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Quarterback instability a major theme as SEC teams approach season

The value of an experienced quarterback cannot be overstated, especially among SEC programs entering the 2016 season.

"If you look at it, I think the guys that have starters back have an advantage going into the year," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "They know what they're getting."

Only a few SEC coaches have that luxury, and Malzahn isn't exactly one of them. Asked in mid-July where Auburn sits in that quarterback conversation, Malzahn grinned and replied, "I don't know," before adding, "Hopefully I'll be able to tell you early in fall camp."

Malzahn still can't answer the question, based upon his refusal after Saturday's scrimmage to narrow a three-man race between 2015 part-time starters Jeremy Johnson and Sean White and junior college transfer John Franklin III.

And with less than two weeks remaining until the season begins, Auburn's coach has plenty of company around the conference. Aside from Ole Miss star Chad Kelly and perhaps Tennessee's Josh Dobbs, there are questions surrounding the quarterback position to some degree at every SEC camp.

It is perhaps the prevailing theme around the league as September rapidly approaches.

"Every year it seems to be another staff that has recruited a kid that we don't know about or hadn't talked about or is unproven and all of a sudden the guy's a really good player. So it will probably be some of that," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said at SEC media days. "But there's no question I'd rather be in our position going into the season."

For good reason. Out of the SEC's top six passers in 2015, only Kelly (4,042 passing yards in 2015) and Dobbs (2,291) are still around, making Ole Miss and Tennessee the outliers this preseason.

Just as the competition at Auburn rages on, quarterback battles continue at Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina -- several of which feature at least three legitimate contenders. In fact, the race to replace Dak Prescott at Mississippi State apparently is so tight that Nick Fitzgerald earned the right to take the first snaps in preseason camp by prevailing in a rock-paper-scissors competition.

"I challenged them this: I would love to know within the first 10 days of training camp who the guy is, only because they've separated themselves over the summer," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Who's the one that just outworked the other three guys this summer to be the guy? If that didn't happen, it could go to Game 1, it could go to Game 3, it could go all season. That's the hardest one. I've played multiple quarterbacks before. I have no problem doing that."

Mullen split reps between Chris Leak and Tim Tebow as Florida's offensive coordinator in 2006, and he juggled Prescott and Tyler Russell more recently at Mississippi State. Perhaps a similar scenario might emerge for the Bulldogs this season if no clear leader emerges from the competition between Fitzgerald, Damian Williams and Nick Tiano.

That approach would be the polar opposite from what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wanted when he named Austin Allen as the victor in a four-man race before spring practice had even concluded.

"I think you make a decision and go with it. I'm never going to be a two-platoon guy," Bielema said. "I say never ... [but] it's just not me."

Bielema is one of several SEC coaches who already have named starters but will nevertheless face uncertainty at the position early this season. Allen has never started a game for Arkansas, and starters at Texas A&M (Trevor Knight), Florida (Luke Del Rio), Kentucky (Drew Barker) and Vanderbilt (Kyle Shurmur) likewise have either a few or no starts under their belts at their current locales.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops actually is in a new situation as he enters his fourth season in Lexington. With Barker -- who started the final two games of last season -- returning as the starter, Kentucky recently opened its first camp since 2011 with a designated starting quarterback.

"We've certainly had some quarterback battles since I've been there and there wasn't a lot of clarity a lot of times," Stoops said. "I felt good about where we're at. He's unproven in games, but I'm very confident in him and what he's going to do and his ability, so I'm really anxious to see what he can do."

Then there are the returning starters who still have plenty to prove. LSU's Brandon Harris falls into that category after completing just 53.8 percent of his passes in 2015. So does Missouri's Drew Lock, who went 4-4 as the Tigers' starter as a true freshman.

"We talked in January in take the good and the bad from last year and learn from everything,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said of Lock. "Every time you go through an experience, you're going to take something with you. He's got great leadership skills. You're starting to see those come out, and that's because he's getting some confidence back.

"I think the way to have confidence is you work consistently and then you start to have success and then you can have some confidence, and I've seen that out of the quarterback position."

That's what every SEC coach hopes to see from the position as the season progresses, but confidence might be slow to arrive in many cases. Too many quarterbacks will be learning on the job this fall, which is generally a bad sign in a conference as competitive as the SEC.