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Arms race in SEC: Garcia, Mallett atop league passing charts

South Carolina sophomore quarterback No. 5 Stephen Garcia looks for South Carolina junior tight end No. 88 Weslye Saunders during first quarter action of the Gamecocks game against the Bulldogs in Athens, GA, Saturday, September 12, 2009.
South Carolina sophomore quarterback No. 5 Stephen Garcia looks for South Carolina junior tight end No. 88 Weslye Saunders during first quarter action of the Gamecocks game against the Bulldogs in Athens, GA, Saturday, September 12, 2009.

Tim Tebow or Jevan Snead?

That the was the preseason discussion about who was the SEC's top quarterback - a debate South Carolina's Steve Spurrier jumped into when he initially left Tebow off his first-team ballot for the coaches' preseason all-conference squad.

But from a strict passing yardage standpoint after the first two months of the season, Tebow and Snead are not in the conversation.

Instead, the SEC's top passers are a pair of redshirt sophomores in their first full seasons as starters who will square off Saturday when USC travels to Arkansas.

Ryan Mallett and Stephen Garcia are 1-2 in passing yards and total offense, and are the only quarterbacks in the conference to eclipse 2,000 yards in either category. They both were highly recruited high school quarterbacks who have had at least one off-the-field incident.

And while both have strong right arms, that's where the similarities end. The 6-foot-7, 238-pound Mallett is a traditional drop-back passer who seldom leaves the pocket. Garcia, 6-2 and 219 pounds, is an improvisational artist who is not afraid to take off with the ball.

"Both of them are very good and accurate," said Mississippi coach Houston Nutt, who has faced both players this year. "I think Ryan probably has a little stronger arm, of course a little taller. But Garcia can move a little bit better and may take the ball and just run, where Ryan would probably sit in the pocket a little longer.

"But both of them are good and good for their teams. Good, strong arms and accurate."

Garcia (57.3 percent) has a slightly higher completion than Mallett (54.4), although Mallett set a school single-game record for completion percentage last week by completing 14 of 16 passes in limited action in a 63-27 win against Eastern Michigan.

Mallett, who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan, has thrown a touchdown pass in every game this year and leads the SEC with 18 touchdown throws. He has thrown three interceptions in 237 pass attempts, and is second in the conference behind Tebow in passing efficiency.

Asked if Mallett is the best quarterback USC has faced, Spurrier said: "Well, we haven't played him yet. So, we haven't hit him enough to see if he can bounce back. But he may be the best passer."

Garcia, who started three games last fall while sharing time with Chris Smelley, has thrown for an average of 232.7 yards a game - about 36 fewer than Mallett. He is 10th in the SEC in passing efficiency and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12-to-5, which is a big improvement from last season when he finished with more picks (eight) than touchdowns (six).

And while Mallett has the only 400-yard passing game in the SEC this season (408 in a 52-41 loss to Georgia), Garcia is the league's lone quarterback with three 300-yard passing games.

But Spurrier reiterated that Garcia can raise his game further.

"Hopefully, he can play better. He plays well at times, but I wish we could get him to really play well," Spurrier said. "Some of our guys don't know what playing well's all about. And hopefully someday we can get 'em to that level."

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino tried to get Garcia to come to Louisville when Petrino was coaching the Cardinals.

"Stephen can certainly drop back and throw the ball. He does a real nice job," Petrino said Wednesday. "Seems like I've known him forever. We tried to recruit him out of high school. He was a great high school player.

"I think probably the difference between the two is Garcia can run the ball. That's what makes him so dangerous - his ability to run out of the pocket, make plays with his legs. But both of them have done a real nice job of executing their offenses."

Arkansas and USC are 1-2 in the SEC in passing offense, averaging 295.8 and 237 yards, respectively. The Gamecocks have done a better job defending the pass, giving up 141.3 yards a game to rank third nationally.

The Razorbacks are 113th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 264.1 passing yards allowed per game.

As for whether Garcia is looking forward to the matchup of the league's top passers, it is impossible to know: As he has every week this season, Spurrier did not make Garcia available to the media in the days leading to the game.

But Mallett downplayed the quarterback talk.

"That's not my concern at all. My concern is to get a win," he said. "And to do that I have to play well and give my team a chance."

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