The Southeastern Conference (SEC) has become well known for producing some of the best professional football players in NFL history. SEC schools have groomed a wide variety of players in many different positions to be the best in the pros; ranging from all-time legends such as Emmitt Smith and Reggie White to current superstars like Todd Gurley and Julio Jones. The 2018 NFL Draft marked the 12th straight season where the SEC led all NCAA college football conferences in a total number of players drafted, with 53 coming in 2018 (Crawford, 247Sports). Out of those 53 NFL draft picks – the third most by a single conference in the NFL Draft’s history – the only QB selected was Danny Etling from LSU, which was by the New England Patriots in the 7th and final round (Cooper, Saturday Down South). The Alabama Crimson Tide had the most picks of any SEC school with 12: 8 defensive players, a running back, a wide receiver, a center, and a punter (Unnamed Writer, rolltide.com). Then looking at the best QBs in the NFL today – aside from Cam Newton and Dak Prescott, who isn’t even in the current Top 5 – there don’t appear to be any superstars at that position from SEC schools.
Though this does appear to be a current trend, it’s worth noting there have been multiple very successful QBs from SEC schools in the NFL within the last decade or thereabouts. Future Hall of Famer Peyton and his brother Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Cam Newton, Matt Stafford, and more were all drafted out of SEC schools (Unnamed Writer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). However, with the conference being so central to NCAA college football and dominating the NFL Draft, it’s a bit surprising that more SEC QBs haven’t become household names from their NFL careers. Not only have there been not enough successful SEC QBs, but too many high draft picks turned out to be some of the biggest busts. First-round picks like Tim Couch, Rex Grossman, Jamarcus Russell, and Johnny Manziel all had high expectations but never lived up anywhere close to them (Smith, Saturday Down South).
So with that out of the way, we wanted to turn your attention to LRT Sports Top 5 that looks at the positive stories coming out of the SEC, rather than the first-round NFL Draft busts. Without further introduction, below is the LRT Sports’ list of Top 5 Quarterbacks in SEC college football history:
#5 – Joe Namath, Alabama Crimson Tide (1962-1964)
Starting off the Top 5 list is “Broadway Joe” Namath; NFL Hall of Famer, Super Bowl Champion as starting QB for the New York Jets, and former starting Quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide under legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (Marvez, Fox Sports). Namath was on the Crimson Tide roster for his three years at Alabama (1962-1964) and quickly earned the starting QB role for all three years with the team. Over those three seasons, Namath led Bryant’s Crimson Tide to a stellar 29-4 record (Switz, ESPN). Most impressively, in his final 1964 season, Namath led the University of Alabama football program to a national championship (Switz, ESPN). While he never got too much momentum towards a high finish in Heisman Trophy voting, for his 1964 national championship season, Namath wound up finishing 11th in Heisman voting, which was the highest he’d finish during his college football tenure (Switz, ESPN).
While his stats are impressive, the school he played for and the time at which he played there can’t be understated. Namath played for Paul “Bear” Bryant; most college football fans seem to agree it’s very tough to argue for anyone above him as the best college football coach of all-time. Bryant led his teams to 14 SEC Conference Titles, 6 National Titles, which propelled him to a 12-time SEC Coach of the Year, and finally a 3-time National Coach of the Year (Unnamed Writer, Chicago Tribune). Bryant’s incredible college coaching legacy earned him the honor of the NCAA changing the National Coach of the Year award to the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award, in his honor (Unnamed Writer, Chicago Tribune). Shortly following his death, Bryant was quickly elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, in 1986 (CFBhall.com). For those who have studied a lot of college football, or read about Bryant’s college coaching years, you’d know he wasn’t someone who did much talking and he wasn’t someone who typically gave out many of compliments. With that being said, when Bryant was asked before Namath’s arrival at Alabama about his feelings regarding his recruitment, “Bear” Bryant stated, “[my] decision to recruit Namath was the best coaching decision I ever made” (Swartz, ESPN). Additionally, after Namath’s three seasons with the Crimson Tide when he was a member of the NFL’s New York Jets, Bryant said of Broadway Joe, “[Namath was] the greatest athlete I ever coached” (Swartz, ESPN). Coming from Paul Bryant, those statements are both truly extremely impressive and mean more to Namath’s legacy at Alabama than many people may realize.
With that, Namath’s #5 spot on this list is more or less self-explanatory. During his SEC college years he had a dominant 29-4 record as the Crimson Tide starter, he won a national championship in his final season, he was one of very few players who genuinely impressed legendary Tide head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, he was a Heisman Trophy candidate, and his name is still generally very well known in college football circles. Furthermore, Namath’s college football years were just his start, as he gained more notoriety increasingly during his time as Starting QB for the NFL’s New York Jets. Not only did Namath lead them to a victory in Super Bowl III (their only Super Bowl victory in team history), but he also did so in unforgettably epic fashion. Despite many touting their Super Bowl III opponents, the Baltimore Colts, as “the greatest football team in history” and a really large favorite to beat the Jets in a blowout, Namath was still confident in his ability and his team’s ability to win the game (Unnamed Writer, Pro Football Hall of Fame). Three days before he was set to face the Colts in Super Bowl III, Namath unforgettably asserted, “We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it” (Unnamed Writer, Pro Football Hall of Fame). When he and the Jets delivered on that promise beating the Colts win a final score of 16-7, Broadway Joe’s name was sure to be forever remembered as synonymous with anything pertaining to Super Bowl III. His name became forever enshrined amongst the NFL’s most significant when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 (ProFootballHOF.com). Namath’s standout accomplishments and numerous impressive accolades during his seasons at Alabama, his legacy as the New York Jets starting QB, and his general name recognition combine to put him at #5 on this list.
#4 – Eli Manning, Ole Miss Rebels (2000-2003)
While Eli Manning may be known best for his refusal to play for the San Diego Chargers being the first overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, he also had a highly notable college football career during his time apart of the University of Mississippi’s team from 2000-2003. In fact, during that window at Ole Miss, Eli either set or tied a staggering 45 single-game, season, and career records (Unnamed Writer, Ole Miss Athletics). A few of his most impressive categories also happen to arguably the most closely followed by college football experts; Manning finished with a 10, 119 passing yards [5th in SEC history], 81 touchdown completions [3rd in SEC history], and with an average passer rating of 137.7 [T-6th in SEC history] (James, College Football Poll). Manning’s list of individual awards and recognition is similarly outstanding; they include a Maxwell Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, an NFF College HOF Scholar-Athlete Award, the SEC’s MVP Award, and very notably a top-three finish in Heisman Trophy voting in 2003 (Unnamed Writer, Sports-Reference.com). That same 2003 season had to be Eli’s most successful with the Ole Miss Rebels, on the team level. Manning led the Rebels to a successful 10-3 overall record, capped off by a 31-28 win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys in SBC Cotton Bowl (Ole Miss Athletics Press Release). His natural talent, proven success in an extremely challenging SEC, and on-field intelligence (Eli graduated with just under a 3.5 cumulative GPA) made him a leading candidate for the top pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Eli Manning on Gameday as Quarterback for Ole Miss (Sports Illustrated)
Manning’s career in the NFL has lived up to expectations. As the superstar and starting Quarterback of the New York Giants, Eli led them to two improbable Super Bowl victories, where he was named the official Super Bowl MVP in both (Unnamed 3Writer, Giants.com). In addition to those amazing achievements, Manning is a 4-time Pro Bowler, and holds the NFL record for most 4th quarter passing touchdowns in a single season, the NFL record for most game-winning drives in a single season (2011), and the NFL record for the most passing yards in a single postseason with 1,219 yards in 2011 (Higgins, Sports FCB). Given his laundry list of New York Giants’ team franchise records, NFL all-time QB records, and multiple Super Bowl championship MVPs, Eli is widely considered to be an overwhelming favorite to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Concisely, Manning’s distinguished collegiate and professional football career, combined with his positive name recognition from being the starting QB in a huge market NFL franchise – as the Giants play home games in New York – Eli Manning comes in at #4 on LRT Sports’ list of top SEC QB’s.
#3 – Fran Tarkenton, Georgia Bulldogs (1958-1960)
The third best quarterback to play under center in SEC history on LRT Sports’ Top 5 list is Fran Tarkenton, University of Georgia and later Minnesota Vikings standout. Tarkenton is the prime example of a highly successful college student-athlete who continued to be incredibly successful in the pros. During his time on the Georgia Bulldogs football team, Tarkenton was a 2x First-Team All-SEC selection and led the Bulldogs to an SEC Conference championship in 1959 (Wyatt, Titans Online). His success at the collegiate level was fully solidified in 1987 when he was decisively elected into the College Football Hall of Fame (Wyatt, Titans Online). Considering the 1960s were essentially dominated by Alabama, along with USC, Texas, and Notre Dame is the other powerhouse teams, Tarkenton’s ability seems to be often overlooked because of the success of teams he was rivals with (Kriegel, Chicago Tribune).
Due to that primary reason and in spite of Tarkenton attaining more than reasonably impressive stats – as the starting QB for one of college football’s most dangerous teams competing in the toughest NCAA conference no less – he was largely overlooked in the 1961 NFL Draft. Ultimately, he was selected by the Minnesota Vikings as one of the final picks in the third round (National Football League, NFL.com). Though Tarkenton spent a sizable chunk of his time in the NFL with the New York Giants, the move paid off for the Vikings as Tarkenton spent 13 total seasons under center for Minnesota (National Football League, NFL.com). Though he never wound up bringing a Super Bowl title to Minnesota, he led the Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances – once in 1973, 1974, and 1976 (Pro-Football-Reference.com). Additionally, Tarkenton guided the Vikings to two 12-win seasons in 1973 and 1975, as well as a 10-win season in 1976 (Pro-Football-Reference.com). Ironically in 1975, the Vikings lost 14-7 in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game to the Dallas Cowboys, despite Tarkenton having the most impressive statistical season of his NFL career (Donovan, Sports Illustrated). During that same 1975 season, Tarkenton led all NFL Quarterback’s in completions, passing attempts, and touchdown passes, which ultimately earned him the honor of being named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and more remarkably, the NFL’s MVP Award (Donovan, Sports Illustrated). When Fran finally retired from professional football for good, his 9x Pro Bowl selections solidified his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which he was officially selected to in 1986 (profootballhof.com).
As far as the all-time great SEC QB’s and even all-time great NFL QB’s go, Fran Tarkenton is sometimes overlooked, but his career doesn’t seem to indicate why. He didn’t win a National Championship at Georgia, and he didn’t win a Super Bowl in Minnesota, but few could argue he didn’t give those teams the best possible chance. With little surrounding talent compared to his team’s direct competitors, we overlooked Tarkenton never winning the “Big Game.” As an inductee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1986), College Football Hall of Fame (1987), Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (2000), and Athens, Georgia Athletic Hall of Fame (2000), we feel there’s ample reason to justify Tarkenton’s position at #3 on our list.
#2 – Tim Tebow, Florida Gators (2006-2009)
This is where it gets very tough, but ultimately we went with Tim Tebow as the #2 SEC Quarterback of All-Time. In looking through other lists, it’s interesting how sports fans seem to judge Tebow in a very black and white way. Some either consider him an NFL bust and a disappointment so they leave him out of any ‘Top College QBs” lists, or others make the case that his stats throughout his college football career at Florida were second to none, and in those people’s lists he’s a “no brainer” #1. Factually, there’s a lot of truth to the argument that Tebow’s accomplishments and pure stats during his time as QB for the Florida Gators are second to none. Tebow was the definition of a total package QB at the collegiate level, and his stats prove it; he had a career 88 TD passes and only 16 INT, he threw for just under 10,000 yards finishing with 9,286; finally he had a career 67.1% completion and a career average 170.8 passer rating (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Tebow’s dual threat on the ground was similarly very clear, especially when looking at his career stats as Florida’s QB; he ran for 57 touchdowns, carried the ball just barely under 700 times ultimately finishing with 692 carries, and ran for nearly 3,000 yards as a QB with a final count of 2,947 rushing yards (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
Tebow’s stats are just the very beginning; when you start to look into his accomplishments on the team level and then his subsequent individual awards, you begin to understand why many put him in the center of the debate for the greatest college football quarterback of all-time. Tebow entered the University of Florida on a full scholarship in 2006, where he initially assumed the role of back-up QB rather than taking the route of redshirting like so many other phenomenal recruits do in their first year of eligibility. The after being named the Gators starter in 2007, despite many serious concerns about his potentially underdeveloped passing ability, Tebow quickly silenced his doubters in his first game of the 2007 season. Tim threw for 300 yards on 13 of 17 passes (76.5% completion percentage), to go along with three touchdown passes (Long, The Washington Post). This provides to be just the beginning as Tebow finished the 2007 season with the second highest passing efficiency in the entire nation at 177.8, to go along with 4.3 yards per average carry, a stellar figure for a starting QB (National Player Report, NCAA.org). After setting other numerous schools, national, and personal records, Tebow was awarded the highly coveted Heisman Trophy Award, in addition to being named a Consensus All-American and a First-Team All-SEC selection (Robinson, The New York Times). He also won the Davey O’Brien Award in 2007 – an annual award given to the nation’s best Quarterback – despite Tim’s Gators losing to the Michigan Wolverines 41-35 in the Capital One Bowl (Robinson, The New York Times).
Entering the 2008 season as the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy, Urban Meyer – the Florida Gators head coach at the time – announced he would utilize a two QB rotation to take some of the workload off Tebow (Curtis, Orlando Sentinel). On November 1, 2018, Tebow ran for his 37th career touchdown as a Florida Gator, breaking the then-school record held by Emmitt Smith (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). Some of you may know Emmitt Smith as the undisputed greatest running back in NFL history. After an extraordinary 12-1 season, Florida beat the always dangerous Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game, earning them a spot against the nationally No.1 ranked Oklahoma Sooner in the BCS National Championship game. Tebow’s Gators would go on to beat the Sooners in the National Championship game 24-14, capping off a historic season. Though Tebow received the most first-place Heisman Trophy votes this season, which count as 3 points each, he ultimately finished third as the award went to Sam Bradford (Duarte, Houston Chronicle).
Despite having by anyone’s standards an extremely impressive 2008 season, Tebow announced very early that he would be returning to Florida for his 2009 senior season. While this was not surprising given that his QB style was anything but one of an NFL QB making him a pretty undesirable high-round draft pick, it did expose him to further risk of injury in what was already an injury-plagued career. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened. In the third quarter of a game against Kentucky, which Tebow started despite needed two bags of intravenous fluids before the game to manage a respiratory illness, he took a hit to the back of the head that knocked him out motionless (Schlabach, ESPN). When he was seen on the sidelines awake but disoriented, he vomited and was immediately taken to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion (Schlabach, ESPN). Whether you root for Florida and Tebow or not, as a college sports fan, you hate to see something like that happen. While Tebow’s stats can be argued as the best for a QB in SEC history, his attitude, consistent ‘110%’ effort, and competitive drive can’t be quantified. Tebow wound up being cleared to play in the Gators very next game on the road against LSU and few were surprised to see him under center for the Gators that game, without missing a single snap after the concussion. Then on October 31, 2009, in a game against the Georgia Bulldogs, Tim ran for his 50th and 51st touchdowns of his collegiate career, breaking the SEC all-time touchdown record (Eichelberger, Bloomberg News). The record was previously held by running back Herschel Walker, a 3x SEC Player of the Year, 3x Consensus All-American, 3x First-Team All-SEC selection, and very widely considered to be the best college running back in history. Despite another historic year for Tebow, the Crimson Tide wound up getting revenge on the Gators in the 2009 SEC Championship game, beating them 32-13. Tebow and the Florida Gators lost their opportunity to play for a repeat National Championship. Instead, Tebow’s last college game was the Sugar Bowl, where the Florida Gators manhandled the Cincinnati Bearcats 51-24 (NCAA.com). In typical Tebow fashion, he went out with a bang. He completed 31 passes out of 35 attempts (89% completion percentage), threw for 482 yards and three touchdowns, ran for an additional touchdown, and along with those four touchdowns produced 533 yards of total offense; a Bowl Championship Series record (Schlabach, ESPN).
When his college career was over, Tebow held a combined 47 NCAA, SEC, and Florida University school records (Unnamed Writer, Gatorzone.com). For all the heat he’s taken about his inability to be an effective passer as a QB when Tebow graduated he was the SEC’s all-time leader in career passing efficiency (170.8), completion percentage (67.1%), and passing TD-INT ratio (5.5-1). That goes along with many SEC rushing records for a QB, such as a career rushing yards by a QB with 2,947, rushing touchdowns by an athlete in any position with 57, and total touchdowns with 145 (NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision Record Book).
As many sports fans already know, all of this lead to Tebow getting his shot in the NFL as a QB when the Denver Broncos selected him in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 25th overall pick, despite concerns from many of the most respected football scouts and analysts about his throwing ability (Paige, Denver Post). Unfortunately, the experts turned out to be right, as Tebow’s tenure with the Broncos was short-lived, lasting only two seasons. After going to the New York Jets for a year and shuffling between the practice squad of a couple of other teams, Tebow called his NFL dream’s off and pursued a career in professional baseball, while also earning a college football analyst/commentator job at ESPN (Leahy, USA Today). Tim Tebow still is and likely always will be a household name; he’ll always be synonymous with the SEC and college football in general. But with that being said, he came up short of the #1 spot because of his exceptionally disappointing post-college football career.
#1 – Peyton Manning, Tennessee Volunteers (1994-1997)
While many have Gator legend Tim Tebow at the top of this list, LRT Sports’ choice for the best SEC Quarterback of all-time goes to Peyton Manning. Peyton chose to play college football at the University of Tennessee, surprising many by not following in his father Archie’s footsteps and signing with the University of Mississippi (Drape, New York Times). In case you weren’t convinced how serious and fanatical college football fans could get, Peyton’s parents received angry phone calls, letters, and even threats due to his commitment to Tennessee (Drape, New York Times). Manning didn’t budge, and it certainly paid off. Upon graduation, Peyton was Tennessee’s all-time leader in passing yards with 11,201, threw for 89 touchdowns, and won 39 of 45 games as a starter – an 87% winning percentage – breaking the SEC record for career wins at the time (Unnamed Writer, utsports.com). His greatness as the Quarterback of the Volunteers was ultimately recognized in the most honorable way when Manning was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2017 (Strange, Knoxville News Sentinel). Like Tebow, Manning played all four seasons at Tennessee, never declaring early for the NFL Draft. However very much, unlike Tebow, Manning had all the attributes a professional football scout would want in an NFL future franchise QB. Manning was rightfully so viewed as a coach’s dream, so it really should be no surprise that his uniquely exceptional NFL career started with being drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1988 NFL Draft (Freeman, New York Times).
Manning went on to start for the Colts as a rookie QB in the NFL and never looked back. He played for 13 straight seasons before a severe neck injury cost him the entire 2011 season (Price, New York Daily News). After working hard to recover from the injury, Peyton never played another game for Indianapolis, joining the Denver Broncos for the 2012 season (Martinez, CNN). Manning retired in 2015 as a Bronco in one of the most remarkable stories in sports history; capping off what many argue the best career for an NFL QB in history with a Super Bowl Championship (King, Sports Illustrated).
Peyton’s distinguished 18-year – 17-year if you discount the season he missed from his neck injury – career is littered with all-time NFL records. He holds the NFL record for career passing yards and career touchdown passes (Rhoden, New York Times). Additionally, Peyton was named the league’s MVP 5 times (four times as a Colt and once as a Bronco), was selected to the Pro Bowl 14 times, and was also named a first-team All-Pro seven times (Rhoden, New York Times). The one criticism Manning faces is his postseason level of play as compared to his stellar regular season results. His postseason record is an average 14-13, compared to his 186-79 regular season record.
Nonetheless, he’s the only QB in NFL history to make the Super Bowl four time with four different head coaches (Legwold, ESPN). He wound up winning two of the four; one with the Colts and one in his final NFL career game with the Broncos, though most football experts agree that was overwhelmingly due to the Broncos dominant defense since Peyton threw for just 141 yards and finished with a QB Rating of 56.6 (footballdb.com). There’s some legitimacy to that disparagement, which is supported by stats and comparisons to other legendary NFL QBs to an extent, however, only winning two Super Bowls in four appearances is hardly a real “criticism.”
Continuing to keep in mind this Top 5 list was about SEC Quarterback play, Peyton edged out the rest of the SEC Quarterbacks, namely Tebow, because it’s not difficult to make the case that he’s the best QB in all of football history. Tebow is the exception to this list in terms of his professional career; every other quarterback is either a Pro Football Hall of Famer or a Super Bowl champion and that’s because how extraordinary his college career was. But at the end of the day, when you’re a Heisman winner, National Champion, and first-round NFL draft pick, you shouldn’t have a more optimistic future as a professional baseball player a little over five years after you were drafted and be considered the greatest QB in SEC history. Peyton is already in the College Football Hall of Fame and when he becomes eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021, there’s no speculation about whether he’ll get in. If you begin to factor in intangibles and relevant attributes like intelligence, the gap becomes even wider in Peyton’s favor. Just like he finished his football career at the very top, Peyton Manning finishes off the latest LRT Top 5 list at the top as the best Quarterback in the Southeastern Conference’s history.
* Originally published on June 3, 2019, by Oliver Loutsenko