Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (4,042 yards passing, 41 total TDs last year) enters the 2016 football season as the SEC West’s best passer — by a long shot.
Consequently, it’s hard to discern which West program has the market cornered on the division’s No. 2 slot, among quarterbacks. In fact, one could make the case that only LSU (with Brandon Harris) has settled on a quarterback for opening weekend — adding to the year-round chaos and intrigue surrounding the nation’s best conference.
SEC Country invokes a power-rankings look at the SEC West quarterbacks for 2016, after Chad Kelly, with an educated guess of who’ll be under center in early September.
Cooper Bateman, Alabama
The Crimson Tide have started three senior quarterbacks in the last three seasons (AJ McCarron, Blake Sims, Jake Coker) — a rare feat in this age of freshman starters and draft-eligible juniors leaving early for the NFL draft; and in that span, Alabama boasts a 37-5 overall record, 21-3 conference mark, two SEC titles, two College Football Playoff berths and one national championship.
In other words, who do you think head coach Nick Saban will roll with in his team’s high-profile opener against Southern California (Sept. 3 at AT&T Stadium) — the modestly experienced Bateman (52 pass attempts last year) or a whipper-snapper from California (Blake Barnett, a 5-star QB from the Class of 2015)?
The educated guess rests with Bateman, who got the starting nod in Alabama’s only setback last season — a 43-37 home defeat against Ole Miss.
The quarterbacks will be surrounded by blue-chip playmakers on offense, starting with receiver Calvin Ridley (8 catches, 138 yards, 2 TDs in Alabama’s CFP-semifinal rout of Michigan State) and tight end O.J. Howard, who crushed Clemson for five catches, 208 yards and two scores in the national title game.
Jake Hubenak, Texas A&M
Did you catch Hubenak’s rock-solid effort in the Music City Bowl — doubling as his first collegiate start? The sophomore passed for 307 yards and two touchdowns against Louisville and nearly led the depleted Aggies to a late comeback victory.
Five days after the bowl defeat, former Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight announced that he would transfer to Texas A&M (ranked 39th nationally in passing offense last season), in advance of the 2016 season.
Knight has two claims to fame in football: Lighting up Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl (348 yards passing, 4 TDs in Oklahoma’s win) … and being the apple of pop icon Katy Perry’s eye — on national television.
This sets up for a great spring/summer/fall battle between Knight and Hubenak, with the winner immediately gaining access to the Aggies’ amazing 1-2 punch of receivers Josh Reynolds (11 catches, 177 yards in the Music City Bowl) and Christian Kirk (80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs as a freshman).
John Franklin III, Auburn
Confession time: I didn’t see any East Mississippi Community College games last season, which puts me in a bind for handicapping the three-way QB race among Franklin (formerly of Florida State, before transferring to East Mississippi CC), Jeremy Johnson (1,053 yards passing, 16 total TDs in 2015) and sophomore-to-be Sean White (injury-plagued freshman season).
But I will say this: Upon viewing Franklin’s EMCC highlights on YouTube, he seemingly fits the mold of a classic dual-threat quarterback in a Gus Malzahn offense. Franklin also has great touch on the deep ball … so much that his across-the-field TD pass around the :35 mark — thrown off the back foot — bears an eerie resemblance to Cam Newton … who charted a similar path of big-time Florida school out of high school and then the JUCO route, prior to landing at Auburn in 2010.
As for Johnson, inconsistency issues plagued the Montgomery, Ala., native in 2015. Of his eight games with at least five passing attempts, Johnson posted four outings of 60-plus-percent accuracy … and three efforts under 53 percent.
Brandon Harris, LSU
Using the Eye Test, the junior-to-be Harris (2,165 yards passing, 17 total TDs in 2015) has a better pocket presence and stronger throwing arm than backup Anthony Jennings; but even Harris has his warts — as evidenced by the six interceptions in the Tigers’ final five games last season (at least one per outing).
Bottom line: Even with a stellar defense, LSU would have great difficulty competing for a conference or national championship with a quarterback averaging 1.2 INTs per game.
Not with a durable, time-tested rushing attack that features Heisman Trophy front-runner Leonard Fournette (1,953 rushing yards, 23 TDs in 2015).
Not within a conservative aerial game, which has averaged only 157 yards passing in the Tigers’ last 16 SEC outings (2014-15).
Austin Allen, Arkansas
This should be an interesting spring/summer for Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema, deciding between a legacy quarterback’s kid brother … and the Bizarro Mitch Mustain.
Preliminary signals indicate Austin Allen — a virtual physical clone to brother Brandon Allen, the school record-holder in single-season TD passes (30) and career TD passes (64) — will get the first crack at starting this fall. His primary competition: Ricky Town, a transfer from Southern California, who ranked as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback from the Class of 2015 (source: 247Sports.com).
For comparison sake, Town rated just four notches below the California-based Blake Barnett, who might direct the Alabama offense for two or three full seasons — if he can beat out the aforementioned Cooper Bateman.
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Forget about Fitzgerald’s 14 mere pass attempts from last season, primarily during mop-up duty.
Forget about how the kid may have difficulty emerging from the very-large shadow of Dak Prescott (9,376 yards passing, 111 career TDs) — the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history.
And forget about how the 2016 Bulldogs, on the whole, will be in rebuilding mode against SEC competition.
The strong-armed, fleet-footed Fitzgerald (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) is a solid, long-term building block for Mississippi State.
In the short term, the Bulldogs’ stable of veteran wideouts — led by Fred Ross (88 catches, 1,007 yards, 5 TDs) and Fred Brown (27 catches, 412 yards, 3 TDs) — provides Fitzgerald with a healthy advantage over most quarterbacks with zero career starts.
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.