SEC Country offers a predictive look at the SEC’s top seven passers for the 2016 season — in terms of passing yards only.
Note: The following predictions account for only the 12 regular-season outings, meaning that conference title games, bowls and College Football Playoff clashes won’t be factored into the below projections.
SEC’S TOP 7 PASSERS
1. CHAD KELLY, OLE MISS
**Kelly led all SEC quarterbacks in passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (31) and total touchdowns (41). However, he didn’t lead the conference in passing attempts. That honor went to Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott.
**The rising senior registered eight 300-yard outings last year. Kelly also accounted for multiple TDs in his final nine games, including the Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State (302 yards passing, 4 TDs).
**It’s impressive that Kelly broke the 4,000-yard threshold with only two games of 27 or more completions. For the season, he threw at a 65.1-percent completion rate.
Kelly is vying to become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive full seasons.
On the surface, it seems implausible that another storied SEC passer — from Archie Manning and Peyton Manning to David Greene and Matthew Stafford — had never crossed the 4,000-yard threshold in back-to-back years. And yet, Kelly realistically stands to break precedent here, assuming the Rebels can quickly rebound from the NFL exodus of receiver Laquon Treadwell (the No. 23 overall draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings).
So, who came the closest to cracking the 4,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons? UGA’s Aaron Murray (13,166 yards) might be the conference’s all-time passer … but Kentucky’s Tim Couch (3,884 yards in 1997; 4,275 in 1998) remains the SEC only quarterback with two single-season entries in the top 10.
**On paper, Ole Miss has perhaps the most tantalizing combination of quarterback stability (Kelly), returning playmakers (Quincy Adeboyejo — 38 catches, 604 yards, 4 TDs; Damore’ea Stringfellow — 36 catches, 503 yards, 5 TDs) and high-upside freshmen (three 4-star receivers — A.J. Brown, Tre Nixon, DeKaylin Metcalf).
**Stringfellow has the size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), experience (former Washington transfer) and athleticism to quickly become Kelly’s favorite wideout. Last year, Stringfellow scored four of his five touchdowns against SEC foes.
**Adeboyejo had a strong effort against Fresno State (five catches, 120 yards, three TDs) before slumping against SEC foes. In fact, only two of Quincy’s TD occurred in conference action (versus Alabama, Arkansas).
12-GAME PREDICTION: 3,817 yards passing (should top 4,000 in the postseason)
2. TREVOR KNIGHT, TEXAS A&M
WELCOME TO COLLEGE STATION
Knight, a transfer from Oklahoma, outperformed sophomore-to-be Jake Hubenak during spring practice, instantly become a major factor in the ultra-competitive SEC West.
**In the 2014 Sugar Bowl, Knight — then a freshman at Oklahoma — shredded Alabama’s vaunted secondary for 348 yards and four scores in the Sooners’ landmark upset.
**Knight had a so-so sophomore campaign with Oklahoma, but he did go crazy during one particular stretch: In back-to-back games against Kansas State and Iowa State, Knight rolled for 711 total yards (548 passing) and nine total touchdowns.
**You cannot talk career scoreboard … without uttering four words: Pop icon Katy Perry.
**Christian Kirk (80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs) enjoyed a fabulous freshman campaign, notching two games with multiple touchdowns and four 100-yard efforts.
For Year 2, Kirk could be an All-America performer, with the potential for 85 catches, 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
**Last season, Josh Reynolds (51 catches, 907 yards, 5 TDs) tallied four games of 100-plus receiving yards, but curiously only two outings of six or more receptions.
**Kirk and Reynolds could be the SEC’s premier receiving duo by season’s end, perhaps even topping the lauded tandems from LSU (Travin Dural/Malachi Dupre) and Alabama (Calvin Ridley/ArDarius Stewart).
**Coach Kevin Sumlin recently added two 4-star recruits to the receiving mix in Quartney Davis and Clyde Chriss.
**Ricky Seals-Jones (45 catches, 560 yards, 4 TDs) and Speedy Noil would be primary options with a handful of SEC programs. Instead, they help A&M boast the conference’s best combination of talent, upside, experience and versatility at receiver.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 3,624 yards passing
3. JOSHUA DOBBS, TENNESSEE
**Among SEC returning quarterbacks (citing 2015 stats), Dobbs trails only Kelly in passing yards (2,291), completions (205) and passing TDs (15).
**Dobbs led all conference quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns last season (11).
**As a junior, Dobbs evolved into a 60-percent passer, secured nine wins and accounted for multiple touchdowns eight times. The campaign was highlighted by his Cam Newton-esque performance against UGA, in which he racked up 430 total yards (312 passing) and five TDs in Tennessee’s crazy comeback victory.
**Tennessee has an all-star backfield in rushers Jalen Hurd (1,475 total yards, 14 TDs last year) and Alvin Kamara (989 total yards, 10 TDs). From a passing-game angle, they’re both candidates for 35-plus receptions.
**Josh Malone (31 catches, 405 yards, 2 TDs) had one breakout effort last year, netting four catches, 103 yards and one touchdown against Kentucky. Three weeks prior (vs. UGA), Malone caught five balls for 60 yards.
**Josh Smith (23 catches, 307 yards, 2 TDs) had two productive games against top-notch competition last year, collecting four catches for 56 yards against Oklahoma and four catches for 50 yards against Vanderbilt.
**Newbie Jeff George (6-foot-6) could soon rise to the top of the Volunteers’ depth chart. The junior college transfer should figure prominently in red-zone situations.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS PROPOSITION
If Tennessee claims the SEC East title and maintains its preseason status as a top-10 team, Dobbs could easily capture SEC MVP honors.
However, given his running prowess, along with the dynamic talents of Hurd and Kamara, it’s hard to envision Dobbs cracking the 3,400-yard passing mark this season.
Within that rationale, Kelly and Trevor Knight hold greater upsides in the passing-yardage realm.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 3,248 yards passing
4. KYLE SHURMUR, VANDERBILT
**In his final three outings (vs. Kentucky, Texas A&M, Tennessee), the freshman tallied five touchdown passes.
**Shurmur tossed for 209 yards and three TDs against the Volunteers, prompting a long-term endorsement from Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason.
**Shurmur possesses a stable foundation of playing experience (five games as a freshman), pedigree (football family of offensive visionaries at the NFL level), track record (4-star recruit) and upside, relative to the SEC’s other starting candidates.
**Also, Shurmur (health permitting) will likely start 13 games this season (including the bowl). The conference’s other young bucks simply don’t have that presumptive luxury.
**Shurmur has a great safety blanket in receiver Trent Sherfield (16 catches, 240 yards, one TD vs. Austin Peay last year), who has a viable shot at 75-plus catches, 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdowns as a junior.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 3,063 yards passing
5. DREW BARKER, KENTUCKY
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
For SEC Country’s “Leap Day Projections” piece back in February, we had Kentucky pegged for an 8-4 season (5-3 in SEC play) — the culmination of solid recruiting classes throughout Mark Stoops‘ tenure, including the heralded 2014 group (six 4-star talents), led by Barker (presumed starter), defensive tackle Matt Elam and tailback Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams (potential sleeper for 1,000 rushing and/or double-digit TDs).
DID YOU KNOW?
Kentucky is the only SEC school to boast three different quarterbacks (Tim Couch, Andre Woodson, Jared Lorenzen) in the top 10 rankings for single-season passing yards (no duplicate entries); and by most accounts, Barker has the potential to be a 3,800-yard passer someday.
SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS
In offensive coordinator Eddie Gran‘s three seasons as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator (2013-15), before taking the same role at Kentucky, the Bearcats averaged 33.3 points per game. During that span, the Cincinnati quarterbacks averaged 322 yards passing and 2.5 touchdowns per outing.
**Garrett Johnson (47 catches, 700 yards, 2 TDs last year) and Dorian Baker (56 catches, 612 yards, 3 TDs) rank first and third, respectively, among SEC returning wide receivers.
In late September/early October, Johnson registered 100-yard efforts against Missouri (six catches, 119 yards) and Auburn (nine catches, 160 yards); and from mid-September to mid-November, totaling nine games, Baker caught four-plus balls eight times.
**The junior quartet of Johnson, Baker, Jeff Badet (29 catches, 430 yards, 2 TDs) and Blake Bone (18 catches, 200 yards, 1 TD) should each get two full years with Barker at quarterback.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 2,977 yards passing
6. JACOB EASON, UGA
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Eason (above) has generated perhaps more incoming-freshman buzz than Florida star Tim Tebow, and he might have more pro potential than former UGA quarterback Matthew Stafford. As such, the Washington state native has already been tabbed as a candidate for the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 2019.
**Tailback Nick Chubb has the potential for 1,700-plus rushing yards this fall, presuming a return to full health following last year’s major injury.
**Slot receiver Terry Godwin had a solid finishing kick to his freshman year, registering 14 catches, 134 yards and two touchdowns in the final three games (all UGA wins).
New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can get really creative with his usage of Godwin (5-foot-11, 174 pounds), capitalizing on the TaxSlayer Bowl MVP’s versatility as a pass-catcher, kick/punt returner, ball carrier and trick-play passer.
**Former UGA coach Mark Richt recruited receivers well during his 15-year tenure; but new head coach Kirby Smart warrants immediate praise for landing a four-pack of potential impact freshmen (Riley Ridley, Charlie Woerner, Javon Wims, Tyler Simmons).
THE ONE FLAW IN AN OTHERWISE PERFECT PLAN
This prediction could easily go sideways if Smart platoons Eason and Greyson Lambert (1,959 yards passing, 13 total TDs last year) throughout the season.
HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF?
Stafford was the quarterbacking jewel from the Class of 2006, following his sister to UGA.
And Richt, on the heels of a 10-3 campaign in 2005 (including the SEC championship), cashed in on that goodwill by finding reps for Stafford in all 13 games — including relief appearances in four of the first seven outings (sharing time with Joe Cox and Joe Tereshinski III).
Of Stafford’s initial seven games, the future No. 1 overall pick (Detroit Lions, 2009) completed 47 of 93 passes for 582 yards, while accounting for two touchdowns (one rushing) and four interceptions. However, these so-so numbers were still enough for Stafford to become UGA’s full-time starter for the final six games.
Of greater importance, in 2007, the experienced and rocket-armed sophomore took a major leap forward, accounting for 2,523 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and leading UGA (11-2 overall) to a No. 2 ranking by season’s end (Sugar Bowl rout of Hawaii).
Coach Smart might brainstorm a similar blueprint this fall. The debate amongst Eason, Lambert or Brice Ramsey in the initial handful of games should be irrelevant to UGA’s long-term mission. In the short term, assign Eason quality reps for each game, essentially giving UGA fans a taste of the future at every turn.
12-GAME PREDICTION: 2,589 yards passing
7. BLAKE BARNETT, ALABAMA
PLAYING A HUNCH
Before tackling this projection, I solicited the help of five well-known pundits who eat, sleep and breathe SEC football.
Their mission: Choose between Barnett (former 5-star recruit) and Cooper Bateman (71.2-percent passer with minimal reps last season), when determining who’ll garner the lion’s share of QB snaps this fall.
The result: Four media guys sided with Barnett, apparently Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin‘s hand-picked choice to carry the Alabama offense for two, three and maybe four seasons.
**Calvin Ridley (89 catches, 1,045 yards, 7 TDs) enters the 2016 season as the SEC’s most heralded receiver, thanks to an amazing effort against Michigan State in the Playoff semifinals (eight catches, 138 yards, two TDs).
Ridley also played a starring role in October, November and the Tide’s SEC title game win against Florida, averaging 6.4 receptions, 85.3 receiving yards and 0.4 TDs during that nine-game span.
**ArDarius Stewart (63 catches, 700 yards, 4 TDs) twice tallied back-to-back touchdowns against the likes of Ole Miss/Louisiana-Monroe and then Auburn/Florida as a sophomore.
**Tight end O.J. Howard enters the 2016 campaign amid a flood of hype, the afterglow of his one-man demolition of Clemson in the national championship game (200-plus receiving yards, two TDs).
12-GAME PREDICTION: 2,501 yards passing
ONE NOTABLE EXCLUSION
I really wanted to squeeze LSU quarterback Brandon Harris into the mix, especially if receivers Malachi Dupre (43 catches, 698 yards, 6 TDs in 2015) and Travin Dural (second-highest yards per catch among SEC receivers last season) are healthy and ready to flourish.
But in the end, four negative nuggets factored into the decision of tabbing Harris as merely the SEC’s eighth-most prolific passer:
a) Harris has crossed the 300-yard passing threshold just once in his career (last season against Ole Miss) … and needed 51 pass attempts to do so.
b) The Tigers’ passing game has collectively averaged only 157 yards in their last 16 SEC outings (covering 2014-15).
c) Harris attempted 36-plus passes only once last season.
d) The conservative LSU offense could be targeting tailback Leonard Fournette — a healthy lock for 2,000 rushing yards and potential Heisman Trophy finalist — for 350-plus carries this fall, thus eating away at Harris’s passing attempts.
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.