After a few queries about Johnny Manziel on Tuesday, Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin had a question of his own.
“Is this SEC Media Day?” Sumlin said. “That’s a great question, about the Cleveland Browns.”
Johnny Football, college football’s most dynamic player and personality of the past two seasons, took his talents to the NFL, and Sumlin has to prepare for the post-Manziel era.
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In the Southeastern Conference, Sumlin is not alone.
The class of quarterbacks that moved on after last season was perhaps the best collection the SEC has produced.
In Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, the league has lost a Heisman Trophy winner, the most productive QB by passing yards in league history and a three-time national champion.
Also gone are LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Missouri’s James Franklin.
In all, eight of the 14 programs lost quarterbacks who started the majority of their team’s games last season.
But how this turnover impacts the league depends on where you stand. From an offensive perspective, a drop-off isn’t expected.
“I told our guys that I threw four touchdowns and three interceptions last year, and I’m going to be hyped because this is the SEC,” said South Carolina senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who has started three games in his career.
But at least one defender sees an opportunity to tip the balance of power in a league that saw a scoring frenzy. Look no further than the SEC Championship Game, where Auburn beat Missouri 59-42 with the teams combining for more than 1,200 total yards and 52 first downs.
“It gives a good defense a chance to prove itself,” Vanderbilt defensive tackle Adam Butler said.
In Vandy’s division, five schools — all but Florida and Tennessee — are breaking in new full-time starters.
The ranks are so thin that Missouri’s Maty Mauk, who made four starts for injured James Franklin last season, gives the Tigers a leg up in experience within the division.
Mauk played enough to amass impressive numbers: 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Plus, he threw a touchdown pass in Mizzou’s Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
He’s the type of player Mississippi State safety Jay Hughes had in mind when asked about the league’s largely unfamiliar quarterbacks.
“A lot are gone, but there will be plenty of young ones who will come in smoking hot,” Hughes said.
Stunning debuts were common in the most recent quarterback generation.
Manziel became college football’s first freshman Heisman winner, after a redshirt year.
Murray, the fifth-round choice of the Chiefs in the NFL Draft, set Georgia freshman passing records on his way to a 13,166-yard career.
In his first year as a starter, McCarron led Alabama to the 2011 BCS National Championship.
Based on quarterback experience, defending champion Auburn is seen as a top contender, if not the SEC favorite, because of Nick Marshall. In his first year after transferring from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, Marshall accounted for 26 touchdowns rushing and passing and became an instant impact player for the Tigers’ conference championship team.
Marshall also serves as an example of how quickly fortunes can change. Auburn went 0-8 in SEC play in 2012, and the following August, Marshall was named the starting quarterback.
He was scheduled to attend Media Days but was pulled from the lineup late last week after a marijuana possession citation. Still, if there’s a lead dog among returning quarterbacks, it’s Marshall over Mississippi’s Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Florida’s Jeff Driskel, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen and Tennessee’s Justin Worley or Josh Dobbs.
An air of mystery surrounds most of the others, especially at Texas A&M. Sumlin said Tuesday he wasn’t prepared to name either sophomore Kenny Hill or freshman Kyle Allen a starter. Either way, the Aggies will open the season in one of the SEC’s most hostile environments, South Carolina on Aug. 28, “and I’ll be his only friend there,” Sumlin said.
It’s a tough spot for A&M and others breaking in new starters.
“You really have to have a feel for what a guy can handle, and you don’t have that feel until you get into the (game) environment,” Sumlin said.
The same goes for Jacob Coker, a Florida State transfer set to step at Alabama, and Hutson Mason, a fifth-year senior who gets his shot at Georgia.
But it doesn’t matter, South Carolina’s Thompson said. It’s the SEC. No matter who steps in, high expectations remain.
“Quarterbacks in the league change,” Thompson said. “But the caliber of the league stays the same.”