Auburn Football: 5 Best QBs the Tigers Will Face in 2014
It may be a "down" year for quarterbacks in the SEC, but Auburn's developing defense will definitely not have it easy this season.
While perennial powerhouses Alabama and LSU still have not named starting quarterbacks for 2014, other contenders in the SEC—and even one of Auburn's non-conference opponents—feature several talented quarterbacks who will be eager to test the strength of a Tigers pass defense that was shaky at best last season.
Some of these signal-callers also have dual-threat abilities that will make them even more of a challenging matchup on the Tigers' schedule, which is considered to be one of the toughest in college football. How Auburn performs against these top quarterbacks will go a long way in determining its chances at another trip to the national title game.
With a few weeks to go before the start of the defending SEC champions' 2014 campaign, let's take a look at the five best returning quarterbacks Auburn will face this season.
5. Hutson Mason (UGA)
The week after Auburn defeated Georgia in last season's "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" game, longtime Georgia starter Aaron Murray went down with a season-ending injury.
His replacement, Hutson Mason, led the Bulldogs to victory against Kentucky and Georgia Tech before throwing for 320 yards in a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
Now a fifth-year senior heading into his first and only season as a permanent starter, Mason knows the Georgia offense inside and out. After completing 61 percent of his passes for 968 yards in five games of work last season, he has the full confidence of his teammates and his head coach.
"If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said at SEC media days. "Hopefully, he stays healthy. I see that he's getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky's the limit for him."
Mason should have a great senior season alongside running back Todd Gurley and a host of experienced wide receivers. Auburn will also face him toward the end of the season, which will make him even more dangerous in Sanford Stadium this November.
4. Dylan Thompson (South Carolina)
Under Steve Spurrier, South Carolina has become a major player in the SEC East, and the "Head Ball Coach" has gotten solid play over the last few seasons from his Gamecocks quarterbacks.
This season, the former Heisman-winning quarterback at Florida will turn to a fifth-year senior as his new signal-caller—and one who has done well for South Carolina during his few chances.
Dylan Thompson started the Gamecocks' 2012 rivalry victory against Clemson and threw for more than 300 yards. He served as a great replacement for starter Connor Shaw several times last season, but he says his game is different from the player he backed up in 2014.
"It got called back, but Connor had like an 80-yard touchdown run against Missouri a couple of years ago," Thompson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' David Paschall. "Don't expect to be seeing that from me."
If he can cut down his interception rate—something he attributed to "forcing it too much" through the air—Thompson should excel with a veteran group of playmakers and offensive linemen. He definitely has the skill set and supporting pieces of a quarterback who could be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
3. Jake Waters (Kansas State)
Kansas State is a largely unknown opponent to most Auburn fans ahead of the Tigers' Thursday night trip to Manhattan.
Here is a mini-scouting report: The Wildcat wearing No. 15 will be the key to his team's success against the defending SEC champions.
Jake Waters split time with dual-threat quarterback Daniel Sams last season, but now he is the top man for head coach Bill Snyder and his staff after Sams' transfer to the FCS' McNeese State. He threw for almost 2,500 yards last season while having twice as many touchdowns as he did interceptions—18 and nine, respectively.
"Jake…finished the season extremely well," Snyder told the Kansas City Star's Kellis Robinett. "His level of confidence I think has grown immensely. I think that experience from last year has benefited him greatly, as it should, with any young guy. And he's embraced it."
Waters will want to maintain a steady connection with star receiver Tyler Lockett against Auburn and the rest of his competition in 2014. With a good amount of starting experience and a full offseason as the offensive leader, he could be a menace to the Tigers' pass defense next month.
2. Dak Prescott (Mississippi State)
Although Auburn pulled out a last-second win against Mississippi State last year, the Bulldogs still got a standout performance from dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott.
Prescott had 346 all-purpose yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers against Auburn in 2013. The Tigers had a hard time containing Prescott on the ground as he went for a season-high 22 rushing attempts inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This season, Prescott is back with most of his passing targets from last season and three offensive linemen. Like with several other quarterbacks on this list, Prescott is now the No. 1 option at quarterback for a team that returns plenty of starters from last season, and that could be dangerous for opponents down the road.
"Mississippi State adjusted to Prescott on the fly during his successful sophomore season, and now Prescott has an entire offseason with many of the same pieces to fine-tune his game as the unquestioned starter," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote earlier this year. "More importantly, Mullen has an entire offseason to fine-tune his offense to Prescott."
Quarterbacks who can tuck the ball and take off for big yards at any time have been a huge problem for Auburn defenses the last few seasons. Now that Prescott has had several months of work as the offense's leader, he could have another monster game against the Tigers when they travel to Starkville.
1. Bo Wallace (Ole Miss)
Of all the quarterbacks on this list, only one is a multi-year starter in the SEC.
Ole Miss senior Bo Wallace might not have as much preseason hype as Prescott or Nick Marshall, but he does have more than one season of experience as a starter in one of the nation's toughest divisions. Wallace has thrown 40 touchdown passes over the last two seasons and has never been a backup in Oxford since his transfer from East Mississippi Community College.
Against Auburn, Wallace has thrown for 556 yards and three touchdowns, which includes a 17-for-22 passing performance in the Tigers' last road game against the Rebels. He has steadily improved as a signal-caller and has the full confidence of his coach heading into his final season.
"I think he's matured quite nicely in the way he leads our team, the way he goes about our business," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said at SEC media days. "He feels finally healthy and confident. I really think he's at a point where he certainly has every avenue right now to step in and be one of the guys in this conference."
While Wallace does not have as many returning playmakers around him as Prescott, his former receivers and running backs have been replaced by some of the highest-rated recruits in recent Rebel history. Wallace will be looking for revenge after a sour finale to his visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium last season, and he definitely has the tools to have a great chance at getting it this season.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.