The SEC has been down somewhat the last couple seasons.

A major component of that is the quarterback play, or the lack thereof. Dak Prescott was very good for Mississippi State, and Chad Kelly and Joshua Dobbs have been good, too. Kelly, of course, suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2016, and Dobbs capped off a nice career in Knoxville. But outside of those, it’s been rather weak since 2013.

RELATED: Which QB recruits will play in 2017?

If the SEC is going to regain its elite status, the quarterback play has to improve.

Former Alabama quarterback and SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy recently ranked his top five returning signal callers ahead of spring ball, and No. 1 isn’t Bama’s Jalen Hurts; it’s Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. Keep in mind that McElroy isn’t ranking the players based on how he thinks they’ll perform next season; he’s ranking them on the best returning starters right now.

Here is McElroy’s top five:

One could certainly make the argument that Nick Fitzgerald was the conference’s most improved player. He looked raw but athletic to start the season, and towards the end of the season, he looked like he could rush for 150 yards per game. He threw for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns, along with 10 INTs, but he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. He notched eight 100-yard rushing games in 2016. The big thing to remember here is that Dan Mullen can really develop quarterbacks, and Fitzgerald should have another huge season in Starkville.

Jalen Hurts is certainly wise beyond his years, but he was raw, too. We know Hurts has the poise and the running ability, but the passing game must develop for Alabama’s offense to grow with Hurts at the helm. No, we’re not afraid he’s going to get beat out by a talented freshman, but he certainly needs to make strides this off-season. The pro-style returners of Jake Bentley, Austin Allen and Jacob Eason are an interesting trio. Eason has the most upside of the three, but while Bentley was supposed to be in high school, he turned South Carolina’s season around. Allen is probably the toughest, and he was hit a ridiculous amount of times last year, as the Hogs’ offensive line struggled at times. All three teams should have high hopes at the position.

Three other young guns not ranked above are Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson — crazy potential — Missouri’s Drew Lock — has a cannon — and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur — a really nice player. All three should have nice seasons ahead.

Auburn’s quarterback job is still up in the air, and all signs would point to transfer Jarrett Stidham to ultimately win the job. Florida really has no clue which quarterback will step up. LSU seems to have settled on Danny Etling at this point, but we expect Brandon Harris to push for the job under new OC Matt Canada. Whispers seem to point to Tennessee starting redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, but that’s still largely an unknown. Really, those four teams are major keys to the SEC regaining its elite status, and it starts with the quarterback position.

The 2013 season was the last time the conference was stacked at the position. Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Bo Wallace and Connor Shaw combined to make it a major position strength for the conference.

With the young quarterbacks returning and the incoming signees, the conference has a chance to regain its elite status at quarterback, and that needs to start in 2017.