The Georgia Bulldogs are (deservedly) getting a lot of attention as the favorites to win the SEC East in 2017, thanks to several returning stars and a favorable schedule.
However, while the Bulldogs and Florida Gators are likely to battle for the division championship, neither of those squads will have the SEC East’s best offense.
That honor will be held by the Missouri Tigers, who had the 13th-best offense in the nation in 2016 (501 yards per game) and have their own group of star players returning to Faurot Field.
Of course, the question will be whether Mizzou can put up enough offense in tough games against Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and other top foes to be competitive in the division. Even if they don’t, though, and even if they are struggling to qualify for a bowl game, the offense will put up yards and points aplenty.
Here’s a position-by-position look at why the Tigers’ offensive unit will end the 2017 season as the best of the best in the SEC East:
Drew Lock is, based on 2016 statistics, the top returning passer from the SEC East. Last fall, he threw for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns to go with only 10 interceptions.
Even though he played in one fewer game than Georgia’s Jacob Eason, he still outperformed the talented freshman by nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
South Carolina QB Jake Bentley’s completion percentage was better in his limited action as a freshman, but he took a whopping 24 sacks in seven games.
Mizzou’s fast-paced offense based on quick throws and deep shots definitely helps Lock put up big numbers, but he has the talent to succeed in any system and will likely end the 2017 season with the best statistics of any SEC East quarterback.
The Tigers don’t have the best backfield in the East — that honor goes to Georgia with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Florida has Jordan Scarlett, Mark Thompson and Lamical Perine; Vanderbilt has Ralph Webb; and Kentucky has Benny Snell.
Still, Mizzou’s tandem of Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter (with Nate Strong serving as a capable third wheel) can run with the best of them.
Crockett put up 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016 even though he didn’t fully learn the offense until midway through the season and was suspended for the Tigers’ finale against Arkansas.
If he can take a step forward as a sophomore, Mizzou will have a rushing attack that will perfectly complement its high-flying passing game.
J’Mon Moore caught 62 passes and put up 1,012 yards and eight touchdowns last season and is the conference’s leading returning receiver in terms of yardage.
Meanwhile, Dimetrios Mason had 47 catches for 587 yards in an impressive freshman season.
From there, the Tigers need to develop some additional threats, and it would be nice to see massive 6-6, 260-pound TE Kendall Blanton provide more production this fall, but the pieces are there to rival any SEC East squad’s receiving corps.
Having Emanuel Hall healthy on the outside and Blanton providing a big red-zone target will be two keys for Lock and the Tigers, who need to take another step forward in order to battle their way back to bowl eligibility.
Entering the 2016 season, the offensive line was one of Mizzou’s biggest question marks. However, aided by first-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s fast-paced system, the Tigers’ line was one of the most improved units in the country.
As mentioned above, while Bentley was getting sacked 24 times in seven games, Lock was only dropped 13 times in 12 games. Some of that was because of the aforementioned high-flying system, but the Tigers’ running backs also averaged 205.1 rushing yards per game behind the improved line.
The best news for Mizzou is that every significant contributor to the line will return this fall — including LT Tyler Howell, LG Kevin Pendleton and RT Paul Adams, all of whom started all 12 games. Then there are Alec Abeln, Jonah Dubinski, Samson Bailey and Adam Ploudre, who all played a significant amount.
Add in young players who are ready to contribute and JUCO transfer Yasir Durant, and Tigers’ offensive line could be even better in 2017 than it was last year.
Meanwhile, other schools have question marks — most notably at Georgia and South Carolina, both of which allowed their quarterbacks to get hit far too often in 2016.