The annual conversations regarding the strongest conference in college football are fun for the fans and media to take part in. Typically the argument centers on who wins the National Championship, overall Bowl records, out of conference records, or some combination of the three. The SEC, after winning 8 in a row, have lost 3 of the last 4 - opening up the debate to finally include other conferences. 2017, however, looks like a good year for the SEC to return to the top, on the strength of a historically deep SEC quarterback class.
Recruiting rankings and coaching salaries play a large role in determining the relative strength of programs and conferences. One reason the SEC has become more dominant over the last 2 decades is the rise in prep football talent in Florida, initially, and Georgia, more recently. The SEC now has two of the top 4 recruiting states firmly in its footprint, and even has a toe in Texas. While the ACC has the same coverage in former two states, they do not have much a presence in Louisiana or Alabama - two other fertile recruiting states - and ultimately many of the ACC schools are not competitive programs in football. Coaching salaries almost always correlate with a program’s facilities, as many respected coaches will not take jobs at programs that are not “committed to winning.” It should not be lost on anyone that the best two Big Ten teams with the brightest short term futures are headed by former SEC coaches and Clemson and Florida State - the ACC’s best two programs - are headed by coaches that cut their teeth in the SEC as assistants.
Certainly having better players is the goal of every coach and every program that wishes to compete for titles. Having the right players, or at least players at the right positions, is equally important. While many people track the returning starters and upper classmen as measures of the potential of individual teams, overall experience at quarterback is the best metric in determining conference strength.
Among the 5 power conferences this year the returning starters at quarterback are as follows;
Big 12: 7
Big Ten: 8
Pac 12: 10
The Pac 12 has the highest percentage of returning starters, with the SEC close behind. The Big 12 returns 7 out of 10 2016 quarterbacks while roughly half of both the Big Ten and ACC teams return a starter at quarterback. For the latter two teams this is good news for the usual suspects. Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin each return starters and one of those programs should win the Big Ten. Florida State returns its starter and while Clemson does not, their talent differential over most other programs should have them challenged by only a few teams on their schedule. It is the Pac-12 and SEC, however, that have not only returning starters, but quality NFL prospects. In the PAC 12 Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Luke Falk, and Jake Browning are all potential first round draft picks in the 2018 and 2019 NFL drafts. The SEC has Jarrett Stidham and Nick Fitzgerald, each of whom are potential first round selections in 2018, and Jalen Hurts and Nick Eason are true sophomores that project to early rounds in 2019. Beyond the star power at quarterback the SEC has 6 other starters that are upperclassmen while the PAC 12 has 9 total junior and senior quarterbacks. Each of the preseason top 4 programs in both conferences have established starting quarterbacks returning. Most of those players are valued for their talent as well as experience.
With both talent and experience - mostly attached to traditional and recent football powers - the Pac 12 and SEC are well positioned to overachieve in 2017.