Uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position in the SEC for the 2016 season. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs are the league’s top returning options. However, the question marks begin after Kelly and Dobbs. LSU’s Brandon Harris, Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight and Georgia’s Jacob Eason rank as the next tier of quarterbacks in Athlon’s rankings, but all three players have a lot to prove in 2016.
With fall practice starting for all 128 teams, Athlon is updating its quarterback rankings from earlier this year. Here’s an updated look at how the projected starting quarterbacks in the SEC rank for 2016:
To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2016. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, 2016 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the SEC for 2016.
SEC 2016 Preseason QB Rankings
14. Drew Lock, Missouri
Lock was pressed into action as a true freshman last season, which was certainly earlier than anyone in the program likely anticipated. As expected with any true freshman quarterback, Lock had his share of ups and downs. The Missouri native ended 2015 with 1,332 yards and four passing scores. He also completed only 49 percent of his throws and tossed eight interceptions. Lock certainly has the talent to move up this list, but his supporting cast is littered with question marks for 2016.
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13. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt’s offense has room to improve after averaging only 15.2 points a game last fall. But coach Derek Mason’s team has reason for optimism, as running back Ralph Webb is one of the best in the SEC, and two key players – receiver C.J. Duncan and tackle Andrew Jelks – are back after missing 2015 due to injury. Additionally, Mason seemed to find his quarterback of the future late last year in Shurmur. In five appearances, Shurmur threw for 503 yards and five scores. His best performance came in the season finale against Tennessee, completing 15 of 34 throws for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
12. John Franklin, Auburn
Gus Malzahn is regarded as one of the SEC’s top offensive minds, but the Auburn offense needs a spark after struggling in 2015. The Tigers averaged only 27.5 points a game and 5.4 yards per play last season. A three-man competition is set to unfold for the starting nod in fall practice, and the development of the quarterback spot is even more critical after running back Jovon Robinson’s dismissal in early August. Franklin transferred in from the junior college ranks and brings more mobility to the position than Sean White or Jeremy Johnson. However, how consistent will Franklin be as a passer?
11. Brandon McIlwain, South Carolina
New coach Will Muschamp has major holes to fill for a team that returns only seven starters in 2016. However, Muschamp has three promising options at quarterback, including last year’s starter Perry Orth and freshmen Brandon Mcllwain and Jake Bentley. McIlwain gets the nod as our projected starter for South Carolina, as the true freshman enrolled in time to compete for spring practice and finished with an impressive performance in the final scrimmage (19 of 26 for 169 yards).
10. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
It’s no secret Dak Prescott leaves big shoes to fill in Starkville. After all, a strong case could be made Prescott was the best player in program history. Four quarterbacks are vying to replace Prescott, with Fitzgerald the early favorite to take the first snap of the year against South Alabama. He played in eight games last year, completing 11 of 14 passes for 235 yards and three scores and recording 127 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Fitzgerald has intriguing upside and could move up this list by a couple of spots – assuming he wins the job – in 2016.
9. Drew Barker, Kentucky
New play-caller Eddie Gran should help Kentucky’s offense take a step forward after a disappointing 2015 campaign. The Wildcats averaged only 24.7 points a game last fall but return nine starters for 2016, including big-play running back Boom Williams and a handful of experienced receivers. Barker redshirted in his first year on campus and played in five games in 2015. Patrick Towles led the team with 2,148 passing yards, but Barker completed 35 of 70 throws for 364 yards and one score last year. Can Barker take the next step in his development with Gran at the controls?
8. Luke Del Rio, Florida
Florida’s offense struggled mightily after Will Grier was suspended in mid-October. The Gators only eclipsed more than 200 passing yards once over the final seven games and recorded just two passing scores in the last three contests. While drastic improvement is unlikely, expect Florida’s offense to take a step forward in 2016. Del Rio – a transfer from Oregon State – is the favorite to take the first snap of the season. He played in three games with the Beavers in 2014 and completed 8 of 18 passes for 141 yards. If Del Rio stumbles, Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby is likely the next quarterback on the depth chart.
7. Austin Allen, Arkansas
Brandon Allen closed out his career with a standout senior season (3,440 yards, 30 TDs), but the Razorbacks may not see too much of a drop in the passing game this fall. The receiving corps is among the SEC’s best, and coordinator Dan Enos was instrumental in the development of this group last year. Austin Allen – Brandon’s brother – was picked as the starter in spring practice. The Arkansas native has completed 9 of 19 passes for 188 yards and one score in two seasons of action. Allen may not replicate his brother’s overall totals, but don’t rule out a solid all-around first year as the starter.
6. Cooper Bateman, Alabama
In Lane Kiffin we trust. Sure, this is the third consecutive season the Crimson Tide enter fall practice with uncertainty at quarterback, but Kiffin’s track record suggests the offense won’t miss a beat in 2016. Cooper Bateman made one start in 2015 and finished the year with 291 passing yards and one score on 37 completions. Bateman has the edge in experience over Blake Barnett, Jalen Hurts and David Cornwell and is expected to open fall camp as the favorite to start. However, Barnett has the most overall talent among the signal-callers on the roster. His progress is worth monitoring in fall camp.
5. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s quarterback depth chart changed dramatically before last year’s game against Louisville in the Music City Bowl. Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred, leaving Jake Hubenak as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. While the losses of Murray and Allen were a setback, the Aggies found a solid one-year solution in Knight. The graduate transfer from Oklahoma should be a good fit for new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense and will be throwing to one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Knight threw for 3,424 yards and 25 scores and rushed for 853 yards and eight touchdowns during his career at Oklahoma. His best performance came in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, guiding the Sooners to a 45-31 win over Alabama by completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four scores.
4. Brandon Harris, LSU
LSU’s hopes of contending for the SEC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff likely hinge on Harris’ development. It’s no secret the Tigers need to jumpstart their passing game to complement running back Leonard Fournette, and the pieces are in place for improvement. In his first full year as the starter, Harris threw for 2,158 yards and 13 scores and added 226 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Additionally, Harris tied for third among SEC quarterbacks by completing 12 passes of 40 yards or more. LSU doesn’t need Harris to throw for 300 yards every week. However, after completing 53.6 percent of his passes in 2015, Harris certainly has room to improve this fall.
3. Jacob Eason, Georgia
There’s no guarantee Eason takes the first snap of the year against North Carolina. However, we are banking on the true freshman winning the job at some point during the year and finishing 2016 as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Eason was rated as a five-star prospect and the No. 2 overall quarterback by the 247Sports Composite. He enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in the G-Day scrimmage. Eason should be the top freshman quarterback in the nation this fall.
2. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
The development of the passing game could be the missing piece in Tennessee’s quest to win the SEC and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Dobbs is clearly the No. 2 quarterback in the SEC and will be looking to take the next step as a passer in 2016. Dobbs led all SEC quarterbacks by rushing for 671 yards and 11 scores. And in 13 games last season, Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 scores. Dobbs connected on just three plays of 40 yards or more and averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt. However, Dobbs will have more help on his side with an improved group of receivers, allowing the senior to connect on more big plays in the passing game in 2016.
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1. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Kelly delivered a standout season in his debut at Ole Miss and is easily the SEC’s top returning quarterback for 2016. In 13 starts, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 scores and rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns. Kelly’s 65.1 completion percentage ranked fourth among SEC passers, while his 8.8 yards per attempt ranked second behind Arkansas’ Brandon Allen. Additionally, Kelly connected on 25 passes of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC. Even though receiver Laquon Treadwell will be missed, Kelly should push for All-America honors this fall.