Handicapping what will happen in the SEC is always impossible in the middle of June, but this year, things are even more difficult to predict.
Pre-season projections are usually educated guesses based on what we know about a team going into the season, and more times than not, it comes down to the stars — particularly those at quarterback — that determine how much hype a team does or doesn’t get.
However, there are really only three SEC teams that return a no-doubter signal caller from a year ago, so the uncertainty surrounding football’s most important position makes it difficult to gauge just how things will shake out this fall.
But what if you take a look at the quarterbacks each SEC team will be facing to see who has the easiest path to a successful season?
The problem of not knowing what to expect from a number of first-year SEC starters still exists for conference games, but non-conference contests could tip the scales in a few teams’ direction. Let’s take a look at which SEC teams have the toughest and easiest schedules based on opposing quarterbacks in 2016.
- Texas A&M: It’s hard enough that the Aggies will face the SEC’s top two returning quarterbacks in Chad Kelly and Josh Dobbs. But they will also have the challenge of taking on one of the nation’s best young quarterbacks when UCLA’s Josh Rosen opens up the season in College Station. Rosen, who threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman last season, is expected to take a big step forward in his second year with the Bruins.
- Alabama: There are only four starting quarterbacks in the SEC entering 2016 that have extensive experience in Power 5 football, and the Crimson Tide is the only conference team that will face each player. Alabama gets Kelly and Dobbs in addition to LSU’s Brandon Harris and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, who threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
- Kentucky: The Wildcats face Dobbs, plus Alabama and Mississippi State in the SEC West. Although both of those cross-divisional opponents are replacing starters this fall, both have a knack for finding someone who can handle the role. Kentucky will also square off against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who some have pegged as a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate, and Southern Mississippi’s Nick Mullens, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns last season.
- Auburn: The Tigers have a tough SEC draw with Kelly, Knight and Harris in the division, as well as a potential UGA freshman star Jacob Eason waiting in the cross-division rivalry game. However, Auburn’s toughest test will come Week 1 against Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. The junior is among the best in the country and the early favorite to win the Heisman after racking up 5,209 total yards and 47 total touchdowns last season.
- Missouri: The Tigers will face one of the more underrated list of quarterbacks this fall, as some non-conference opponents could offer tough matchups despite fielding some unfamiliar names. West Virginia’s Skyler Howard and Middle Tennessee’s Brent Stockstill both threw for over 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, and Eastern Michigan’s Brogan Roback also had a solid year. Throw in matchups against Dobbs and Harris in SEC play, and the road isn’t exactly easy for Missouri.
- Florida: Outside of games against Dobbs and Harris, the Gators won’t see a quarterback with much Division I experience, and that bodes well for a defense replacing Vernon Hargreaves III. Florida still has a tough schedule with Florida State looming at the end of the season, but the Seminoles, like many teams on the Gators’ schedule, are breaking in a new starter at quarterback in 2016.
- Arkansas: The Razorbacks’ schedule looks like it has two potentially scary games against Louisiana Tech and TCU in the first two weeks of the season, but the Bulldogs and Horned Frogs are both replacing talented quarterbacks this season. Add in the fact that Arkansas gets Florida and Missouri, both of which have questions of their own at quarterback, and it sets up well for Bret Bielema’s squad.
- Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have one of the SEC’s easiest schedules in general, so it’s no surprise that Dan Mullen’s team won’t see too many dangerous quarterbacks, either. BYU is the only non-conference opponent that could present trouble for Mississippi State from a passing standpoint — Taysom Hill, who nearly cracked 3,000 yards as a sophomore, returns for his senior year — but the Bulldogs dodged a bullet on their SEC East slate with Kentucky and South Carolina on the schedule.
- Tennessee: Another nomination for one of the SEC’s easiest overall schedules goes to the Vols. Tennessee does face Texas A&M and Alabama from the SEC West, but it could be worse from a quarterback point of view. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Appalachian State is the only team with a returning starter who could give the Vols any issues.
- Ole Miss: The Rebels actually have one of the hardest overall schedules in the entire country. With Florida State, Alabama and Georgia all on the calendar in September, the only saving grace is that Ole Miss could be facing three first-year starters in those games. The Rebels are also helped out by the fact that they won’t face anyone who has a better quarterback than they do in Kelly.