The SEC is typically known more for its shutdown defenses than it is quarterbacks, but as challengers look to overtake defending conference and national champions Alabama, QB play could prove critical.
Here are the top five returning quarterbacks in the SEC, entering the 2016 season:
1. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss Rebels
Chad Kelly is easily the top returning passer in the Southeastern Conference. He led the conference in both passing yardage (4,036) and touchdowns (31). He also did a good job of avoiding turnovers, throwing just 13 interceptions all year. The result was an impressive QB rating of 103.3.
Kelly’s best assets are a quick release and accurate deep ball. He was on target on 52.9 percent of 20-plus-yard throws a year ago, with over half of his touchdowns coming on such passes. The Ole Miss quarterback also showed impressive accuracy on shorter range passes, hitting the mark on 75.5 percent of all throws. In addition to his arm talent, Kelly poses a consistent threat on the ground. If he can elevate his game further, the Rebels could be a playoff contender in 2016.
2. Josh Dobbs, Tennessee Volunteers
Dobbs has yet to develop as a passer, earning a negative passing grade last season, but he is one of the most dangerous running threats in the FBS. The Vols’ starting quarterback broke a tackle more than once every three touches in 2015 (45 total) and found paydirt an impressive 11 times last season. He also averaged 6.4 yards per rush, 4.4 of which came after contact.
Assuming Dobbs can develop into a more consistent passer, he will open up even more space on the ground. He was not terrible by any stretch, but was only 11th in the conference in terms of pure passing grade. Overall, Dobbs completed 60 percent of passes for 2,312 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He should improve with an extra year’s experience.
3. Brandon Harris, LSU Tigers
The lack of highly productive returning quarterbacks in this conference is highlighted by Harris taking the No. 3 spot. LSU’s inability to find a long-term solution at the quarterback position has held them back over the past few years. Harris has shown some signs that he could be the answer. Although his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, Harris made enough plays last season to suggest he can get to the level he needs to be.
Overall, Harris completed 53.2 percent of passes for 2,161 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he stood out on deep throws, with an accuracy rate of 41.1 percent of passes of 20-plus yards, seven of which went for touchdowns. The dynamic quarterback’s threat to take off running also has to be respected by defenses.
4. Perry Orth, South Carolina Gamecocks
Orth faces a challenge to win the South Carolina starting job, especially after breaking a collarbone during practice this spring. He played well enough as a redshirt junior to suggest he is the favorite to earn the job. Orth finished 10th in the conference in passing grade, completing 54.6 percent of passes for 1,931 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was poor under pressure (hardly uncommon for an inexperienced quarterback), recording an awful 37.2 QB rating when disrupted by the opposing pass rush. That said, Orth’s strong finish to the 2015 campaign suggests he might be primed for a breakout. He recorded a positive grade in his final four games.
5. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald took only 70 snaps behind Dak Prescott in 2015. Sample-size issues admittedly apply, but those snaps suggested he may ultimately be a better player than the Dallas Cowboys’ fourth-round pick (135th overall). Fitzgerald only threw 14 passes, but completed 11 for 234 yards and three touchdowns. He shredded North Western State and Troy when he was afforded an opportunity. Starting a full season will prove a monumental challenge in comparison, but Fitzgerald has every chance to prove his first experience of college football as no fluke.