SEC Country offers a predictive look at the SEC’s top seven wide receivers for 2016 — citing only the category of receiving yards.
There’s one big caveat here: Given how some SEC schools won’t reach postseason play, we’ll keep the predictions on a uniform scale and stick with the regular season schedule (12 games).
In other words, if Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk or even Vanderbilt’s Trent Sherfield should play for the SEC championship in December, it would have no bearing on this list.
The same holds true for bowl games, which sometimes allow SEC wideouts to flirt with 1,200 receiving yards by season’s end.
SEC’S TOP 7 WIDEOUTS
CHRISTIAN KIRK, TEXAS A&M
**Kirk and Alabama’s Ridley led all SEC freshmen in receiving touchdowns (seven). Within the conference, Kirk ranked second in catches (80) and receiving yards (1,009), among first-year wideouts.
**The sophomore-to-be scored multiple touchdowns twice last season and cracked the 100-yard mark four times.
**Of his 13 games played, Kirk tallied six catches, 70-plus yards and/or one touchdown 10 times.
**From a splits perspective, Kirk accounted for 34 receptions, 429 yards and two touchdowns when Texas A&M was either tied or leading by seven points or less.
**Kirk’s best three outings occurred in red-letter games:
a) Six catches, 106 yards, one TD against Arizona State (season-opening upset).
b) Eight catches, 173 yards, two TDs vs. Arkansas (SEC opener).
c) 10 catches, 84 yards, one TD against Louisville (narrow defeat in Music City Bowl).
Texas A&M is the only school to have two players in this top-7 countdown (more on Josh Reynolds later).
Ricky Seals-Jones (45 catches, 560 yards, 4 TDs) and Speedy Noil would be primary options with five or six SEC schools. Instead, they help A&M boast the conference’s best combination of talent, upside, experience and versatility.
Adding to that statement, incoming freshmen Quartney Davis and Clyde Chriss were both hailed as four-star recruits.
Kirk likely would have been an All-SEC performer with sophomore Jake Hubenak (300-plus yards, two TDs in the Music City Bowl — his inaugural college start) running the offense.
There may be added certainty with that statement, now that Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight (who shredded Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl) has been named the A&M starter.
Texas A&M has a large handful of star power on this current squad (Reynolds, Knight, defensive end Myles Garrett, defensive end Daeshon Hall, mammoth offensive tackle Avery Gennesy); but Kirk may play the most prominent role in the Aggies’ quest for an SEC West title.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 81 catches, 1,029 yards, 7 TDs
CALVIN RIDLEY, ALABAMA
**Ridley led all SEC freshmen in catches (89), receiving yards (1,045) and receiving touchdowns (seven — tied with Christian Kirk).
**Kirk and Ridley were also paired together with another crucial category: They both registered four 100-yard games as freshmen.
**The sophomore-to-be eclipsed the freshman-year numbers of former Alabama standout Amari Cooper (59 catches, 1,000 yards, 11 TDs in 2012) in two of three categories.
**Ridley stands as the SEC’s most heralded receiver nationally, thanks to an amazing effort against Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals (eight catches, 138 yards, two TDs).
**For a nine-game span covering Oct. 3 through Dec. 5 (including Alabama’s rout of Florida in the SEC championship), Ridley averaged 6.4 catches, 85 receiving yards and 0.44 TDs.
Ridley and ArDarius Stewart (63 catches, 700 yards, 4 TDs) could be the SEC’s most entrenched pair of wideouts this season (minimal competition among teammates), commanding the lion’s share of receiving targets.
On the flip side, it’s anyone’s guess to who will garner the majority of quarterback reps this fall, either Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett — a former five-star recruit and apparently one of Lane Kiffin‘s most favorite recruits.
At first blush, Ridley’s second-place ranking comes off as a show of disrespect, given his stupendous freshman success. However, even with Kiffin bringing great value to the Tide passing game, Alabama still has the primary characteristics of a power-rushing offense.
Especially since the Tide won’t have a senior starting at quarterback for the first time in four years.
Plus, the red-zone expectations for tight end O.J. Howard have quickly reached sky-high proportions, in lieu of his demolition of Clemson in the national championship game (208 yards, two TDs).
Put it all together, and Ridley will enjoy a fruitful campaign in 2016 — but one that falls just short of Kirk.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 86 catches, 1,015 yards, 6 TDs
FRED ROSS, MISSISSIPPI STATE
**Ross was the SEC’s most prolific receiver for November/December, averaging 9.6 catches, 115 yards and 0.8 touchdowns during that five-game span.
**For that November (four games), Ross absurdly notched three outings of double-digit receptions, three total touchdowns and four straight 100-yard efforts.
**The senior-to-be caught 88 balls last season, trailing only Calvin Ridley (89 receptions).
**Ross and Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell (Round 1 draft pick — Minnesota Vikings) were the only SEC wideouts to register four consecutive outings of 100-plus yards last season.
**Against SEC West foes last year (six games), Ross tallied 57 catches, 620 yards and two scores.
The Bulldogs have some decent options among the receivers — such as Donald Gray, Malike Dear, Gabe Myles and freshmen Keith Mixon, Deddrick Thomas, Jonnas Spivey.
But make no mistake: Given the springtime dismissal of Fred Brown (27 catches, 412 yards, 3 TDs last year), Ross will be the undisputed No. 1 option for quarterback Nick Fitzgerald … and should be subject to regular double-team coverage during SEC play.
In the short term, the inexperienced Fitzgerald has zero chance of matching or eclipsing the average output of departed legend Dak Prescott (career numbers: 9,376 yards passing, 111 total TDs, 63-percent passer).
But expectations are still reasonably high for the fleet-footed, strong-armed sophomore, who has the straight-out-of-Central-Casting-look of a productive SEC quarterback. And let’s be honest: After Prescott, Mississippi State doesn’t exactly have a long lineage of prolific passers.
So, in that vein, Fitzgerald shouldn’t feel much pressure over the next three years. For one season, he’ll love targeting Ross at least 10 times every Saturday.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 84 catches, 983 yards, 6 TDs
JOSH REYNOLDS, TEXAS A&M
**Reynolds (51 catches, 907 yards, 5 TDs) endured a quirky season, oddly accounting for four games of 100-plus receiving yards, but only two outings of six or more receptions.
There are two ways to interpret the above stat: Reynolds is either the SEC’s biggest home-run threat among receivers … or he’ll regress to the mean of middling production this fall, provided his per-game targets/receptions don’t concurrently rise.
**Reynolds shredded Louisville in the Music City Bowl, rolling for 11 catches and 177 yards. That game marked freshman Jake Hubenak’s first collegiate start at quarterback.
**Of his four outings with at least one touchdown, Reynolds absurdly averaged just three receptions.
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH …
Quirks aside, Reynolds has been the SEC’s most consistent receiver since 2014, holding reasonably tight two-year averages of 52 catches, 875 yards and nine touchdowns.
Reynolds is this countdown’s biggest wild card. He possesses the talent, experience and explosiveness to lead the SEC in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, but that can only happen with a noticeable uptick in receptions.
And as stated above, we have high confidence in Trevor Knight (please, no more Katy Perry jokes) bringing that consistency to the Aggies offense.
As such, Kirk and Reynolds will be the SEC’s premier receiving duo by season’s end.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 63 catches, 964 yards, 7 TDs
TRENT SHERFIELD, VANDERBILT
**Sherfield (51 catches, 659 yards, three TDs), the SEC East’s second-leading returning receiver, accounted for 27 percent of Vanderbilt’s completions last season. In earnest, he was the only other playmaker to consistently take pressure off tailback Ralph Webb (1,340 total yards, seven TDs).
**Sherfield’s most prolific effort came against Austin Peay, catching 16 balls for one touchdown … and a single-game school-record 240 receiving yards.
ANCILLARY REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Vanderbilt has roughly 17 returning starters, including sophomore-to-be QB Kyle Shurmur, who tossed five touchdowns in his final three outings last year.
By most accounts, Shurmur (four-star prep recruit; good family pedigree with the college/NFL levels) has the stuff to be an unimpeachable three-year starter for the Commodores.
Would it be a stretch to predict Sherfield will experience a similar jump in production, relative to former Vandy standout Jordan Matthews (now with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles)?
For his first two collegiate seasons, Matthews cumulatively tallied 56 catches, 959 yards and nine touchdowns; and after that (2012/13), he posted scintillating two-year numbers of 206 catches, 2,800 yards and 15 TDs.
Sherfield, by comparison, made monumental strides as a sophomore, all while the Commodores were still wading through the quarterback slot.
Fast forward to the present: With the maturation of Shurmur, Sherfield has a great chance of reaching the ambitious tallies of 75-plus catches, 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 73 catches, 956 yards, 4 TDs
GARRETT JOHNSON, KENTUCKY
**Last season, Johnson (46 catches, 694 yards, two TDs) more than doubled his freshman-year output in receptions and nearly tripled the production with receiving yards.
**In late September/early October, Johnson posted 100-yard efforts against Missouri (six catches, 119 yards) and Auburn (nine catches, 160 yards).
**Johnson possesses the most talent and upside among Kentucky’s core of four junior wideouts — also starring Dorian Baker (56 catches, 608 yards, three TDs), Jeff Badet (29 catches, 430 yards, two TDs) and Blake Bone.
On the flip side, it may be difficult for Johnson — or any other Wildcats wideout — to break free from the pack and accumulate 900-plus receiving yards.
Johnson didn’t register a touchdown on the road or throughout November last year. So, how does that inspire confidence on the receiving yards meter?
Of Johnson’s 47 catches in 2015, 43 occurred between the 20s, suggesting that few defenses can hold Johnson when there’s room to maneuver.
Plus, sophomore Drew Barker (four-star recruit from the Class of 2014) represents a major upgrade at quarterback, so much that we like the Wildcats’ chances of upending UGA on Nov. 5.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 64 catches, 906 yards, 4 TDs
MALACHI DUPRE, LSU
**At the seasonal midpoint, Dupre (43 catches, 698 yards, 6 TDs in 2015) enjoyed a seven-game spurt against the likes of Syracuse, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas, posting two 100-yard outings and six touchdowns.
**In the Texas Bowl, Dupre (four catches, 96 yards) would have been a no-brainer candidate for 100-plus yards and/or one touchdown if the Texas Tech defense wasn’t powerless to stop LSU tailback Leonard Fournette (five TDs that day).
**Dupre inflicted the most damage in blowout situations last season, accounting for 29 catches, 447 yards and three TDs in games with a final spread of 15-plus points.
On the surface, the above stat reeks of mere garbage-time fun. But 10 of LSU’s 2015 outings — including three straight defeats to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss — ended up as double-digit affairs.
So, let’s just assume that Dupre will encounter similar circumstances this fall, given the expected greatness of Fournette (potential Heisman Trophy finalist) and a defense that’s stocked with NFL-caliber prospects.
This may be the riskiest selection, given that fellow teammate Travin Dural might possess more upside in the LSU passing game. For his injury-plagued 2015, Dural had a superb four-game stretch against South Carolina, Florida, Western Kentucky and Alabama, averaging four catches, 95 yards and 0.8 touchdowns.
Beyond that, LSU head coach Les Miles welcomes three four-star recruits to the program this fall (Stephen Sullivan, Drake Davis, Dee Anderson).
Let’s start with a caveat: If Florida’s Antonio Callaway gets reinstated to the Gators before fall camp, Dupre likely would get the boot here.
After all, the line of demarcation separating him from Dural, ArDarius Stewart (Alabama), Dominique Reed (Arkansas), Quincy Adeboyejo (Ole Miss), Dorian Baker (Kentucky), Josh Malone (Tennessee), Terry Godwin (UGA) and Damore’ea Stringfellow (breakout pick from Ole Miss) has never been that definitive.
In the meantime, however, Dupre has enough chutzpah to remain part of this year’s Magnificent Seven.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 57 catches, 901 yards, 6 TDs
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.