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Power Ranking the 15 Best Quarterback Matchups on 2014 College Football Schedule

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2014

Power Ranking the 15 Best Quarterback Matchups on 2014 College Football Schedule

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The 15 best quarterback matchups on the college football schedule—as judged during the preseason—are almost certain not to be the actual 15 best quarterback matchups.

    A lot of this is subject to change.

    Who, for example, could have known that as we look back on last season, a game between Central Florida and Baylor would have had one confirmed top-five NFL draft pick (Blake Bortles) and one potential first-round NFL draft pick (Bryce Petty) under center? No one!

    What we can do, though, is rank the best matchups as they currently rest on paper. Not as a guarantee that they turn out as well as they look, but as a call to arms for people to circle some dates.

    Based on the skill of the two players, the history between them and the meshing of their styles of play, here are the 15 scheduled quarterback battles we are most excited to see take place this season.

    Or at least that we are right now.

15. Taylor Kelly (ASU) vs. Sean Mannion (ORST)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Nov. 15 (Corvallis, Oregon)

     

    Home QB: Sean Mannion, Oregon State (Senior)

    Arizona State forced Sean Mannion into four interceptions last season, and even though he salvaged decent numbers with a garbage-time touchdown drive, he led Oregon State to only three points in the first half and 10 points in the first 57 minutes.

    Strangely enough, that was one of Mannion's better performances in the second half of last season, when what started as a Heisman campaign devolved into a late five-game losing streak.

     

    Away QB: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (Senior)

    Arizona State got the win, 30-17, but Taylor Kelly played his worst game of last season against Oregon State. He averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt on 37 throws, finishing with 183 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and six rushing yards on eight carries.

    He had similar trouble when he traveled to Corvallis in 2012, averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt (!!) in a 36-26 loss, although he did scrape together 80 rushing yards on 10 carries.

     

    Bottom Line

    A QB battle for the Pac-12's bronze medal. It's weird that the gold-medal game is a month earlier, but sign me up. The last few meetings have been weird, but on paper, this should be a shootout.

14. Chuckie Keeton (UTST) vs. Taysom Hill (BYU)

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    When: Friday, Oct. 3 (Provo, Utah)

     

    Home QB: Taysom Hill, BYU (Junior)

    Taysom Hill finished second behind Jordan Lynch and first among returning quarterbacks in rushing EPA (expected points added) last season, posting a score (53.5) that's only been topped by Lynch, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick since 2004.

    Utah State and its legitimately dominant run defense shut him down for 14 yards on nine carries—almost 90 yards below his season average—but Hill compensated with his arm, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-14 road victory.

     

    Away QB: Chuckie Keeton, Utah State (Senior)

    Chuckie Keeton's season ended at BYU in 2013. He's spent the past 10 months rehabbing the torn ACL and MCL he suffered that October, and there's no guarantee he'll come back as the same force of nature.

    If he does, though, he's not the type of player one wants to face with revenge on his mind. Or at all. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer called him the "most exciting talent" in college football.

     

    Bottom Line

    If Keeton was definitely healthy, this would be in the top 10. Wishful thinking keeps it in the top 15. Both of these guys are a lot of fun, and if you don't plan on watching multiple Utah State and/or BYU games this season, definitely tune in and kill two birds with one stone.

13. Bryce Petty (BAY) vs. Davis Webb (TTU)

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    When: Saturday, Nov. 29 (Arlington, Texas)

     

    Home QB: Bryce Petty, Baylor (Senior)

    Bryce Petty hung 335 passing yards on Texas Tech last season, and he needed just 17 completions to get there. Riding a series of explosive plays, he posted a QB rating (177.54) and per-attempt average (10.8) that he wouldn't match again for the rest of the year.

    Oddly enough, both of those figures were his second-lowest of the season at the time he posted them, which was all the way in the middle of November. His season petered out—comparatively—at the end, but in the early going, Petty was out-of-control good.

     

    Away QB: Davis Webb, Texas Tech (Sophomore)

    Like another Big 12 quarterback on this list (stay tuned), Davis Webb did not play a meaningful role in last year's Baylor game.

    In fact, he didn't play at all. Baker Mayfield, who started the first five games before Webb replaced him for the next five, re-replaced Webb against the Bears and the following week against Texas.

    Webb started and starred in the Holiday Bowl, though, which led Mayfield to transfer to Oklahoma. Now the team is decidedly his, and according to Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com, head coach Kliff Kingsbury has said that Webb has "top-five pick talent."

     

    Bottom Line

    Art Briles vs. Kingsbury would be worth watching no matter the quarterbacks. That Petty and Webb are so intriguing makes it even better. The fast indoor track of "Jerry World" doesn't hurt, either.

12. Braxton Miller (OSU) vs. Keenan Reynolds (NAVY)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, Aug. 30 (Baltimore, Maryland)

     

    Home QB: Keenan Reynolds, Navy (Junior)

    Keenan Reynolds rushed for three or more touchdowns in more than half of last year's games, highlighted by an eight-total-touchdown performance (seven rushing) that shattered NCAA records against San Jose State.

    He didn't put up huge numbers against Notre Dame (the best team he's faced up to this point of his career) but his presence was felt, and the Midshipmen rushed for 331 yards in a close 38-34 loss.

    He (and his team) will not be scared of the Buckeyes.

     

    Away QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State (Senior)

    The beginning of the end, as it were, will be an important game for Braxton Miller, who missed a chance to ease into last season—and to pad his Heisman resume—because of a September injury.

    He hasn't played a nonconference road game (which is essentially what this will be) since going to Miami in 2011, and that was in a platooning role with Joe Bauserman. 

    It's not entirely germane, but it does bear mentioning that Ohio State was held to 209 total yards and six points in that game.

     

    Bottom Line

    These are two of the nine or 10 best running quarterbacks in the country, and as far as NFL stadiums hosting college games go, MT&T Bank is not the worst. That's enough to catch my eye in Week 1.

11. Marcus Mariota (ORE) vs. Kevin Hogan (STAN)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Nov. 1 (Eugene, Oregon)

     

    Home QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Junior)

    As far as we can tell, only two things stop Marcus Mariota with consistency: sprained MCLs and Stanford.

    The latter screwed up Oregon's national title hopes (a few weeks before the former screwed up its BCS chances) last season, holding the Ducks scoreless for 49 minutes before letting up a string of garbage-time touchdowns in a rare 26-20 blowout.

    Mariota had minus-16 rushing yards on the evening.

     

    Away QB: Kevin Hogan, Stanford (Senior)

    Kevin Hogan is one of the few quarterbacks in the past decade to post multiple wins against Oregon, and he's angling for a third in 2014.

    He only completed 7 of 13 passes for 103 yards in last year's victory—a performance that came in the middle of by far his weakest stretch of the season—but he is an apt game-manager who does what's needed to keep Mariota & Co. off the field. And that's important.

     

    Bottom Line

    Mariota can't get where he's going without conquering his Rushmore. Stanford's defense gets most/all of the credit, but Hogan is still 2-0 against Mariota, and Mariota is still 0-2 against Hogan. It's always a good game when the nation's best player makes it personal.

10. Connor Cook (MSU) vs. Christian Hackenberg (PSU)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, Nov. 29 (State College, Pennsylvania)

     

    Home QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (Sophomore)

    This will be the final game of Christian Hackenberg's underclassman career, or at least it will be barring some sort of unforeseen announcement that rules Penn State eligible for a bowl.

    We don't know exactly how well he'll play in the first 11 games—everything from great to really great is an option—but we do know that his last season finale was the best performance of his career: a 339-yard, four-touchdown game at Wisconsin in an upset win.

    This will be his first time playing Michigan State.

     

    Away QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State (Junior)

    Connor Cook came on fast at the end of last season, playing his two best games in Michigan State's biggest, the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten Championship.

    He wasn't always at his best during Big Ten play, though, slogging through home games against Purdue and Minnesota and a road game against Nebraska (a team with similarly rated defensive athletes and just as intimidating of a home stadium as Penn State).

    End-of-season Cook will have to make the trip to Happy Valley.

     

    Bottom Line

    Hackenberg and Cook are sort of similar as players, although Hack's arm strength is considerably better (than anyone's in college football). Both feel like they might be better suited to the NFL than college. This game might look a lot cooler on ESPN Classic in 10 years.

9. Trevor Knight (OU) vs. Bryce Petty (BAY)

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    When: Saturday, Nov. 8 (Norman, Oklahoma)

     

    Home QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma (Sophomore)

    Like so many of Oklahoma's games last season, the 41-12 blowout at Baylor was not one Trevor Knight factored into. He had already been benched in favor of Blake Bell and did not throw a single pass.

    He did come in for some special packaged plays, rushing five times for 17 yards, but you could have watched the game from start to finish without knowing or caring or remembering who Knight was.

    Of course, that all predates Knight's heroic performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, which has restored his good graces in Norman and even made him a preseason Heisman favorite.

     

    Away QB: Bryce Petty, Baylor (Senior)

    Yes, Baylor hung 41 points on Oklahoma last season, but the defense, not the offense, was the star of that game.

    Petty and the Bears actually looked out of sorts in the early going, and their momentum (perhaps not coincidentally) started after a few short OU offensive drives forced a tired defense back on the field.

    Baylor does, however, get a bye two weeks before this and Kansas the weekend prior. That should give Petty ample time to prepare.

     

    Bottom Line

    Petty is good enough to beat any defense in the country, but Oklahoma's defense is good enough to stop any quarterback in the country. Knight can realistically beat or be beaten by any defense on any given day. I honestly have no idea what to expect, and I like it.

8 Brett Hundley (UCLA) vs. Taylor Kelly (ASU)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    When: Thursday, Sept. 25 (Tempe, Arizona)

     

    Home QB: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (Senior)

    Kelly might have played his best game of the season against UCLA last year, completing 74 percent of his passes for 225 yards and rushing for 99 more in a wild 38-33 road victory.

    The year before that—in a game that was even wilder—he completed 71 percent of his passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns.

    For those keeping score, 45 of the 62 passes Kelly has thrown against the Bruins these past two seasons have been completed, which is well above his normal completion rate (around the mid-60s). And UCLA has had a pretty alright defense in both of those years.

     

    Away QB: Brett Hundley, UCLA (Junior)

    Forget about the passing for a second.

    Arizona State held Brett Hundley to five rushing yards on 17 carries last season. Five! That's even more impressive than it sounds (which already was pretty impressive). Hundley rushed for 241 yards on 23 carries in the subsequent two games.

    The Sun Devils also held Hundley to 27 yards on 15 carries two seasons ago. Of course, much of this has to do with sacks, and ASU loses seemingly everyone from last year's defense. But Hundley still needs to fix this. And fast. September 25 is not too far away.

     

    Bottom Line

    Neither of these guys are running quarterbacks, and neither of them are passing quarterbacks. They are both paragons of balance under center. And that gives this game a pretty, well, balanced sort of feel.

7. Connor Cook (MSU) vs. Braxton Miller (OSU)

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    When: Saturday, Nov. 8 (East Lansing, Michigan)

     

    Home QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State (Junior)

    More has been made of his performance against Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but Cook was just as good—if not better—against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

    He finished with 304 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception and made a number of high-difficulty throws (exhibits A, B and C) in big moments that look better on tape than in a box score.

    Other than Joey Bosa, Ohio State had no answer for him.

     

    Away QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State (Senior)

    It wasn't the most complete outing of his career, but what Miller did with his legs against Michigan State last year was impressive.

    Yes, it came in Ohio State's first loss since 2011, and sure, the game is best remembered for the one run he didn't convert, but Miller still went for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against what might have been the best run defense in America.

    This is a weird case where both sides are looking for revenge.

     

    Bottom Line

    One of the five best overall matchups of the season. We'll rank the QB battle at No. 7 because of all the other things at play, but Cook and Miller went after it last season and should be good for a fun sequel. 

6. Nick Marshall (AUB) vs. Dak Prescott (MSST)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, Oct. 11 (Starkville, Mississippi)

     

    Home QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (Junior)

    This Dak Prescott hype all started against Auburn last season, when Prescott threw for 213 yards, ran for 133 more and almost led Mississippi State to what at the time would have been a minor upset.

    By the time the year was over, Prescott was one of the trendiest heading-into-2014 players in the country and ranked No. 5 on ESPN's Adjusted QBR metric, two spots ahead of Johnny Manziel.

    All things considered, though, his performance on the Plains still stands as the best of his season/career-to-date.

     

    Away QB: Nick Marshall, Auburn (Senior)

    For the first two games of Auburn's season, Nick Marshall looked less like a genuine quarterback and more like a skinny running back who could kinda, sorta, maybe throw the ball when he had to.

    But then Mississippi State came riding into town, and Marshall exploded with 339 passing yards and 10.0 yards per attempt.

    From there, he slowly continued improving until he found himself where he currently finds himself (as a Heisman candidate). He and Prescott both made their biggest breakouts in the same game.

    They had it when they played one another.

     

    Bottom Line

    A rich man's version of the Ohio State-Navy game. Neither QB will stop running, and neither defense will stop hitting the QBs when they run. This could decide the eventual first-team All-SEC quarterback.

5 Connor Cook (MSU) vs. Marcus Mariota (ORE)

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    When: Saturday, Sept. 6 (Eugene, Oregon)

     

    Home QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Junior)

    Mariota has always struggled with Stanford, and in Week 2 of this season, he has to play a better version of Stanford.

    It's a shame these two units—Oregon's offense and Michigan State's defense—can't play later in the season, when they are sure to have more things figured out. The strength of Oregon's young receivers and Michigan State's young linebackers is still unknown.

    What isn't unknown is that Oregon will miss injured left tackle Tyler Johnstone (torn ACL) against defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush. Mariota better bring his wheels in the pocket.

     

    Away QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State (Junior)

    We've spent a lot of time talking about how Cook's two best games of last season came against the two best opponents on the schedule.

    You know what else they came in? The only two neutral-site games.

    As discussed earlier, Cook struggled in his toughest road environment, at Nebraska. He struggled even more in his next toughest road environment, at Notre Dame. And both of those might pale in comparison to what Autzen Stadium will be like in Week 2.

    Time to find out how much he's really grown up.

     

    Bottom Line

    Two of the best quarterbacks in the country are facing their biggest weakness: Mariota a big, physical defense; Cook a loud, hostile crowd. Honestly, I already regret not having this higher.

4. Christian Hackenberg (PSU) vs. Braxton Miller (OSU)

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, Oct. 25 (State College, Pennsylvania)

     

    Home QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (Sophomore)

    Everything went wrong for Penn State in a 63-14 loss at Ohio State last season, the worst defeat in program history since 1899.

    Hackenberg was a big part of the problem, completing only 12 passes for 112 yards, throwing two interceptions and generally looking statuesque against a pass-rush that was (admittedly) out of control.

    But this is where good QBs become great ones. Ohio State's defensive line will once again make Penn State's protection look like a turnstile—but what of it? How will Hackenberg combat that? He has to be the one who galvanizes this offense to seek revenge.

     

    Away QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State (Senior)

    Miller went off on Penn State in last year's historic romp, combining for more than 300 total yards and five touchdowns despite getting yanked for Kenny Guiton halfway through the third quarter.

    His last trip to Penn State, however, was not quite so perfect. Ohio State got the win, 35-23, and even though Miller's 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns played a big role in that, his 7-for-19 passing was just about the worst showing of his career through the air.

    How much has his arm matured in the two years since that game? I guess that's what we'll have to find out.

     

    Bottom Line

    Miller vs. Hackenberg is the present of Big Ten football vs. the future. This is Miller's league now, but it will be Hackenberg's come 2015. Just don't expect Miller to be "passing" any torches down. If Hackenberg wants it a year early, he'll have to take it.

3. Sean Mannion (ORST) vs. Marcus Mariota (ORE)

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Nov. 29 (Corvallis, Oregon)

     

    Home QB: Sean Mannion, Oregon State (Senior)

    Mannion played pretty well but not great in last year's Civil War, a bonkers game that Oregon stole on a touchdown with 29 seconds left.

    This year, he loses all-universe receiver Brandin Cooks, but there is still reason to believe Mannion can improve on that performance. He won the competition at the Manning Passing Academy this offseason, and come November, he gets the Ducks back on his home field.

    Granted, the last time the Civil War was in Corvallis, Mannion threw four picks and Oregon won by 24 points.

    That sort of history can't repeat itself.

     

    Away QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Junior)

    Like Mannion, Mariota was good but not great in last year's Civil War, although his sprained ACL gives him a more tenable excuse.

    Still, the Beavers have always given Mariota a little bit of trouble (comparatively), just like they have to this entire Oregon team.

    Especially now that preseason All-America teams are being released, Mariota is getting himself caught up in arguments about who the best quarterback in America is, but there's a legitimate (albeit flimsy) case to be made that he's not even the best quarterback in his state.

    Here's a perfect chance to prove that he is, once and for all.

     

    Bottom Line

    If they wear the same uniform combinations as last year, follow along on Twitter. Otherwise, for obvious reasons, it's must-see TV.

2. Everett Golson (ND) vs. Jameis Winston (FSU)

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, Oct. 8 (Tallahassee, Florida)

     

    Home QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State (Sophomore)

    Jameis Winston rolled over every defense in his sight until the first half of the BCS National Championship Game last season. But even still, he enters this game having played by far the best first half of a BCS National Championship of the two quarterbacks on the field.

    Much remains to be seen with regard to Notre Dame's academic misconduct investigation, so we won't make any assumptions, but suffice it to say the Irish would be in trouble if cornerback KeiVarae Russell is not eligible to play this season (against FSU in particular).

    Who else is getting in the way of Winston to Rashad Greene?

     

    Away QB: Everett Golson, Notre Dame (Senior)

    The other quarterback in this game who led his team to a No. 1 BCS ranking as a redshirt freshman, Everett Golson will have answered most of the questions we have about him by the time Notre Dame travels to Tallahassee in the middle of October.

    But he won't have answered all of them. He'll have shown what he can do against an elite defense (Stanford) on his home field, but he won't have shown whether he still has any road magic left up his sleeve.

    The 2012 season feels like an eternity ago.

     

    Bottom Line

    Combined, Winston and Golson are 24-0 in the regular season. There's a good chance that goose egg is gone by October 8, but for now, it is still plenty remarkable. Even without all the off-the-field stuff (which is juicy in its own right), that alone is reason to watch.

1. Brett Hundley (UCLA) vs. Marcus Mariota (ORE)

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, Oct. 11 (Pasadena, California)

     

    Home QB: Brett Hundley, UCLA (Junior)

    What can you even say that hasn't been said?

    Any argument for Hundley as a Heisman favorite is inevitably bogged down by last year's performance against Oregon, when he completed 13 of 19 passes for 64 yards and threw a pair of interceptions.

    Nineteen passes. Sixty-four yards.

    That's barely three yards per attempt!

    Hundley is so, so good when he's playing up to his capabilities, but far too often, that isn't the case. This is a mid-season chance for him to prove that's a thing of the past. That he's playing Mariota only helps set the stage for what should be an awesome show.

     

    Away QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Junior)

    Mariota struggled to get going against UCLA last season, but after letting the Bruins hang around for a half, he and Oregon's fast-paced offense took their toll on the defense and looked as good as ever.

    He shouldn't have anything left to "prove" at this point in the season, when he'll already have played against Michigan State, but going against Hundley, who's been on the radar as a first-round NFL prospect far longer than Cook has, gives this an added cache.

    It's the type of game that can win someone a Heisman.

     

    Bottom Line

    No matter how you slice it, this was an easy choice. Mariota and Hundley are both potential top-five NFL draft picks, they both play an entertaining brand of football and their teams are both contenders (if not favorites) to make the College Football Playoff. This game has major implications in both the college and professional realms.

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