No conference gets the benefit of the doubt quite like the SEC.
The credibility of seven consecutive national championships is still felt today, in preseason polls and offseason rhetoric, even as we head into our third year since the league most recently hoisted a title. The aura of invincibility is gone, but the hype remains.
It’s not just the pundits, either. Coaches still believe in the conference.
When the Amway Coaches Poll was released the past month, a whopping eight SEC programs were represented.
Other than faith and an overabundance of blue-chip prospects, what’s the driving force behind those expectations? It most certainly is not the quarterbacks.
All that well-earned benefit of the doubt has led to an enormous blind spot when it comes to the most important position in football.
It probably says something that the best quarterback in the conference (Mississippi State's Dak Prescott) belongs to the team coaches left unranked and the media picked to finish last in the SEC West. Never mind that Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Ole Miss -- four of the five highest-ranked teams in the conference -- will be breaking in new starters. LSU, the missing team in that group of five, isn’t thrilled with either of its returning quarterbacks, Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings.
Only a few weeks from the start of the season, we’re still largely in the dark about whom each team will start under center. Listening to coaches, you’d think they prefer it that way.
"I know I’m not helping y’all by saying this guy did this, this guy did that, but there's a method to the madness here," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I think it’s important that we’re the ones that watch the film, we’re the ones that decide who the guy is. We don’t need anybody in the media telling us who should be the starter."
Like Alabama, Georgia didn’t release any statistics following its first scrimmage of camp over the weekend. Richt said he thought it was the first time he intentionally withheld the "unofficial official" numbers. He joked it saved reporters from "carpal tunnel and all that stuff trying to click all the keys" on their computers.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is already exhausted by the quarterback talk. When it comes to transfer Chad Kelly, he recently told a reporter: "I’ve talked about him until I was blue in the face."
At LSU, coach Les Miles has closed practice to the media earlier than any other season in his career. He is also limiting player interviews more than usual, according to local reports.
"I just want them to concentrate on how to play football," Miles said.
Miles will say Harris is leading the race right now, but that’s the extent of it.
"Define it how you want to define it," he said. "I'm still going to wait to get to the back end of this thing to make my decision."
Coaches such as Miles would have you believe it will all turn out OK, that the races are too close to call and it's a good thing. Never mind the adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.
Only sarcastic South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier would be bold enough to joke: "Quarterbacks? They couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn right now."
What if the SEC doesn’t produce its fair share of star quarterbacks? What if Alabama can’t pull another Blake Sims out of the hat?
Nick Saban, for one, doesn’t believe it would be that big of a deal.
"I don’t think that we need to have a quarterback that needs to win the game," Alabama's coach said. "I think that if we could have someone who could play well enough and make good choices ... that probably would keep us in the game. With the rest of the players that we have, I think we’d have a good chance."
Who can blame him for thinking as much? Saban might have the most talented defensive line in football. He has the benefit of Derrick Henry at running back, and Cam Robinson and Ryan Kelly make up a good nucleus on the offensive line.
Miles, for his part, can rely on star running back Leonard Fournette, a strong offensive line and a talent-laden secondary.
All Richt has to do is point to running back Nick Chubb, an early Heisman Trophy favorite.
"Twenty-seven left and 27 right sounds pretty good to me," Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston said in reference to Chubb’s number. "I think as long as we’ve got that, we’re going to be all right."
Other than wishful thinking, the SEC has history on its side. Five of the final seven BCS titles were won by first-time starters, and the inaugural College Football Playoff featured two such quarterbacks: Sims for Alabama and Cardale Jones for Ohio State.
If anything, that stat suggests an exaggeration of the importance of experience. But given the choice, every coach would rather have a returning starter than not.
Ohio State is a favorite to reach the playoff, largely because of the returns of Jones and J.T. Barrett. The same goes for TCU, which brings back reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Trevone Boykin, and USC, which benefits from the savvy of Manning Award finalist and fifth-year senior Cody Kessler.
Baylor has a budding star in Seth Russell, Oregon has coveted transfer Vernon Adams Jr., Michigan State has senior Connor Cook, and Clemson has a young phenom in Deshaun Watson. Whether it’s Malik Zaire at Notre Dame or Everett Golson at Florida State, the rest of the preseason top 25 is littered with potential stars at quarterback.
The SEC, meanwhile, is coasting on faith. If the quarterbacks don’t pay off and the SEC doesn't reach the playoff, all that benefit of the doubt could be for nothing.