When you think about football in the SEC, you might think speed first. If you think speed first, you might think elite defenses with speed second.

Or maybe you think big-name coaches with Wall Street salaries first.

Or maybe you just think passion and pageantry.

Any of these things would be acceptable.

It would also make sense to think about quarterbacks.

Since 2007, 4 SEC signal callers have captured the Heisman Trophy: Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Joe Burrow. Three more were Heisman finalists (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Tim Tebow). Another was an All-American (Dak Prescott). Another became a program legend (Jake Fromm). Another threw for 4,000 yards (Chad Kelly). Another (briefly) set the record for TDs in a season (Drew Lock). In other words, it’s a pretty good league if you like elite quarterback play.

Beyond the accolades, there’s this staggering statistic: Since the year 2008, the SEC has had at least 1 quarterback throw for 3,500 yards or more in every season save 2016. Other than the BIG XII, where, as Oklahoma’s Playoff performances consistently demonstrate, defense remains optional– no other conference in America can claim that distinction.

Year
3,500 passers
Leader (yards)
2019
1
Joe Burrow (5,671)
2018
2
Tua Tagovailoa (3,966)
2017
1
Drew Lock (3,964)
2016
0
Austin Allen (3,430)
2015
2
Chad Kelly (4,042)
2014
1
Dylan Thompson (3,574)
2013
1
Johnny Manziel (4,114)
2012
3
Aaron Murray (3,893)
2011
1
Tyler Wilson (3,638)
2010
1
Ryan Mallett (3,869)
2009
1
Ryan Mallett (3,624)

Will the gaudy numbers continue in 2020?

Among the SEC’s returning quarterbacks, here are the top 4 candidates to accomplish the feat and surpass the 3,500 yards passing mark in 2020.

K.J. Costello, Mississippi State

KJ Costello’s Stanford teams could really move the football in the air, and the graduate transfer will give Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense a talented and experienced hand that should ease Leach’s transition to the SEC. Plus, he’ll get to team up with Kylin Hill, perhaps the league’s best running back, to give the Bulldogs outstanding playmaking balance. Hill’s ability to keep defenses honest coupled with Leach’s scheme make Costello one of the top candidates to surpass 3,500 yards passing next season.

Another thing to remember? Costello has broken the 3,500-yard barrier before. He passed for 3,540 yards as Stanford’s starting quarterback in 2018. He managed that on 413 attempts, which even with Hill to tote the rock could be 100 fewer attempts than he gets in Starkville next season. For perspective, Anthony Gordon threw for more than 5,000 yards on over 600 attempts last season for Leach at Washington State. I don’t think Costello hits 5,000, because Leach has never had a back like Hill to give his attack balance. But I think Costello assures the SEC of at least 1 quarterback who breaks the 3,500 yards passing barrier in 2020.

Kellen Mond, Texas A & M

Facing one of the nation’s most brutal schedules, Mond’s numbers actually slipped a bit in 2019. After throwing for 3,107 yards as a sophomore, Mond threw for 2,897 yards as a junior, despite 4 more passing attempts. The difference? Most likely the defenses he faced. Mond finished the season averaging only 6.9 yards per attempt, more than half a yard below his sophomore average and .3 below the national average of 7.2.

Look, if you play in the SEC West, the schedule is naturally difficult. But the Aggies replace Georgia with Vanderbilt this year in their crossover game, which has to be sweet relief to Jimbo Fisher and Mond. Fisher is known for coaxing excellence out of the quarterback position, and Mond will be the rare player who starts a 3rd season under his tutelage. History is on his side.  Jameis Winston broke the 3,500-yard barrier in both of his campaigns as the starter in Tallahassee — and EJ Manuel nearly did it as a senior under Fisher as well.

The talent is there for Mond to take the leap. But it’s never been about talent with Kellen. Can he finally become consistent?

Mac Jones, Alabama

Chuckle if you want, but the dude threw for more than 1,500 yards last season in basically 4 games. He also lit up two outstanding defenses — Auburn and Michigan– in the final 2 games, throwing for 772 yards and 7 touchdowns in those contests.

Yes, Alabama loses the heart of one of the best wide receiving corps in college football. But it isn’t like Nick Saban stopped recruiting wide receivers because Jerry Jeudy was on campus.

The Tide have plenty of weapons and Jones has done more than enough to show us he’s a fine football player in his own right, even if he’s guilty as charged of not being Tua Tagovailoa.

Does that mean he gets to 3,500 yards? Tua threw for almost 4,000 as the full-time starter in 2018 despite sharing snaps with Jalen Hurts, and would have easily eclipsed 3,500 in 2019 had it not been for injuries.

Alabama does expect to be a bit more of a power football team next year given what returns in the backfield, but Nick Saban won’t abandon the balance that has made the Tide so tough to stop in the last few seasons. That probably means Jones has a great shot at the number.

Kyle Trask, Florida

Florida’s senior quarterback started only 10 games last season and threw for 2,941 yards — so it’s relatively safe to say he would have eclipsed 3,500 had he started from Day 1. He should be the starter from Day 1 next season, which will give him a terrific shot at making the leap.

That said, there are a couple of things to consider before you run to Vegas and bet the house on Trask.

The first is that Florida’s offensive line came on a bit late in the season, and with added depth up front, Florida might get back to some of the more traditional zone and power run schemes that are a staple of Dan Mullen’s spread offense. Second, Florida lost 4 senior wide receivers to graduation, huge losses that will put pressure on Florida to be a bit more balanced, especially early in the season as a talented but very young wide receiver corps takes its medicine and learns the ropes.

Finally, there’s the curious case of Emory Jones, the dual-threat who is a perfect fit for Mullen’s system and has played quite well in spot duty. How much more involved will he be in the offense in 2020? Will Mullen deploy him as a run-first quarterback again, as he did in 2019? Or will he let Jones loose, and convert the Florida quarterback job into a timeshare in the process?

These things are worth considering — but the smart money is still on Trask — who makes smart reads, has a live arm and throws a really accurate football — to be close to the 3,500-yard mark passing in 2020.