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Here Come the SEC QBs

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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As the summer turns to fall in college football's top conference, quarterbacks will be back in style.

Quarterbacks are set to play a leading role in the SEC this fall, with a number of notable names ready to bring star power back to the most important position on the field. The league returns four signal callers who scored at least 25 total touchdowns a year ago, a tally no other conference in the country can top. If a handful of prospects can continue to realize their potential, the SEC, this season, could look more like it did in 2013. As the summer turns to fall in college football's top conference, quarterbacks will be back in style. 

Becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in over 30 years, Jalen Hurts made history in more ways than one. The Texas-native set a Crimson Tide record with 36 total touchdowns, becoming just the second-newcomer, see Manziel, Johnny, to be named the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year. Hurts threw for 2,780 yards, ran for 954 more, a new program mark for a signal caller, and took Alabama to the College Football Playoff Final. In a mid-November win over Mississippi State, Hurts recorded a 300-100 performance, the first-ever for the Crimson Tide.

Hurts' formal introduction came late in the first quarter in Alabama's opener with Southern Cal; he entered the game with the Crimson Tide trailing 3-0 and left with a 52-6 win. By November, he was one of college football's most prominent players.

At times last season, Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald had a Lamar Jackson-like impact on the stat sheet. He scored seven total touchdowns in a win over Samford, six against Arkansas and five in an Egg Bowl triumph over Ole Miss, compiling three 400-yard performances and a few more that were right on the verge. Fitzgerald, 6'5'', 230, broke some of Dak Prescott's school records, reached the endzone 37 total times and was one of just three quarterbacks nationally to throw for at least 2,400 yards and rush for over 1,300. A big play machine, he averaged over a full yard more per carry than Jackson did in 2016.

Quite often, he did things like this

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Remarkably, both Hurts and Fitzgerald are, technically-speaking, entering their first full seasons as starters.

The same can be said for two more of the league's most exciting young talents: true sophomores Jacob Eason from Georgia and Jake Bentley of South Carolina.

Eason threw for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a true freshman, numbers that compare quite favorably to the debut production of former Bulldog Matt Stafford (1,749 yards, 7 TD, 13 INT), who went on to be the number one overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Of Eason's eight picks, only three of them came over Georgia's final seven games. The framework is in place for that progression, for the prototype passer, to continue.

After reclassifying to play this past year, Bentley, instead of getting ready for fall formals at his high school, completed 54-of-76 passes for 622 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first three college football games late last October. He went off for 390 yards and three touchdowns, also throwing two picks, against South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. There is great upside with Bentley and the Gamecocks' air attack.   

The SEC's two most-productive passers are back in Arkansas senior Austin Allen and Missouri junior Drew Lock.

Though Bret Bielema's teams are traditionally known more for running the football, Allen, taking over for his older brother Brandon, joins Jake Browning, Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph and Logan Woodside as one just five quarterbacks returning after seasons with a minimum of 3,400 yards, 25 touchdowns and 8.5 yards per attempt on 61% passing. Allen threw for 400 yards against Alabama. In conference play, in fact, he averaged over 286 yards per game through the air.     

Lock, twice, threw for over 400 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in a single game. Furthermore, against division foes Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, he combined for 998 passing yards. In 12 games, Lock through the football a league-high 434 times.

Expectations are high for Auburn's Jarrett Stidham, a Baylor-transfer who completed 69% of his attempts for 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions, all at 11.6 yards per pass, in 2015. He comes to the Plains with three years of eligibility remaining. Stidham, combined with the hiring of former Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, will give the Tigers a new-look in the passing game. This off-season, Stidham has looked the part

There are other highly-touted prospects ready to step in to prominent roles, including, among others, Ole Miss sophomore Shea Patterson. Southern Pigskin's Jim Johnson, recently slotted Patterson ahead of Eason and Lock in his countdown of the top 100 players in the SEC.

Recently, the addition of Notre Dame-transfer Malik Zaire gave Florida another option under center.

Ahead of this fall, SEC quarterbacks are trending in the right direction. These playmakers are poised to change the way games are played, and won, in the league.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports