The Southeastern Conference is still regarded as the top football league in the country, but the one area where the league could be classified as "middle of the pack" the past couple of years is quarterback.
You certainly can't argue with what the SEC has had at the top. Florida's Tim Tebow won the 2007 Heisman Trophy and led the Gators to a national title last fall. Georgia's Matthew Stafford was the No. 1 pick in this year's NFL Draft. And Mississippi junior Jevan Snead threw for 2,762 yards and 26 touchdowns last fall and is widely regarded as a top NFL prospect.
Outside of that, the league is filled with QB question marks. At least three teams (Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama) will be breaking in new starters. Several other SEC quarterbacks contending for starting jobs were benched last year for ineffective play. The quarterback pickings were so slim in the pre-season that one of those players who was benched, Kentucky's Mike Hartline, was recently named the third-team All-SEC quarterback by the league coaches. Hartline and Mississippi State's Tyson Lee are the only returning quarterbacks other than Tebow and Snead who passed for more than 1,000 yards and threw more TD passes than interceptions in 2008.
Quarterback play in the SEC has paled in comparison to the Big 12, a league in which 11 of the 12 starters threw for more than 2,000 yards last year, boasted the Heisman Trophy winner in Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and had two other legitimate Heisman candidates in Colt McCoy (Texas) and Graham Harrell (Texas Tech). Another Big 12 QB, Kansas State's Josh Freeman, was a first-round NFL Draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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The Big 12 will be loaded once again as McCoy and Bradford return along with Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson (3,064 passing yards, 25 TDs), Kansas' Todd Reesing (3,888 passing yards, 32 TDs) and exciting Baylor sophomore Robert Griffin (2,956 yards of total offense).
The SEC used to be known as the glory conference for quarterbacks with a list that included Peyton and Eli Manning, Danny Wuerffel, former No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch and Jay Cutler. What changed?
ESPN analyst Brock Huard said he believes it's a cyclical thing.
"What you've seen in the Big 12 the last couple of years is unprecedented," Huard said. "Typically you get good, talented young players in your programs and then after a couple of years they turn into really good productive quarterbacks. I think that's where the SEC is at right now. I think over the next couple of years you'll see some of these guys develop into outstanding quarterbacks."
The stage could be set for an SEC resurgence. LSU sophomore Jordan Jefferson took over late last season and looked like a star in the making. You've got to figure that Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino will get the most out of Ryan Mallett, a Michigan transfer who was considered by many to be the nation's top prep quarterback in 2007. And Florida Coach Urban Meyer is high on Tebow's eventual successor, sophomore John Brantley.
And there are several true freshmen who ranked among the nation's best coming out of high school: LSU's Russell Shepard, Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Auburn's Tyrik Rollison and Mississippi State's Tyler Russell.
But the consensus among coaches at SEC Media Days this week was that being in the program and earning your stripes takes precedence over talent when it comes to the quarterback position. Alabama will replace John Parker Wilson with Greg McElroy, who's played in eight career games and thrown just 20 passes but is a fourth-year junior. Georgia signed two freshman quarterbacks in Murray and Zach Mettenberger, but Mark Richt is going with Joe Cox, a fifth-year senior whose one career start came back in 2006.
"When it comes to quarterback play, in my opinion, you need to have an accurate passer, you need to have a great decision-maker, and you need to have a young man who can handle the pressure of the job, because there's a lot of pressure that comes with that job," Richt said. "And you need a guy who can lead."
Inconsistent quarterback play is one of the primary reasons the Steve Spurrier era hasn't taken off at South Carolina. When Spurrier was at Florida, he relied on QBs such as Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman to carry the load for his offense. In his four years in Columbia he's tried Syvelle Newton, Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley without much success. This year he'll sink or swim with sophomore Stephen Garcia, who had his ups and downs while getting his feet wet as a redshirt freshman last fall. Garcia has no proven backup.
"If we're to have a big year, he's got to really, really play well," Spurrier said of Garcia. "He's got to play a lot better than what happened last year. He really was not prepared to play well last year. Hopefully he's much better and ready to play this year."
Kentucky is bringing in two four-star freshman quarterbacks of its own, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski. While saying "he was as excited as he's ever been for the future of the quarterback position at Kentucky," UK Coach Rich Brooks sounded last week like a guy who's committed to Hartline — at least in the short term.
"I do not think it's realistic to think that one of our freshmen is going to come in and automatically be the savior of our season this year," he said.
UK offensive lineman Zipp Duncan said the talent of the freshmen has been evident in summer workouts but added it's hard to go against experience.
"Those guys (Newton and Mossakowski) are definitely athletic and can throw the ball well, but it's tough to learn the offense in three weeks and get ready to play teams like Florida and South Carolina," Duncan said. "That's just tough to do."
Brooks repeated a theme he's been preaching since the end of last season: Hartline's progression is similar to that of Andre Woodson before he turned into a standout as a junior.
"I never really want to compare player to player because everybody is a little different," Brooks said. "But look at what Andre did his first year as a starter, which was not as successful from a win-loss standpoint as Mike's. And Hartline was pretty close, if not equal statistically.
"Looking at Kentucky history, how many first-year quarterbacks won six games and won a bowl game? I expect Mike Hartline to make a lot of improvement. I think part of that improvement will be the surrounding cast will have more experience. Hopefully they'll grow together and we'll revisit the end zone a little more often than we did last year."