Five years ago, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M invaded the SEC and appeared to change the trajectory of the conference. Alabama was king, but the emergence of Manziel and the wide-open Aggies, plus Gus Malzahn's Auburn and Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss, signaled a change in the SEC, providing a new sort of threat to Nick Saban's Crimson Tide as spread- and tempo-based offenses threatened to shift the balance of power.
Manziel beat Alabama once, Auburn Kick Sixed its way to an Iron Bowl win and Ole Miss downed Alabama twice, but challenges to the Crimson Tide have been thwarted. Saban and Alabama have adapted and stayed atop the SEC, while everyone else in the conference has scrambled to attempt to keep up. We thought we were heading into a fascinating, entertaining era of SEC football; instead, the SEC hit a wall, and Saban's dominance has brought varying levels of hot-seat pressure to just about every other school in the league as the gap between the SEC and the rest of the Power Five closed.
There have been individually great games and the overall talent level in the conference is still high, but one key question in particular has cast a shadow on much of the league the past couple years: What happened to the quarterbacks?
The SEC's problems, like the problems of Alabama and Ohio State and any other powerful football entity, tend to be overstated. Even when something goes wrong, it doesn't change the fact that most things go right, and its issues aren't as severe as the issues of others. But while the SEC produced a ton of NFL talent again in 2017 -- twice as many first-round picks as any other league and 10 more total players drafted than the next most -- anybody who watched SEC football last year knew there was one particularly glaring issue. Offenses have stagnated, and quarterback play has been down. In 2013, the SEC had five of the top 12 quarterbacks in passer rating nationally. Last year, Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs (20th) was the only one in the top 25. Alabama ended up being the only team that finished with fewer than four losses, and the SEC got another team in the New Year's Six bowl games only because the Sugar Bowl was required to take Auburn.
Despite all that NFL talent, there was nothing special about the SEC beyond Alabama.
Last offseason, Sports on Earth explored the problem, focusing on a lack of quarterback development and an unusually high attrition rate, with so many blue-chip recruits transferring out. It's not that there haven't been any good players -- Chad Kelly had terrific numbers and especially had a big season in 2015, and Dak Prescott might be the best player in Mississippi State history -- but the lackluster quarterback production at LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Georgia and Florida in particular has deprived the SEC of legitimate threats to Alabama's dominance.
That can start to change in 2017. Even if Alabama doesn't let go of its stranglehold on the conference crown -- it probably won't -- an influx of promising quarterback talent has created hope that new levels of intrigue are about to be injected into the conference. Nothing creates a better product than great quarterback play, and there are signs that the SEC can raise the bar after a few frustrating seasons and at least recapture some of that magic from a few years ago.
Alabama. Jalen Hurts struggled pushing the ball downfield in the playoff, and he had a phenomenal true freshman season. Both can be true. Hurts is a tremendous talent, one who nearly led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated national championship season in his first year on campus. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, and he should take a step forward as a passer with a year under his belt. He also has all-world freshman Tua Tagovailoa behind him now, giving the Tide a pair of potential superstars.
Auburn. Maybe the Jarrett Stidham hype is bit much right now. It's happened at Auburn before; you might remember the preseason 2015 Jeremy Johnson Heisman hype. But Stidham was a big-time recruit at Baylor, and he showed flashes of big-time potential in three starts in place of the injured Seth Russell in 2015, including 419 yards and three TDs in his debut at Kansas State. If Stidham lives up to the hype, the Iron Bowl becomes a whole lot more interesting again, and it's hard to imagine he won't win the job over Sean White.
Georgia. A five-star recruit, Jacob Eason made a handful of plays that showed why he was deserving of such praise out of high school, including the game-winner at Missouri and what would have been the game-winner vs. Tennessee if the Bulldogs had subsequently defended a Hail Mary. Despite having a big arm, Eason averaged a mere 6.6 yards per attempt. He needs to improve his accuracy and he needs help from his offensive line and receivers. Again, though, he was only a freshman. Touted 2017 freshman Jake Fromm has also arrived to significant praise behind Eason.
Ole Miss. In throwing for 6,800 yards and 50 touchdowns in two seasons before getting hurt last November, Chad Kelly did provide needed quarterback life upon transferring in from Clemson. He's gone, but his injury gave us a glimpse at the future, as five-star recruit Shea Patterson burned his redshirt and started the final three games of 2016. Forced into unexpected action, Patterson had mixed results, but his debut was sterling: 338 yards passing, 65 yards rushing and two TDs in a comeback win over Texas A&M. The mood surrounding Ole Miss football isn't particularly pleasant right now, but Patterson's talent and mobility provide a needed dose of positivity.
Mississippi State. The Bulldogs went 6-7 last year, but they replaced Dak Prescott with Nick Fitzgerald, who quietly rushed for 1,375 yards -- more than everybody in the SEC except Derrius Guice. That included 258 yards in the Egg Bowl, 195 against South Carolina and 182 against Texas A&M. If Fitzgerald can grow as a passer as a junior, he'll start getting a lot more attention.
South Carolina. Jake Bentley was supposed to be in high school last year. Instead, he graduated a full year early and broke into the starting lineup for the final seven games. Nobody should get too excited yet; a team coached by Will Muschamp has earned plenty of skepticism about the offense. But Bentley took the job away from fellow touted freshman Brandon McIlwain -- who transferred to Cal -- and he is a skilled, high-ceiling player who gives the Gamecocks hope that they're pointed in the right direction.
Stable quarterback spots
Arkansas. Austin Allen replaced his brother, Brandon Allen, and quietly put together a stellar debut season as starter, throwing for 3,430 yards and 25 TDs with an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. The key is cutting down on interceptions after throwing multiple picks in four of the Razorbacks' losses.
Missouri. When pressed into duty as a freshman, Drew Lock had a rough time in a disastrous season for the Tigers. Last year, under new coordinator Josh Heupel, Lock showed significant growth, throwing for 3,399 yards, 23 TDs and 10 INTs. He needs to increase his completion percentage (54.6 percent), but the four-star recruit is on the right track and has a star receiver in J'Mon Moore.
Florida. Incredibly, Florida hasn't ranked better than 69th in passer rating since Tim Tebow led the nation in 2009. The school formerly known for churning out prolific offenses has been floundering for years, even in winning back-to-back SEC East titles. Luke Del Rio is back, but he missed spring practice with an injury. The favorite to win the job is redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, the No. 54 overall player in the recruiting class of 2016, according to 247Sports. Franks is a talented unknown, but Jim McElwain has coached productive offenses prior to taking this job, and the supporting talent around the quarterback will be better. The Gators have averaged 3.9 yards per play in the past two SEC title game disasters against Alabama, and we certainly don't need to see something like that again, so the hope is that Franks could provide a spark. What further makes this a wild card is the still-open possibility of Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire choosing the Gators, pending an SEC rule alteration.
Texas A&M. Either Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray was supposed to be a Texas A&M superstar right now. Instead, both five-star recruits are elsewhere, having transferred after the 2015 season. Kevin Sumlin turned to Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight as a one-year Band Aid. He's gone, and now the Aggies are left with a choice between redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, senior Jake Hubenak or enticing true freshman Kellen Mond, the best long-term bet for the job.
Tennessee. Joshua Dobbs is gone after a few years of solid starting without really achieving the breakthrough that was hoped, which basically describes the past two years for Tennessee as a whole. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady lead the battle for the job. Both drew praise in the spring -- Dormady didn't throw an incompletion in the spring scrimmage -- and it's possible one could grow into an upgrade over Dobbs.
Kentucky. Former blue-chip recruit Drew Barker won the job last year, but after a horrific game against Florida in Week 2, he was lost for the season with a back injury in Week 3. He'll rejoin a competition that includes his replacement Stephen Johnson (2,037 yards passing, 327 yards rushing, led Kentucky to a bowl) and redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak. This team is built around the running game right now, but there is some enticing talent at quarterback.
Vanderbilt. The son of Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Kyle Shurmur was a four-star recruit, and he showed flashes of that ability as a junior. The 6-foot-4, 224-pounder threw for 416 yards and two TDs in the bowl-clinching win against Tennessee and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt in a win over Ole Miss. Of course, for the season he completed 54.4 percent with nine TDs and 10 INTs, and he ended on a low note by going 19-of-46 with three picks in a blowout bowl loss to N.C. State.
LSU. All signs continue to point to Danny Etling as the starting quarterback. He has ability, and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada did a nice job with Nathan Peterman at Pitt, but it's hard to imagine this passing game has a truly high ceiling in 2017. Freshmen Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan could still push Etling, but it's unlikely that the Tigers will enjoy some sort of serious breakthrough this year with their passing game.
Not every SEC starting quarterback is going to break through. It's possible most of them won't. For the SEC race to be more interesting than last year -- which shouldn't be difficult -- the biggest keys are Stidham at Auburn and Eason at Georgia. If they develop into the stars they've been touted as, then they could provide a sizable challenge to Alabama in the Iron Bowl and SEC championship game, respectively, at the end of the season, and they could lead top-10 teams. (Or, if you want to be optimistic about Florida's offense, swap Franks for Eason.)
In terms of overall roster depth and talent, the SEC still reigns supreme in college football, but cracks have shown, and nothing has closed the gap among conferences more than mediocre quarterback play, particularly in what's been a weak SEC East on an annual basis. The intrigue promised a few years ago evaporated as Manziel and others left college.
Talented quarterbacks are still flocking to the conference, though. The amount of young talent at the position is obvious, and now's the time for them to emerge to provide some hope that Alabama won't coast to another conference crown almost unchallenged. If nothing else, they can at least make things more interesting and put more SEC teams back in the playoff picture.