The Best QB in Every College Football Conference for 2017
Whether Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson or Jalen Hurts is most likely to win the Heisman is a debate that could rage on for the entire 2017 college football season, but there's little doubt each one will be the best quarterback in his respective conference.
In this discussion, best doesn't necessarily mean the most talented quarterback or the one most likely to leave NFL draft scouts' chins and shirts drenched in drool. Rather, the top quarterback in each conference was selected based on perceived likelihood of being named the all-conference first-team QB at the end of the season.
As such, projected team success and the proven abilities of primary targets were key factors to consider. In several cases, the supporting casts (or lack thereof) were even more noteworthy than what the quarterbacks have shown us in recent years.
American Athletic Conference: Quinton Flowers, South Florida
2016 Stats: 2,812 yards, 24 TD, 7 INT, 62.5 Comp%, 153.6 QB Rating; 1,530 rushing yards, 18 TD
If you prefer a quarterback with arm strength who likes to remain in the pocket before unleashing a bomb, you probably want Riley Ferguson of Memphis in this spot.
The Tigers QB threw for at least 330 yards in seven of 13 games last season, including a slightly ridiculous seven-touchdown performance (six passing, one rushing) early in the year against Bowling Green. And in his final two games, he threw for 781 yards and eight scores, possibly signaling an even bigger year ahead in 2017—especially with leading receiver Anthony Miller still in the mix.
But once you factor in rushing ability and the potential for an undefeated season, Quinton Flowers is the obvious choice from the AAC.
Had it not been for Lamar Jackson putting up comparable numbers on a bigger stage, Flowers would have been a more oft-discussed phenomenon in 2016. He had at least 150 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in eight of 13 games last season—seven of which came in South Florida's final eight contests. During that stretch, he averaged 217.5 passing yards, 143.4 rushing yards and 3.8 total touchdowns per game.
In mid-November, Flowers had one of the best individual performances in recent history, completing 24-of-29 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 210 yards and three scores. The only other player in the past 17 years who completed at least 65 percent of his passes while throwing for 250 yards and rushing for another 200 was Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
And as was the case for Young, it wasn't garbage-time stat padding from Flowers. USF gave up 42 points in the game and needed every last one of those yards from its QB to win.
Losing leading receiver Rodney Adams and starting running back Marlon Mack could have a slight negative impact on Flowers' overall numbers early in the season, but it won't be long before this one-man wonder is racking up yards and touchdowns with a new supporting cast.
Also considered: Riley Ferguson (Memphis).
Atlantic Coast Conference: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
2016 Stats: 3,543 yards, 30 TD, 9 INT, 56.2 Comp%, 148.8 QB Rating; 1,571 rushing yards, 21 TD
The ACC was loaded with quality quarterbacks in 2016. In addition to Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, it had Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Jerod Evans, Brad Kaaya, Nathan Peterman and Deondre Francois, each of whom averaged better than 2.4 touchdowns per interception and had a QB rating north of 140.
Peterman was the only one in the bunch who didn't throw for at least 3,300 yards, but that's only because Pitt averaged nearly 42 rushing attempts per game. Peterman led the conference in passing yards per attempt.
But now it's pretty much Jackson, Francois and a bunch of question marks or first-year starters.
Yet this was a tougher call than you might think. For a redshirt freshman playing behind an offensive line that couldn't block anything, Francois had an impressive season. There were a couple of duds against the likes of Florida, Michigan and Louisville, but he wasn't alone in struggling with those secondaries. His return is one of the major reasons FSU will almost certainly be ranked in the top five of the preseason AP poll.
Jackson has to be the guy, though. He won the Heisman and is one of the favorites to win it again. He is one of just five players in the past 17 years to accumulate at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,200 rushing yards in a season. He's the only one to eclipse both 3,500 and 1,500 respectively, even though his numbers dropped off a cliff over the final four games.
And with all due respect to the rest of the Cardinals, Jackson did it without much of a supporting cast. Francois had Dalvin Cook and Travis Rudolph, each of whom had already put up impressive numbers the previous year and is no longer on the roster for 2017. Meanwhile, no one Jackson was throwing to (or handing off to) was even deemed worthy of draft pick in April.
His proven ability to thrive regardless of the weapons at his disposal is what makes him such a strong candidate to be the ACC's top QB once again.
Also considered: Deondre Francois (Florida State), Eric Dungey (Syracuse) and Ryan Finley (N.C. State).
Big 12 Conference: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
2016 Stats: 3,965 yards, 40 TD, 8 INT, 70.9 Comp%, 196.4 QB Rating; 177 rushing yards, 6 TD
In any other conference, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph would probably be the pick. Along with Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty, Rudolph is one of just three QBs in the past 17 years to throw for at least 4,004 yards with a maximum of four interceptions. And with both of last years top targets, James Washington and Jalen McCleskey, back for another season, Rudolph just might put up even better numbers as a senior.
Unfortunately, Rudolph is paired up in the Big 12 with the QB who just had the most efficient year of this millennium.
Not only was Baker Mayfield's 196.4 QB rating the best since at least the 2000 season, but the 2011 Russell Wilson (191.8) and the 2011 Robert Griffin III (189.5) are the only players to even come within 10 points of his mark. Mayfield averaged a ludicrous 11.1 yards per attempt while completing 70.9 percent of his passes and turned Dede Westbrook into a Heisman finalist in the process.
There is some understandable concern about what Oklahoma is going to do for offense after losing Westbrook, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Geno Lewis and head coach Bob Stoops, but the hope is they can make something special out of their collection of transfers. Jeff Badet's arrival from Kentucky could be huge, and JUCO transfers Marquise Brown, Myles Tease and Chase Nevel give Mayfield plenty of options with some collegiate experience.
Given how great he has been over the past two seasons, there's simply no good reason to question Mayfield's ability to put up Heisman-caliber stats.
Also considered: Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) and Shane Buechele (Texas).
Big Ten Conference: Trace McSorley, Penn State
2016 Stats: 3,614 yards, 29 TD, 8 INT, 57.9 Comp%, 156.9 QB Rating; 365 rushing yards, 7 TD
Fans of Ohio State and Michigan—and perhaps even Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern—won't be happy with this decision, but it wasn't a difficult one to make. Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns, touchdowns per interception and QB rating last year.
No other Big Ten QB came within 10 points of McSorley's QB rating or within 17 percentage points of matching his yards per attempt.
Factor in the way McSorley finished out the season, and it's almost laughable to suggest anyone else was legitimately considered for this spot. Over his final three games, McSorley completed 68.7 percent of his passes, averaging 338.0 yards, four TD and one INT per contest. If that guy shows up from the outset of the 2017 season, everyone else will be fighting for Heisman runner-up spots.
A dozen Nittany Lions caught at least two passes last season, 11 of whom return for another year. Losing leading receiver Chris Godwin means McSorley will need to find a new favorite target, but there is nearly limitless next-man-up potential in Happy Valley.
If anyone is going to challenge McSorley for this title, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is the obvious first choice. However, don't sleep on Purdue's David Blough. He threw a nation-worst 21 interceptions last season, but he had to force a lot of bad passes to make up for the defense allowing 38.2 points per game and now has a former QB, Jeff Brohm. calling the shots as the head coach.
Also considered: J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), Wilton Speight (Michigan), Richard Lagow (Indiana), David Blough (Purdue) and Clayton Thorson (Northwestern).
Conference USA: Brent Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
2016 Stats: 3,233 yards, 31 TD, 7 INT, 63.3 Comp%, 150.2 QB Rating; 240 rushing yards
If we were basing this entirely on last year's numbers, Western Kentucky's Mike White would be the obvious choice for Conference USA. He ranked top eight in the nation in yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, QB rating and yards per attempt while pacing Western Kentucky to the highest-scoring offense.
However, White lost leading receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, who combined for more than 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Starting running back Anthony Wales ranked third on the team with 30 receptions, but he's also out of the picture for the Hilltoppers. Even head coach Jeff Brohm jumped ship for the Purdue opening, leaving White to basically start from scratch as a senior.
Meanwhile, in Middle Tennessee, the cupboards are still stocked for Brent Stockstill. Four of his top six targets are back for another season, including leading receivers Richie James and Ty Lee. The Blue Raiders did lose running back I'Tavius Mathers, who was a huge part of their passing offense with a Christian McCaffrey-like 66 receptions for 633 yards, but his departure should mean even more passing attempts for Stockstill.
Stockstill missed several games late in the season because of a broken collarbone, but excluding the game in which the injury was suffered, he averaged 348.3 yards per contest. At that rate, he would have amassed 4,528 yards had he been able to stay healthy. Don't be surprised when he's on the shortlist of players who surpass the 4,000-yard mark in 2017.
Also considered: Mike White (Western Kentucky).
Mid-American Conference: Logan Woodside, Toledo
2016 Stats: 4,129 yards, 45 TD, 9 INT, 69.1 Comp%, 183.3 QB Rating
Even more so than Flowers in the AAC, Logan Woodside as the top QB in the MAC was the biggest no-brainer in this entire exercise.
For starters, Woodside led the nation in passing touchdowns and was one of just six quarterbacks to average at least 315 yards per game last year. His QB rating (183.34) was second to only Baker Mayfield's, and he averaged just a shade under 10 yards per attempt.
Even in defeat, Woodside was just about unstoppable, averaging 355 yards and 3.3 touchdowns in Toledo's four losses.
Now factor in the lack of other viable candidates. If Zach Terrell had another year of eligibility at Western Michigan, there would be a conversation worth having here. But both Terrell and Central Michigan's Cooper Rush graduated, leaving either Eastern Michigan's Brogan Roback or Miami OH's Gus Ragland as the first runner-up to Woodside.
That's not even a contest. Woodside is arguably a top-10 QB nationally, and Roback and Ragland would be lucky to be ranked in the top 50—though we would be remiss if we didn't mention that the latter did have a fantastic seven-game stretch at the end of last season after returning from a torn ACL.
Unless you count rushing yards, Woodside should lead the MAC in every noteworthy QB category.
Also considered: Gus Ragland (Miami OH).
Mountain West Conference: Brett Rypien, Boise State
2016 Stats: 3,646 yards, 24 TD, 8 INT, 41.9 Comp%, 155.7 QB Rating
If you've already been perusing the way-too-early mock drafts for 2018, there's a good chance you've been thoroughly convinced that Josh Allen is going to be the best quarterback in the Mountain West Conference, if not the entire country.
However, the potential No. 1 pick in next year's draft didn't put up great stats as a redshirt sophomore, throwing 15 interceptions and completing just 56.0 percent of his passes. Some of the blame for those numbers falls upon his lackluster receiving corps, but that problem didn't exactly correct itself with Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and Jacob Hollister all graduating after accounting for 76.6 percent of the team's receiving yards. Allen has an outstanding arm, but it might be a long season for him in Wyoming.
Rather, the top two candidates for this spot were Boise State's Brett Rypien and Colorado State's Nick Stevens.
The latter did a great job after Collin Hill suffered a season-ending knee injury. Over the final six games, Stevens completed 71.6 percent of his pass attempts, had 17 TD against just three picks and averaged 278 yards per game. But he had the luxury of playing five of those contests against teams that ranked in the bottom 50 percent nationally in defensive QB rating. Also, it was only half of a season.
Rypien, on the other hand, has been solid for 24 games with the Broncos, and he won't be in immediate danger of losing his job. He has been putting up nice numbers for a while, helping turn Thomas Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson into bona fide studs at wide receiver. Sperbeck is gone, but Rypien still has Wilson and a potential breakout star in Sean Modster. Moreover, even more responsibility will fall on Rypien's shoulders now running back Jeremy McNichols is in the NFL.
Also considered: Nick Stevens (Colorado State) and Josh Allen (Wyoming).
Pac-12 Conference: Sam Darnold, USC
2016 Stats: 3,086 yards, 31 TD, 9 INT, 67.2 Comp%, 161.1 QB Rating; 250 rushing yards, 2 TD
If you can find a prop bet on which conference is most likely to have four quarterbacks selected in the 2018 NFL draft, put all of your money on the Pac-12.
Sam Darnold (USC), Jake Browning (Washington) and Luke Falk (Washington State) are mortal locks to appear in the top 10 of any ranking of the nation's top QBs, and Josh Rosen (UCLA) might be a higher draft pick than any of them, provided he shows a full recovery from the shoulder injury that cost him the second half of last season.
However, this spot boiled down to a virtual coin flip between Darnold and Browning.
Though he didn't become USC's starter until Week 4—and even though USC played one less game than Washington—Darnold darn near matched most of Browning's numbers. The duo topped the Pac-12 in both yards per attempt and QB rating and had a combined record of 21-3 as starters. It's a shame they don't face each other during the regular season because it would be one of the most hyped QB battles of the year.
But because Darnold is the front-runner for the Heisman and among the early favorites for the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, it's hard to pick anyone else. The redshirt freshman finished the season on a tear, winning nine straight while throwing for at least 200 yards and two scores and completing at least 62 percent of his pass attempts in each of those games.
Browning, meanwhile, stumbled to the finish line, completing 54.9 percent of his passes in his final five games with just nine touchdowns against six interceptions. Perhaps the version of Browning who effortlessly torched opponents for the first two months of the season will resurface while the Huskies chase perfection once again, but Darnold is the top candidate for first-team All-Pac-12.
Also considered: Jake Browning (Washington), Luke Falk (Washington State) and Josh Rosen (UCLA).
Southeastern Conference: Jalen Hurts, Alabama
2016 Stats: 2,780 yards, 23 TD, 9 INT, 62.8 Comp%, 139.1 QB Rating; 954 rushing yards, 13 TD
Because the defenses are better across the board, the standards for excellence at QB in the SEC are drastically different than they are for the Big 12 and Pac-12. Among the 12 qualified quarterbacks in 2016, not one completed better than 64 percent of his passes or threw more than 27 touchdowns. Austin Allen was picked off 15 times and still ended up with the third-best QB rating in the conference.
So even though Jalen Hurts' numbers don't look great compared to those of the rest of the guys on this list, he did some incredible things in the SEC for a true freshman starting for the defending national champions.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Hurts was his accuracy as a scrambler. Lamar Jackson only completed 56.2 percent of his passes, but prior to three tough season-ending games against Florida, Washington and Clemson, Hurts was finding his mark 65.9 percent of the time.
Had he remained that efficient rather than understandably struggling with leading defenses at the end of a long year, he would have joined elite company. There have only been eight quarterbacks in the past 17 years to throw for at least 2,750 yards and rush for at least 900 yards while completing at least 65 percent of their passes. Among those eight are Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Deshaun Watson.
Provided he doesn't experience the dreaded sophomore slump, he should be the cream of the SEC's crop.
Also considered: Jarrett Stidham (Auburn), Jacob Eason (Georgia), Austin Allen (Arkansas), Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss).
Sun Belt Conference: Brandon Silvers, Troy
2016 Stats: 3,180 yards, 23 TD, 12 INT, 63.7 Comp%, 133.0 QB Rating; 128 rushing yards, 4 TD
There were seven Sun Belt quarterbacks who threw for at least 2,200 yards last season, and all seven are back for another year. Two other things they have in common is not one of them threw for 3,200 yards or had a QB rating of 139 or better, resulting in no clear-cut favorite for the conference's top dog.
But we didn't have to split too many hairs to settle on Troy's Brandon Silvers as the favorite.
Of the bunch, Silvers had the most touchdowns and the highest completion percentage. He was just five yards away from leading the pack in passing yards too. Most important, though, is all of his favorite targets from last season are back. Emanuel Thompson and Deondre Douglas headline the group of seven returning players who caught at least 12 passes last year.
The one red flag is the overhaul on Troy's offensive line. With Tyler Lassiter, Xavier Fields and Antonio Garcia all graduating, there are some serious holes to fill along the unit that led the nation in sacks allowed per game in 2016. However, that's the least of the major concerns among the candidates for this spot.
Also considered: Matt Linehan (Idaho), Justice Hansen (Arkansas State) and Taylor Lamb (Appalachian State).
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.