QB Curve: Can Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott Reach SEC West Speed?

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Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective. 

QB of the Week: Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott

Typecasting: The Real Deal. Quick: Name the best quarterback in Mississippi State history. Don Smith? Jackie Parker? Derrick Taite? Those choices don’t exactly evoke the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I’d be surprised if they even evoked the school fight song. I’m a lifelong, stone-cold college football fanatic born and raised in Mississippi, in a family consisting mainly of Mississippi State fans, and I had never heard of Don Smith or Jackie Parker until I looked them up 10 minutes before writing this.

I took an informal Twitter poll on the subject, and the most popular answers were Eli Manning and Cam Newton, neither of whom attended Mississippi State. (The people who suggested Newton were joking; the people who suggested Manning just seemed confused.) No single quarterback dominates the school record book. No Bulldogs passer has ever thrown for 3,000 yards in a season. The only MSU player to take a snap as a quarterback in the NFL (Joe Reed, an 11th-round pick in 1971) had a losing record as a college starter and threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns his senior year.1 Hell, when you get down to it, even Wayne Madkin has to rank right up there. Think about that.

All of which is to say this: If Dak Prescott stays healthy this year and next, there’s a very, very good chance he’ll leave Starkville as the best quarterback in program history. In fact, even though he’s started only 10 games in his career, the title is pretty much already his to lose. Certainly, he’s the only Bulldogs passer who’s ever cracked the top 20 on Vegas’s list of Heisman favorites. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he has the size and arm strength of a standard-issue pro prospect, plus the elusiveness of a player 40 pounds lighter. But with great hype comes great expectations: In the most ruthless division in the nation, just how good does Prescott have to be to move the needle for a program that hasn’t produced a winning conference record this century?

At His Best: Before going any further, I should acknowledge that, yes, the Heisman chatter is a little silly. Only a small handful of people this offseason actually anointed Prescott as a “surprise” or “dark horse” contender based on his seven starting assignments in 2013, and by August most of the hype tended to be more about the hype itself than about Prescott’s credentials. As far as Mississippi State fans are concerned, though, the only credential Prescott will ever need to secure his greatness is the memory of last November’s come-from-behind win over Ole Miss, in which he came off the bench to lead two late scoring drives — the first to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the second to win in overtime — despite a bum shoulder that had sidelined him for the previous two games. (Afterward, coach Dan Mullen said Prescott’s decision to play was “nothing short of miraculous.”)

For the rest of us, the argument begins and ends with Prescott’s abilities as a runner. Forgive me for uttering His name in vain, but if there’s anything to the ostensible Heisman buzz, it’s only because Prescott bears a striking resemblance physically and stylistically to Tim Tebow. This is not a reckless comparison. Remember, Tebow flourished in Mullen’s system at Florida, where Mullen served as offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008, and even without a blue-chip supporting cast Prescott has proven similarly adept as a reliable, between-the-tackles workhorse in the spread option. As a sophomore in 2013, Prescott averaged 88 yards on 15 carries per game against SEC opponents, including 100-yard games on the ground against Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M; he also ran for 78 yards and two touchdowns at South Carolina. Among SEC rushers with at least 100 carries against FBS opponents, he ranked third in yards per carry (6.2), behind only LSU’s Jeremy Hill and Missouri’s Henry Josey.

Despite his size, Prescott is shiftier and more dangerous in the open field than Tebow could have ever hoped to be, yet he retains the same rhinolike potential in short yardage: 15 of his 19 career touchdown runs have come inside the red zone. Here’s a short sequence against Auburn from September 2013 in which he ran the gamut on three consecutive plays:

At that point, Prescott was still regarded as the “change of pace,” the raw athlete to senior Tyler Russell’s more polished presence in the pocket. As he’s grown into a full-time role, though, his workload on the ground has not diminished, even against lesser opposition: In 2014, he’s already logged 40 carries against the overmatched likes of Southern Miss, UAB, and South Alabama.

At His Worst: To continue the analogy, Prescott is probably a good approximation of what Tebow would have looked like as a college passer if Tebow had been surrounded by three-star talent instead of four- and five-star guys. While Prescott’s arm strength is not an issue, it’s not hard to notice on film that his pass attempts beyond 10 yards generally do not end well. (To be fair, his offensive line shares some of the blame for that.) And although his overall numbers border on respectable, Prescott struggled mightily to make hay through the air against SEC defenses in 2013, especially against the kind of top-shelf defenses he’s expected to prove himself against in 2014:

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Keep in mind, of course, that Prescott was only a redshirt sophomore in 2013, and only a part-time starter; it’s entirely possible he’s made a leap forward as a junior now that he has the job to himself, as his early success against the nonconference slate seems to suggest. Again, though, what happens against Conference USA tomato cans before the weather starts to turn has no bearing on what’s going to happen against the rest of the SEC West.

To Saturday and Beyond: Since the SEC split into East and West divisions in 1992, Mississippi State has beaten LSU once, in 1999, and lost the other 21 meetings by a margin of 22.8 points per game. The Bulldogs haven’t won in Baton Rouge since 1991, before Prescott was born; they haven’t finished within single digits of LSU in Baton Rouge since 2000. If there’s a time and place for Prescott to emerge as the player he’s supposed to be, it’s Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

In fact, you may as well cut and paste that theme across the rest of the schedule: After LSU (ranked no. 8 in the current AP poll), the Bulldogs get Texas A&M (6) and Auburn (5) at home, and later have to travel to Alabama (3) and Ole Miss (10) in November. That’s right, five SEC West teams are currently ranked in the top 10 nationally, and Mississippi State is not one of them.2 Against that schedule, the Bulldogs could easily be one of the top 15 or 20 teams in college football and still finish sixth in their own division. (Or even seventh: Arkansas ain’t fooling around this year, either.) If they manage to land in the top four, that should be proof enough that Prescott is something special, at least by MSU standards.

Quick Outs

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• UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley left the no. 12 Bruins’ eventual win over Texas in the first quarter with an apparent elbow injury, and despite preliminary optimism, he’s yet to be cleared to play in the Bruins’ next game, a Thursday-night trip to no. 15 Arizona State on September 25. Coach Jim Mora, for one, sounds determined to keep the Sun Devils guessing about Hundley’s status for as long as possible: “I’m not going to tell anything to anybody until kickoff of the Arizona State game,” Mora said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Nobody … nothing.”3

On the other side, Arizona State also isn’t confirming anything about the status of its starting quarterback, but the prognosis for Taylor Kelly is less optimistic after he suffered a broken foot in the Sun Devils’ win over Colorado; early reports suggest Kelly could miss at least one game (vs. UCLA), and maybe two or more. Although Hundley earned most of the preseason hype, it’s worth remembering that it was Kelly who led his team to the Pac-12 South title in 2013 with a winner-take-all victory at UCLA, and who subsequently earned the coaches’ vote as the second-team all-conference QB (behind Marcus Mariota) while Hundley was relegated to honorable mention status. Somehow, a must-win showdown between Jerry Neuheisel and Mike Bercovici doesn’t have the same cachet.

The gonzo stat line of the weekend came out of a weird, wonderful shootout between West Virginia and Maryland, where quarterbacks Clint Trickett (WVU) and C.J. Brown (UMD) combined for 909 yards of total offense and six touchdowns. Unlike Trickett, who limited his stat line to a tidy 511 yards passing on 49 attempts, Brown divvied up the damage between pass (241 yards) and run (161 yards), including a 75-yard touchdown scamper to open the second half. Just for future reference for Terps fans, does the Big Ten even allow this much excitement in conference play?

Weirder still: West Virginia’s drive chart. Although the Mountaineers outgained Maryland overall by nearly 250 yards of offense, 694(!) to 447, the result remained in doubt to the final gun because of WVU’s failures on special teams and in the red zone. West Virginia came up empty six times after driving inside the Maryland 40-yard line, on possessions that yielded two lost fumbles, two turnovers on downs, one interception, and one missed field goal. Meanwhile, the Terrapins negated the rest of the yardage disparity by returning a punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, ultimately forcing West Virginia to drive 65 yards for the decisive field goal as time expired just to ensure all of that production didn’t go for naught.

Miami quarterback Kevin Olsen was dismissed from the university today following his Monday arrest on a DUI charge, spelling the end of his career at The U before it ever really began. Last year, Olsen was one of the most hyped quarterbacks in the 2013 recruiting class, and he seemed to be in line to take over as the Canes’ starter in 2014 after senior Ryan Williams tore his ACL in spring practice. Instead, Olsen was surpassed in the preseason by a true freshman, Brad Kaaya, and suspended for the season-opening loss at Louisville for “violation of team standards.” Now, he’s the latest in a long line of touted Miami passers whose potential never came to fruition.

Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: TCU’s Trevone Boykin

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The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

After a 4-8 flop in 2013, TCU coach Gary Patterson decided to shake things up in the offseason by installing a pass-happy Air Raid offense, even going so far as to recruit Johnny Manziel’s former A&M backup to give the Frogs a triggerman with some experience in the system.4 For Boykin, who posted a subpar 115.3 efficiency rating against FBS opponents in 2013 and spent the final month of the season shuffling between wide receiver and a Wildcat role, the writing was on the wall. Through two games this season, though, it’s been all Boykin, all the time, and it seems likely to stay that way after he accounted for 350 of TCU’s 427 yards Saturday in a 30-7 rout over Minnesota. Predictably, Boykin had a productive afternoon on the ground, finishing with a team-high 92 yards on 12 carries. But he also put the ball in the air 46 times and connected on a pair of early touchdown passes, leaving locals convinced he’s finally ready to shed the “slash.”

QB Curve Power Hour!

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Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 3.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Nice highlight, but if it’s all the same, Oregon coaches probably could have lived without their meal ticket performing a headfirst somersault against Wyoming. (LW: 1)

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston is just chilling up here based on reputation after a couple weeks off,5 but Saturday’s visit from Clemson will set the tone for the rest of his season. (LW: 2)

3. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Petty returned from a bad back to throw for (yawn) 416 yards and four touchdowns in a ho-hum 63-21 win at Buffalo, the eighth time Baylor has cracked 60 points in its last 16 games. (LW: 3)

4. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M. Four touchdown passes against Rice gave Hill 11 on the season, good for the best TD-to-INT ratio in the nation. (LW: 4)

5. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Hackenberg has more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4), his team has struggled to score the last two weeks against Akron (21 points) and Rutgers (13), and he moves up from last week? Yes, because without him, Penn State would arguably be 0-3 instead of 3-0: Between the makeshift offensive line and rock-bottom running game, it’s only because of the quarterback that the Lions have scored at all. Hackenberg is accounting for a whopping 84 percent of the team’s total offense, including negative yardage on sacks, and his share in Saturday’s come-from-behind win over the Scarlet Knights was even higher. (LW: 6)

6. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. Golson is not very inspiring on paper, either — in wins over Michigan and Purdue, he averaged a pedestrian 6.6 yards per pass, and just 2.5 per carry — but you don’t have to watch long to recognize his value as the engine of the Irish offense: Through three games, he’s accounted for almost 69 percent of it. He’s a savvy, consistent athlete who’s yet to make a real mistake in 2014. (LW: 8)

7. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Between a first-half suspension against Arkansas, an early curtain call against San Jose State, and a bye week, Marshall has played only roughly five quarters this season, but a very interesting test awaits Thursday night at Kansas State. (LW: 5)

8. Taysom Hill, BYU. Thirteen other quarterbacks nationally have already surpassed 1,000 yards of total offense, but Hill is the most balanced of the bunch by a mile. (LW: 9)

9. Maty Mauk, Missouri. Mauk has just seven career starts, less than half as many as anyone else on this list, but in those games he’s accounted for 24 touchdowns (22 passing, two rushing) with only five interceptions. (LW: NR)

10. Shane Carden, East Carolina. Carden bombed Virginia Tech for 427 yards and three touchdowns Saturday (plus a fourth TD rushing) en route to a 28-21 upset, making him the first 400-yard passer against the Hokies since Syracuse’s Troy Nunes in 2002. That was so long ago that Virginia Tech was still in the Big East, and the Big East was still a thing that existed. (LW: NR)

Waiting: Connor Cook (Michigan State), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Brett Hundley (UCLA), Cody Kessler (USC), Trevor Knight (Oklahoma)

Filed Under: College Football, QB Curve, QB Curve Power Hour!, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Dak Prescott, SEC West, Heisman Trophy, 2014 Heisman Trophy, UCLA Bruins, Brett Hundley, Arizona State Sun Devils, Taylor Kelly, West Virginia Mountaineers, Clint Trickett, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Brown, Miami Hurricanes, Kevin Olsen, Reggie Collier “Athlete" of the Week, Trevone Boykin, TCU Horned Frogs, Tim Tebow, Football, Quarterbacks, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton