PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — The Southeastern Conference has gone two whole years without winning a national title.
In this part of the college football world, that seems like an eternity.
Whether the drought ends this season will likely depend largely on the influx of new quarterbacks. For some, an offseason of uncertainty is still playing out with the opener just days away.
“We’re trying to make a decision on what’s best for our team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday, again holding off on picking a starter for the third-ranked Crimson Tide’s game against No. 20 Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas.
Saban’s foot-dragging on deciding between senior Jake Coker, junior Alec Morris and sophomore Cooper Bateman seems to be a prevailing theme throughout the SEC.
No. 9 Georgia finally got around this week to choosing Greyson Lambert as its starter, but he hardly got a rousing endorsement from coach Mark Richt. No. 14 LSU is going with Brandon Harris, but former starter Anthony Jennings is lurking not too far behind. Florida, led by new coach Jim McElwain, will begin the season with two guys (Will Grier and Treon Harris) still competing for the job.
McElwain on Wednesday did name Harris the starter for Saturday’s opener against New Mexico State but it remains a fluid situation as the coach cautioned “not to read that much into” the decision.
In addition, No. 6 Auburn, No. 17 Mississippi, South Carolina and Vanderbilt will all be breaking in new starters at the most visible position on the field.
“Sometimes the biggest battle on the team is at right guard,” McElwain said. “Of course, that doesn’t get as many hits on the Internet.”
Given the turnover, many SEC teams might play things a bit closer to the vest, at least early in the season. Star running backs such as Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Alabama’s Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette could get even more carries. The onus will also be on the defenses to keep the score down.
“I think the more important thing is not to ask players to do what they’re not ready to do or what they can’t do,” Saban said. “It’s important that the rest of the team plays well around the new quarterback, too.”
The SEC’s turnover is especially glaring compared to defending national champion Ohio State, which has an embarrassment of riches at quarterback with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones — not to mention former starter Braxton Miller, who switched to receiver over the summer.
Here’s a look at the SEC heading into the opening weekend:
Mississippi State has the SEC’s top incumbent quarterback in Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott but only three other returning starters on offense. Prescott could be in for a big drop-off; certainly, the Bulldogs will be hard-pressed to duplicate a season that ended with a trip to the Orange Bowl.
No. 18 Arkansas (Brandon Allen) and No. 24 Missouri (Maty Mauk) also have experienced signal-callers, which could give them an edge over more talented teams. And No. 25 Tennessee appears primed for a breakout season if Joshua Dobbs can carry on the promise he showed after taking over the starting job late last year.
But let’s get to No. 6 Auburn. Normally, a team that had to replace Nick Marshall would be facing a steep challenge, but Gus Malzahn’s prolific offense has everyone thinking it’s just a matter of plugging in the next guy. That would be junior Jeremy Johnson, who has thrown only 78 passes in his career. No matter. Johnson could wind up being the most dynamic QB in the league.
Georgia has more than enough talent to compete for a national championship — until you get to quarterback. Lambert transferred to Athens after losing his starting job at Virginia during spring practice in a competition that Cavaliers coach Mike London said “wasn’t close.” Virginia is hardly a powerhouse program, so it’s only natural to wonder if Lambert is good enough to lead a top 10 team.
LSU is another team that appears shaky at best. The Tigers had one of the worst passing games in the country a year ago. Harris started only one game and made a mess of things in a 41-7 loss to Auburn. Jennings started the other 12 contests and was just as dreadful.
South Carolina is going with third-year sophomore Connor Mitch, though coach Steve Spurrier sounds like he’s still trying to persuade himself that the job is in good hands when he says things like “we expect him to go the distance until he gets hurt. Hopefully, he won’t get hurt.”
Ole Miss has (sort of) picked junior Chad Kelly, the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, as its starter. Texas A&M is sticking with sophomore Kyle Allen, who started the final five games last season and was offensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl, though the Aggies have another intriguing option: freshman Kyler Murray, who went 42-0 and won three state titles in high school.
TO BE ANNOUNCED
All eyes are on Alabama, which started out with five guys competing for the job before reducing the list to a more manageable number. Then again, given the talent the Crimson Tide has at every other position, it may not really matter who takes the snaps.
Florida doesn’t have that luxury as it rebuilds from Will Muschamp’s miserable tenure. Harris went 4-2 after taking over as the starter last season, while Grier might be a bit more consistent.
“These are competition battles,” McElwain said, “and competition is always a good thing.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Montgomery, Ala.; Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn.; David Brandt in Jackson, Miss., and Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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