The SEC is thought of as a lot of things these days, but a quarterback's league is not one of them. Even with two Heisman winners in the last decade or so, defense still comes first and when we think of the league's top talents, they usually lie on that side of the ball.
Could that be changing in 2012? Senator Blutarsky's post from last week, followed by this one from the Chattanooga Free Press raised the point, and they could be right. Six of the league's top seven passers from last year or back, including that threw for 2,600 yards or and four return with ratings north of the 140-point plateau.
It's not as crazy as you might think. Funny how the 1990s seem so long ago, but there was a time when almost every team in the league had a run of solid passers. The Steve Spurrier Fun-n-Gun days at Florida; Tennessee's run of guys like Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Tee Martin; Eric Zeier and Mike Bobo at Georgia; Tim Couch at Kentucky; and even players like Dameyune Craig at Auburn and Clint Stoerner at Arkansas. This league can, on occasion, be pass-friendly.
Last year's first- and second-team All-SEC passers return in Tyler Wilson and Aaron Murray lead the roll call, and Tennessee's Tyler Bray joins them on the list of players that have shown the talent to lead an offense. If Bray and Justin Hunter can stay healthy, Tennessee just might have the league's most dynamic air offense with Da'Rick Rogers plus highly touted JUCO transfer Cordarrelle Patterson joining the group. Wilson might've just lost the best trio in Arkansas history at wide receiver, but still returns big-play specialist Cobi Hamilton and a strong receiving tight end in Chris Gragg. And while not having Bobby Petrino's outstanding play-calling will hurt, the nuts and bolts of what makes that offense work will still be there (including Knile Davis).
Alabama returns starter A.J. McCarron, who quietly improved a lot last season and was one of the league's best on third downs. While that offense is always going to lean on the run first, McCarron's advancement will certainly make the coaching staff more comfortable if any true receiving threats emerge.
I've touched on the expectations for Zach Mettenberger at LSU, and at the very least he'll represent some improvement for the Tigers, but he's not the only new hope. Both Mississippi schools spent their springs focusing on the passing game as well. At Mississippi State, Tyler Russell appears to have the starting gig to himself after two years of splitting time with Costco Tebow Chris Relf. On top of that, the Bulldogs return their top four wideouts from last season, including seniors Chad Bumphis and Arceto Clark, and may have a young talent on the rise in Joe Morrow, a redshirt freshman LSU recruited out of Ocean Springs, Miss. In Oxford, the Rebels might be short on SEC-caliber playmakers and quarterback talent, but Hugh Freeze plans on implementing a fast-paced, pass-first attack. He has the luxury of a passing game that can't look much worse.
South Carolina and Kentucky return established starters in Connor Shaw and Maxwell Smith. Auburn, Florida and Vanderbilt still have competitions that are designated as "open," but the two Orange & Blue schools also brought in new quarterback coaches, and Vandy at least returns last year's leading passer in Jordan Rodgers.
On top of that, 2012's two pledge schools, Texas A&M and Missouri have coaches that have pass-first mindsets, and Mizzou also brings in junior quarterback James Franklin, who accounted for 36 combined rushing and passing touchdowns last season while throwing for nearly 3,000 yards. And he's adding the No. 1 receiver recruit in the country this August, Dorial Green-Beckham. All-in-all, it could make for one of the league's best offensive seasons in the last couple of years.
This isn't to say that the league will look something like the Big 12 circa 2009 or the MAC with 80 and 90 points a game becoming the routine -- after all this is still the league of coaches like Saban, Chavis, Muschamp and Grantham and players like Montgomery, Mingo, Mathieu, Reid, Jones, Lester, Clowney and Banks. Plus LSU, Bama, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Auburn all still want to emphasize their running backs.
But after a relatively weak 2011, in which the gap between the upper and middle classes was pretty wide, the margins might be a little tighter in league play. That could make an already open East Division something of a Mexican Standoff between Georgia, (edit: South Carolina) Tennessee, Florida, Missouri and Vandy (that's right I said it), and the West a more daunting task for heavy favorites LSU and Bama. We're talking about one of the premium positions on the field, and in a tight game any advantage can make the difference.