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Ole Miss Rebels Football: Chad Kelly's Chances to be Nation's Best Quarterback

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If you didn't look closely, you might not realize how close he already is.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Today on, Tony Barnhart highlighted a quote from the Ole Miss Rebels' Chad Kelly:

"I needed to be comfortable with the mindset that I am the best quarterback in the nation and the best on the field on that day," Kelly said. "I had the mindset that nobody can stop me … no matter who’s on defense. I knew I had playmakers around me. As long as I took care of the ball and managed the game we were going to win. Just having that mindset flipped the switch."

I don't take this quote to be that much of a big deal. Just from this blurb, which admittedly doesn't come with the context of Kelly's tone of voice or even the question that prompted this response, Kelly seems to be less bragging than talking about a mentality of confidence. Quarterbacks typically need to have a mentality of confidence to succeed, so this all is fine.

That said, Kelly actually does have a chance to be one of the nation's absolute best quarterbacks in 2016. Let's break it down.

Looking at passing efficiency, a generally good if incomplete gauge of quarterbacking performance, Kelly came in 13th overall among qualified signal callers in 2015. Only four returning QBs finished ahead of him. Two of them you already know: Baker Mayfield (3rd) and Deshaun Watson (12th). Two of them you don't: Western Michigan's Zach Terrell (7th) and Appalachian State's Taylor Lamb (10th). The mid-major quarterbacks of Terrell and Lamb, while efficient in their passing, weren't elite in actual production as they were in the late teens of total offense per play (net rushing and passing yards divided by total rushes and passes).

Kelly, as it happens, was ninth overall in total offense per play at 8.04. Only two returning players are above him there, and neither is Watson (22nd, 7.46) or Mayfield (18th, 7.66). They are Baylor's Jared Stidham (1st, 9.21), who likely won't start because of the return of Seth Russell, and Cincinnati's chest-free QB Gunner Kiel (7th, 8.06).

Kelly's primary competition for the title of nation's best quarterback would appear to be, barring injury and suspension and all that, Watson, Mayfield, and Russell.

Mayfield has an effect working against him in that it's difficult for quarterbacks to sustain a certain high level of play in consecutive seasons. As I've catalogued for years, it's very tough to hit a passing efficiency of above 160 in back-to-back seasons. Of the 34 quarterbacks since 2000 to go above 160, return the next year, and not miss most or all of the season due to injury, just eight have significantly improved their passing efficiencies (23.5%) with 23 doing significantly worse.

It's also harder the older a player gets. Just two of the 16 juniors (12.5%) on the list have been able to noticeably improve their PEs: Tajh Boyd (+3.1), who didn't really improve by that much, and Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty (+9.37) who tore up a CUSA that was the nation's worst conference. Mayfield's passing efficiency is likely to decline just as it did for other notable juniors who went over 160 in PE like Colt Brennan, Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, Kellen Moore, Matt Barkely, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Bryce Petty, and Cody Kessler. Of those guys I just listed, only Tebow, Moore, and McCarron remained above 160 in their senior seasons. It's a tough thing to do. It'll be even tougher on Mayfield with his first (Sterling Shepard) and third (Durron Neal) leading receivers from 2015 gone.

It's hard to gauge Russell's chances given that he missed a good chunk of last year. He put up scary good numbers—189.7 passing efficiency, 14.9 total yardage per play—but four defenses rated 119 or worse in S&P+ defense and an FCS team made up five of the seven games he appeared in. He did torch West Virginia's No. 28 S&P+ defense, but it was at home. Stidham hit 9.3 total yards per play as a true freshman starting against one good (Oklahoma), one mediocre (Oklahoma State), and one bad (Kansas State) defense before going down to injury himself. Baylor's system is great, and it really helps out a quarterback.

Unfortunately for Russell, Baylor suffered heavy losses at receiver. All-everything Corey Coleman is off to the NFL, and Jay Lee was a senior. Those guys were two of the only three Bears to catch more than 11 passes in 2015. Baylor is also losing four starters from last year's offensive line. Again, Art Briles's system is pretty great, but remember that Bryce Petty was pretty good and couldn't maintain a 160+ passing efficiency from his junior to senior year. Losing Coleman and four guys up front—not to mention the revival of the terrifyingly efficient "Wildbear" run game that BU used in the bowl against UNC and worked on this spring as a special package—will tend to depress Baylor's quarterbacking numbers.

That leaves Watson. He already threw for over 4,100 yards and ran for over 1,100 yards last year, albeit in 15 games. He is able to make up for deficiencies in one area with quality in another. He only had one game last year (a Thursday night road match at Louisville on a short prep week) where both his passing efficiency was below 150 and he rushed for fewer than five yards per carry—and even then, his rushing goes up to 5.3 per carry if you factor out the sack he took in that game.

Further, Clemson has a ton coming back. It loses second-leading receiver Charone Peake, but it gets back 2014's leading receiver Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of 2015 with injury. Mackey Award finalist Jordan Leggett is back at tight end, and three offensive line starters return as well. The only thing likely to hold down Watson's production would be for Clemson to do something like Florida did from Tebow's sophomore to junior season and lean less heavily on the quarterback to do everything. UF's offense was better in 2008 than in 2007 despite Tebow's numbers being lower in nearly every single category. It's possible to imagine Clemson doing the same given its wealth of options.

So what about Kelly? He loses his far-and-away top receiver in Laquon Treadwell (82 receptions, 1,153 yards) as well as his second-leading receiver Cody Core (37-for-644; team-best 17.4 yards per catch). Kelly had some of his best games, particularly in carrying the ball, after Laremy Tunsil came back from suspension, but Tunsil is off to probably be the NFL Draft's top pick. Veteran Fahn Cooper is gone from the line too, as is 2015's leading rusher Jaylen Walton.

That said, Ole Miss still has an embarrassment of riches at receiver despite losing Treadwell and Core. Kelly also got a boost with Evan Engram deciding to return for his senior season. It further can't be overlooked that the Rebels are turning over a ton of players on defense, so the offense may need to do more in 2016 than it did in 2015.

So: can Chad Kelly be the nation's best quarterback in 2016? He will have a chance at being the most productive quarterback from a major conference team, and that often gets a guy votes for being the best in the country. I like his chances for passing up Mayfield. He might pass up Russell too if for no other reason than Baylor found an amazing direct-snap run game that it'll likely use all year. He could even surpass Watson if Clemson dials back his load. It would not necessarily mean he's better than Watson under those circumstances, but not everyone separates best and most productive.

Other players could pop up too, of course. Miami (FL)'s Brad Kaaya figures to do much better under Mark Richt. Notre Dame's Malik Zaire has done some great things when healthy, which unfortunately hasn't been that often. A couple of Air Raid quarterbacks moving up to their junior years in Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes and Washington State's Luke Falk could each put up monster years. Washington's Jake Browning has even gotten some buzz from sportswriting sharps this offseason, though he may not have the weapons to put up eye-popping numbers.

Anyway, Chad Kelly does have a realistic chance at getting one of the All-American quarterback spots. It'll be tough to pass up a healthy Watson, who was a Heisman finalist and played well in the national title game against Alabama, but Kelly's belief in himself to be the country's top quarterback probably won't be too far off in 2016.