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Top 25 College Football Gunslingers of All Time

Cory McCuneContributor IIIJanuary 2, 2017

Top 25 College Football Gunslingers of All Time

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    West Virginia's Geno Smith is on pace to challenge some of the most prestigious passing records in college football this season. He is without a doubt having one of the most prolific seasons any air-raid QB has ever had. But as things stand today, where does he stand in the all-time rankings?

    Smith has eight games left this season—assuming the Mountaineers win one more game to become bowl-eligible—to add to his already astounding stats and will therefore continue to climb. However, the higher he climbs, the more difficult it will be to pass up some of the historic names—and, more importantly, the stats those names accumulated.

    Surely there will be arguments, as with any ranking. The first thing I tried to do was come up with a qualification for being a "gunslinger." Basically, I decided that a QB who played on a team that ran an open offense and threw the ball over 400 times qualified.

    As for how I ranked them, it was partially on their numbers, partially on their team/personal success—team record and player awards—and partially just my own opinion. 

Honorable Mentions

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    There are so many options for this ranking. Here are some of the top names that just missed.

    Jason Gesser, Washington State

    Dante Culpepper, Central Florida

    Danny Wuerffel, Florida

    Every Mike Leach QB not on this list

    Every June Jones QB not on this list

25. Tim Couch, Kentucky (1996-1998)

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    Tim Couch did the unthinkable when he put Kentucky on the college football map. Couch played so well his junior season that he became the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft—which was more or less the last positive accomplishment of Couch's career.

    However, during his three seasons as the Wildcats QB, Couch amassed 8,435 yards and 74 TDs.

    During his junior season—in which he finished fourth in the Heisman voting—Couch threw for 4,275 yards and 36 TDs while leading the Wildcats to a 7-5 record and a berth in the Outback Bowl.  

24. Kevin Kolb, Houston (2003-2006)

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    Kevin Kolb was a four-year starter for head coach Art Briles and the Cougars. Kolb and the program took some lumps his first three seasons when they went a combined 16-22, but in his senior season, Kolb finally broke out.

    In 2006 Kolb threw for 3,809 yards and 30 TDs while leading the Cougars to a 10-4 record, a C-USA title and a trip to the Liberty Bowl.

    Over his four seasons in Houston, Kolb threw for 12,964 yards and produced 106 TDs (85 through the air and 21 on the ground.) After his senior year, he was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft.

23. B.J Symons, Texas Tech (2000-2003)

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    B.J. Symons only got one season to be Mike Leach's featured gunslinger, but he made the most of it. Symons spent his first three seasons backing up Kliff Kingsbury—he'll show up later on in the countdown—but in 2003, Symons took the reins.

    In his senior season, Symons set the FBS passing records for yards (5,833) and passing attempts (719)—both are still intact—while throwing for 52 TDs. However, he was out-dueled in another race that season, as Derek Anderson of Oregon State beat Symons' 22 interceptions by throwing 24 of his own.

    Had Symons been given more than one season, he would likely be much higher on the list—but his 6,378 yards and 59 TDs are nothing to hang his head about.  

22. Landry Jones, Oklahoma (2009-Present)

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    That's right, Landry Jones, the much-maligned Sooners QB, belongs on this list.

    Jones and his teammates have consistently been ranked high in the preseason polls, only to fall to a team they shouldn't every year. But that doesn't change the outstanding numbers Jones has put up in his three-plus seasons as a starter in Norman.

    Jones has already completed 1,114 passes for 13,411 yards and 100 TDs. His best season thus far was when he was a sophomore, throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 TDs.

    This season he is on pace to throw for—assuming a bowl game—3,354 yards, 23 TDs and an NFL contract.

21. Jim McMahon, BYU (1977-1981)

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    Jim McMahon is best known for being the QB on the '85 Bears team, doing the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and wearing his sweet white headband. But he was also a prolific passer at BYU—one of the first of his kind. 

    McMahon played all four seasons under head coach LaVell Edwards. McMahon was sparingly used in 1977 as a freshman and split time as a sophomore in 1978 before missing the 1979 season due to injury.

    But after sitting out for a season, McMahon was ready to go. In 1980, he led BYU to a 12-1 record and a No. 12 ranking in the AP Poll. McMahon threw for 4,571 yards and 47 TDs that season.

    During his senior year, the team took a slight step back (finishing 11-2), and so did McMahon's numbers—he threw for 3,555 yards and 30 TDs.

    Despite the dip in numbers, McMahon was the fifth pick in the 1982 NFL draft.

20. Dave Klingler, Houston (1988-1991)

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    David Klingler didn't play much in his first two seasons at Houston due to Andre Ware's presence, but he had a breakout season in his junior year. That year he won the Sammy Baugh Trophy, which is given to the nation's top QB, and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.

    During the 1990 season, the Cougars went 10-1 and finished No. 10 in the AP Poll. Klingler led the way with 5,140 passing yards (a record that stood until 2003) and 54 TDs (which stood until 2006). 

    Klingler followed that season up with a stellar senior season in which he threw for 3,424 yards and 29 TDs. But the team struggled to a 4-7 finish and no bowl game.

    At the end of his career, Klingler had compiled 9,466 yards and 91 TDs through the air.

19. Byron Leftwich, Marshall (1998-2002)

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    Byron Leftwich spent his first two seasons on the sideline watching Chad Pennington do his thing in Huntington, WV. But when his number was called in 2000, Leftwich was ready and never looked back.

    In three seasons as the starter, Leftwich led the Thundering Herd to a 30-9 record, three MAC Championship games, two MAC titles and three bowl wins. In his last two seasons, Leftwich led Marshall to back-to-back 11-2 finishes and capped both seasons off with GMAC Bowl wins.

    His best season was his junior season when he threw for 4,132 yards and 38 TDs to go with only seven interceptions. However, it was his senior season that he finished sixth in the Heisman voting.

    Leftwich finished with a school-record 11,903 passing yards, but finished behind Pennington's school record for passing TDs with 89. 

18. Chase Daniel, Missouri (2005-2008)

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    In 2005, Chase Daniel was the backup to do-it-all QB Brad Smith. After that, he took over and started his final three seasons in Columbia for head coach Gary Pinkel. In those three seasons, the Tigers went 30-11 with two losses to Oklahoma in back-to-back Big 12 Championship games and a 2-1 record in bowl games.

    Despite having slightly better stats in his senior season, Daniel finished fourth in the Heisman voting his junior season and did not place in the top 10 his senior season. One of the main reasons for that is Daniel led Missouri to the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll for just the second time in school history—the time on the top was short-lived since the Tigers lost to Kansas the same week.

    Daniel finished his career with 12,515 passing yards and 101 TDs while completing an astounding 68 percent of his passes.

17. Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan (2006-2009)

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    Dan LeFevour may have flown under the radar due to the fact he played for the Central Michigan Chippewas, and during his four years starting, his team only spent two weeks in the AP Top 25. Ironically, it was in his last two weeks.

    However, LeFevour and his teammates didn't seem to mind, because they went 3-0 in  the MAC Championship and 2-2 in bowl games.

    In his sophomore season he became the second FBS player to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season—Vince Young of Texas was the first. In that season he scored 47 TDs—27 passing, 19 rushing and one receiving.

    His career totals through the air are 12,905 yards and 102 TDs, while he added another 2,948 yards and 47 TDs with his legs. 

16. Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State (2008-2011)

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    Brandon Weeden went the baseball route after high school, just sitting and watching for most of his first two seasons at Oklahoma State. It's hard to tell what he would have been had he been a college QB from ages 19 to 22 as a boy; but from 25 to 28, he was pretty darn good as a man. Besides, Mike Gundy prefers to work with men like himself.

    In his junior season, Weeden threw for 4,277 yards and 34 TDs as the Cowboys went 11-2 and won the Alamo Bowl.

    Weeded followed up the success in his junior year with another great season. In 2011, the Cowboys went 12-1 and Weeden beat Andrew Luck head-to-head in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off a 4,727-yard 37-TD season.

    All told, Weeden finished with 9,260 yards and 75 TDs while winning 23 of the 26 games he started. 

15. Andre Ware, Houston (1987-1889)

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    The 1989 winner of the Heisman Trophy: Andre Ware. 

    Ware didn't stand out in 1988 when he threw for 2,507 yards and 25 TDs with his 356 passing attempts for a Houston team that 9-3 with an Aloha Bowl loss to Washington State.

    But he burst onto the scene in 1989 when head coach Jack Pardee let him loose on the Southwest Conference. 

    During his Heisman campaign, Ware threw for 4,699 yards and 46 TDs and led the Cougars to a 9-2 finish. He was taken with the seventh overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, but could never recapture the magic he had in 1989.

14. Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008-2011)

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    Many of you may be ready to argue that Robert Griffin III is higher than 14th on the list of best QBs in the NFL, but at Baylor, he was not a prolific passer until his final season.

    In 2010, Griffin threw for 3,501 yards, which is an impressive number—but he was on a team that was always trailing, so it was more out necessity than it was out of scheme. But in the first game of 2011, all that began to change when Griffin led Baylor over TCU in one of the most exciting games in the college football season. The rest, well, is all history.

    Griffin won the 2011 Heisman Trophy by morphing himself from the running QB with a track background to a passer who happens to be athletic. He threw for 4,293 yards and 37 TDs his junior season to round out his career with 10,366 yards and 78 TDs.  

13. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech (1999-2002)

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    Kliff Kingsbury was the first of the new age of gunslingers. Before Mike Leach brought the air-raid offense to Lubbock, pass-happy offenses like Steve Spurrier's "fun-and-gun" were throwing the ball 350 times a year. Leach had Kingsbury throw it 584 times his sophomore season—his first under Leach.

    In 2001, in Kingsbury's junior season, he threw the ball 528 times for his second 3,000-plus-yard season.

    But in 2002, Leach just stopped acting like he cared about running the ball, and Kingsbury attempted 712 passes. Kingsbury completed 67 percent of his passes—86 of them to Wes Welker—and ended the season with 5,017 yards and 45 TDs. 

    Kingsbury finished his career 1,229-of-1,881 for 12,423 yards, 95 TDs, a sore arm and the 2002 Sammy Baugh Trophy.

12. Chad Pennington, Marshall (1997-1999)

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    Had he not had Randy Moss to throw to in 1997, Chad Pennington may not be on this list; but as it is, he is almost in the top 10.

    Moss was the star for Marshall and helped Pennington have his most prolific season in his first year with the Thundering Herd. Pennington threw for 3,817 yards and 42 TDs, with 1,647 yards and 25 TDs going to Moss. Marshall went 10-3 and won the MAC in their first season in their new conference.

    In 1998, this time without Moss, Pennington led Marshall to a second MAC title and a 12-1 finish. Pennington again threw for over 3,800 yards, but without Moss, his TDs dropped to 28.

    But in 1999, Pennington again led Marshall to a great season. This time they went undefeated 13-0 and finished 10th in the AP poll after capturing their third consecutive MAC title in three seasons. Pennington finished fifth in the Heisman voting and won the Sammy Baugh Trophy.

    In his last three seasons as Marshall's QB, Pennington threw for 11,446 yards and 107 TDs.*

    *Pennington played his freshman season in 1995, but Marshall was D-1AA and his stats were unavailable.

11. Geno Smith, West Virginia (2009-Present)

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    Geno Smith has done enough to take his spot just outside the top 10 on this countdown, but if he and his Mountaineers teammates can continue to put up video game-like numbers, his climb will continue.

    After seeing limited action as a backup his freshman season, Smith has been the unquestioned starter for the Mountaineers for the last two-plus seasons. As a sophomore, Smith led West Virginia to a 9-4 season and threw for 2,763 yards and 24 TDs under the late Bill Stewart.

    But when new head coach Dana Holgorsen took over with his pass-happy scheme that powered Houston's offenses, Smith was primed to explode—which he kind of did in 2011 when he led WVU to a Big East title. But the real explosion started in the Orange Bowl, when Smith and the offense piled 70 points on the Clemson defense. In that game, Smith threw for 407 yards and six TDs while rushing for another. 

    That bowl game showing raised Smith's season stats to 4,385 yards with 31 TDs—numbers he has continued to build on in the first five games this season. His 1,996 yards and 24 TDs with zero interceptions puts him on pace for 5,189 yards and a record-breaking 62 TDs in 12 regular-season games and a bowl game. Also, mathematically speaking, he is on pace to throw zero interceptions.

    He may—but probably won't—reach those numbers, because there is tougher competition on the horizon for West Virginia; but Smith is clearly the best thing going in college football right now. Well, him and Alabama's defense.

10. Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000)

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    Joe Tiller brought his "basketball on grass" scheme to West Lafayette in 1997, and that same season a young Texan gunslinger named Drew Brees started his career at Purdue. The two were a match made in heaven.

    Brees watched and learned his first season, but in year two it was time for Brees to run the show. In his three seasons as the Boilermakers QB, Brees led Purdue to a 24-13 record and three bowl games.

    Brees was a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award winner and finished in the top five of the Heisman voting in his junior and senior seasons—fifth and third, respectively.

    Brees put up his biggest numbers as a sophomore (3,983 yards and 39 TDs), but he finished his career by leading Purdue to their second Rose Bowl appearance (the other was in '67).

    Brees finished his distinguished career with 11,517 yards and 88 TDs. He was taken by the Chargers in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft and has had the best NFL career of anyone on this list. 

9. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (2007-2009)

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    Sam Bradford only got two seasons to be the QB for Oklahoma due to a shoulder injury his junior season, but he took full advantage of both of them. 

    As a redshirt freshman, Bradford led the Sooners to an 11-3 record, a Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl appearance. Oklahoma lost that game, but came back better in 2008.

    In Bradford's sophomore season, the Sooners went 11-1 in the regular season and finished in a three-way tie for the Big 12 South title with Texas and Texas Tech. Due to tie-breakers, Oklahoma moved on to play—and beat—Missouri for a second straight season in the Big 12 Championship Game.

    That win set up a national title game between 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow and 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford. Tebow and the Gators got the better of Bradford's Sooners that night in Miami, but that didn't take away the amazing stats Bradford put up.

    In 2008, Bradford threw for 4,720 yards and 50 TDs. In his junior season, Bradford only played in parts of three games and threw for 562 yards and two TDs. He finished his career with 8,403 yards and 88 TDs before being taken with the first pick in the 2010 NFL draft.

8. Colt McCoy, Texas (2006-2009)

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    Colt McCoy ended his career at Texas as the all-time winningest QB in FBS history—a record that has since been broken. During his four seasons as the Texas QB, McCoy led the Longhorns to a 45-8 record along with one Big 12 title.

    McCoy's most impressive season came in his junior year when he threw for 3,859 yards and 34 TDs. That year he also set the record for best single-season completion percentage by completing 76.7 percent of his passes. McCoy was rewarded for his season by finishing second in the Heisman voting behind Sam Bradford—one has to wonder how the tie-breaker and Big 12 title affected the Heisman voting.

    McCoy returned for his senior season and led the Longhorns to the National Championship Game against Alabama. Then something strange happened.

    A QB who had started every game in his career, got injured on Texas' first possession and never returned. Texas fans have been wondering "what if" ever since, because the team couldn't rebound from the loss of their leader and lost to Alabama.

    McCoy finished his prolific career with 13,253 passing yards and 112 passing TDs. Despite the fact he was never confused with Vince Young, McCoy also had success running (1,571 yards and 20 TDs). 

7. Philip Rivers, North Carolina State (2000-2003)

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    Philip Rivers took an ACC doormat to new heights in his four years at N.C. State. Rivers helped the Wolfpack to a 34-20 record and four consecutive bowl games. 

    Rivers was good his first three seasons for the Wolfpack, but is was in his senior season that the future NFL star started to really shine. 

    In his senior season, Rivers led the nation in completion percentage at 72 percent and threw for 4,491 yards and 34 TDs. Those numbers put him in the Heisman race, and he finished in seventh place.

    Rivers finished his career with 13,484 yards and 91 TDs through the air, and for good measure, he added 17 TDs on the ground and one more as a receiver. 

6. Kellen Moore, Boise State (2008-2011)

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    Boise State had one of the best four-year runs any program has ever had when they had Kellen Moore at the helm. Moore started every game in his four-year career under Chris Petersen, and Broncos fans appreciated every single one of his starts. Moore was 50-3 as a starter, making him the winningest FBS QB ever.

    Before Moore took over, the Broncos were known as a pesky team that ran trick plays; but when Moore started slinging the ball, the trick plays were no longer necessary. Equipped with NFL-caliber playmakers, Moore finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting three times (seventh, fourth, eighth).

    Moore's best season statistically was his last. He completed 74 percent of his passes for 3,800 yards and 43 TDs to only nine interceptions.

    By the time his four seasons were over, having 50 wins wasn't the only impressive number he posted. Moore completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 14,667 yards, 142 TDs and only 28 Ints—a 5-to-1 ratio.

5. Timmy Chang, Hawaii (2000-2004)

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    Timmy Chang took over as Hawaii's air-it-out QB during the same season Kingsbury started slinging the ball around in Lubbock, but Chang ended up having a better career. 

    Chang got the majority of the snap in 2000—his freshman season—and threw for 3,041 yards and 19 TDs, but he also threw 19 Ints. Chang was limited to three games his second season and was forced to redshirt. But in 2002, he started a three-year run to the record books.

    In 2002, Chang threw for 4,474 yards and 25 TDs but still struggled with 22 Ints. That season the Warriors finished 10-4 with a loss in the Hawaii Bowl.

    Chang followed that season up with a 4,199-yard, 29-TD junior season in which the Warriors finished 9-5, but this time they won in the Hawaii Bowl.

    In his senior season, Chang continued to put up amazing numbers, throwing for 4,258 yards and 38 TDs. That season he limited his interceptions to 13 and Hawaii went 8-4 and again won the Hawaii Bowl.

    All in all, Chang finished his career with several FBS records.

    Passing yards (which has since been surpassed): 17,072

    Completions (which has also been broken): 1,388

    Pass Attempts: 2,436

    Passing TDs (he is now fifth): 117

    Interceptions (which will be hard to break considering the next highest number is 64): 80

4. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech (2005-2008)

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    Graham Harrell is the third former Red Raider on this list, but is clearly the best of Mike Leach's lineup of gunslingers.

    Harrell watched from the sidelines in year one at Texas Tech, as Cody Hodges led the Red Raiders to a 9-3 season and a Cotton Bowl berth. Following that season, Harrell never against started a game on the sideline. In his 39 starts, Texas Tech went 28-11 and played in three bowl games.

    In his sophomore season, Harrell threw for 4,555 yards and 38 TDs. That would be the last time Harrell didn't surpass 5,000 yards and 40 TDs.

    In 2007, the Red Raiders were led by Harrell and All-American WR Michael Crabtree. The two stars connected over 130 times for over 1,900 yards and 22 TDs. The problem for opposing defenses was that Crabtree wasn't the only option—Danny Amendola also went over 100 catches and 1,200 yards that season. Altogether, Harrell completed 71.6 percent of his 713 passes for 5,705 yards and 48 TDs.

    But the 9-4 record wasn't good enough for Leach.

    So, in 2008, the Red Raiders ran it a little bit more to help their defense, and it paid dividends. Texas Tech went 11-2 and shared the Big 12 South title with Texas and Oklahoma. Harrell threw the ball only—probably not the most fitting word—626 times for 5,111 yards, 45 TDs and nine Ints. 

    Add up all of Harrell's numbers, and you get 1,403 completions, 2,010 attempts, 15,793 yards and 134 TDs to only 34 Ints. 

3. Ty Detmer, BYU (1988-1991)

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    Ty Detmer was the second of the air-it-out QBs to win a Heisman trophy, wininng in 1990, but finishing ninth in '89 and third in '91. In his three seasons as the Cougars' starting QB, Detmer led BYU to a 28-9-2 record and three bowl appearances.

    In his Heisman season, Detmer threw for 5,188 yards and 41 TDs, leading BYU to as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll.

    He returned for his senior season to have his third straight 4,000-yard, 30-TD season.

    When all was said and done in Provo, Detmer had amassed 15,301 yards and 121 TDs. Those numbers helped him become a ninth-round pick in the 1992 NFL draft. 

2. Colt Brennan, Hawaii (2005-2007)

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    Colt Brennan—the third Hawaii QB on this list—made the most of his three seasons in June Jones' run-and-shoot offense. After an average—by Hawaii QBs' standards—first season in Hawaii, Brennan exploded.

    In 2006, Brennan blew through the record books with 58 passing TDs—six more than the previous record set by B.J. Symons. He also posted career highs in every other passing stat with 5,549 yards and a 72.6 completion percentage while finishing sixth in the Heisman voting.

    But it was the next season that Brennan and the Warriors really made noise, going 12-1—their only loss being to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. That season Brennan's numbers weren't as overwhelming (4,343 yards and 38 TDs), but he did move up to third in the 2007 Heisman voting, finishing behind Tim Tebow and Darren McFadden.

    Overall, Brennan finished his three-year career at Hawaii with 14,193 yards and 131 TDs—good for fifth and fourth all-time, respectively.

1. Case Keenum, Houston (2007-2011)

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    Case Keenum had the advantage of playing parts of five ears of college football after suffering a season-ending injury in the Cougars' third game. He was awarded a medical redshirt that allowed him to play the 2011 season, and he was able to set the all-time career passing record with 19,217 yards passing.

    In Keenum's 57 starts, the Cougars went 41-16 and 2-2 in bowl games. 

    Keenum saved his best performance for his last season. In 2011, Keenum went 428-603 (71 percent) for 5,631 yards and 48 TDs with only five interceptions as he led Houston to a 12-1 season. In that 2011 season, Keenum finished seventh in the Heisman voting and garnered 10 first-place votes.

    To go along with his record in passing yards, Keenum finished his career with 1,546 completions and 155 TDs—both all-time records as well.

    Keenum is the fourth Houston QB on the list and the seventh Cougars QB.

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