For my money, it’s not really much of a debate — the Pac-12 is the top quarterback conference in America entering 2023.

Between Michael Penix Jr., Cam Rising, Bo Nix and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, the conference boasts 4 of the top 10 signal-callers in the country. Penix, Nix and Williams are all top 6 in the preseason Heisman odds. Even if you have some skepticism about transfers like the DJ Uiagalelei experiment at Oregon State and Drew Pyne working with Kenny Dillingham at Arizona State, there’s still enough depth to give the Pac-12 the title of “top quarterback conference entering the season.”

Could that be a different story by season’s end, though? Absolutely.

History suggests that the SEC could steal that title. After all, “bad quarterback seasons” haven’t really been a thing in the SEC in recent memory.

The last time the SEC failed to have a Heisman finalist at the quarterback position was 2017 … when true freshmen Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa played in a classic national championship game. In each of the the last 4 years, the SEC had multiple quarterbacks finish in the top 10 of the Heisman voting. During that stretch (2019-22), here’s the breakdown of quarterbacks in the top 10 of the Heisman voting by Power 5 conference:

  1. SEC — 9
  2. ACC — 5
  3. Big Ten — 4
  4. Big 12 — 2
  5. Pac-12 — 2

And unlike the Big Ten, who only had 1 school (Ohio State) responsible for those 4 top-10 Heisman finishes by quarterbacks, the SEC had 6 (Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, LSU and Tennessee).

Keep in mind, it’s not as if the SEC boasted a bevy of preseason All-American quarterbacks during that stretch. In 2021, JT Daniels was the preseason second-team All-SEC quarterback and Nix was the third-teamer. In 2020, Kyle Trask (before his true breakout season) and Kellen Mond were the preseason selections in the SEC.

I’d argue that 2023 has shades of that. Jayden Daniels is the most popular national name among SEC quarterbacks, but he’s not worthy of 1 of the 2 preseason All-America spots. As productive as KJ Jefferson has been as a multi-year starter at Arkansas, he won’t be in that conversation, either, and neither will Will Rogers, especially with both of those guys playing in new offensive schemes.

It doesn’t help the SEC’s preseason quarterback depth that you’ve got new starters at Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee just after all 3 had top-6 finishers in the Heisman race. The fact that they’re understandably out of the preseason honor conversations — you can’t say Carson Beck is worthy of a preseason All-SEC nod when he has yet to start a game in his college career — certainly could play a part in this discussion shifting to the SEC’s favor by season’s end.

History also suggests it’s not a roadblock that there’s more of a changing of the guard after 5 SEC quarterbacks came off the board in the first half of the 2023 NFL Draft. The skepticism surrounding the SEC’s 2020 quarterback outlook followed an NFL Draft in which the SEC had 4 quarterbacks selected, including 2 of the top 5 overall picks. The SEC then had 2 signal-callers become Heisman finalists that season (Mac Jones and Trask).

More times than not lately, the SEC’s quarterback depth hasn’t really been in question by season’s end. Consider that a combination of adding elite offensive minds like Lane Kiffin and Josh Heupel, as well as seeing talent-rich teams like LSU and Georgia overhaul their offensive schemes to more pass-friendly approaches.

You’d have to go back to 2017 to find a year in which you could argue that quarterback play in the SEC was a disappointment. That wasn’t just the fact that Year 2 of Jalen Hurts at Alabama didn’t live up to the hype because of his passing limitations with Brian Daboll calling plays. That season, the SEC only had:

  • 1 player in top 25 of passing yards (Drew Lock)
  • 1 player in top 20 of TD passes (Lock)
  • 0 QBs in top 50 in FBS in rushing
  • 0 QBs in top 10 of Heisman voting

Lock and Jarrett Stidham earned 2017 All-SEC honors at season’s end, and both had a pretty obvious flaw. Lock’s QB rating fell to 124.97 against winning FBS teams and Stidham had a 129.3 QB rating away from the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. Both of those guys, who didn’t necessarily add anything with their legs, were still obvious choices to be preseason All-SEC quarterbacks going into 2018, though both ultimately showed signs of regression and they took a backseat to the brilliance of Tagovailoa while Fromm also had his best season as a sophomore.

It’s possible that 2023 follows a similar tune. Daniels and Jefferson are the most likely preseason All-SEC selections. Rogers could also be part of that discussion. But would anybody be surprised if we had less established guys like Beck, Conner Weigman or even Joe Milton who broke through and took home All-SEC honors by season’s end?

(I say that as a major Milton skeptic who doesn’t think it’s inevitable that someone who lost a starting job twice sets the sport ablaze in Year 6, but Heupel led 6 consecutive top-15 offenses at 3 different programs. The possibility of Bazooka Joe becoming a star exists.)

It’s simple — the SEC has become the conference that yields elite quarterback play.

Each season during the 2020s decade, the SEC had 4 players finish in the top 15 in quarterback rating. I get it, though. It’s not just about quarterback rating. Some would say it’s not even just about top-10 Heisman finishes, either. Lord knows you can be a phenomenal player and not even sniff the top 10 of the Heisman voting (the aforementioned Nix didn’t crack the top 10 despite the fact that he was in the discussion for most of the 2022 season).

But ultimately, that’s how we tend to remember these things. It isn’t whether the Pac-12’s No. 8 quarterback has a better season than the SEC’s No. 8 quarterback. It’s about how many of those guys enter and stay in the Heisman conversation. If the Pac-12, who finally just had its first Heisman winner since 2014, fails to have 2-3 guys getting that kind of buzz deep into November, it’ll be deemed a disappointment.

The same goes for the SEC. It’s no longer just about having 1 quarterback in that conversation like when Dak Prescott was the conference’s lone top-10 Heisman vote-getter at quarterback from 2014-17. Four consecutive years of multiple top-10 finishes for SEC quarterbacks was once an impossibility. From 1998-2018, that only happened twice (2010, 2013).

Now, though, it’s the standard … preseason buzz or not.

Odds are that the SEC quarterbacks will find a way to live up to that standard once again.