Monday, January 22, 2018
Colleges

SEC quarterback talent goes deep

AJ McCarron has a safe deposit box where he stores the two national championship rings he helped Alabama earn the past two seasons. He will open the 2013 season next month with the opportunity to become the first quarterback in the Bowl Championship Series era to lead his team to three consecutive national titles.

Yet the fifth-year senior isn't even considered the best quarterback in the SEC, at least statistically.

If you judge by the preseason magazines and the preseason All-SEC teams, McCarron is among the top three in the league, but sometimes he's second, sometimes third.

And that says all you need to know about the SEC this season. The league that has been defined by its multitude of running backs and NFL-bound defensive players every year enters this season with a long list of talented quarterbacks.

McCarron is part of a group that includes the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, sophomore Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, and senior Aaron Murray, a former Plant High standout who is Georgia's all-time leader in touchdown passes.

"It's awesome," Murray said. "Usually when you think of the SEC, you think of defenses, you think of a great running game. But this year we have so many great quarterbacks in this league, and it's fun. It really makes the game more exciting when there's more of a balance in the offense. I love it."

Added to that top-tier group is South Carolina's Connor Shaw (1,956 yards, 17 TDs last season), Mississippi's Bo Wallace (2,994, 22 TDs), LSU's Zach Mettenberger (2,609, 12 TDs) and Florida's Jeff Driskel (1,646, 12 TDs, all of whom have had success in the SEC but are looking to prove they are among its elite.

"There's a lot of great talent in this conference," Mettenberger said. "This conference has been known for its defensive prowess, and I think quarterbacks will get their shot this year to show what they can do in the SEC."

They are already taking center stage. At this past week's SEC media days, nine quarterbacks attended, compared with two running backs. Several quarterbacks are already garnering Heisman talk.

"There's a great group of quarterbacks, without question, in this league," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "They are seasoned veterans that have played at a high level."

Murray, a four-year starter, is the most experienced, but Manziel has garnered the most attention after becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman. Last season he had 5,116 total yards, 26 passing touchdowns and 21 rushing TDs.

But in his second year as starter, the challenge to perform at that level again — and trying to become the second two-time Heisman winner — is daunting.

"As a young player, his challenge No. 1 was, and still is, to get a much better feel for our overall package and to think like a coach on the field, to be able to anticipate and see the game for what it really is," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

"Are we going to try to change who he is fundamentally? No. Are we going to try to develop him as an overall quarterback? Yes."

McCarron, who isn't even featured on the Tide's media guide cover, may be the most unassuming of all, saying he prefers to let his play speak for him. Last year he led Division I-A in passing efficiency (175.3 rating), and he threw for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

But he has struggled to shed the label of "system" quarterback who just manages the offense. A third national title might go a long way in changing that perception, but he doesn't seem to care about labels. Just titles.

"I don't care (what's said) as long as we keep winning," McCarron said. "I don't pay attention to people. Anyone that knows me personally knows I don't pay attention to the outside world."

The outside world may have to pay more attention to the league's quarterbacks.

"The depth of quarterbacks in this league, to be honest with you, it could turn the tide to more of an offensive league than a defensive league this season," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

   
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