In the iron-sharpens-iron SEC football environment, only the battle-tested survive and rise to the top of the national rankings.
So what happens when iron goes up against a weaker substance?
It cuts right through.
Therein lies the concern for SEC programs this season.
The normally star-studded league still features some of the country’s elite talent—players such as Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, Auburn receiver Sammie Coates and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
For the SEC to be the top conference in 2014, though, it must do so with at least eight quarterbacks who will start the majority of their teams’ games for the first time this season. More than half the league will turn to quarterbacks with six career starts or fewer, including recent powerhouses Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina.
|SEC QBs by Games Started|
|Bo Wallace||Ole Miss||26|
|Dak Prescott||Mississippi State||7|
|Dylan Thompson||South Carolina||3|
|Damian Williams||Mississippi State||1|
|Various official team sites|
Gone are Heisman Trophy winners (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel) and finalists (Alabama’s AJ McCarron).
So, too, are conference record-setters (Georgia’s Aaron Murray) and program record-setters (South Carolina’s Connor Shaw).
So the nation’s perennial top conference must reload at the game’s most pivotal position or risk falling back toward the middle of the pack in the college football landscape.
Well, that gets into what “holding back the conference” really means.
Do all the new signal-callers really mean the SEC champion will be kept out of the inaugural College Football Playoff?
Those odds are probably about as close to zero as Kentucky winning the national title.
Face it: The SEC will get at least one team into the four-team playoff this year.
No matter how bold the College Football Playoff committee intends to be, it won’t be prepared for the backlash of leaving out the SEC champion—no matter how justified it might be in such a decision.
It seems more likely that two teams from the SEC would make the playoff than zero.
So from that perspective, inexperience at the quarterback position won’t impact the conference in any real way.
As long as the SEC remains at the top of college football in the court of public opinion, it will be difficult to erase the perception.
National championships certainly go a long way toward building a case for being the best league in America. Then again, no sane person outside of the 14 ACC programs is arguing the ACC is better than the SEC based on Florida State beating Auburn last year.
With no football equivalent of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in men’s basketball, all arguments against the SEC remain conjecture or speculation.
No matter what the eye test tells us about the Pac-12 and its experienced quarterbacks, such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, many fans will still side with the SEC. The Pac-12 and Big 12—two of the leagues most likely to stake a claim for top-conference honors—will have a hard time proving on the field they’re better than the SEC.
Teams from the SEC play Big 12 opponents just four times during the coming regular season.
Two of those games feature Tennessee and Arkansas, who combined for just two wins in conference play last season. They play at Oklahoma and Texas Tech, respectively—both of whom qualified for bowl games last season (and the Sooners reached the Sugar Bowl).
Meanwhile, Alabama should be a prohibitive favorite in a neutral-season opener against West Virginia.
Only the nationally televised Thursday night Auburn-Kansas State game should be evenly matched—and could easily be explained away by dismissive SEC defenders should the Tigers fall.
There are no SEC-Pac-12 matchups scheduled for the 2014 regular season.
Any “best conference in America” will be a matter of opinion.
Over the course of the last decade, the SEC has built enough of a reputation to earn benefit of the doubt in the “best conference” conversation.
Thus, inexperience at quarterback won’t hold the league back there, either.
Here’s where it could hurt the league—whether the SEC is “held back” or not: The best teams in the SEC might not emerge with the resumes they have compiled in recent years.
If LSU’s young quarterbacks struggle, a win over a 4-4 or 5-3 Tigers team won’t mean what it has in years past. Namely, beating Les Miles’ team won’t necessarily mean a program has a reasonable chance to make a run in its division.
Texas A&M could be in for a fall as well with Manziel now gone, weakening the SEC West, which is at very least a strong contender for best division in the country.
An SEC program will reach the College Football Playoff this year.
The league often represents well in big games—Alabama’s performance against Oklahoma notwithstanding.
This season will likely be no different.
New quarterbacks won’t hold back the SEC this year.
They could, however, lead to a weaker top-to-bottom conference in 2014.