HOOVER, Ala. — Quarterback questions once again linger around the Southeastern Conference heading into preseason camps. For a league that seems to mass produce NFL-caliber talent, the QB position lately seems to be the one exception to that trend.
From Tuscaloosa to Athens, the quarterback competition appears as heated as ever.
"It's getting to be more and more of a trend, it seems to me," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said at the league's media days this week. "It used to be there's a lot of good quarterbacks, and you hated that as a defensive coordinator for the last eight or nine years you were facing some really talented guys. And it seems to be there's more question marks every time we have this event.
"Why is that? I don't know. There's more turnover, more transfers, more competition, more guys coming in to compete. I don't think it inhibits the league at all."Beyond Mississippi's Chad Kelly, Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and perhaps Texas A&M's Trevor Knight, the SEC is full of unknown commodities at quarterback. There are ongoing battles around much of the league, and still inexperienced starters taking over teams like Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The SEC has had three quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2010, and two — Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow — are currently out of the league.
It hasn't held Alabama back, at least. The Crimson Tide will start a quarterback with little collegiate experience for the third straight year, whoever claims the job, but has managed a national title and two playoff appearances. Cooper Bateman (one career start) is the only candidate who's thrown a pass in college and he's competing with David Cornwell and Blake Barnett.
Saban said there isn't a clear front-runner going into camp.
"Somebody's got to win that job," he said. "Somebody's got to win the team. That hasn't necessarily happened yet."
The offenses and seasons for teams like Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina sputtered with quarterback issues last season. LSU's SEC title bid stalled when even Leonard Fournette couldn't override an inconsistent passing game.
A significant exception is Texas A&M, which appears to have solved its QB dilemma with Knight's transfer from Oklahoma after two former five-star passers left the program. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin wasn't interested in bringing in a graduate transfer during their initial conversation, but then Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen left the program.
"Our conversations changed dramatically after that went down," said Knight, a former Sooners starter who won the starting job in the spring.
There has been another influx of five-star QBs like Mississippi's Shea Patterson and Georgia's Jacob Eason, who is challenging returning starter Greyson Lambert for the job. They were the two top rated quarterbacks nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. Alabama's Barnett was one of the top quarterback recruits last year.
Here's a snapshot of some of the other quarterback situations:
— Florida's expected to start Luke Del Rio, a former Alabama walk on who transferred to Oregon State before returning to the SEC.
— Kentucky's Drew Barker, Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur and Missouri's Drew Lock all are expected to start after logging time as starters last season.
— South Carolina's Perry Orth is facing competition from mid-year enrollee Brandon McIlwain.
— Mississippi State is trying to replace the program's most prolific passer, Dak Prescott. It's a four-man competition among sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, junior Damian Williams and freshman Nick Tiano.
— Auburn might turn to another junior college transfer in John Franklin III since Jeremy Johnson and Sean White both struggled as starters. That contributed to the Tigers' disappointing season after being widely projected as SEC contenders.
Newton and Nick Marshall wound up leading Auburn to national championship games straight from the JUCO ranks. Alabama's Jake Coker and Blake Sims thrived in their lone seasons as starters.
Maybe from that group of new guys, there will be another Newton, Marshall or Johnny Manziel, who enjoyed swift rises to stardom in their first — and, in Newton's case, only — season as starter in the SEC.
"In years past we had these same question marks," Smart said. "People arose. Certainly at this time no one knew who Cam Newton was, and he was amazing. Nobody thought they knew what Nick Marshall would do. Nobody thought Blake Sims was going to do it. Nobody gave Jacob Coker a lot of credit either."