|LM Otero / Associated Press|
|Bryce Petty is returning for his senior season after making a Heisman run and leading Baylor to a 10-1 record.|
There was a lot of talk about what a deep quarterback class we had this season, but with news that two of this year's top names -- Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Baylor's Bryce Petty -- will be coming back, we can also begin looking forward to next year's group, which is looking pretty good itself.
It's not easy making predictions a year in advance, but here is an early look at some of the top senior quarterbacks I'll be following next season. Keep in mind that we're talking only about next year's seniors. The list below does not include top guys such as Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Braxton Miller, whom many expect to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, nor does it include Jameis Winston, who'll be a redshirt sophomore, and Mariota, who returns as a redshirt junior next season (more on him later).
Bryce Petty, Baylor: I like Petty, first of all, because I have a great deal of confidence in head coach Art Briles, who told me as far back as two years ago that he thought Petty could be the best QB he's ever coached -- this coming from a guy who has coached the likes of Robert Griffin III and Kevin Kolb. When a head coach brags about a player two years before he plays, you put a lot of faith in that. Petty has both a strong and accurate arm. He gets the ball to his receivers in a hurry, but he also puts it right into his receivers' hands. He also has great running ability, and at 235 pounds he's very strong.
Jeff Driskel, Florida: Driskel could be next season's No. 2 senior QB behind Petty, assuming he comes back OK from the season-ending broken leg he suffered in the Gators' third game. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he's a big guy who throws the ball well and is a very good athlete; he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 29th round this June.
Chuckie Keeton, Utah State: Keeton played in only five full games before he injured his knee, but he's a very athletic quarterback who started 21 games in his first two seasons with the Aggies. Like Driskel, he'll be one to watch, assuming his knee checks out OK.
David Ash, Texas: Another player who needs to be medically cleared, Ash is a good prospect who missed much of this season after suffering a concussion in September. I don't know how the concussion will affect him, but he was a good player before he was hurt.
Brett Smith, Wyoming: Smith showed off some of his ability last month against Hawaii, when he passed for 498 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He comes from an athletic family. His dad, Kevin, played football at Oregon. He's been a three-year starter at Wyoming and played pretty well as a true freshman, passing for 2,622 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. When you impress as a freshman, and you've got size and a good arm, you know you've got a chance to be pretty good.
Blake Bortles, Central Florida: Bortles has been really impressive this year, throwing for 3,038 yards with 22 TDs and completing 68 percent of his passes, leading Central Florida to a 10-1 record. Assuming he doesn't come out early, I look forward to studying him a bit more, but I've liked what I've seen, especially his ability to lead his team from behind, as he did last week against South Florida and earlier in November against Temple.
Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State: Brissett is a bit of a wild card because he didn't play this year after transferring from Florida. But I got to watch him while he was at Florida and thought he might turn into a nice player. Unlike Driskel, who can run and pass, Brissett is a pure passer, and he's come to the right place now to show off his strong arm.
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: Wallace has a lot of talent as both a runner and a passer, but what he has to do more than anything is learn how to hold back just a little bit. He has to cut back on the bad plays, like in last week's game against Mississippi State when he took off to run and lost a critical fumble in the end zone in overtime. Still, Wallace has the kind of developmental skills that coaches die for.
Andrew Manley, Eastern Illinois: Like Brissett, I would consider Manley a wild card. He's a pro-style passer who didn't play a lot at New Mexico State because the Aggies' system didn't match his skills, and he transferred to EIU over the summer. He is a strong-armed, drop-back quarterback expected to take over the starting job from senior Jimmy Garoppolo in the fall.
Blake Bell, Oklahoma: At 6-6, 250 pounds, Bell probably won't come into the NFL as a quarterback -- it's more likely he'll play a different position, like tight end -- but he is a QB of note, although he's been replaced at Oklahoma by Trevor Knight, a quarterback who can run better than him.
Staying or going?
I thought Marcus Mariota's decision to return to Oregon next season was a great move for him. It will enhance his career, and I think he'll come in next year and learn to do things better and faster than if he came out now. He's a bit thin and needs to improve his upper-body strength, but if he does that I think it'll make him even more valuable.
A year is a long ways off, but Mariota is a really special player who I believe can be a top-10 pick after next season.
I hope Braxton Miller, Ohio State's junior quarterback, follows Mariota and chooses to stay in school, too. Miller is a very good runner but isn't quite there yet as a passer, although he's improving in that area. It's always been my opinion that the more experience a player gets at the college level, the more quickly he'll be able to be productive in the NFL. Miller would benefit from another year.
Bigger, stronger, faster QBs
Right now there is a quarterback at Allen High School in Texas named Kyler Murray, who is a junior in high school but has the look of a player who's in his third year in college. Another high school QB in Texas, Thomas Fitts, has probably been through more quarterback schools and thrown more passes than a college senior from 10-15 years ago.
Every position in today's game is more advanced, but it's especially true for quarterbacks. This is why young QBs today are more prepared to play at a high level. It used to be that a player would come in, and it would take him three years to understand what's going on. Now you're seeing young QBs like the Eagles' Nick Foles, or the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, or the Colts' Andrew Luck thrive very early in their pro careers.
Today's quarterbacks are being taught so much more and are so much smarter and skilled than QBs who came into the league even as recently as the 1990s. Years ago, the learning curve for quarterbacks might have gone four or five decades without changing; I believe it will change three times this decade alone.
Missouri over Auburn: The SEC championship game matches two teams that didn't go to a bowl game and didn't have a winning record last season. Missouri won two SEC games last year, Auburn won none. It would not surprise me to see Missouri beat Auburn on Saturday. The main reason -- I think it's going to be hard for Auburn to duplicate its performance after a big win over Alabama last week. Historically, when teams win big as underdogs, they don't play as well the following week.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.