To QB or not to QB: a year of transition for the SEC?

The 2014 NFL Draft was another flagship day for the Southeastern Conference, as America’s premier football league topped the rankings once more with 49 players selected, narrowly pipping the Atlantic Coast Conference (42) into second place.

Yet such a strong showing seems to have a silver lining for its rivals in the NCAA. With so many SEC teams forced to build anew under centre, the Pacific Conference could boast a unique chance to take over at the top thanks to stars like Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Kevin Hogan (provided he improves). By bringing back a very strong quarterback class, the thinking goes, the PAC-12 is in a strong position to gun for its first BCS title since the early aughts.

But is this truly the case? Whilst it is already unwise to assume that the quality of this QB class will prove to be enough to help eternal bridesmaids like Stanford and Oregon finally tie the knot, it is also going too far to assume that the SEC’s chances of making the playoffs will be gravely weakened. Some teams may fall by the wayside, but those who will keep their playmakers -namely Alabama and Georgia- are frighteningly dangerous, especially considering the high defensive standards the conference has maintained.

There is, to begin with, frankly little point in speculating about the presumed quality of the SEC’s Class of 2014 QBs: what little we have seen of Jacob Coker, Anthony Jennings or Hutson Mason may be encouraging, but constitutes such a small sample that even hot take guru Paul Finebaum has warned listeners not to overreach themselves on Jacob Coker, who looks set to take over from A.J. McCarron at Alabama.

And he’s right: how can we judge Coker, a quarterback who spent a year riding the bench behind Jameis Winston at Florida State? He could be just short of Winston’s talent and a potential star, or someone who never really troubled the Heisman winner, and who only has a big arm to boast about , considering his low completion percentage.

The truth is probably tucked in somewhere between these two, with some lingering rust thrown in for good measure. Even then, it will arguably take Coker a few games to get into the groove, a feasible plan considering the Tide’s toughest opponent this side of Florida will be opening day adversary West Virginia. The Mountaineers have gone 3-8 against ranked opposition over the past two seasons.

Chances are, however, that the Cokers and Masons of this world won’t need to carry or inspire their teams like so many Andrew Lucks or Tim Tebows in order to win. As long as they’re functional, there is little to stop the SEC from sending one, maybe two teams to the first ever BCS playoff.  Both Bama and Georgia bring back a shockingly talented class of playmakers, who will make sure that the gameplan is either a) not too complicated for the QBs b) not based around them anyway.

The Crimson Tide still boasts the likes of Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, backed up by a promising class of hungry go-getters and a strong offensive line. If Alabama could reach 2 SEC Championship finals with the likes of John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, then they can surely do so with another middling QB.

Georgia, for their part, bring back promising speedster Keith Marshall and Star Wars enthusiast Chris Conley back, and will hope to keep Todd Gurley fully fit for the duration of the season, his injuries one of the factors that slowed down the Dawgs last time round. Though Georgia were hit by 9 defections to the NFL Draft and a slurry of injuries on defence, there is little doubt that Gurley brought balance as well as penetration to the Georgia offence. Crucially, QB Aaron Murray never showed the same type of murderous streak in big games, his QB rating dipping from 171 to 140 against ranked opponents in his four years at the helm.

This is not to knock either Murray or McCarron: Jon Gruden identified the first as his sleeper in the draft after four wonderful years in Athens, whilst the Mobile product was the first Saban QB to make critics reconsider the “game manager” label. It is hard to imagine Greg McElroy leading Bama to a spectacular comeback in Baton Rouge, or being trusted enough to launch a 99 yard missile to retake the lead in the 4th quarter of the 2013 Iron Bowl.

Then again, McCarron could also be maddeningly inaccurate on routine throws, so much so that he had only completed one second half pass before connecting with Norwood and Yeldon for the comeback win against LSU.

Whilst it does not come at a surprise that Alabama can survive regardless of who plays under centre, saying as much about Georgia would have been tantamount to blasphemy only a few short months ago. Though Murray played at a high level during his collegiate career, he never became the kind of QB who could make up for all his team’s deficiencies, or decide big games, coming oh-so-close in that rollercoaster SEC final defeat to, you guessed it, Bama.

With Hutson Mason impressing in the final stretch of the 2013 season-coming on the back of a horrific Murray injury- chances expect Georgia to be just as explosive on offence, and ready to make big strides on the other side of the ball with the arrival of former Noles Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The consensus has them reaching the 11-win mark, this in a division where Florida are stuck in a rut, South Carolina always drop one unnecessary game when things are on the up and Missouri have lost Dorial Green-Beckham.

Ultimately, what truly matters is the loss of key playmakers. Anthony Jennings may have shown some promise in leading LSU to a last-gasp comeback over Arkansas, but will struggle without the fearsome trio of Hill, Beckham and Landry around. Otherwise, losing a QB in college football should only be bad news if Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck have left the building. Even then, the Voles ironically won the much-coveted BCS title the FOLLOWING year, with the far less remarkable Tee Martin under centre.

Worse, losing a QB is usually the sign that the team as a whole has too many holes to plug. Texas A&M lost three key contributors in the first round alone, leaving their often at-sea defence to fend for itself. Kyle Hill will have a tough time replicating Johnny Manziel’s form, that’s for sure…