Predicting the Winner of the Biggest Quarterback Battles in College Football
No one position has a bigger influence on a college football team's overall success than quarterback.
A star quarterback, surrounded by good talent, can turn a good team into an elite operation. Just ask Clemson, which won its first national title in 35 years with a huge assist from program-changing QB Deshaun Watson.
On the other hand, mediocre quarterbacking can keep a team from consistently reaching its potential. Although Les Miles managed to win a national title at LSU, his inability to find successful quarterbacks ultimately spelled doom for his coaching tenure in Baton Rouge.
This spring, a number of prominent programs are holding quarterback competitions, for a variety of reasons.
We'll take a look at the 10 most important quarterback battles heading into spring practice and predict an ultimate winner.
The new faces under center could be the difference between hoisting the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy in January or sitting at home, thinking about what might have been.
It has been said that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have no starting quarterback.
Well, what about three? Auburn tried to answer that question in 2016, and it wasn't always pretty. The Tigers went 8-5 and made the Sugar Bowl, but injuries and uncertainty under center defined the season.
Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III combined to throw for 11 touchdowns against six interceptions and completed just over 61 percent of their passes. White grabbed the starting role in the second half of the season, but he missed two games with a shoulder injury before breaking his forearm in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Johnson has graduated, but White has returned for spring practice. Franklin is seeing time at wide receiver but is still "in the mix" at quarterback, according to new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey (via ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf). However, the real story is transfer Jarrett Stidham.
The 20-year-old was the heir apparent at Baylor before transferring following the scandal that enveloped the program, spending a season away from competitive football and then signing with Auburn.
Stidham has the arm and the mobility to thrive in coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
White is a capable leader, but Stidham is a more talented passer who can break Auburn out of its current rut and make Malzahn feel more comfortable on the Plains.
Deshaun Watson led Clemson to the top of the college football mountain. The multitalented quarterback keyed the Tigers' final, frantic drive in the national-title game, and his touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left lifted Clemson to its first national championship since 1981.
Now, head coach Dabo Swinney and his group must stay atop that mountain without Watson, who declared early for the NFL draft.
He leaves a major void; Watson was the first college player to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season and was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing as the runner-up to Lamar Jackson last fall.
Three key competitors will battle for the job; junior Kelly Bryant, who entered spring as the leader, per Matt Connolly of The State, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson, one of the nation's top quarterback prospects.
All three have the ability to run the ball and possess solid passing skills. Bryant threw for 48 yards and a touchdown, and he rushed for another touchdown last fall as one of Watson's backups. But Johnson is the most talented of the three with an excellent arm and great accuracy.
Three years ago, Watson left spring trailing Cole Stoudt for the starting role but took it over for good by mid-September. It might not happen immediately but expect Johnson to claim the starting job when it really matters.
In two seasons at Florida, head coach Jim McElwain has won a pair of SEC East titles, but the Gators' upward mobility has been limited by struggles at quarterback. Last fall, Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio combined to throw 18 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, completing 58.8 percent of their passes.
Appleby has graduated, and Del Rio will miss spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, which gives a window of opportunity for younger quarterbacks like redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and early enrollee Kadarius Toney.
Both Franks and Trask have size and skills, while Toney is an athletic option who could fit in at a number of positions.
Franks stands 6'6" and has a big arm. The question is accuracy. He'll have an entire spring to prove he can rein in his talent, and we're guessing that his potential will win out over Del Rio, a known but unspectacular commodity.
Head coach Mark Richt had a pretty decent first season at Miami. The streaky Hurricanes ended 2016 on a five-game winning run and finished 9-4, giving wary fans reason to buy in.
The future is bright in south Florida, but the Hurricanes must clear the next hurdle toward relevancy without their best player. Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya declared for the NFL draft after throwing for 3,532 yards with 27 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
A quartet of players will face off to replace him, including junior Malik Rosier, sophomore Evan Shirreffs, redshirt freshman Jack Allison and freshman Cade Weldon. In addition, signee N'Kosi Perry will arrive this summer and could also be in the mix for the job.
Allison got experience running Miami's scout team last fall and has good arm strength, but Rosier has more experience, including one career start, and he completed two of four passes for 32 yards last fall as Kaaya's backup.
Expect that to make the ultimate difference as he feels more comfortable in Richt's offense and claims the job.
Nebraska took a step forward in head coach Mike Riley’s second season, improving to 9-4 despite ending the season with a blowout loss to Iowa and a Music City Bowl loss to Tennessee.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was an athletic talent, but he was a bit of a round peg in a square hole in Riley's pro-style system. He threw for 2,180 yards with 14 touchdowns against eight interceptions, completing 51.4 percent of his passes.
Now, Riley has a chance to install a true passer in his offense. That will be either junior Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane, or redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien.
Lee is a talented passer who struggled at times with the Green Wave, completing 51 percent of his passes with 1,639 yards and 11 touchdowns against seven picks as a sophomore. He transferred after Tulane hired option-minded Willie Fritz.
O'Brien also has great potential as a pocket passer, but Lee is the clear favorite. With a better fit leading the offense, Nebraska could improve significantly in 2017.
Over the last two years, North Carolina has returned to prominence with a pair of talented quarterbacks.
Marquise Williams' dual-threat skills led the Tar Heels to an ACC Coastal title in 2015, and former backup Mitch Trubisky claimed the spotlight with an excellent season in 2016, throwing for 3,748 yards with 37 touchdowns and six interceptions.
However, Trubisky has declared for the NFL draft and is expected to be one of the first quarterbacks selected, leaving head coach Larry Fedora with another vacancy under center.
A trio of players—sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt—are competing for the job in spring practice. Elliott completed eight of nine passes for 55 yards as Trubisky's backup and appears to be the clear favorite.
However, former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris is considering North Carolina as a graduate transfer and told Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman that "if North Carolina blows me away (on his visit) I'll go to North Carolina."
If Harris winds up in Chapel Hill, it would be a surprise if he didn't end up as the starter.
Head coach Butch Jones faces a pivotal season at Tennessee in 2017. The Volunteers were expected to contend for an SEC title in 2016, but poor defense and injuries consigned them to a 9-4 record and a Music City Bowl bid.
That left many UT fans unhappy, and while plenty of talent remains in Knoxville, Jones must replace standout quarterback and leader Joshua Dobbs.
Dobbs threw for 2,946 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and also led Tennessee in rushing with 831 yards and 12 scores.
That's a problem: receiver Josh Malone told reporters at the NFL scouting combine, per SEC Country's Alex Martin Smith, that he declared for the draft to avoid catching passes from a new quarterback.
"I had a good year, and then my quarterback was leaving," Malone said. "Just with the change and the freshman quarterbacks and trying to play through their growing pains just really wasn't going to be worthwhile. So I just went ahead and took the chance."
Two contenders should compete for Dobbs' job: junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.
Dormady completed 11 of 17 passes for 148 yards last fall as Dobbs' backup, but Guarantano has a higher ceiling as a potential four-year starter if he wins the job.
Both can run and pass the ball if needed, but Guarantano is a better runner, which fits into the void that Dobbs left in the offense.
It'll be a fierce battle, but expect Guarantano to pull ahead eventually.
Last fall, Shane Buechele had a solid freshman season as Texas' starting quarterback. He threw for 2,958 yards with 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and added 151 rushing yards and two scores.
However, the Longhorns finished with a third consecutive losing season, and Charlie Strong lost his job. Texas made an excellent hire in Houston coach Tom Herman, who has a strong track record with quarterbacks.
It's only natural that a new coach such as Herman will open things up and look at every position, including QB.
Buechele will compete with freshman Sam Ehlinger, but he looks like a strong fit for the wide-open spread scheme that Herman is expected to employ.
It would be a big surprise if he didn't hang on to this job when the dust clears for 2017.
One of head coach Kevin Sumlin's biggest problems post-Johnny Manziel has been a lack of stability at quarterback.
High-profile talents like Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill all transferred away, and while Trevor Knight provided a steady hand last fall, he was a stopgap measure as a graduate transfer. So Sumlin enters 2017 once again seeking a new starting quarterback.
The best answer could again be a veteran. Jake Hubenak started three games last fall as Knight's backup, throwing for 884 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
He'll be pushed by freshmen Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, but it might be smart for the youngsters to take a supporting role and watch Hubenak, who is familiar with the offense.
Hubenak is not the flashiest option, but he can certainly get the job done for Sumlin and the Aggies in 2017.
Head coach Justin Fuente enjoyed a smashing debut at Virginia Tech in 2016, winning the ACC Coastal Division.
New starting quarterback Jerod Evans played a huge role in that success, throwing for 3,552 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions and also leading the Hokies with 846 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. But his surprising decision to declare for the NFL draft leaves Fuente scrambling for his replacement.
None of the top contenders has thrown a pass at the FBS level; redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior A.J. Bush (a junior college transfer who began his career at Nebraska) and true freshman Hendon Hooker are all inexperienced.
The favorite is Jackson, who is the only one who has spent a season in Fuente's system. He has an athletic frame, much like Evans, and a good arm. That should be enough to win the starting role in 2017.