Alabama QB AJ McCarron
How many starters does your team return from last season, and, most importantly, is one of them the quarterback?
That question is a staple of virtually every preseason team preview, prevalent in every summer magazine and a topic of conversation on radio stations across the country.
But does a returning starter at quarterback really matter?
Between 2007-11, four of the five BCS National Championships won by SEC teams were won by first-year starting quarterbacks (LSU's Matt Flynn in 2007, Alabama's Greg McElroy in 2009, Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010 and Alabama's AJ McCarron in 2011).
A returning starter at quarterback clearly isn't a prerequisite for hoisting the crystal football, but what about overall success in the SEC?
It isn't just the titles that have elevated the SEC to the unquestioned top spot in the conference pecking order, it's the number of teams finishing the season in the top 10.
Since 2006—when the string of SEC BCS National Championships began—eight different SEC teams have finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll a total of 21 times. That's a whopping 30 percent of the final AP poll over the seven-year stretch.
Of those 21 teams, only eight boasted first-year starters at quarterback. Five of them (McCarron, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, Florida's Jeff Driskel and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson) have been in the last two seasons, and the other three (Flynn, McElroy and Newton) have national title rings on their fingers.
So, does returning a starting quarterback make a difference? For the top-flight teams that are littered with talent, not as much. That's a big reason why Alabama (twice), LSU and Florida comprise half of the SEC teams that have finished in the top 10 with newbies taking the majority of the snaps.
The remaining four first-year SEC quarterbacks who led their team to a Top 10 finish are Newton, Manziel, Shaw and Wilson.
So what made those four players that successful?
The dual-threat capabilities of Newton, Manziel and Shaw helped them tremendously. The other, Wilson, was playing under one of the game's greatest play-callers—Bobby Petrino—when he led the Hogs.
Simply put, the title-winning first-year quarterbacks were the exceptions who were aided by the teammates and schemes around them. It's not necessarily whether you have a returning starter at quarterback that matters in the SEC, it's the scheme and style around the quarterback that ultimately determines his success or failure.
How important is a first-year starter at QB when developing preseason predictions?
Despite that, it's clear that teams such as Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina that have returning starters at quarterback still have a good chance to finish in the top 10.
But we already knew that.
It also bodes well for Ole Miss, a team that returns a starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and a massive supporting cast that is only going to get better with more work in head coach Hugh Freeze's system, which tasted much more success in Year 1 than anybody expected.
Having a returning starter at quarterback matters in terms of success within the SEC. The degree to which it matters varies depending on the team and situation,
The path to the crystal football isn't necessarily paved with experience.