Mark Blaudschun's Blitz: What to Make of the Quarterback Upheaval in the SEC

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Mark Blaudschun's Blitz: What to Make of the Quarterback Upheaval in the SEC
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It's almost hard to remember a time when the SEC wasn't the dominant conference in college football.   

But with a host of conference teams undergoing a transition of key personnel and Florida State returning its national championship core, might the SEC's power be on the wane?

Don't be so sure.   

"It's interesting to me that we are always the basis of comparison," SEC commissioner Mike Slive told Bleacher Report. "To me, [that] is the sincerest form of flattery.''

Slive makes a compelling case. Consider the following facts:

• The SEC has won seven of the last eight national college football championships.

 A record eight SEC teams are in the preseason AP Top 25, five in the first 13.

 In the latest recruiting ratings, eight SEC teams ranked among the top 25 classes, and six were among the top 10.

On the other hand, six—No.  2 Alabama, No. 9 South Carolina, No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 LSU, No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 24 Missouriof the conference's eight ranked teams head into the season with new starting quarterbacks. Gone are Alabama's AJ McCarron, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, Georgia's Aaron Murray, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Missouri's James Franklin.

Compare that with the school that broke the SEC title run. Florida State returns as the consensus No. 1 pick in the polls, with Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston leading the way.

Or glance out West, where the increasingly powerful and confident Pac-12 has starting QBs returning to 10 of its 12 teams, including a pair of Heisman contenders in Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

For its part, the SEC has hardly blinked at the upheaval it faces under center. Rather, the conference has shifted its recruiting focus toward building a league dominated by an elite class of running backs.

Go through the rosters of the elite SEC teams and you will see depth charts loaded with quality backs, such as Todd Gurley at Georgia and T.J. Yeldon of Alabama. Watch what happens at LSU when 5-star freshman running back Leonard Fournette blasts through holes opened by a veteran offensive line.

Butch Dill/Associated Press
T.J. Yeldon is among a growing wave of talented running backs the SEC hopes will keep it atop the national rankings.

Who is to say the mighty SEC will not turn itself from a conference of QBs into a conference of running backs?

Who's to say that Gurley, for example, won't emerge not only as the leader of the Georgia offense, but as a Heisman front-runner? Or that Fournette doesn't burst on to the scene as the latest highly touted freshman who can lead a team into contention for the national championship?

Still, the SEC's talent drain at quarterback has more than a few foreseeing a change in the game's on-field power structure.

"I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren't Alabama that wish they were Nebraska, wish they were Michigan, wish they were Ohio State," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said at Big Ten media day last month. Pelini has had coaching stints in the SEC and Big 12 as well as the Big Ten.

"Don't talk to me about the SEC. ... You know, the whole SEC isn't Alabama, it isn't LSU, it isn't Georgia. Let's talk about certain teams. ... There are some teams in the SEC that are trying to bridge the gap to be us. Everybody wants to lump the whole SEC into one category. Let's not go there."

But even Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said this summer at the Pac-12 media days that the SEC "should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it and they've done it." Another enviable recruiting class won't hurt, nor will a sparkling new SEC television network, which promises to pour the kind of money into SEC schools that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already seen with their networks.

Slive also notes that the conference's success is wider than what happens on Saturdays.

"It's great to be known for football, but people don't think about the other sports," Slive said. "A Final Four in men's basketball. We won in baseball. We won in softball. We won in golf. We won seven national championships last year. We average six or seven national championships a year. In many ways, we are in the midst of a golden age in the SEC.

"And we have changed the culture. We have become very diverse. We had never had a minority coach. Now it's reached the point where it is not even a story. Before, many stories in the SEC were off the field. Now the focus is on championships."

Still, Slive conceded that it is unlikely that any conference will be able to repeat the SEC's string of seven consecutive national championships in football.

"I often think of that record in same category as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. It's just one of those records that will never be broken."

 

Johnny Football, Part 2

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Is Texas A&M sophomore Kenny Hill the 2014 version of Johnny Football?

Check out these stats from Hill's prep days at Southlake Carroll High School. In his final two seasons at Carroll, he passed for 5,305 yards and 45 touchdowns and ran for 2,305 yards and 46 scores on the ground. That's 7,710 total yards of offense and 91 TDs, which would be a good total running against a scout team, much less the 5A competition Carroll (which also won a state title in Hill's junior season) faced.

And in keeping up with the Johnny Football reputation, Hill had some problems this spring with local authorities in Aggieland, as he was arrested for a public intoxication charge.

For now, the incident is being considered an aberration, and he has settled into his new role. His pedigree suggests he is ready. His father Ken is a former major league pitcher. And Carroll has a history of producing college signal-callers, previously sending Todd Dodge to Texas and Greg McElroy to Alabama. The school has won eight state titles in nine trips to the championship game and also can claim three high school national championships.

 

Bad omen for Seminoles?

Here's the hope for Florida State opponents who are counting on the Seminoles not repeating as national champions. In the 64 preseason polls conducted by the Associated Press, only 10 teams that have started No. 1 finished the year as national champions. Also, the last four No. 1 AP preseason choices didn't finish in the Top Seven in the final polls.

 

Winds of change

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The SEC is not alone in replacing key talent at quarterback.

Look at the Associated Press Top 25.

No. 5 Ohio State and No. 16 Clemson have quarterback questions. Notre Dame, which is now dealing with academic issues, will also go into the season with a question mark at QB in Everett Golson, who is coming off a year's absence because of academic reasons.

Let's cut to the chase this season and take a closer look at the QBs residing in the Top 10:

1. Florida State: Winston returns, which has the Seminoles as the overwhelming preseason No. 1 pick.

2. Alabama: AJ McCarron is gone after a remarkable 36-4 record as a starter and two national championships. Replacing him with one person will be difficult, which is why Tide coach Nick Saban has watched a battle between FSU transfer Jacob Coker and fifth-year senior Blake Sims. Saban is expected to make a decision this week, but he really has three games—West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss—to find his primary QB. And truth be told, Alabama is good enough to win without a dominant QB.

3. Oregon: If he stays healthy, Mariota could get the daily double that Winston achieved last season—a Heisman Trophy and a national championship.

4. Oklahoma: Trevor Knight is a rising star who blossomed in the Sooners' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama last season. He is the reason OU is in the Final Four discussion.

5. Ohio State: That sound you hear is of the Buckeyes' national championship hopes crashing after Braxton Miller reinjured his shoulder last week in practice and was declared out for the season. Redshirt freshman JT Barrett will be the starter against Navy this week. He is no Miller. Still, the schedule is soft enough (see below) to carry their hopes into November.

6.  Auburn: Nick Marshall returns. He was good enough to get the Tigers into the national title game a year ago, and he can keep them in the mix until at least the Iron Bowl rematch with Alabama.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

7. UCLA: The Bruins look like a Top 10 team, and Brett Hundley is a prime reason. Hundley passed on a chance to enter the NFL early. Will it pay off for the Bruins?

8. Michigan State: Defense, defense, defense, plus a solid running game. What's missing? A star QB. Connor Cook is a middle-of-the-pack talent, but he has come up with some clutch plays in crucial games (against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and against Stanford in the Rose Bowl).

9. South Carolina: One of the biggest questions for the Gamecocks on offense is whether Dylan Thompson can step in for Connor Shaw, who was the winningest QB in Gamecocks history.

"He's a fifth-year player," coach Steve Spurrier told a group of reporters when asked about Thompson at the SEC media gathering last month. "We believe he's a very good player; he has a chance to lead us to a big season."

10. Baylor: Bryce Petty was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year last season thanks to an amazing 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He also ran for 14 TDs. It's little wonder the Bears are regarded as the main threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12.

 

Not the Power Five

The newly minted College Football Playoff system may end some of the debates surrounding what team truly is best, but that's largely a Power Five conference problem. For those in the non-Power Five conferences, the new system means their chances to reach one of the two bowl semifinals will be extremely difficult. 

That means going into this week's season openers, the team with the most to lose is Central Florida, which must get through an extremely tight window if it hopes to be the first non-Power Five team since Cincinnati in 2009 to finish the season among the Top Four teams in the nation.

UCF represents the American Athletic Conference, which, along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, the Mid-American and the Sun Belt, will place its highest-ranked team in either the Cotton, Peach or Fiesta Bowls this season.

Technically, the best team from any of those conferences is still eligible to make it into the football Final Four games in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl, but the odds of that happening right now are astronomical.

In the AP preseason poll, UCF was the highest-ranked team among the non-Power Five, finishing just outside of the Top 25. Marshall, which finished No. 32 in the preseason vote, is C-USA's best bet, and Boise State, at No. 41 is the Mountain West's highest-ranked team. Neither the MAC nor the Sun Belt has a ranked team.

John Raoux/Associated Press
George O'Leary's UCF squad has no room for unexpected losses if it hopes to crash the Final Four playoff party.

Boise State has name recognition, but the Broncos have fallen off the Top 20 ladder in the last few years. Coach Chris Petersen bolted to Washington, and the five Boise losses last season would have been a four-year total a few seasons ago

That leaves UCF, which has some intriguing credentials. The Knights are coming off of a 12-1 season in which they made their first BCS appearance, beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In three of the past four seasons, they have won 10 or more games.

But...they enter this season with zero margin for error, which means that Saturday's opener against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland, is a must-win game. And so is a road game two weeks later against No. 24 Missouri, the defending SEC East champion.

Come out of those two games 2-0, and UCF will be a front-runner to play in a New Year's Day bowl game. But that's about it. The rest of the schedule and the AAC's status as a second-tier league will prevent a climb beyond the last rungs of the Top 10.

With no conference championship game to use as a boost and no wins against any teams ranked in the Top 25, UCF cannot surpass any Power Five conference teams, even a team with one loss. 

Conventional wisdom says you can't win or lose championships before Labor Day, but in the case of UCF, a loss in August against Penn State will seal the Knights' fate, as well as the chances of all the other non-Power Five conferences teams.

 

Scheduling, scheduling, scheduling

Who you play matters. That's why the Buckeyes can remain a contender for the Big Ten title and national championship despite the loss of QB Braxton Miller. It's also why Ole Miss may turn out to be a dark-horse possibility for the Final Four playoff. While Ohio State will avoid a trio of tricky Big Ten West teams—Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin—Mississippi will not see the SEC East. That means no dates with Georgia, Florida or South Carolina. Winning through those schedules is no sure thing, but the opportunity to surprise many is there.

 

How deep is the recruiting pool at Florida?

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
With the departure of two QBs from last season's roster, Florida starter Jeff Driskel doesn't appear to have much depth behind him as the season starts.

The Gators went 4-8 last season, which put coach Will Muschamp on a very warm coaching seat. Is it warranted?

Consider this: Jacoby Brissett, a Florida transfer, is projected to be the starting QB at NC State. Tyler Murphy, who graduated from Florida in December but had a year of eligibility remaining, will be the starting signal-caller at Boston College this fall.

That's a lot of unutilized talent for a job that wasn't exactly held by Tim Tebow. Jeff Driskel was awarded the job in spring after missing the last eight games last season following a broken right fibula against Tennessee.

 

You've got to be kidding

1. North Texas won nine games with a run-heavy offense and a bruising defense and posted a 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Texas Bowl last season, a success quotient that has earned the Mean Green a startling nickname: The Stanford of Conference USA.

2. Only at Notre Dame. New top-of-the-line jerseys by Under Armour went on sale for $199 in the bookstore, which is the highest price of any jersey at retail.

3. The UCF-Penn State game in Dublin on Saturday might be postponed or cancelled because of a volcano eruption in Iceland, 900 miles away. The volcano could spread volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which could curtail flights to Europe and keep both schools home.

4. The Atlanta Falcons announced that they will sell alcohol-infused cupcakes at games in the Georgia Dome this season. Can such sales for Georgia Dome college games be far behind?

 

Mark Blaudschun covers college football as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has more than three decades of experience covering sports at a variety of newspapers in New Jersey, the Dallas Morning News and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @blauds.

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