HOOVER, Ala. — Winning a national championship has not been a problem in recent seasons in the SEC.
The lack of star power at quarterback, however, could be an issue in 2016. One only has to look at the invitation list of 42 players strolling through SEC Media Days this week. Only three of those players are quarterbacks, including a transfer from the Big 12.
What’s more alarming is only four quarterback jobs have been solidified in the SEC — Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, Austin Allen at Arkansas, Trevor Knight at Texas A&M and Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee — and half of them are first-year starters in the conference. The numbers game sure does seem dire, with three of the top five quarterbacks from 2015 no longer in the conference, including Dak Prescott, Mississippi State’s all-time great at the position.
Coaches are scrambling for answers. At least two schools say their quarterback battles are four-men races entering August. Auburn’s battle is a three-man race, with freshman Woody Barrett with a slim possibility as the fourth contestant. Alabama is also looking for a quarterback after winning a national championship with a first-year starter.
“It’s getting to be more and more of a trend it seems to me,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was the defensive coordinator at Alabama last season. “It used to be there were a lot of good quarterbacks, and you hated that as a defensive coordinator. For the last eight or nine years, you were facing some really talented guys. And it seems to be there’s more question marks every time we have this event (at SEC Media Days).
“Why is that? I don’t know. There’s more turnover, more transfers, more competition, more guys coming in to compete.”
Texas A&M countered a rash of transfers by snagging Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, the quarterback that beat Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
But how will the SEC replicate last season’s four 3,000-yard passers, who also ranked in the top 25 nationally in passing efficiency? Only Kelly and Dobbs return among the top five at their position in the SEC — and only Kelly was ranked among those top 25 quarterbacks in the country with his 4,000-yard season.
Dobbs threw 15 touchdown passes last season and ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in yards per attempt (6.7), but he leads a Tennessee team the SEC media will pick later this week to win the SEC East.
“I know my opinion,” Dobbs said. “I know I can do anything when I step on the field. I can make every throw, I can make every run. … I hold myself to the highest standard, higher than anyone else.”
History shows the SEC usually answers its own questions about future stars at quarterback every year — just when it seems the conference is losing loads of talent.
At least four SEC quarterbacks have finished in the top 25 nationally in each of the last six seasons, save for two years featuring three in 2015 and 2011. The SEC had as many as six in 2010, including three players in the top seven, in a season that ended with Cam Newton taking Auburn to a national title while winning a Heisman Trophy in his only year as a starter.
“In years past we had these same question marks,” Smart said. “People arose. Certainly at this time no one knew who Cam Newton was, and he was amazing. Nobody thought they knew what (Auburn’s) Nick Marshall would do (in 2013). Nobody thought (Alabama’s) Blake Sims was going to do it. Nobody gave (Alabama’s ) Jacob Coker a lot of credit either.”
The SEC usually reloads as new quarterbacks step up in this league, which has featured 4,000-yard passers in two of the last three seasons.
Knight, 22, brings a lot of experience and feels he could be one of the top quarterbacks in the country following his roller-coaster career at Oklahoma.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I feel very confident in myself as a player. With the guys I have around me on the offense and defense this year, we’re putting ourselves in position to win a whole bunch of ball games. When you’re winning ball games, it’s a whole lot easier to play well and be a frontrunner.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi State is hoping it doesn’t experience a decline similar to the one at Auburn in 2015, when the Tigers had to replace Marshall and suffered at the position. Life after Prescott at Mississippi State could be bumpy on offense.
Then again, a new star could emerge in the SEC. You never know. Kelly did it at Ole Miss last season and led the SEC with 31 touchdown passes.
“You know, hopefully at the end of the year we’re one of the teams that we can say we thought quarterback play might not be great but it was a lot better than everybody thought it was,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.