The SEC is one of the last bastions of run-first football, upholding the honor of past decades by winning with powerful running backs as opposed to spread offenses.
But these days, teams can’t contend for championships without a reliable passing game. All eight teams from the past two College Football Playoffs featured quarterbacks who could win games with clutch throws if called upon.
We’re breaking down each SEC passing offense and deciding if the unit will be better or worse than last year.
- Key losses: QB Jake Coker, WR Richard Mullaney (38 receptions), RB Kenyan Drake (29 receptions), OT Dominick Jackson
Coker is a big loss, but he spent much of the 2015 season shoring up his accuracy and efficiency. That gives this year’s starter — likely Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett — a handful of games to match Coker’s production, which is feasible.
Whoever wins the job will have quite the arsenal to throw to. Receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are perhaps the best one-two punch in the conference, while the speedy Robert Foster is back from a serious collarbone injury. Add national-title-game star O.J. Howard in the mix, as well as Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter, and you’ve got an elite group.
We’re convinced that Alabama will be better through the air this season, but if offensive tackle Cam Robinson is suspended or kicked off the team, that will create serious problems in Tuscaloosa.
- Key losses: QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins (27 career receptions), TE Hunter Henry (All-SEC, 116 career receptions)
Few disagree with the diagnosis that the Razorbacks will be worse through the air in 2016, but how much worse? Coach Bret Bielema appears to be sticking with another “Allen” under center this year; he named junior Austin Allen (19 career attempts) the starter in April.
Leading wideouts Drew Morgan (63 receptions for 843 yards and 10 touchdowns last season) and Dominique Reed (28/535/6) are back, which will help Allen settle in, but a young backfield and an unproven offensive line leave the Razorbacks with plenty to sort.
- Key losses: WR Ricardo Louis (98 career receptions), WR Duke Williams (57 career receptions), OTs Shon Coleman and Avery Young
Quarterback is far from settled in Lee County, but it won’t take much for the Tigers to improve through the air this season. Sean White and Jeremy Johnson combined to complete just 58.7 percent of their passes while throwing 11 touchdowns against 12 interceptions last year.
That pair is back, alongside JUCO transfer John Franklin III, whose dual-threat ability (and unsullied résumé) make him an attractive option in fans’ eyes.
Losing Louis and Williams (as well as leading rusher Peyton Barber) will be tough to overcome. But there are some capable replacement options, and last season was such a train wreck that things can only get better for Auburn through the air. If they don’t, Gus Malzahn’s squad might not be bowl eligible this season.
- Key losses: QB Will Grier, TE Jake McGee (112 career receptions), WR DeMarcus Robinson (105 career receptions)
This is a tough one to call because the Gators passing game went through a Jekyll and Hyde progression in 2015. Florida was rolling behind Grier until the freshman failed a drug test. Now, he’s off to West Virginia, and last year’s incapable replacement, Treon Harris, switched to receiver before getting suspended under mysterious circumstances earlier this year.
Our projection hinges on all-star receiver Antonio Callaway. He’s back on campus, but his status for the 2016 season is currently unclear. If he’s unable to go, the new Gators quarterback (either Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby) is in a tight spot. The uncertainty — and last year’s aerial nosedive after Grier’s departure — make us think this passing offense will be worse in 2016.
- Key losses: WR Malcolm Mitchell (All-SEC, 174 career receptions), OTs John Theus and Kolton Houston
Much of the Bulldogs passing attack is back in 2016, including starting receivers Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin, but there are a couple glaring red flags: Uncertainty at quarterback and the loss of both starting tackles.
Young or otherwise-shaky passers need good protection in the pocket, and that’s not a guarantee that the offensive line can make just yet. Greyson Lambert (63.3 percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions) was not quite ready for crunch time last year, and now he’s in a competition with 5-star freshman Jacob Eason for the job under center.
The winning quarterback will wish Mitchell were still in town, but a healthy Nick Chubb will help compensate for that loss. If Georgia can succeed on the ground this season, that will allow its unproven passers some breathing room. We think the Bulldogs will find that offensive balance and be a little better through the air this season.
- Key losses: QB Patrick Towles, OT Jordan Swindle
The Wildcats only need six wins this year to improve on Mark Stoops’ first three campaigns, and the passing game is a big reason why they might actually break through in 2016.
Kentucky’s top three receivers — Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet — are back, as well as quarterback Drew Barker, who showed some promise down the stretch last season. With help from new co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw (from Cincinnati), this unit has a chance to shine.
An undersized defensive front is still a big question mark for Stoops, but we’re counting on a better passing attack — and a bowl breakthrough — from the Wildcats this year.
- Key losses: Offensive tackles Vidal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins
No one doubts LSU’s ability to run the ball with Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, but the passing game probably will surprise many this season.
The Tigers starting quarterback (Brandon Harris), starting receivers (Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural) and starting tight end (Colin Jeter) are back, and Harris (4 spring-game TDs) showed signs of improvement.
It’s do or die for Les Miles, and he should have a better passing attack in such a critical year.
- Key losses: WR Laquon Treadwell (All-SEC, 202 career receptions), WR Cody Core (83 career receptions), OTs Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper, RB Jaylen Walton (74 career receptions)
Few offenses around the country lost as much as Ole Miss did this offseason. Several offensive linemen are gone, as well as a pair of key receivers and the Rebels starting running back.
The good news? All-SEC quarterback Chad Kelly is back in Oxford, and he has some solid returning options to throw to — namely, receivers Demore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo (74 combined receptions last year) and tight end Evan Engram, who should be an All-SEC candidate.
It’s a close call, but elite college quarterbacks tend to improve each season. Kelly’s 2015 stats (65.1 percent completion rate, 4,042 yards, 31 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) made him one of the country’s best. We’re confident he has enough returning options to be better through the air in 2016.
- Key losses: QB Dak Prescott, WR De’Runnya Wilson (132 career receptions), WR Fred Brown (27 receptions in 2015)
The loss of Prescott — probably the best player in Bulldogs history — means Mississippi State likely will take a step back in the win/loss column, and will certainly be worse through the air.
It doesn’t help that his top target, Wilson, is also gone, alongside two starters on the offensive line (tackle Rufus Warren and guard Justin Malone). A muddled quarterback competition probably won’t provide a suitable wearer for the big shoes that need filling under center.
- Key losses: QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough (30 career receptions), C Evan Boehm, OT Connor McGovern
Mauk is gone, but he never really progressed after splitting time with James Franklin in 2013. Sophomore Drew Lock is now the man in Columbia, and a pair of key additions — offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and Alabama transfer wide receiver Chris Black — provide reasons for optimism in the passing game.
Factor in experienced skill players such as running back Ish Witter and tight end Sean Culkin (37 career receptions), as well as last year’s abysmal aerial attack, and the Tigers passing game should be much better moving forward.
- Key losses: QB Connor Mitch, RB Brandon Wilds (59 career receptions), WR Pharoh Cooper (138 career receptions), TE Jerell Adams (66 career receptions)
Last year’s poor showing, coupled with the loss of the team’s top three pass-catchers, make us hard-pressed to expect anything from the Gamecocks passing offense this year. Sophomore wideout Deebo Samuel is South Carolina’s current active leader with 12 career catches.
The quarterback position is a huge question mark, especially if 4-star early-enrollee Brandon McIlwain — he who spurned Major League Baseball — wins the gig. New offensive coordinators Kurt Roper and Bryan McClendon could make some magic, but expect a worse passing offense in Columbia this season.
- Key losses: WR Marquez North (74 career receptions), WR Von Pearson (76 career receptions), OT Kyler Kerbyson
Many expect the Volunteers to win the SEC East, and quarterback Josh Dobbs is a huge part of that projection. He’s known for his ability in the classroom, but Volunteers fans hope he can take his on-field game from good (59.6 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions, 11 rushing touchdowns) to great in a pivotal season for coach Butch Jones.
He’ll be missing North and Pearson, but running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara (56 combined receptions last year) are back, alongside receivers Josh Malone and Josh Smith and tight end Ethan Wolf, all of whom caught 22 or more passes in 2015.
Tennessee figures to be especially strong on the ground, which will help make Dobbs and the passing offense better when they push the ball downfield.
- Key losses: QB Kyle Allen, QB Kyler Murray, RB Tra Carson (42 career receptions), OT Germain Ifedi
It’s already been two-and-a-half years since Trevor Knight carved up Alabama in an Oklahoma uniform. Folks around College Station are hoping he’s found the right fit at A&M, because that wasn’t the case for Allen and Murray, who both transferred last December.
Knight will have plenty of options. A four-wideout set of Christian Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil and Josh Reynolds combined for 197 receptions last season. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (previously at UCLA) will have plenty of creative ideas for a Knight-oriented offense, and some consistency at quarterback will make the Aggies much better through the air.
- Key losses: TE Stephen Scheu (83 career receptions)
The Commodores were among the nation’s worst in yards per game (326.5, 116th) and points per game (15.2, 123rd), and the passing attack was the primary culprit.
Wade Freebeck and Kyle Shurmur are among the options under center this season. Neither provided many reasons for optimism in their time on the field last autumn. Receiver C.J. Duncan’s return will be helpful; he missed last year with a torn Achilles’ tendon after catching 28 passes for 441 yards and four touchdowns in 2014.
Running back Ralph Webb is perhaps the Commodores’ best player, and his continued success on the ground will potentially open up passing lanes. If that happens, top receiver Trent Sherfield (51 receptions for 659 yards and three scores last year) is another solid option out wide.
Considering the complete and utter futility of last year’s passing game, we’re convinced Vanderbilt can be better in 2016, regardless of who’s under center.