If there was ever a year for the SEC to shed its label of a mediocre quarterback league, this is it.
Unlike the past few offseasons filled with quarterback uncertainty, more than half the teams seem to know who their starters will be before fall camp begins. More than that, there's genuine enthusiasm about the quarterbacks in question.
Even Ole Miss and Missouri, which finished tied for the worst record in conference play last season, can boast a returning starter at the position. Missouri's Drew Lock might have taken a few licks as a sophomore, but he also led the league in passing yards during the regular season. Shea Patterson had his redshirt taken off late only to lead Ole Miss to a 2-1 record, looking like a slightly taller version of Johnny Manziel in the process.
Reigning champion Alabama returns with Jalen Hurts after he became the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker, and Mississippi State junior Nick Fitzgerald is back after leading the league in total offense during his first season as a starter. Senior Austin Allen might be the most polished passer in the league at Arkansas, sophomore Jacob Eason has first-round talent at Georgia and former Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is already being haled as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender at Auburn.
Will Muschamp, who was seen as the polar opposite of a quarterback whisperer at Florida, seems to have found the answer at South Carolina in sophomore Jake Bentley. The Gators, on the other hand, have one of two promising options: hope that former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire can work his way on campus or go all in with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who had a solid spring and could be the future at the position long-term.
In short, the talent and experience are all there for the SEC to have one of the best passing games in the country and quash the perception (fair or not) that the league can't produce quarterbacks.
But the key word there is "produce."
Because if Hurts, Eason and Co. don’t live up to expectations, it won't just be on them. It will reflect poorly on the league and its coaches for not developing them as well.
If we're going to put Hurts under the microscope, we should go ahead and throw Nick Saban under it, too. The same goes for Eason and Kirby Smart, Stidham and Gus Malzahn and the rest of the QB/coach tandems in the league.
Saban admitted that he and former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin "protected" and "didn't enhance [Hurt's] development" last season, and we all saw how that played out during the SEC Championship and College Football Playoff. With a year of experience and a new coordinator (Brian Daboll), there won't be any more excuses for why Hurts isn't a polished passer as a sophomore.
On the other end of the Iron Bowl rivalry, it's not a stretch to say Malzahn's reputation as quarterback guru and so-called "offensive genius" is at risk only two years removed from the successful handoff from Cam Newton to Nick Marshall. In Stidham, Malzahn can't afford another Jeremy Johnson-type fiasco where a quarterback with so much hype produces so little.
With Smart so early in his career as a head coach, he needs Eason to live up to his potential, too. Retaining offensive coordinator Jim Chaney after a disappointing first season was a move toward continuity for a young quarterback, but it wasn't without its risks. They'll either get Eason where he needs to go or not.
"When you base it on arm talent alone, the sky's the limit," Smart said of Eason. "But I certainly know there's a lot more to the position."
Unlike years past, talent won’t be the question for the SEC's quarterbacks. It won't be experience either.
Either coaches and players get the job done this year, or the SEC will see its label of a mediocre quarterback league go from a flimsy label to being etched in stone.