It’s a hazard of college football. Players graduate, leaving massive roster holes to fill.
Those holes are perhaps toughest to fill when it’s the quarterback spot in flux.
Some teams — like Alabama, who transitioned fairly seamlessly from Greg McElroy to A.J. McCarron to Blake Sims to Jake Coker in recent years — don’t struggle with first-year quarterbacks.
The Crimson Tide won a national title in the first season McElroy, McCarron and Coker were starters and won the SEC Championship Game en route to a College Football Playoff berth in Sims’ first season as a starter.
Bama’s aberration notwithstanding, most coaches — and non-quarterbacks — would prefer experience at the position.
“Especially at that position, when adversity hits, guys tend to look to who has had experience and who’s overcame that,” senior tight end Sean Culkin said.
First-year Missouri coach Barry Odom believes there’s no substitute and no better teach than experience, but it’s in short supply among the starting quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference this season.
The Tigers aren’t one of those teams — not with sophomore Drew Lock entrenched as the starter after assuming the role for the final eight games last season.
“Anytime a guy has experience, that gives you a little bit of an advantage,” Odom said. “For Drew, although some of it was getting your tail kicked, it’s still experience. He learned a lot. … The experience factor, I’ve talked about it a million times, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
There’s no mystery to the value of experience.
“You hear that practice makes perfect all the time, and I truly believe as I look back at last year that I think of it as just a huge practice year in that sense — getting reps, seeing what the league is like, seeing what division one college football is like,” Lock said.
He completed only 49 percent of his passes, going 129 of 263 for 1,332 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions, but Lock feels more settled and confident just known he’s already been baptized in the SEC fire.
More than half the league doesn’t have that luxury with its starting quarterback.
“They’ll be in the same shoes that I was in last year,” Lock said.
Beyond the usual injury worries, Mississippi, which returns senior Chad Kelly, and Tennessee, which brings back senior Joshua Dobbs, undoubtedly feel best about their quarterback situations.
“It’s a huge advantage to have a solidified guy, for sure,” said Dobbs, who has 22 games in the last three seasons for the Volunteers. “Just having the consistency at the quarterback position is key, because it’s the most important position on the field.”
Every other team has significant questions.
Alabama oozes talent at the position, but has no SEC experience.
Texas A&M landed graduate-student transfer Trevor Knight from Oklahoma, but he’ll also be learning the ropes in a conference better known for defense than the Big 12.
Missouri, LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Auburn all return players with starting experience but limited success.
Of course, there are surprises every year.
“I do feel like it’s an advantage for us,” Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze said of having Kelly back. “However, every year, it seems to be another staff that has recruited a kid that we don’t know about or hadn’t talked about or is unproven and, all of a sudden, the guy’s a really good player. But there’s no question I’d rather be in our position going into the season.”
By contrast, Mississippi State is basically starting from scratch after Dak Prescott’s graduation and losing a player of his caliber creates a cascading effect that introduces doubt into an offense.
“It was a big confidence-booster, knowing you’re going into a game with a guy who’s played so many SEC games, who’s seen the best of the best for numerous years,” Mississippi State senior wide receiver Fred Ross said. “It’s definitely going to be different without him here.”
What’s the best advice for an incoming quarterback? Fake it until you make it.
“If your quarterback’s not confident, you’re not going to follow him,” LSU junior running back Leonard Fournette said.
LSU is counting on a big leap from junior Brandon Harris, much like Mizzou is banking on progress from Lock and Vanderbilt believes sophomore Kyle Shurmur can make the offense competitive.
As always, the fate of SEC fortunes hang in the balance.