For all of the talk about the glut of quarterback talent leaving the conference, wide receiver doesn't look much better this season. Eight of the top ten receivers last season in yards per game are gone, and none of the top five return. Jameon Lewis of State is the SEC's statistical leading returnee with his 64 catches for 923 yards. Only three returning receivers had at least 60 catches and only two had at least 700 yards, and Lewis is the only one to do both.
Expect the new quarterbacks to struggle, especially because they will all struggle to find a guy to bail them out of trouble.
1 AUBURN - They return their top four receivers, their starting tight end, and one of two guys in the conference to gain 900 yards receiving (Coates). Throw in JUCO D'haquille Williams and they have the deepest unit in the SEC with top end talent to boot.
2 GEORGIA - No one returns a better 1-2 punch than Bennett and Conley. Depth is a concern, but they've got the starting slots covered.
3 ALABAMA - Amari Cooper is a terrific talent, but they will start two other senior wideouts who have never quite lived up to their talent. There comes a point at which you realize you're waiting for Godot.
4 MISSISSIPPI ST - They return their top four receiving leaders from last season, and Lewis is the top SEC returnee, statistically. Honestly, pretty indistinguishable from Bama's unit: senior heavy, anchored by one legit star, and has a terrific tight end as a bonus.
5 TENNESSEE - They return their top 5 receivers. This was a super young unit last season, and it showed. Should be due for a massive improvement if they can find a QB. And how can you not root for a guy named Pig Howard?
6 SOUTH CAROLINA - They return almost everybody except their best receiver. Byrd is one of the more explosive players in the conference.
7 TEXAS A&M - They lose some studs, but keep the reliable Malcome Kennedy, who had 60 catches last year. No one has recruited more WR talent than A&M the past few years, so the train should keep a-rollin'.
8 OLE MISS - Moncrief is a huge loss, and it is an open question how that will affect Treadwell. He's being thrust into the spotlight, as the Rebs lose their two best options from last season.
9 LSU - Losing two legit NFL talents. There's no real returning experience, but at least the talent cupboard isn't bare.
10 MIZZOU - Lost their top three receivers, including one of the best players in the conference. The Dorial Green-Beckham loss is a killer because it was so unexpected. They went from set to disarray.
11 KENTUCKY - Returns 5 of the top 6 from last season. Look up their numbers from last year and... yeah. I'm not sure that's a good thing.
12 FLORIDA - Similar to LSU in that they will be relying on a lot of unproven talent, only their talent has been on campus a lot longer and couldn't see the field for a pretty bad unit last year.
13 ARKANSAS - Hatcher and Henry are what they are, which isn't terribly great, but it will keep the Hogs from total incompetence.
14 VANDERBILT - They weren't quite Jordan Matthews and bunch of nothing, but they lose the other starters as well. Let's put it like this, Travin Dural had more receiving yards than any returning Vandy player, and they don't have highly touted recruits coming in.
There's really no good way to predict this group, so I'm going to go relatively bold. Based on production, Auburn returns the most TDs while Mississippi State returns the most catches and yards. For me, WR play is inherently connected to the quality of QB play. That said, the SEC lost so many QBs this year, you can't hardly turn to that for any predictive level of success.
For most, there's a quality starter or two and then little else. Of course, your usual suspects feature a depth chart full of highly recruited studs, but there's a lot of unproven ability there. Who can emerge? What situations prove most advantageous? What young talent will play above their maturity level? These are all pertinent questions.
I'm not a huge believer in past results repeating themselves on a season-to-season level. So I'll lean more talent based than anything.
1) Auburn - Coates is back, as well as stalwarts in Tony Stevens and Quan Bray. I think D'haquille Williams makes them even more dangerous. I'm not worried about Nick Marshall's weed deal, personally. This offense will be explosive and while the passing may not be statistically dominant, they feature a core of guys who can beat defenses over the top, which is exactly what they need to make their run-heavy attack go.
2) Tennessee - Bold call here, but I think Marquez North flashed alpha dog receiver qualities at times last season. Pair him with incoming freshman Josh Malone and a solid young crop of guys and I think they are in business. The bigger question is can they find stable QB play. I think Worley, as a SR, will deliver enough to make this a dangerous group.
3) Mississippi State - As I said, they return the most catches and yards of any WR core in the SEC this year. Jameon Lewis can gives D fits in the slot, while their bigger targets eat up chunks outside. Similar to Tennessee, though, can they find consistency from the QB? I'm not sold on Dak Prescott just yet.
4) Texas A&M - This is a passing friendly offense, and I think by year's end this crop may have the best statistics. Malcome Kennedy gives them a solid returning option, but the real talents to watch here are Ricky Seals-Jones and, even more so, Speedy Noil. This will be a dangerous group.
5) South Carolina - Tons of production and talent returning. Dylan Thompson has a bigger arm than Connor Shaw, and while he may be less efficient, he may produce bigger plays. Damiere Byrd is a big play threat, and I like Shaq Roland, too.
6) Ole Miss - Losing Moncrief hurts, but Treadwell is ready to take that next step. He's a Round 1 NFL talent and managed to snag 72 passes a freshman. Sure, his YPC wasn't great, but that shows his dependability. He'll be a 1st Team All-SEC contender and draw enough attention for others to produce.
7) Alabama - Amari Cooper is explosive... when he plays. Yet, he's struggled to stay on the field. And who emerges after that? Deandrew White has been okay. The rest? Meh both in production and talent. O.J. Howard is the exception to that rule, but Lane Kiffin tends to ignore the TE. Not to mention, the loss of McCarron has me begging, what do they do without the safety blanket that was Kevin Norwood? It's the one spot Bama has not recruited exceptionally.
8) Georgia - It's unfair, but I'm penalizing Georgia based on the loss of Aaron Murray. I don't consider Michael Bennett, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley nor Justin Scott-Wesley to be elite talents, so I see them taking a major step back offensively without Murray. It's arguably the most experienced core group, but I expect regression from a crew all returning from injury.
9) LSU - Hate the starters here, but love the youth potential. Malachi Dupre might be the most talented WR in the SEC from the jump. Trey Quinn is pretty damn talented himself. But banking on two true freshman WRs with an inexperienced QB is not the most successful formula. The Tigers will take their lumps this year, but have bright moments.
10) Florida - It's Quinton Dunbar and not much else here, based on production. They get Andre Debose back, but he's never been much of a receiving threat. How much can Kurt Roper get from this group? I think there's upside here, but how much? They could have a great year and still be the 6th or 7th best receiving core in the conference in my opinion.
11) Kentucky - They quietly return 97 catches, 1065 yards and 8 TDs of production. Not terrible, considering how offensively anemic this team can be. There's no explosive threat, but they can be a steady, consistent group in Lexington.
12) Arkansas - Don't love anything they have in the past, but remember the name Jojo Robinson. He's a true freshman that will make a serious impact for them.
13) Mizzou - Woof. I don't know a single player on their two deep and I follow recruiting actively.
14) Vanderbilt - The only guy here I know is Steven Scheu, who I think may emerge as their best target this season. Vandy's offense should be pretty rough, but Scheu could be a nice checkdown option in an offense that's sure to be conservative under Derek Mason.
Very few complete units here. A lot of teams that have one proven guy, like an Amari Cooper or a Laquon Treadwell, and then a bunch of guys that are either just meh or young and unproven. Some are practically starting from scratch.
1. Georgia -- I'm giving them a little credit for guys like Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley coming off injury, but the former was a big-time player before blowing his ACL last year, and the latter flashed some big-play potential. But that's on top of the returning Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who were both productive last season.
2. Auburn -- Sammie Coates may be the only target that's done big things, but Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and C.J. Uzomah have all logged a lot of snaps and really know their roles in this offense. And Coates was so important to this team last year. Auburn didn't make a lot of plays down the field, but when they did it was to him.
And then there's JUCO newbie D'haquille Williams, straight out of my home town of LaPlace, La. I'm loathed to given too much credit to anybody that hasn't proven anything yet, but I know some coaches that have coached and coached against Williams -- among others that are either playing professional or college ball now. And they say Williams is the best player they've seen. They also say he's completely insane, but that's not exactly relevant here. He'll be a one-and-done talent at Auburn.
After those two, it kind of comes down to which No. 1 guy you like better. But I'm going to stray from the chalk a little.
3. Mississippi State -- Jameon Lewis is a good slot receiver that can kind of play the Percy Harvin role in Dan Mullen's offense and do a bit of everything. And he's partnered with a group of seniors that all know their roles in Robert Johnson and Malcolm Johnson. Plus a big target in De'Runnya Wilson.
4. Alabama -- Now if there's one player that should definitely be excited about having Lane Kiffin calling plays, it's Cooper. He was a bit injury prone last year but nobody doubts his ability to make big plays down the field. And you can bet Kiffin's going to feed it to him a lot on bubble screens and the like, just like he did with Marqise Lee at USC. After that, it's kind of similar to past Alabama receiving outfits. DeAndrew White gives them a veteran safety net much like Kevin Norwood did, but after that it's kind of meh. O.J. Howard is the X-factor at tight end, and could be very dangerous if Alabama can get him involved consistently.
5. Ole Miss -- Love Laquon Treadwell, he reminds me a lot of Brandon LaFell as a big-bodied guy that can make plays down the field. But there's no Donte Moncrief across from him to draw bracket coverage anymore.
6. Texas A&M -- Malcome Kennedy caught 60 passes last year, so I imagine he'll step into the No. 1 role, but after him it's a lot of younger guys that were big-time recruits but haven't proven anything on the field yet.
7. South Carolina -- Veterans like Damiere Byrd and Shaq Roland haven't been go-to guys, but they know the scheme and know quarterback Dylan Thompson. They should be able to produce while defenses focus on Mike Davis and the running game.
8. Tennessee -- Top five pass catchers are all back from last year, plus stud recruit Josh Malone. This group will be on the rise if the Vols can find a consistent quarterback.
9. Missouri -- Losing DGB really, really hurts, but this has been a program that has worked new receivers in relatively well the last few years. Pinkel knows how to recruit to his system, and the top guys on the depth chart are seniors.
10. LSU -- I'm going to go on record that this group will definitely be in the top five by the end of the year. I think Travin Dural is ready to become a go-to guy, I love the potential of the tight ends (yes, I know), and I think the young receivers here are more equipped to step in quickly than the typical freshman. That said, I just can't grade them higher until they show something on the field.
11. Kentucky -- Top four in catches and yards are back. Kentucky will be bad but Neal Brown has a history of building strong passing games.
12. Florida -- Just stunning to see the school of the Fun & Gun just look so weak at this position. Part of the reason I'm not a big believe in the Jeff Driskel renaissance is that I also don't know who he has to throw to.
13. Arkansas -- Hunter Henry has some real nice potential at tight end, but after that? Eh.
14. Vanderbilt -- Good luck Stephen Rivers!
Not a whole lot of disagreement in our ballots. Paul, again, has the biggest outlier votes: he is far more skeptical of Georgia than either of us. Also, we're all over the board on Tennessee, with no real consensus. Other than Paul being the most anti-Alabama voter here, our votes pretty much line up from there. The final vote:
2 Mississippi St
6 Texas A&M
7 South Carolina
8 Ole Miss