ATHENS, Ga. — Three precocious passers are trying to prove it's now possible for true freshmen quarterbacks to win big in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama's Jalen Hurts, Georgia's Jacob Eason and South Carolina's Brandon McIlwain are a combined 5-0 as starters. Hurts and Eason directed comeback wins last week.
Hurts was named SEC offensive player of the week after No. 1 Alabama overcame a three-touchdown deficit to beat then-No. 19 Mississippi. Eason calmly threw a go-ahead touchdown pass on fourth down with less than 2 minutes remaining in No. 12 Georgia's win at Missouri.
McIlwain ran for two touchdowns in his first start, a win over East Carolina.
Excluding redshirts, no first-year quarterback has led his team to a SEC division title since Tennessee's Erik Ainge in 2004.
It's not difficult to measure just how tough it is to win big as a rookie quarterback in the SEC. Two of the league's biggest stars, Tennessee's Peyton Manning in 1994 and Georgia's Matthew Stafford in 2006, played on four-loss teams as true freshmen. Manning won seven of his eight starts.
Former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims said he has marveled at the early success enjoyed by Hurts and Eason.
"I've been watching Alabama, I've been watching Georgia and I think both quarterbacks are doing a great job," said Sims, who signed to the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad as a running back last week.
Sims was a backup quarterback and running back at Alabama before starting his first game at quarterback as a senior in 2014. After waiting so long for his chance, he appreciates seeing true freshmen win as starters.
"It's really tough," Sims said. "You've got to be real strong mentally and very calm and you've got to understand the little things."
There are several reasons why true freshmen are having success.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said players leaving school early for the NFL or transferring creates more opportunities.
"Quarterback is the one we focus on, but I think it's all positions there are more guys coming out for the draft," Muschamp said. "So there are more younger players playing now."
Georgia's Kirby Smart believes the growth of the passing game in high school has made quarterbacks better prepared to play immediately in college.
"They see so much more, they throw so much more, they've seen a lot of the defenses before," the Bulldogs coach said earlier this month. "There are a lot more prolific offenses out there in high school football. ... I certainly think quarterbacks come in with more ability to play early."
It can also help a quarterback to adjust more quickly to the college game if he has played in a similar scheme as in high school.
"I think if a guy played in spread offense, he's probably more apt to be able to come in and play early in a spread offense in college," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "If a guy played in a pro-style, drop-back sort of offense in high school, he's probably going to be more apt to play in that style of offense in college."
Hurts, Eason and South McIlwain opened the season as backups.
Senior Greyson Lambert started in Georgia's opening win. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett started Alabama's opener against USC. Eason and Hurts became starters for their second games; McIlwain had to wait one more week.
Eason was rated by some as the nation's top high school recruit at quarterback. He enrolled early but even after going through spring practice is still learning.
Smart has given candid criticisms about Eason's difficulty in running the huddle, calling plays and throwing to the correct receiver. Even so, Smart said he and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney never doubted Eason's poise.
"Coach Chaney has always said this kid is not affected by the environment," Smart said. "He's really not. He's affected by what he's got to say in the huddle. He's affected by some of the decisions he's got to make coverage wise, but he's a very confident player."
Hurts has impressed with his cool demeanor, including after his lost fumble was returned for a touchdown by Ole Miss.
Running back Damien Harris said after the play Hurts was "no different than he was before."
Sims said he told Hurts to remember it's still the same game.
"It's like hey, I'm back in high school, I'm in the backyard still," Sims said. "That's how my process was.
"I talked to Jalen and I told him the same thing."