SEC QBs ready for their turn

There's a drop-off at quarterback in the SEC that even the most passionate supporters of the league can't ignore.

Sure, Florida's Tim Tebow is one of the best college players of this era, and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead has NFL first-round pick written all over him.

But from there …

Backtrack to the SEC media days, when everybody was clamoring to find out which coach didn't vote for Tebow as the first-team quarterback on the preseason All-SEC team.

The real story was which two quarterbacks tied for third-team honors -- Kentucky's Mike Hartline and South Carolina's Stephen Garcia.

Between them, they threw 15 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions last season, and both were benched at one point in favor of other players.

No wonder Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops dismissed part of the SEC's defensive prowess as being a league that's light on quarterback talent.

"They could have better defensive people overall, but it's easier to play better defense when you're not going against a great quarterback," Stoops said. "When the guy behind center isn't special, it's always a lot easier to defend."

Them are fighting words.

Alabama's Greg McElroy is one of at least eight quarterbacks in the SEC this fall who will be entering a season as the full-time starter for the first time in their careers.

The others are Georgia's Joe Cox, LSU's Jordan Jefferson, Mississippi State's Tyson Lee, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Auburn's Chris Todd and South Carolina's Garcia.

Vanderbilt's Larry Smith and Mackenzi Adams are still battling for the job, but neither has entered a season as the starter.

Five of the 12 teams in the league have projected starters with three or fewer career starts.

"So much of it is about experience," said McElroy, who set a Texas high school record with 56 touchdown passes his senior season at Southlake Carroll High after playing behind Chase Daniel as a junior.

"The Big 12 has three or four guys this year who are All-America type players from Sam Bradford, to Zac Robinson, to Colt McCoy and then Chase [Daniel] last year," McElroy said. "Those guys have been around and have been in those systems for an extended period of time, so it might seem like they have more depth and more talent at the quarterback position in that conference. However, I think the quarterbacks in the SEC are as good as any, and I've thrown with quarterbacks all over the country. It's just the nature of the beast."

This is the second year in a row that the SEC has featured a Big Two and then everybody else.

Last year, it was Matthew Stafford and Tebow. Stafford gave up his senior season to turn pro and was the top overall pick in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions.

His replacement at Georgia is Cox, a fifth-year senior whose claim to fame to this point was coming off the bench three years ago to rally the Bulldogs past Colorado.

"It's a tough league to have a guy who's going to start for as long as Matthew has or as long as Tebow has," said Cox, who was reduced to mop-up duty the past two seasons. "I think that's why you see a lot of new guys every year who are unproven."

Georgia coach Mark Richt says it's a tough league, period, for quarterbacks.

"It's a little bit like the NFL in that quarterbacks can get chewed up and spit out," Richt said. "Some pretty talented guys can maybe not have enough success early on where they just don't handle that and don't do as well. This league is tough on quarterbacks. It's just a tough, tough job to play quarterback in this league.

"That's why I say accuracy and decision-making are important, but it's also, 'Can you handle the pressure of the job?' There's a lot of pressure in that job, and some guys aren't able to handle that pressure even though they may be much more talented than the others that can."

Several of the SEC quarterback jobs will likely end up being fluid as this season progresses.

First-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said recently that he wouldn't be surprised to see two quarterbacks play in the first half of the Bulldogs' first game.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has yet to tab either Smith or Adams as the starter, although Smith appears to have the edge. Johnson went right up until the first game last season before naming Chris Nickson the starter. The Commodores wound up playing three quarterbacks a year ago, after Nickson injured his shoulder.

First-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has said he won't wait. He plans to name a starter this week. Fifth-year senior Jonathan Crompton went into last Saturday's scrimmage with a slight lead over junior Nick Stephens.

The Vols are coming off a season in which the quarterback play was so unproductive that longtime Tennessee fans were debating how far you had to go back to find a season when the quarterbacks were worse.

Crompton and Stephens each started six games in 2008, combining to throw eight touchdown passes, eight interceptions and to complete just 50.1 percent of their passes.

Auburn is also coming off a forgettable season at the quarterback position, and, like Tennessee, trying to put a losing season in its rear-view mirror.

Senior Chris Todd won the job this preseason after sitting out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. The irony there is that Todd went to Auburn because of his relationship with former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was fired midway through last season by Tommy Tuberville.

Now, Franklin and Tuberville are both gone, but Todd has persevered.

"The expectations are so high in the SEC, and every school is always bringing in that next guy, the guy that's supposed to come in and beat you out and be that star quarterback," Todd said. "Every now and then, you'll have somebody that really steps out and solidifies themselves like a Tebow or a Stafford, but that doesn't happen in this league probably as much as a lot of people would like."

Ryan Mallett left the Big Ten to go to the SEC. He played at Michigan as a freshman, but had no interest in sticking around to see how he would fit into Rich Rodriguez's spread offense once Lloyd Carr retired.

Bobby Petrino and Arkansas made the most sense for Mallett, who's from Texarkana, Texas, and has everybody in Hog Land believing.

Is he this season's Snead?

"He has the strongest arm in college football," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "But we also have some of the fastest set of legs. That's a pretty good combination for any offense."

Mullen may be faced with the most difficult adjustment of anybody in the league. He coached Tebow for three years at Florida before landing the Mississippi State head coaching job.

So forgive Mullen on third-and-5 this season if he's looking around for No. 15.

"The defensive line makes the Southeastern Conference different," Mullen said. "Talented quarterbacks in this league, like the NFL, don't have all the time to throw like they do in other leagues. You don't get back there and look around and throw. You're looking over your shoulder, and there are D-linemen coming after you with the kind of speed you don't find anywhere else.

"Let's face it. The defenses in the SEC are just ridiculous."

Almost as ridiculous as the notion that the quarterback talent in the SEC is lacking, according to Snead.

As he points out, nobody knew much about him this time a year ago.

"Sometimes, you just have to wait your turn," Snead said. "There are so many good players in this league that you don't see guys stepping in right away and playing quarterback like you might in other leagues.

"You also don't see one of the best defenses in the country every week in other leagues, either."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the SEC for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.