This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands June 7. Order online today!
This season's SEC won't require much of a getting-to-know-you period for the conference's stars. It's doubtful that anybody needs much of a refresher course on why guys like Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb will be key figures in the conference in 2016.
But not every team has a super talent who's both the best and most important player on the team. Here's the key guy for each SEC school in 2016.
While the rest of the SEC enters the fall grappling with unknowns (or worse, known liabilities) behind center, Dobbs returns as one of the few marquee names. He is tough to corral -- leading all conference QBs with 671 rush yards and 11 TDs last season -- but Dobbs must now prove he can also hit his downfield marks. The senior threw for 200 yards just five times in 2015 and was held under 100 twice. He completed 40.0 percent of passes thrown 15-plus yards in the air, which put him right in the middle of the Power 5 QB pack (T31).
Georgia is relatively green on offense, so Chubb -- he of 13 straight 100-plus-yard games -- will be a welcome sight for folks in Athens. The junior suffered a gruesome knee injury last October, but when he's healthy, he is easily the best player on the eastern side of the SEC. And with question marks under center, plus a depleted wide receiver corps (NFL-bound Malcolm Mitchell accounted for more than half of the unit's receiving yards last year), Chubb must reassert himself as a dominant backfield force. If not? The Bulldogs could really get exposed.
The senior opted to return to Gainesville for 2016, welcome news for a linebacking corps already down Antonio Morrison, the Gators' leading tackler in 2014 and 2015. Davis is a hard-hitting general in the middle of the field but can also cover ground sideline to sideline. And while injury cut short his 2014 campaign, he rebounded in a big way last year, ringing up 98 tackles (46 solo), 11 TFLs and 3.5 sacks, a team high among linebackers.
The rangy, hard-hitting linebacker could have left early for the NFL but instead opted to come back to the Gamecocks, despite the changes taking root in Columbia. With his return, Moore has a real chance to lead South Carolina in tackles for a school-record fourth consecutive season (260 in his career). The senior not only stops the run and rushes the passer, he is also tremendous in coverage. Moore broke up four passes last year and has reeled in 11 career interceptions.
Even after completing just 45.6 percent of his passes in SEC play, with two TDs and six picks, and owning an SEC-worst 23.4 QBR among starters, Lock is crucial to Mizzou's success. There just aren't enough playmakers at the other skill spots to take the lead -- the Tigers were one of five teams in the nation to fall short of 2,000 yards rushing and passing in 2015. If there is a potential salve to the offensive woes, it's that the sophomore at least appeared more comfortable this spring with new OC Josh Heupel's up-tempo style.
Mark Stoops knows that if his team is going to get over the proverbial hump, the Kentucky-bred quarterback will have to be its catalyst. The coach will also need to see improvement from the former four-star prep. Barker started Kentucky's final two games in 2015 as a redshirt freshman -- and looked the part of one. He is a legitimate weapon on the ground, but he completed just 50 percent of his 70 pass attempts last year, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions.
Only two SEC running backs returning in 2016 -- LSU's Leonard Fournette and Tennessee's Jalen Hurd -- outrushed Webb (96.0 ypg) last year. So for the third straight season, the junior will be the linchpin of the Commodores' offensive attack. In 2015, Webb's 1,340 total yards accounted for just over a third of Vandy's offensive output. Not surprisingly, the team goes as Webb goes: Four of his five touchdowns last season came in the Commodores' four wins.
He sputtered against Alabama last year, rushing 19 times for 31 yards after averaging 193.1 ypg in LSU's first seven contests, so his Heisman candidacy sputtered too. But there are few surer playmakers in college football better than Fournette. Last year the junior led (or co-led) the nation in rush ypg (162.8), 10-plus-yard rushes (59), 200-yard rushing games (four) and games with at least three rushing TDs (four). It's no wonder Miles hands him the ball again and again ... and again. Fournette accounted for more than 37 percent of the Tigers' offensive yards in 2015.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen's decision to return to Tuscaloosa hogged the headlines (29 career TFLs), but Jackson, an All-SEC safety in his first year at the position, might be an even bigger save. The Tide lose DB mainstays Cyrus Jones and Geno Matias-Smith to graduation (30 combined starts last year alone), so Jackson's early exit would have left the secondary with a gaping void. Instead, the senior, whose 6 INTs in 2015 was the most from a Tide defender since 2010, will help take pressure off Alabama youngsters like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey.
The senior is coming off one of the best seasons by a quarterback in SEC history -- 4,551 total yards, third most in the conference record books -- and even with Laquon Treadwell NFL-bound, he'll have weapons aplenty in 2016. WRs Damore'ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo and TE Evan Engram return, with 14 receiving TDs in 2015 among them. So don't look for Kelly's potent aerial attack, which racked up at least 350 yards in four games last year (most in the SEC), to be grounded any time soon.
The Aggies lay claim to one of the country's premier pass-rushing defensive ends in Garrett, who has piled up 24 sacks and 32.5 TFLs in his two seasons in College Station. (His two dozen QB takedowns is tied for most in the FBS in that time.) And he has help. Senior Daeshon Hall added seven sacks and 14.5 TFLs in 2015, joining Garrett to form one of the SEC's top pass-rushing combos. In all, the disruptive tandem helped Texas A&M to a defensive QBR of 30.3, which was top 15 in the nation last year.
Even if the Bulldogs are down arguably the program's best player of all time (more on that below), they at least return a critical leader on defense in Brown. The senior never cracked the starting lineup until last season, his third, but he went on to lead the Bulldogs with 109 tackles -- 38 more than 2014's leading tackler. With Beniquez Brown leaving early for the draft and Zach Jackson's time in Starkville up, Brown will remain a centerpiece along Mississippi State's in-flux but still solid front seven.
Auburn's vaunted defensive end has missed 19 of 40 possible games since the start of his 2013 freshman season, so he put off the NFL for one more year to prove he can, in fact, stay healthy. When he is on the field -- and 100 percent -- Lawson is nearly unblockable. He rang up 7.5 TFLs and forced two fumbles in 2013 but sat out all of 2014 with an ACL tear. In limited reps in 2015 (fractured hip), he collected 17 tackles and one sack. Lawson flat-out changes the complexion of the Tigers' pass rush, so his return this fall will be welcome: Auburn sacked opposing QBs 19 times last season (tied for 101st in the FBS).
Hunter Henry, who took home last season's John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end, was Arkansas' second-leading receiver in each of the past three years. While his absence casts a long shadow, Sprinkle is well-versed in stepping out of it. Playing behind Henry last year, the senior caught six TDs -- most among SEC tight ends. And though Sprinkle's 27 catches last season paled in comparison to Henry's 51 grabs, his 14.4 ypc was just about on par. All that to say: He looks primed to continue the Razorbacks' tradition of confounding D's with those pesky crossing routes.