Stafford and Tebow aside, unproven QBs mark SEC landscape

How's this for irony?

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has a chance to become only the second two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy in college football history, and Georgia's Matthew Stafford may well be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL draft.

And, yet, the uncertainty at quarterback in the SEC this season is as high as it's ever been.

Tebow and Stafford are the notable exceptions. Half the league will be breaking in first-year starters at quarterback, and in most cases, those guys will be taking their first snaps that count in an SEC game.
"You always like to have experience at quarterback," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "It's probably why Georgia and Florida are picked so high. They have their quarterbacks returning, and they're both really talented guys."

The Vols are handing over the quarterback duties to junior Jonathan Crompton, who's been waiting in Erik Ainge's shadow the past two years. Crompton is starting fresh with first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, and knows there will be doubters.

Crompton's message: Bring it on.
"I said this a long time ago: Let them doubt me all they want," said Crompton, who's much more of a dual threat than Ainge. "They'll find out in the end when we're playing and where we're playing. Take that for what it's worth, but they will find out."

South Carolina is going with junior Tommy Beecher after he outplayed Chris Smelley in the spring. Beecher has yet to start a game for the Gamecocks and will undoubtedly battle the "legend" of redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia, but coach Steve Spurrier is adamant that Beecher is his man.

But for how long?
"It was time to make him the starter, to tell him that he's going the distance," said Spurrier, who's had a history of juggling quarterbacks. "He doesn't have to worry about one interception. He's our guy. We're going to give him a chance. We believe he deserves a chance to run with it.

"We're going to find out, you know, if he can take us a long way."

The SEC team with the least experience at quarterback may be the strongest everywhere else.

Defending national champion LSU will choose between sophomore Andrew Hatch, a former walk-on and transfer from Harvard, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee, now that Ryan Perrilloux is playing his football at Jacksonville State. Down the road, true freshman Jordan Jefferson may also get a shot.

Hatch is probably the early favorite, thanks in part to his feel for LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's system. Their relationship goes back to when Crowton was the head coach at BYU.

But regardless of who ends up behind center for the Tigers, Hatch said the most important thing will be to use the people around him.
"We have a good balance with our running backs, wide receivers and tight ends," Hatch said. "It's not going to be our job to win the game. It's going to be our job to make sure those guys are in a position to win the game."

The competition that could go on the longest is at Auburn, where sophomore Kodi Burns and junior college transfer Chris Todd are battling for the starting job. Todd is the better passer of the two, but he went through all spring with a bum throwing shoulder.

The other variable that could complicate things at Auburn is that first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is putting in a new spread offense. The Tigers got a crash course in that offense for the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year, as Franklin was hired in time to coach the bowl game.

But with Todd ailing in the spring, Franklin wasn't able to evaluate the quarterback position as fully as he wanted to. He knows Burns can make things happen with his feet. He knows Todd, when healthy, can throw the ball.

It remains to be seen if either can do both effectively enough for the spread offense to work.
"There might be some games that we go into and find out, 'Hey, you know, something's working in the passing game,' and we might throw it 50 times," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "But our game plan is to go into the season, use our running backs, use our offensive line and move the ball down the field. When people start creeping up, you know, [we'll] get the ball deeper down the field and make plays. I think this offense can do that."

Of the SEC's first-year starters this season, Ole Miss' Jevan Snead was the most decorated in high school, along with Tennessee's Crompton. Both were Parade All-Americans.

And like Crompton, Snead hasn't really had a chance to show what he can do after starting his career at Texas and then transferring to Ole Miss. But if his start to preseason camp is any indication, he could be the most important newcomer in the league in 2008.
"He's got a unique combination of skills," said Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin, back at his alma mater after 15 seasons in the CFL as a player, assistant coach and head coach. "You rarely see a quarterback who's got a very quick arm and a strong arm at the same time. It's usually one or the other. Jevan's got both, and he can throw in a crowd. People will be in his face, and he'll snap the ball off with accuracy."

The other thing Austin likes about Snead is his mobility and penchant for making plays on the run.
"He's extremely accurate on the run, both ways -- to his left and to the right," Austin said. "He can buy time and get out of the pocket. He's not a pure runner, but he runs well enough to get out of trouble. But what makes him so dangerous is his ability to throw on the run."

The Kentucky quarterback situation has evolved seemingly all summer. Curtis Pulley and Mike Hartline battled to a draw in the spring, and then Pulley got into trouble off the field. It wasn't the first time he'd had issues off the field -- he missed the 2007 season for personal and academic reasons.

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, after digging a little deeper, sent Pulley packing to open preseason practice, which means the 6-foot-6 Hartline is now the guy to beat.
"We'll move forward, and that puts Mike Hartline front and center at the quarterback position," Brooks said. "We will take a long hard look at [sophomore] Will Fidler and a couple of the freshmen that are working at that position. Obviously, this is not the way I envisioned starting the season, but it makes things a little more clear for everyone involved."

The real fun this season in the SEC, unless you're one of those coaches trying to sort things out, might be counting how many different quarterbacks take meaningful snaps.

Here's setting the official over/under at 20.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.