterback the Vols will face. But he's still searching for consistency.
If he's on, he'll be hard for the young UT defenders to handle, especially that early in their careers.
1. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
A season removed from tearing knee ligaments, Chuckie Keeton is back and ready to take aim at some of college football's biggest individual achievements.
He also leads a mid-major Utah State Aggies program that has been a scary matchup for everybody recently. According to CBS Sports' Jerry Hinnen:
[USU] has also made a habit of scaring the pants off of BCS teams in recent years, losing to USC by three points in 2013, Wisconsin by two in 2012, and Auburn by four in 2011. (The Aggies also beat in-state rival Utah 27-20 in 2012.)
With Keeton at the helm, the Vols should have their hands full to open the season. He already has been named the Mountain West Conference's preseason player of the year, and Utah State has his Heisman Trophy campaign underway.
An examination of the statistics posted on that site shows that Keeton's candidacy is not exactly far-fetched. The 6'2", 200-pound, athletic signal-caller could start for most teams in the country. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer called him college football's "most exciting talent."
USA Today's Tim Olsen is one of several writers who've mentioned his name as a dark-horse candidate for college football's top award.
According to USU coach Matt Wells:
His arm's a weapon, and his mind is a tremendous weapon, and it's vastly underrated in my opinion. He has God-given ability and talent, but what he has is a mindset and a makeup to be an elite quarterback in college football.
Before tearing his ACL against BYU last season, Keeton had thrown 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions in a little more than five games. He also has the wheels to change the face of a game after he's moved the pocket.
He's precisely the type of quarterback that has given UT fits for the past half-decade. That's why this game is seriously dangerous for the Vols. If their young defense can contain Keeton and come away with an early-season win, it won't just be taking care of business.
Instead, it may just be a sign of positive things to come for the Vols.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: