The SEC is known for plenty: great running backs, defenders who combine speed and power, bitter rivalries; but the conference isn’t necessarily known for its passing game.
But consider that last season, two of the top professional wideouts were SEC alumni: Julio Jones (Alabama) and A.J. Green (Georgia). One of the NFL’s premiere pass-catching tight ends, Aaron Hernandez, is another SEC product (Florida).
On the college gridiron, the SEC featured the nation’s most highly touted receiving prospect (Dorial Green-Beckham), a breakout freshman star (Amari Cooper), the exuberant senior standout in Texas A&M’s spread offense (Ryan Swope) and so many more. This season’s crop of receivers and tight ends ranks with the most talented and accomplished of any conference.
1. Amari Cooper, Alabama
Cooper was integral to the Alabama offense, coming on particularly strong late in the Crimson Tide’s championship season. His 11 touchdown receptions are most among SEC returners, and only Mississippi State’s Chad Bumphis had more overall (12). Cooper’s abilities are reminiscent of the aforementioned Julio Jones.
2. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
Matthews was on the receiving end of a league-high 94 passes last season, eight of which went for touchdowns. At 1323 yards, he was just a hair off the conference’s top overall mark. Vanderbilt breaks in a new starting quarterback to replace Jordan Rodgers this off-season, but Matthews’ presence eases the tranistion considerably.
3. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Stuck in the shadow of another freshman — Heisman winner Johnny Manziel — and another wide receiver — Ryan Swope — Evans’ first-year contributions may have gone overlooked. But at 1105 yards, Evans ranked No. 1 among Aggie receivers, and third overall in the SEC. Look for him to remain the top target of Manziel.
4. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss
Moncrief developed a chemistry with Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace, which resulted in 10 touchdowns receptions and just below 1000 yards. He’s a vital engine driving Hugh Freeze’s offense, given the Rebels a sizable, physical target with quality route running abilities.
5. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
The No. 1 overall recruit of the 2012 signing class scored touchdowns on nearly 20 percent of his receptions. Missouri struggled to establish offensive consistency, which kept Green-Beckham from truly breaking out. He had just 28 receptions on the year, but should emerge as a focal point of the offense in the Tigers’ second season of SEC competition.
6. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
Georgia loses a considerable portion of its receiving corps, including Tavarres King and Marlon Brown. The void is open for a new No. 1 to emerge. Junior Malcolm Mitchell is a worthy candidate, coming off a sophomore campaign in which he caught 40 passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns. Mitchell has been a key contributor each of his first two seasons, so he has a proven rapport with Murray.
7. Odell Beckham, LSU
The top receiver in the LSU offense a season ago, Beckham is speedy and elusive. His contributions will shape a Tiger passing attack that needs improvement if LSU is to challenge for the SEC championship. Beckham averaged nearly 17 yards per reception en route to 713 yards. He scored just two touchdowns, though. The breakaway speed Beckham exhibits in the punt return game needs more opportunities in the offense.
8. Michael Bennett, Georgia
A torn ACL early into the Bulldogs’ campaign sidelined Bennett in 2012. He was leading the Georgia receiving corps at the time of his injury with four touchdowns and 24 total receptions for 345 yards.
9. Chris Boyd, Vanderbilt
Boyd is your prototypical, long receiving threat. At 6-foot-4, he is a danger in the red zone — evident in his 13 career touchdown receptions. He’s the perfect complement to Matthews, and a headache for opposing defensive coordinators who have two big targets with which to tangle when they face Vanderbilt.
10. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina
Small and quick, Ellington is an explosive option in the Gamecock pass game. He scored seven touchdowns last season, and should factor more into the offense in 2013 with the departure of Ace Sanders.
11. Kevin Norwood, Alabama
Norwood has good size and runs routes effectively, given quarterback A.J. McCarron a reliable No. 2 option when he can’t find Amari Cooper. Norwood finished 2012 with 461 yards on 29 receptions. In each of the last two seasons catching for McCarron, Norwood has averaged 17.3 and 15.9 yards per catch.
12. Wesley Tate, Vanderbilt
A ranking among the conference’s best may be generous for a receiver who caught just 12 passes and one touchdown a season ago, but Tate is vital to the Commodore offense as a rushing option. He carried 107 times in 2012, including for eight touchdowns.
13. Sammie Coates, Auburn
Coates showed flashes of brilliance in his freshman campaign, despite inconsistent quarterbacking of the Auburn offense. Most notable was his touchdown reception just before halftime in the Tigers’ early season win over La.-Monroe.
14. Quinton Dunbar, Florida
Kick-starting the Gators’ sputtering passing game begins with getting explosive Dunbar more opportunities. He came on strong down the strech, scoring three of his four touchdowns on Oct. 20 or later, and made a season-high five receptions in the Sugar Bowl. Dunbar is likely to open 2013 as quarterback Jeff Driskel’s favorite target.
15. Jarvis Landry, LSU
Landry’s physicality fits the LSU smash-mouth style well. His 56 receptions were the most of any LSU receiver, as he gave quarterback Zach Mettenberger a reliable target on mid-range routes.