It’s well known that the SEC isn’t defined by vaunted passing attacks like its brethren in the Big 12 or Pac-12. That’s certainly not indicative of team success, however, because those leagues also don’t remember what it’s like to win a national championship, either.
The passing games statistically weren’t great in the SEC last year, with 9 of the 14 teams finishing 77th or worse nationally in passing yards per game. Like I said though, that’s not indicative of team success because the two best passing attacks — Mizzou and Ole Miss, who finished in the top 14 nationally in passing yards per game – combined to win as many games (13) as eventual national champion Alabama.
There is reason for optimism that passing games will be improved this year though, as the SEC has the best crop of QBs its seen in some time and has been improving the talent at WR and TE. In fact, the first QB (Drew Lock or Jarrett Stidham) and WR (A.J. Brown) picked in the 2019 NFL Draft could very well be playing in the SEC this fall.
So, who are the best QB-to-receiver combos in the SEC this fall?
14. Kentucky: QB Gunnar Hoak to TE C.J. Conrad
The QB battle is set to continue into fall camp and will likely come down to sophomore Gunnar Hoak and incoming JUCO transfer Terry Wilson. Hoak is the superior passer while Wilson provides the rushing threat the Wildcats like out of their QBs. The safety valve for either will be Conrad, one of the more underrated TEs nationally. Conrad battled some inconsistency last year but injuries were a big reason. New QBs always develop their trust in TEs first, and Conrad’s size, hands and ability to stretch the seams will allow the starter to get comfortable fast.
13. Tennessee: QB Keller Chryst to WR Marquez Callaway
Chryst, a Stanford grad transfer, didn’t have the luxury of going through spring ball as he was finishing up classes in Palo Alto, so Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride still have a chance to win the job based on having a leg up in learning the new offense. Having said that, Chryst, who went 11-2 as a starter for the Cardinal, wasn’t brought in to be the backup QB, and he’s an ideal fit in the new pro-style scheme being installed by OC Tyson Helton. His go-to target will be Callaway, a big and physical target who led the Vols in receiving TDs last year with 5.
12. Florida: QB Feleipe Franks to WR Tyrie Cleveland
Florida is yet another SEC team with question marks under center. Having said that, there are few coaches with a better track record of developing QBs than new coach Dan Mullen, and the athletically gifted Franks, despite his inconsistencies under Jim McElwain, should benefit greatly from his tutelage. Kyle Trask is a candidate to win the job, but Franks and Cleveland showed a decent rapport during an early three-game stretch last year, and Cleveland, entering his sophomore year, is expected to take a big jump developmentally after a solid freshman campaign that saw him lead the team in receiving yards (410).
11. Arkansas: QB Cole Kelley to WR Jonathan Nance
The QB battle will continue when fall camp rolls around (sound familiar?) but it appears either Cole Kelley or Ty Storey will start under center, with the slight edge going to the former due to experience and natural arm talent. Regardless of who will be throwing the ball, the No. 1 target will be Jonathan Nance, who led the Razorbacks last year in receptions (37), receiving yards (539) and receiving TDs (5). Nance doesn’t have great size but shows terrific speed and is a savvy route runner who adjusts to coverage well, making him a reliable target for Kelley (or Storey).
10. LSU: QB Joe Burrow to WR Jonathan Giles
I’ll go out on a limb and assume Burrow will win the job because I don’t think they brought him on board just to hold the clipboard. He’ll become the latest Tigers QB to be blessed with a very talented receiving corps, though fans surely hope he’ll be the first to finally take advantage of all that talent. Giles, a Texas Tech transfer, will likely be the go-to for Burrow. Giles led the Red Raiders with 69 receptions for 1,158 yards and 13 TDs in 2016 and while he likely won’t match those numbers in this offense, his experience and playmaking ability should quickly make him a favorite target.
9. Texas A&M: QB Nick Starkel to WR Jhamon Ausbon
Another QB battle taking place is in College Station, where Starkel and Kellen Mond will vie for the starting job. Starkel is a better fit in new HC Jimbo Fisher’s style of offense and given how well he played at the end of last year, I think he’ll win the job. The Aggies must replace star WR Christian Kirk, who led the team in virtually every receiving statistic last year, though many are optimistic about the development of Ausbon, an impressive physical specimen at 6-2, 220 who finished his freshman year with 50 receptions for 571 yards and 3 TDs. He has huge upside and has shown the potential of being a legitimate No. 1 option in this offense.
8. Vanderbilt: QB Kyle Shurmur to WR Kalija Lipscomb
The Commodores had a surprisingly solid passing attack last year, finishing fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game with 243.6, and return senior QB Kyle Shurmur, son of New York Giants HC Pat Shurmur. With Shumur’s top two targets from last year graduated, rising junior WR Kalija Lipscomb is expected to become the new No. 1 option. Despite finishing third on the team last year in receptions (37), he actually led the team in receiving TDs (8) and yards per catch (16.5), and more will be expected of him now this fall as he becomes Shurmur’s new go-to target.
7. Mississippi State: QB Nick Fitzgerald to WR Jesse Jackson
Fitzgerald regressed as a passer last year, throwing for fewer yards and TDs while increasing his turnovers and lowering his already shaky yards-per-attempt to 6.23. Having said that, 4 of his top 6 pass catchers return this year, and he should benefit greatly from the tutelage of new HC Joe Moorhead, the architect behind the explosive Penn State offense of the past two years. Jackson, a 6-2 senior who led the Bulldogs in receptions last year with 27, should benefit greatly from the new downfield passing attack Moorhead will be installing. Considering the recent suspension of Reggie Todd, who was expected to be a big part of the offense, expect Fitzgerald to rely on Jackson even more.
6. Alabama: QB Tua Tagovailoa to WR Jerry Jeudy
This is, of course, assuming Tagovailoa wins the job, though even if Jalen Hurts wins the job, I still believe their go-to receiver this year will be Jeudy, the former 5-star prospect who caught 14 balls for 264 yards and 2 TDs as a true freshman last year. Tagovailoa is expected to provide the Alabama offense with the kind of passing threat the program has lacked since the AJ McCarron days, so it won’t just be Jeudy seeing a big bump in targets, but also Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith. Jeudy still needs to get stronger but has blistering speed and deep-ball ability.
5. Georgia: QB Jake Fromm to WR Terry Godwin
Godwin was quietly one of the more reliable receiving options the Bulldogs had last year and proved capable of being a possession receiver and a big-play threat. He finished second on the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (639) and receiving TDs (6), and with Javon Wims off to the NFL, Godwin will take the mantle as the new go-to for Fromm. Considering how comfortable the two looked in the title game, don’t be surprised to see sophomore Riley Ridley with an increased role as well and become a frequent target of Fromm’s, too.
4. South Carolina: QB Jake Bentley to WR Deebo Samuel
Big things were expected of Samuel heading into last year after a sophomore season in 2016 that saw him catch 59 balls for 783 yards. Samuel caught 15 balls for 250 yards and 3 TDs before breaking his fibula in the Week 3 loss to Kentucky, ending his season prematurely after an explosive start. Samuel is expected to be fully healthy by the time camp rolls around, and he and Bentley will look to get the timing back that they displayed so effectively early last year. If they do, they’ll help each other have a big season.
3. Mizzou: QB Drew Lock to WR Emanuel Hall
We still don’t know how the new offense under Derek Dooley is going to look, but we know he’ll have the luxury of playing one of the best QBs in the country in Drew Lock. They lost leading receiver J’Mon Moore, but I expect Emanuel Hall to quickly emerge as Lock’s top target. Hall caught 33 passes last year for a whopping 817 yards and 8 TDs, averaging 24.8 yards per reception. At 6-3, 200 with very good speed and proven playmaking ability, Lock and Hall should create a formidable duo in 2018.
2. Ole Miss: QB Jordan Ta’amu to WR A.J. Brown
Many are expecting the Rebels to fall off a cliff offensively with the departure of Shea Patterson, but the dirty little secret is that the Ole Miss offense was far more efficient and effective under Ta’amu, who is very underrated as a passer. He’ll have the luxury of throwing to the best receiving unit in the country, led by Brown, who is widely considered the No. 1 receiving prospect eligible for the 2019 draft class. Brown (6-1, 225) is built like a linebacker and plays just as physically, using his strength to bully smaller DBs to gain separation and pick up chunk yardage after the catch. The two showed their improved timing and rapport in the Egg Bowl last year, when Brown caught 6 balls for 167 yards and a TD.
1. Auburn: QB Jarrett Stidham to WR Ryan Davis
This one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that Stidham is the best QB in the SEC and Davis is one of the top 5 or so WRs. As a first-year starter in 2017, Stidham quickly found a favorite target in the always reliable Davis, who wound up setting a school record for receptions in a year with 84 for 815 yards and 5 TDs. He’s not the biggest or most physical WR at just 5-9, 175, but he’s a very fluid and smooth athlete who uses his quickness and change of direction skills to consistently get separation. He’s also shown very reliable hands. With another offseason to improve on timing they should again be expected to put up big numbers this fall.