Every year before the college football season begins experts overemphasize one question: Which teams have departing quarterbacks and which teams have returning starters at quarterback? This year, we’re already hearing it with schools like Texas A&M, Georgia, and Clemson.
But the emphasis on departing quarterbacks might be the most overrated factor when determining team previews. Consider for a second that every preseason No. 1 team during the BCS-era had a returning quarterback, but seven of the 16 national champions during that time had a first-year full-time starter the year they won it all, and that number moves to eight out of 17 if you count USC’s shared national title in 2003 when they broke in Matt Leinart.
In fact, since 2009, only one national champion had a returning starter at quarterback: the Alabama in 2012 with AJ McCarron.
That’s not to say returning quarterbacks are not valuable. Florida’s national championships in 2006 and 2008 would not have happened without the veteran leadership of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow those two years, and for them that even holds true in 1996 with Danny Wuerffel. The same is true for Vince Young in 2005.
But Florida’s defense was even more dominant all three of those years than its offense, and for each of those quarterbacks there’s a Matt Flynn at LSU, Greg McElroy at Alabama, and Craig Krenzel at Ohio State. All three of those quarterbacks were first year starters and simply had to manage the offense while their defense carried them to national championships.
There’s also Cam Newton and Jameis Winston, who won national championships and Heisman trophies their first year at the helm.
In 1998, Tennessee replaced All-World All-Everything Peyton Manning with Tee Martin and won the national championship.
History shows time and time again you’d rather have returning depth and power on defense than at quarterback, and the same will hold true this year.
So here are the top 5 teams that will be the least affected by departing quarterbacks.
5. Texas A&M
Yes, this sounds crazy with the loss of Heisman-trophy winner Johnny Manziel, but it’s not as bad as it seems. The Aggies have enough returning starters and of the three quarterbacks on the roster, the starter could either be Rivals 4-star dual threat sophomore Kenny Hill, who would fit as the perfect replacement for Manziel, or Rivals 5-star freshman Kyle Allen, who was the top quarterback of this year’s recruiting class.
Kevin Sumlin’s track record of working with quarterbacks is the other reason the loss of Manziel shouldn’t be a problem. As a matter of fact, with the success he had at Houston while coaching Case Keenum, a legitimate case (no pun intended) could be made that Manziel, like Keenum, was a product of Sumlin’s system.
The great irony of putting LSU here is it’s actually low for the Tigers, which have a track record of simply plugging in quarterbacks as game managers. Seriously, since Saban arrived in 2000, this program went to the national title game with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee and won a national championship with Matt Mauck. Oh, and when they won their second national championship under Les Miles, Matt Flynn wasn’t somebody to look at in awe, and when he was injured for the SEC championship game against Tennessee, Ryan Perrilloux was plugged in and it was like nothing changed.
This time is a little bit different because people are actually taking notice of Zach Mettenberger’s departure because he was actually pretty good. But it shouldn’t matter, with enough returning defensive starters, returning starters on the offensive line, another stellar-recruiting class, and the fact that Anthony Jennings has a little bit of experience under his belt. Let’s also keep in mind that the last time anybody cared about LSU losing a starting quarterback was when they lost Jamarcus Russell after the 2006 season. Then they won the national championship in 2007, and of course, Russell turned out to be a complete joke.
3. South Carolina
This really isn’t fair because Dylan Thompson has a good bit of experience anyway filling in for Connor Shaw when he’s hurt. That’s actually a reason the Gamecocks are so high because despite Spurrier’s offensive genius, his teams in the past dating back to his Florida days usually had a few growing pains when breaking in a new quarterback. So this pick isn’t simply to hype up the Gamecocks because of Spurrier, but it’s not like that doesn’t help a bit.
Thompson has enough experience to run a loaded offense returning that there shouldn’t be a drop-off at all with this team. Their No. 4 ranking to close out the year, the best in school history, should be even more exciting because of the number of returning starters along with Thompson. You know losing you’re quarterback doesn’t matter when you’re more worried about the loss of a defensive end on your team. All South Carolina has to worry about this year is the same thing they have to worry about every year: that Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia stay down enough for them to win the East again. But they might not be as lucky with that this year, which brings us to…
Aaron Murray might be the most overrated loss any team could have. The Bulldogs have absolutely no reason to worry about this loss if they can stay healthy for plenty of reason. Let’s start with the fact that they return the entire defense and a ton of offensive talent. In fact, the loss of Murray, a couple guys up front, and the injury bug are the only questions surrounding this team. Let’s also not overlook Murray’s performances in big games or against good defenses (until his senior year). In three of his four games against Florida he failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes, and with a chance to win the SEC and play for the national title in 2012 he had barely an average performance, which would have looked worse without the last drive when Alabama went into prevent mode.
Perhaps the biggest reason Georgia shouldn’t worry about the loss is the fact that waiting in the wings is Hutson Mason, who was the 2009 Georgia Gatorade High School Player of the Year and has gained experience in the system for four years. There’s no reason to believe he can’t step in and fill the void Murray left, and if the injury bug doesn’t bite again, Georgia has absolutely no reason not to win the SEC East this year. But to win the SEC they still have to worry about Auburn and of course…
This is the ultimate “Who cares who the quarterback is?” team. It holds true not just this year, but every year under Nick Saban, who manages to replace superstar talent faster than the energizer bunny himself could replace batteries. Seriously, name the last Saban-coached quarterback to be worth anything at the next level, or the last Saban-coached team to fall off because they had to replace a quarterback. McCarron and Greg McElroy both won national titles their first years as starters because the starting quarterback doesn’t matter to Saban.
The crazy part is Alabama does lose a lot of talent on both sides of the ball this year, but I’m still putting them at No. 1 on this list simply to emphasize that of all the talent lost, losing their quarterback means NOTHING. In fact, it might be an encouragement given who’s coming in. I’m going to go out on a limb and already declare incoming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker the best Saban-coached quarterback ever, which might be scary throwing him in with the loaded amount of talent the Tide has. If not, senior Blake Sims could step in, and he’s very skilled too. Either of those quarterbacks will do fine in the system. To be fair, losing anybody doesn’t matter in Tuscaloosa because Saban has the cupboard so full that nobody has ever been in such a position to reload as the Tide. But losing the quarterback really doesn’t matter.
We’ve spent the past three years trying to hype up AJ McCarron for being a little bit more than simply a game manager. His supporters will come out and say, “He’s a winner.” Sure, just like every other quarterback who’s played under Saban since 2000. These statements are very relevant, because they emphasize how irrelevant quarterbacks are in Saban’s system. The Tide may have even more talent and depth this year than last year despite losing a lot of talent, so once again they’ll be in the national championship hunt, regardless of who is under center.
Tags: Aaron Murray AJ McCarron Alabama Crimson Tide Connor Shaw Feature Florida Gators Georgia Bulldogs Johnny Manziel Louisiana State Tigers Ohio State Buckeyes Oklahoma Sooners South Carolina Gamecocks Tennessee Volunteers Texas A&M Aggies Zach Mettenberger