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The SEC reigns (again) thanks to college football’s best quarterback collection

The SEC built itself into the best conference in the country thanks largely to the ground game and defense.

Not this year.

If the SEC is going to reestablish itself as the best in the sport, the league will do so with the best collection of quarterbacks in the nation and the best the conference has seen in years.

"The hype is real," said Greg McElroy, an SEC Network analyst and former Alabama quarterback.

McElroy compared the group to 2013, when the SEC had four of the nation's top 10 leaders in passer rating, plus the league's all-time leading passer (Georgia's Aaron Murray) and rising star Dak Prescott.

This year's crop is just as deep. Of the 13 quarterbacks ranked among Sports Illustrated's top 100 players, six are from the SEC. That list includes two players — Georgia's Jake Fromm and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa — who aren't guaranteed to start at their top-five programs. It doesn't include Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur, whom the Commodores promoted as "Nashville's next big star" on a billboard in downtown Atlanta during last month's SEC media days.

One of the headliners is Missouri's Drew Lock, who led the nation with 44 passing touchdowns as a junior. He strongly considered the NFL draft but returned for his senior year to run an offense coordinated by former Cowboys assistant (and Tennessee head coach) Derek Dooley.

"I wanted to be able to speak to NFL teams on a higher level…" Lock said.

Assuming Lock can accomplish that (and put up another big season), he'll build his case to become a first-round pick and Heisman Trophy contender. Mizzou is already counting on the second part, which is why the Tigers launched a preseason campaign, complete with a bobblehead.

If Lock is the best of the bunch, Auburn's Jarrett Stidham isn't far behind, once coach Gus Malzahn figured out how to use the Baylor transfer.

Through eight games, Stidham completed 65.8 percent of his passes and was responsible for nine touchdowns. Over the final six, he hit 67.2 percent of his throws and accounted for 13 touchdowns while leading regular-season wins over Georgia and Auburn.

"It took a little while because it clashed a little bit with what Gus Malzahn's most comfortable with…" McElroy said. "I think now that they really know what he's most comfortable with, he's poised, I think, to have a big year."

RELATED: Where do Mullen, Taggart rank among college football's offensive masterminds?

So, too, are both quarterbacks in Mississippi.

It might not matter for Ole Miss that former five-star recruit Shea Patterson transferred to Michigan; his replacement, Jordan Ta'amu, had a higher completion percentage and passer rating while averaging one more yard per attempt than Patterson did.

Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald needs only 461 rushing yards to pass Gators legend Tim Tebow for most ever by an SEC quarterback. Expect him to get it under the tutelage of new coach Joe Moorhead, who told Fitzgerald to make room for his Heisman during their first text message exchange.

"I didn't exactly know how to take it at first," Fitzgerald said. "But once I met him … it was real. It was real confidence."

RELATED: Dan Mullen's old team will be better than his new one. That's a good thing

While we know what to expect from Fitzgerald, uncertainty looms at Georgia and 'Bama.

Fromm took the Bulldogs to the national title game while ranking eighth nationally in passer rating (160.09) as a freshman. Yet he's fighting five-star recruit Justin Fields to keep the starting job.

"When have we had an incumbent quarterback who played as well as Fromm did that goes into the season unsettled?" McElroy said. "I think it's uncharted."

The situation in Tuscaloosa is even more interesting heading into the Crimson Tide's Sept. 1 opener against Louisville in Orlando.

Will 'Bama start Jalen Hurts, the 2016 SEC offensive player of the year who led the Tide to the national title game in both of his seasons? Or will Nick Saban select Tagovailoa, whose resume begins and ends with his second-half comeback that beat Georgia for the championship?

"I don't know," center Ross Pierschbacher said. "I wouldn't want to be in the board room when they're making that decision."

But it's better to be making that decision than figuring out how to try to stop them.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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