It’s no secret: This was not a banner year for the SEC. For the first time since 2000, only one team managed to win double-digit games — and 2000 was during the 11-game season era.
Alabama went 14-1, but the Crimson Tide were a lone bright spot. The rest of the conference went just 5-6 in bowl games. That includes losses to North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and South Florida. Mississippi State needed a miracle blocked field-goal try to beat Miami (Ohio).
But while the SEC fell off its lofty pedestal in 2016, many issues revolved around one weakness: quarterback.
Only four SEC teams brought back a starter with at least a year of experience. Out of that group, only Tennessee finished the season with the same quarterback it started in Week 1 (Josh Dobbs). Around the rest of the conference, the position was an inconsistent disaster.
Alabama and Georgia both started a true freshman quarterback in the second game of the season. Granted, both performed pretty darn well, but they made freshman mistakes. South Carolina switched between two true freshman quarterbacks, along with former walk-on Perry Orth. Ole Miss also had to start true freshman Shea Patterson after Chad Kelly went down with a knee injury.
The Rebels weren’t the only team with injury woes. Florida, Kentucky, Auburn and Texas A&M also saw their starting quarterbacks miss at least one game because of injury. Luke Del Rio at Florida and Drew Barker at Kentucky were lost for most of the season.
Experience was limited enough coming into the season, but injuries and inconsistencies across SEC offenses made things almost unmanageable.
Dobbs, Austin Allen and Jalen Hurts stayed upright all season and led their teams to top 25 S&P+ passing offenses. Hugh Freeze’s system at Ole Miss also ensured that the Rebels only fell to No. 14 while mixing Patterson and Kelly. Unfortunately, there were six SEC teams outside of the top 50 in that passing efficiency ranking. The other two teams starting true freshmen, Georgia and South Carolina, ranked No. 91 and 94, respectively. At times, things got ugly.
But while quarterback inexperience played a significant part in the SEC’s struggles in 2016, the quality of play should see an immediate bump next season.
Eleven of the 14 SEC teams have a returning quarterback on their roster who started at least half of the season. Out of the rest, Ole Miss also feels good about where it stands with Patterson. Only Texas A&M and Tennessee are required to make wholesale changes at the position.
And while the past offseason required teams sifting through inexperienced options to try and strike gold, the conference will have plenty of talent to work with this offseason. Auburn added transfer Jarrett Stidham to the mix, and he is expected to take Sean White’s job. Redshirt Feleipe Franks will push Del Rio at Florida. Barker should return from multiple injuries at Kentucky and try to earn the starting job again over Stephen Johnson. Even LSU will likely open the quarterback competition between Danny Etling, Brandon Harris and potentially some newcomers.
This doesn’t even take into account returning starters such as Nick Fitzgerald, Hurts and Allen who all showed plenty of promise in their first seasons as starters.
When SEC teams take the field next season, many more teams will have known commodities under center. That will be vital as the conference tries to get off to a good start, with plenty of opportunities to rebuild that reputation early in the 2017 season. Several come against the ACC, which asserted itself as the best conference in college football last season.
Nick Saban and Alabama will face off against Deondre Francois and Florida State in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how motivated the Crimson Tide come out after a tight loss in the national championship game.
Auburn will travel to South Carolina to take on defending national champion Clemson. However, the latter Tigers will be without Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and Mike Williams, all who declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. Florida also flies to Arlington, Texas, to tangle with Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines in one of the most anticipated games of nonconference play.
The 2016 season was always going to be a rebuilding year for the conference after an unprecedented run of success. Luckily, the dividends will pay off soon.