SEC offenses have changed dramatically the past few years to counter scheme developments across college football. Several top teams have adopted new passing alignments to open up their offenses.
However, quarterback play will be a precarious subject for SEC teams this season. Three of the top four passers from last season are gone. As many as 11 teams could be starting a different quarterback than opening week last season.
With murkiness across the conference, plenty could change by the time September rolls around. Regardless, here are our projections for the SEC’s top five passing offenses heading into this season.
This is one of the easiest calls of the offseason. Chad Kelly is miles ahead of every other quarterback in the conference. Kelly combined with Hugh Freeze’s system means the Rebels will once again have by far the best passing offense in the SEC. Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2015 while leading the Rebels to their first 10-win season since they went 10-3 in 2003 with Eli Manning at quarterback.
Several top offensive targets are gone, but the talent only continues to grow in Oxford, Miss. Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow look to take the reins at wide receiver, while former blue-chip recruit DaMarkus Lodge tries to force his way into the mix. Even if Kelly were to get hurt, true freshman reserve Shea Patterson might have a case as the second-most-talented SEC quarterback this season.
Even if QB Trevor Knight comes up short of lofty expectations, the Aggies have the insane wide receiving corps to make things happen. Christian Kirk was one of the top receivers in the SEC as a true freshman and caught 80 passes for 1,009 yards and 7 touchdowns. Josh Reynolds was close behind with 51 receptions for 907 yards.
But even after the Aggies’ elite top two, there is plenty of talent remaining. Ricky Seals-Jones has more than 1,100 receiving yards in his career. Speedy Noil was a blue-chip prospect who has not panned out as many hoped but remains one of the best fourth options in college football. Even with a disastrous quarterback situation last year, the Aggies finished No. 4 in the SEC in passing offense. With a consistent signal-caller, Texas A&M should improve markedly.
Though there were questions when the season opened, Jake Coker quietly turned into a reliable and consistent option at quarterback for the Crimson Tide. The Alabama offense still is run-first, but Lane Kiffin opened things up to take advantage of playmakers across the offense. Alabama must replace Coker, but there is plenty of talent from which to choose.
Four quarterbacks — Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts — will compete for the starting job. Bateman is the safe choice, considering he is the only player on the roster with a collegiate pass attempt. Barnett was the highest-rated recruit of the bunch, while Cornwell might have the strongest arm. Hurts is the wild card, a true freshman with superstar potential. Whoever wins the job will be in good hands, with wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard all returning to Tuscaloosa.
Bret Bielema’s teams have a reputation for being run-heavy, but former QB Brandon Allen developed into a star in Fayetteville. Allen led the Razorbacks to the No. 3 SEC passing offense last season and threw for 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns. The running game is the center of the offense, but it opened things up for Allen to develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
Allen’s younger brother, Austin, takes the reins heading into 2016. He was a more heralded prospect coming out of high school, but won’t have the benefit of multiple years of starting experience. However, five of the top six wide receivers return to the Razorbacks this season. Arkansas’ passing success might actually depend most on how effectively the new class of running backs can open things up for the passing game.
At this point, Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs are an enigma in the passing game. Mississippi State ranked No. 2 in the SEC in passing offense last season, but that was with Dak Prescott at the helm. Now, the program will be tasked with replacing one of its most dynamic players ever.
The two returning quarterbacks on Mississippi State’s roster, Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, combined for just 19 pass attempts last season behind Prescott. Fitzgerald, the presumptive starter, has only thrown three passes against Power Five teams. The saving grace is WR Fred Ross, who is expected to be one of the most productive receivers in the conference this season. Ross combined with Mullen’s open system means Mississippi State has a chance to crack the top five.