When the Panthers and Broncos take the field for Super Bowl 50, it will indirectly continue a theme of SEC football success to start 2016. Alabama just won the college football national championship, and for the third time ever, the two Super Bowl teams will be quarterbacked by players from the SEC: Cam Newton and Peyton Manning.
Throw in Derrick Henry's Heisman Trophy, the league's 8-2 record in bowl games, the possibility of a No. 1 rated recruiting class for LSU and reports of absurd revenue growth for the conference as a whole, and life, as always, appears to be good in the SEC.
But there is one significant on-field issue that needs to be addressed, one that will dictate how the SEC is perceived in 2016 and beyond: quarterback development.
The Newton-Manning matchup in the Super Bowl does not accurately reflect the state of quarterback play in the SEC, which has stumbled the last two years after the losses of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Connor Shaw and James Franklin following the 2013 season.
Instead of a spread revolution in the SEC, things have gone backward. Auburn and Texas A&M, which appeared to have been chipping away at the Alabama dynasty with modernized approaches, are going through substantial quarterback issues and were among the season's biggest disappointments in 2015. In the SEC East, all three new head coaches at Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina come from the defensive side of the ball, two having Nick Saban connections, with all three facing uncertain quarterback competitions this offseason. In fact, five of seven SEC East schools (all of them except Florida and Tennessee) have gone against recent national trends, hiring head coaches with defensive backgrounds.
Despite the bowl record and Alabama's championship, 2015 represented a step back for the SEC, as the SEC East was laughably weak -- division champion Florida could barely get a first down by the end of the season -- and the depth of the West didn't come close to living up to lofty expectations. The SEC continues to dominate the recruiting trail, amassing depth and speed at the skill positions and in the trenches, but recruiting quarterbacks is a crapshoot, and the league has been losing more than usual lately.
In 2011 and 2012, current SEC schools signed just nine blue-chip quarterbacks (rated four or five stars), according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Of those nine, none remain on their original roster after Missouri QB Maty Mauk was dismissed from the team on Thursday. The SEC landed 10 blue-chip quarterbacks in 2013 alone, but it's possible that the only 2016 starters in that group will be Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs, a clear-cut returning starter, and Arkansas' Austin Allen, who is the early favorite in the competition to replace his brother, Brandon. One of those players decided on baseball instead (Kohl Stewart), while two have transferred (Kenny Hill and Hayden Rettig), with more possibly to follow.
The 2014 class is also off to a rough start. Florida's Will Grier is transferring after a PED suspension. Georgia's Jacob Park transferred to the juco level. Texas A&M's Kyle Allen is transferring. Of the seven blue-chip 2014 QBs, only LSU's Brandon Harris (who has struggled to meet expectations) and Kentucky's Drew Barker are expected to start in 2016. While LSU boasts a huge recruiting advantage and may sign the No. 1 class, it is still struggling to find and develop talent at quarterback, with none currently signed for 2016.
No school has been more representative of the issue than Texas A&M, who has recruited well but found no long-term answers for replacing Manziel, who was recruited by Mike Sherman's staff. In addition to losing Stewart, Hill, Matt Davis and Allen, 2015 four-star recruit Kyler Murray -- who split time with Allen as a true freshman -- transferred to Oklahoma in December, leaving the Aggies to turn to the transfer market for a solution.
Recruiting rankings are inexact, of course -- Manziel and Mississippi State star Dak Prescott were both three-star prospects -- but they are generally an accurate guide of who has the best chance to succeed. Just like every other position, the SEC has recruited quarterbacks better than anyone else, landing 36 four- and five-star recruits in the last five years, according to 247Sports.
The following map plots all blue-chip quarterback recruits signed in the last five years (2011-15). This includes only pro-style and dual-threat quarterbacks rated as four- or five-star prospects by 247Sports' composite rankings. Based on original college choice and schools' current conferences, SEC teams are in red, ACC are yellow, Pac-12 are brown, Big Ten are blue, Big 12 are green and others are gray.
But only 20 of those players finished their careers at the same school or are still on the roster, meaning 16 have transferred, been dismissed or switched to baseball. Of the ones who stayed, many have not yet been developed as hoped, like Auburn's Jeremy Johnson (who received preseason Heisman hype before his first year as starter) and Georgia's Brice Ramsey.
The SEC's struggle to develop highly regarded QB recruits in recent years has led to the conference becoming a big part of the increasingly active college football version of free agency. Top quarterbacks have pushed for playing time earlier and earlier in their careers and have become more likely to seek a fresh start elsewhere if they lose competitions for starting jobs. Thus, a wave of blue-chip QB prospects has exited the SEC, and teams have tried to replace them with outside transfers, to varying degrees of success. "Varying degrees of success" should not be surprising, because transfer quarterbacks are transferring for a reason.
Two schools have found success going this route in the last couple years, although it's hardly new (Cam Newton and Zach Mettenberger bounced between SEC schools). The most notable is Alabama, who landed graduate transfer Jake Coker from Florida State. After losing the QB competition in his first year, Coker won the job as a fifth-year senior. While Alabama carefully managed him for much of the year, he improved late and made big plays in the playoff to help lead the Tide to a national title.
The other is Ole Miss. After Bo Wallace ran out of eligibility, the Rebels landed Chad Kelly, a former four-star recruit who was dismissed from the team at Clemson and ended up playing a year of juco ball. Kelly won the job as Wallace's replacement and had an underappreciated season, and he'll return for his senior season in 2016 as the SEC's best known quantity at quarterback, and perhaps one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
The SEC has taken in plenty of other castoffs from elsewhere, with results to be determined. Purdue's Austin Appleby (Florida) and Danny Etling (LSU) have both transferred into the SEC after losing their grip on starting jobs with the Boilermakers. Greyson Lambert left Virginia and became the starter for much of last season at Georgia, where the passing game subsequently struggled. Florida State transfer John Franklin, who played a season of juco ball, is transferring to Auburn and is expected to compete for the starting job in 2016. Luke Del Rio transferred from Alabama to Oregon State to Florida and hopes to compete for the Gators' job in 2016. Ricky Town transferred from USC to Arkansas before his freshman season even began, and he'll compete for the job this year.
Even Alabama, which has three blue-chip QBs on its roster vying to replace Coker, flirted with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop, who decided to sign with Oregon.
Finally, Texas A&M -- after losing three transfer QBs in two years -- will welcome in Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who lost his job to Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield, in an attempt to fix its suddenly broken situation behind center after the unexpected mass exodus.
In 2016, the only proven effective returning starters with strangleholds on their jobs are Ole Miss' Kelly (4,042 pass yards, 500 rush yards, 41 total TDs) and Tennessee's Dobbs (2,291 pass yards, 671 rush yards, 26 total TDs). After several classes of top-rated quarterbacks did not pan out, it's clear that the league needs an infusion of young talent, and it needs it to be successfully developed.
The future is best represented by four players. The favorite for the Alabama job is redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who was a five-star recruit in 2015 and the nation's No. 2 QB behind UCLA's Josh Rosen. He'll try to beat out former four-star recruits David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman for the job. This recruiting cycle, the SEC has commitments from three of the top five pro-style quarterbacks, according to 247Sports: Shea Patterson to Ole Miss, Jacob Eason to Georgia and Feleipe Franks to Florida.
Patterson will likely sit a season with Kelly returning, but Franks and especially Eason have a chance to make an instant impact. All three of them enrolled early, meaning they will participate in spring practices and get a jump on learning their respective offenses. Of the 20 blue-chip quarterbacks in the class of 2016, seven are committed to SEC schools: those three, plus dual threats Jarrett Guarantano (Tennessee), Brandon McIlwain (South Carolina), Jalen Hurts (Alabama) and Woody Barrett (Auburn).
Recent history suggests that around half of them will end up transferring in the next few years. It also suggests that it they have an uphill battle to become full-time starters, let alone stars.
The SEC has had 13 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since the Big Ten last had one (Kerry Collins, 1995), including six No. 1 overall picks. While the league is unlikely to have a first-round QB this year, and possibly not a second- or third-round pick at the position, Dak Prescott, Jake Coker and Brandon Allen could all get drafted. The situation could certainly be worse.
However, this comes after zero SEC quarterbacks were drafted in 2015. In fact, the only quarterbacks from SEC schools to be drafted in the first three rounds in the last four drafts, since Newton went No. 1, were Johnny Manziel and Ryan Tannehill (who played for Texas A&M in the Big 12).
It's not as if the situation is drastically different from most of the rest of the major conferences. The SEC isn't necessarily producing quarterbacks at a worse rate. It's just clearly not doing any better. The problem for the SEC is that it expects to be the recruiting behemoth, the one that produces talent at higher rate and is more powerful than everyone else. In recruiting quarterbacks, this is true. In developing them, it is not.
The SEC prevailed in the end, but the conference as a whole was mostly ordinary during the 2015 season, largely because of mediocrity at quarterback, which can negate advantages elsewhere at any school that isn't Alabama. If that doesn't change, the gap between the SEC and the rest of college football will be a lot smaller than the conference likes to think.