Once again, the soul of Goliath is about to be revealed.
The Southeastern Conference had its year of merriment, its orgy of quarterback stats in 2013. Now we're about to see the SEC ruled once again by the baddest men on the planet: defensive linemen. We're about to see the true marrow of the SEC, the two-deep offensive lines and four-deep running back rotations. Here comes downhill rock 'em, sock 'em football.
Yet, in this era of quarterback-centric offenses, can the SEC afford to have obscure quarterbacks for very long this season? Does it need the next Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray or Zach Mettenberger to emerge sooner rather than later to apply the cosmetics of points galore to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee (or whatever it's called)?
Starting Thursday, the committee pulls out its notebooks and revs up its DVRs. The shine always blots out the substance, I'm afraid.
The committee members, as far as I know, are not going to show up at LSU's practice one day and take stock, face to face, of the Tigers' physical talent, and then jet off to Oregon to compare the Tigers with the Ducks. They are going to watch games, not practice. Will they be putting their noses to the TV screen to analyze whether a Pac-12 left guard would be able to whup an SEC defensive tackle?
They'll probably try, but what the committee/voters will see more easily is the smoothness of offense. You can't help it. And the SEC has lost some of its smooth. Its array of quarterback name guys—Connor Shaw, James Franklin and AJ McCarron are gone, in addition to Manziel, Murray and Mettenberger—is diminished.
Is this a problem for college football's blue-blood programs?
The old school says that the SEC will be just fine with game managers—or a dazzling runner like Auburn's Nick Marshall—and that voters will be impressed by the conference's defensive lines, linebackers and offensive lines, or the reputations thereof. It says that the SEC will have four teams in the Top 10 in midseason, as befits the talent level.
I wonder about that. I look at these teams like Oregon and Baylor and their quarterbacks slinging the ball around and the oohs and aahs, and I wonder if the SEC had better throw the rock around and not merely turn and stuff it into the gut of a 225-pound running back. Somebody is going to say, "Oklahoma is going to stack defenders at the line and make the SEC team throw it, and they can't," and the next guy will say, "That's right, you have to pass the ball to get in the playoff. Can't be too one-dimensional."
All this means is that when LSU and its new quarterbacks play Wisconsin on Saturday, the Tigers' tandem better look sharp. Alabama better have a presence at QB against West Virginia, whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims. The Tide out-talent the Mountaineers all over the field, but you can bet all eyes will be on the quarterback.
Nothing can ruin a team's rep more than a shaky-looking quarterback. Georgia hosts Clemson with a new quarterback, Hutson Mason. The Bulldogs have a veteran offensive line, and there is nothing friendlier to a new quarterback than pass protection and nothing more toxic than a pass rush. What's he got? We'll be watching. If the Dawgs lose, it will be his fault, right?
|School||Starting QB(s)||NCAA pass attempts|
|Miss. State||Dak Prescott||296|
|Ole Miss||Bo Wallace||805|
|South Carolina||Dylan Thompson||218|
|Texas A&M||Kenny Hill||22|
Information via school press releases
There were eight defensive players drafted out of the Big 12 in 2014. There were 19 taken out of the SEC. There were five offensive linemen taken out of the Pac-12. There were 11 taken out of the SEC, including two in the first six picks. The SEC simply has a deeper talent pool to choose from in its region. Is it easy to see who has better talent when the other conferences "look" sensational throwing the ball while the SEC grinds?
But if the Pac-12 and Big 12 quarterbacks hog the spotlight and attract all the chatter, it could obscure the overall picture. The SEC, for now, has a wart in the middle of its forehead for the bathing suit part of this contest. Its new quarterbacks better apply some cosmetics to the beast.
Here is a rundown of other quarterback issues around Division I:
Now we're going to see just how good of a recruiter Urban Meyer really is.
We have heard it for years: "Nick Saban and Meyer rule signing day." Let's see if the offensive line Meyer recruited can ease the way for rookie starter J.T. Barrett, who takes over for Braxton Miller, who is out for the season with a torn labrum. Let's see if the O-line can open up holes and drive the ball to take the pressure off Barrett. Let's see if the receivers are NFL quality and make plays on bad throws.
The SEC and ACC programs have been gearing up to replace quarterbacks since the end of last season; Ohio State has had to do it in a week. Pages will be ripped out of the playbook—for a few games at least. The offense has to be scaled back. The other offensive players might not be confident in the new guy, at least not at the start. The defense might suddenly say, "We have to make more plays," and that could lead to it instead making more mistakes.
"Next man up" is a fine slogan when you are talking about a lineman or linebacker. It is a little more complicated when you are talking about a quarterback, the face of the program. Miller accounted for more than 3,000 yards in 2013. The next man up better be damn good to match that and get the Buckeyes back in the national championship discussion.
Notre Dame's Everett Golson will be back at starter after a year off. He learned his lesson about academics, but did coach Brian Kelly learn his lesson about getting bigger and faster at other positions? When Alabama and the Irish kicked off for the national championship two years ago and the two kickoff teams ran toward each other, you gasped. Bama was so much bigger and faster as the two sides collided. The game was over.
It was going to take at least two years for Kelly to get some reinforcements and improve height, weight and speed. Has he done it? His quarterback is depending on it. If Kelly's recruiting did not get better, Golson will need to be a sensational playmaker.
Quarterback is a big deal for the Wolverines because the defense will be one of the best in the country. What UM doesn't need is Devin Gardner—working behind an unknown offensive line—throwing interceptions and making bad reads. In comes Doug Nussmeier, the former Alabama assistant coach. His qualifications: coaching AJ McCarron on reading defenses pre-snap and a history of coaching quarterbacks not to plague the defense with a short field because of turnovers.
The Big Ten really misses Michigan. The conference profile has fallen off dramatically. Michigan State is very good, but the Big Ten needs Michigan. It needs Gardner not to be a ball and chain. He has to be a playmaker with his arm and help the conference that can't restore its glory.
Trevor Knight beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, throwing four touchdown passes against the Crimson Tide. Kingpin of the Sooners offense, right?
Not so fast. Let's see more. Knight threw three touchdown passes against Louisiana-Monroe to start 2013. He threw just two more the rest of the regular season against the bad defenses of the Big 12. He hurt his elbow. Lost his job.
Sure, Knight carved up Alabama, but the Tide stunk at cornerback, and when a national championship is not on the line, Bama seems less ferocious. Knight looked good in the Sugar Bowl. He has the ingredients. Let's see him turn it loose for 12 games.
Florida State won eight of its regular-season conference games by an average of 39 points. FSU still has the best offense in the conference with Jameis Winston, while most of the rest of the conference is wondering how things are going to turn out at quarterback. It could be ugly again.
Virginia Tech is relying on a transfer, Miami is relying on a freshman, North Carolina State is relying on a transfer, Boston College is relying on a transfer…and on and on. Clemson has the most talent in the ACC of any team other than FSU, but the Tigers have a new quarterback, too.
Ray Glier is a journalist based in Atlanta. His work has appeared in USA TODAY, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is a 1981 graduate of West Virginia University.