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SIGNALING A REVIVAL: THE SEC NEEDS ITS SIGNAL CALLERS TO BE BALLERS ONCE AGAIN

Jalen Hurts

It all felt rather desperate, did it not?

Jalen Hurts of Alabama received a lot of Heisman Trophy pieces in October of last season.

Given the star-studded nature of Alabama's front seven and its stable of running backs, Hurts wasn't one of the five best players on his own team, and an argument could have been made that he wasn't even one of the top 10. Moreover, these notions were powerfully affirmed in the stretch run of the regular season and then the Crimson Tide's postseason.

Yes, Hurts made important plays for the Tide. Yes, he gave Alabama a dimension previous (non-running) quarterbacks lacked, and that mattered at times. Yes, he delivered a big-time drive late in the national championship game against Clemson. He was a valuable part of a much larger whole... but an elite quarterback he was not.

Against LSU, Washington, and other teams, Hurts was along for the ride more than a carrier of his team. Alabama's remarkable ability to score defensive or special-teams touchdowns continuously put the Sons of Saban in position to win. Yet, Hurts kept getting touted as Heisman material into November, until it became obvious (LSU marked the turning point) that he was more a role player than a centerpiece on the 2016 roster.

None of this is a knock on Hurts -- for a freshman, he did an outstanding job, better than Saban realistically could have hoped for. The point to emphasize is that pumping up SEC quarterbacks in 2016 felt very forced, as though trying to crank up a hype machine when the facts on the ground suggested that silence was the better response.

The hype surrounding Hurts last season magnifies one of the more glaring deficits in 2016 SEC football: The quarterbacks simply didn't measure up.

Chad Kelly's season dissolved into misery and injury at Ole Miss.

Dan Mullen eventually made progress with Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State, but that was a season-long project, not a portrait of Labor Day-to-Thanksgiving excellence.

Auburn's offense briefly came to life, but injuries got in the way of a full progression and emergence.

LSU? Les Miles got fired because he couldn't develop a quarterback with Cam Cameron by his side.

Arkansas had its share of moments with Austin Allen... but "moments" were all Arkansas had.

Kevin Sumlin is still searching for The Next Quarterback at Texas A&M in a post-Manziel world... he's also on the hot seat as a result.

All these examples come from the SEC's BETTER division, the West.

Do we even need to speak about the East?

Briefly: A majority of teams in the division had a two-game burst in which production met expectations, but no offensive unit truly lived up to its potential over 12 games. Kentucky -- yes, Kentucky -- probably came the closest, playing above-average ball in the second half of the season, but the Wildcats faced a lot of bad defenses in that stretch. (The win over Louisville, however, was an eye-opener.)

Vanderbilt and Kentucky fans certainly didn't mind the way November unfolded, but on a national level, the SEC's humiliation and lack of heft flowed from the numbing ineffectiveness of Florida's and Georgia's offenses, which became painful to watch and stayed that way. Tennessee was often explosive, but still poorly coached (good riddance, Mike DeBord!) and prone to plenty of mistakes the Vols didn't pay for in lucky wins over Appalachian State and Georgia.

How was the SEC so mediocre in 2016? The poor quality of quarterback play was a central reason. Alabama had the studs at the other 21 starting positions on the field to compensate for Jalen Hurts' lack of polished pocket passing. The other 13 programs could not minimize their own QB's flaws.

In 2017, we'll see if the SEC can change the story.

One important point to make about those two-game bursts (Missouri and Vanderbilt in late November) or about the late-season development of Fitzgerald in Starkville or Shea Patterson at Ole Miss is that while they didn't substantially define 2016, their effects could certainly spill into the whole 2017 campaign. Vanderbilt has reason to be excited about Kyle Shurmur, and Kentucky will place its hopes in Stephen Johnson.

Then come the second-year players poised for breakouts their fan bases are banking on: Jacob Eason at Georgia. Jake Bentley at South Carolina. Hurts at Bama.

Oh, and then comes Jarrett Stidham, the Baylor transfer who could enable Gus Malzahn to have his best-ever passing attack at Auburn.

LSU's quarterback situation might not inspire confidence, but Matt Canada -- who turned a lot of decent-but-not-spectacular individual parts at Pittsburgh into a roaring Ferrari last year -- could turn unproven pieces into prime production.

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In 2013, the most recent football season in which the SEC was genuinely deep and formidable, the league had Aaron Murray, Connor Shaw, Nick Marshall in his best season, A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, and Johnny Manziel. Games were high-scoring, but lovers of "SEC defense" had to concede that the quarterbacks were simply that good. The league didn't play bad defense so much as it played very good offense in a quarterback-centric era Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley could not have envisioned in 1981.

This year could mark the resurrection of The Great SEC Quarterback Class. The league sure hopes so... and if it does, no one will be talking about the decline of the SEC anymore.

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