Quarterbacks making a comeback in SEC

AJ McCarron showed last season that Alabama had more than just a dominating defense. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s sort of like the old "chicken and the egg" debate.

Was the quarterback play in the SEC as spotty as the numbers reflected last season, or were the defenses in this league simply that good?

The answers vary wildly depending on who you ask.

But within the realm of the SEC, it’s not much of a debate at all.

“This past season, there weren’t a lot of proven guys [at quarterback],” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “But when you play great defensive football teams, it’s harder for anybody on offense to look better. The quarterback’s the guy who’s getting harassed by the defensive linemen and all those edge rushers. He’s the guy trying to throw it in a tighter window because cornerbacks are covering a little bit tighter.

“The best quarterbacks in the world don’t look quite as sporty when they’re dealing with some defenses like we do.”

It wasn’t a complete disaster at the quarterback position last season in the SEC. Georgia’s Aaron Murray threw a school-record 35 touchdown passes, and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson passed for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions and played well enough in his first season as a starter that he seriously contemplated turning pro.

Still, it was a league known for its defense -- something that’s not going to change any time soon --and a league also known for its pedestrian quarterback play.

The latter may be changing some in 2012, especially when you consider the caliber of quarterbacks returning in the SEC, not to mention a couple of talented newcomers.

Murray and Wilson are the top two, but Alabama’s AJ McCarron proved emphatically in the BCS National Championship Game that he’s ready to become an elite quarterback. He’s the most physically gifted quarterback the Crimson Tide have had under Nick Saban and was as good as anybody in the league last season in terms of taking care of the ball.

Tennessee’s Tyler Bray was on his way to a huge season a year ago before he broke his thumb against Georgia. He had 14 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in the first four games, and the way South Carolina’s Connor Shaw ended the season gives Gamecocks fans some hope that they’re finally going to see some real consistency at the position.

Shaw’s never going to wow anybody as a pocket passer. But in South Carolina’s new zone read package, he’s a perfect fit with his ability to run and make plays on the move.

The newcomer everybody is waiting to see is LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, a 6-foot-4 pocket passer who has a big-time arm and just may be the missing piece for the Tigers.

And if you’re looking for the best multi-purpose quarterback next season in the SEC, look no further than Missouri’s James Franklin. The rising junior passed for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns last season in the Big 12 and rushed for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 6-2, 225-pound Franklin finished the season with 217 rushing attempts.

Even at Vanderbilt, the Commodores have a guy under center returning who immediately added some pop to that offense once he became a starter last season. Jordan Rodgers, in his first season of action after undergoing shoulder surgery, started the last seven games in 2011, and the Commodores averaged 31 points in those contests.

So while nobody is predicting that SEC quarterbacks will all of a sudden start putting up Xbox-like numbers next season similar to what you see in other conferences across college football, it does have a chance to be one of the most talented crops of quarterbacks the league has put on the field in some time.

“I think it’s just the nature of the beast. This conference is known for defense, so a lot of times the quarterbacks’ ratings aren’t going to be way up there because you’re going against the best defenses in the country,” said McCarron, who earned offensive MVP honors in the BCS National Championship Game by going 23-of-34 for 234 yards and no interceptions.

“Not degrading the other conferences, but if you look at their [quarterback] stats, their defenses just aren’t as good as ours are in this league. They’re going to put up more numbers and probably get a little more notoriety. But with our defenses, the offenses and quarterbacks in the SEC are going to be overlooked and underestimated.”

When Wilson was growing up in Arkansas, it was at a time when Steve Spurrier and his Fun ‘n’ Gun offense were wreaking havoc in the SEC. Wilson has also been around an Arkansas offense the past two seasons that has produced 62 touchdown passes.

So forgive him if he’s not ready to concede things to the defenses in this league.

Plus, he’s like anybody else and looks around at the returning quarterback talent and thinks the playing field may be leveling some in the SEC.

“I think we have a much more offensive conference than maybe some people realize,” said Wilson, who set an Arkansas school record last season with his 510-yard performance in a 42-38 comeback win over Texas A&M. “I think this is going to be a much better year for all of the quarterbacks coming up, so maybe we’ll give the defenses a little test."

Mettenberger, who started his career at Georgia, has great respect for SEC defenses, but said that should never be an excuse for why quarterbacks aren’t getting it done in this league.

“Guys in the NFL go against great defenses every Sunday and make it look easy at times,” Mettenberger said. “It’s all about preparing and getting down the mental aspect of what a defense is trying to do to you, and in any situation, what you’re going to do with the ball.

“That’s where you gain an edge. It’s not always about how hard or how far you can throw it, and the more you’re around this league, the more you realize it.”