Early Predictions for CFB's Most Intriguing 2023 Starting Quarterback Battles

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 10, 2023

Early Predictions for CFB's Most Intriguing 2023 Starting Quarterback Battles

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 30: Joe Milton III #7 of the Tennessee Volunteers throws a pass against the Clemson Tigers during the first half in the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
    Megan Briggs/Getty Images

    Five of the nation's top six programs will be replacing their starting quarterbacks this offseason, which means we're in line for some high-profile showdowns to be the field general for the best teams in the nation.

    If you like quarterback races, this is going to be the spring practice for you.

    Georgia (Stetson Bennett), TCU (Max Duggan), Ohio State (C.J. Stroud), Alabama (Bryce Young) and Tennessee (Hendon Hooker) are all looking for new starting quarterbacks. Other top programs around the nation are, too.

    While there's no way to discuss every single race, there are a few that will have our attention for different reasons. In some cases, we're just excited to find out whether the high-profile youngster can live up to expectations. In others, it's going to be a race between transfers.

    The portal has injected rejuvenated life into quarterback battles across the nation. We'll examine some of the biggest.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    College Football: Alabama quarterback Ty Simpson (15) throwing prior to game vs Texas at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium. 
Austin, TX 9/10/2022 
CREDIT: Greg Nelson (Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X164150)
    Set Number: X164150

    There's no way Alabama can replace the production, leadership and brilliance of Bryce Young right away.

    There isn't a Young waiting in the wings the way he was when Mac Jones finished his exceptional only season as a starter for the Crimson Tide following the Tua Tagovailoa era. But is there another Jones? We're about to find out.

    Tuscaloosa boasts one of the most intriguing showdowns this offseason because Jalen Milroe got so much run with Young hurt this year. He is a run-first quarterback who could thrive at another offensive position. But can he be a national champion signal-caller? He must take a big leap throwing the ball.

    Then there's Ty Simpson, who threw just five passes but is an outstanding talent who has a big arm and flashes with his athleticism. Many around UA think he could be special.

    Even with Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan coming in, it feels like a Simpson-Milroe battle, and the prediction is Simpson develops and wins the job. Milroe will either agree to slot in at another position, continue to progress as a quarterback or leave in the portal.

    Will the Tide go after a transfer signal-caller to provide depth? We'll have to wait on that, but Simpson has the most upside.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    STANFORD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 22: Quarterback Emory Jones #5 of the Arizona State Sun Devils passes the ball in the first quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Cincinnati is a program that is poised for a complete transition, so a fresh start is probably warranted.

    New coach Scott Satterfield got out of the volatile situation in Louisville and will usher the Bearcats into the Big 12, the conference where they'll play in 2023 as they move to the Power 5.

    Emory Jones is throwing his ability into the race to be Satterfield's quarterback, making his second transfer in as many seasons. After leaving Florida following Dan Mullen's firing, Jones went to Arizona State and lost that starting job, too.

    Will the third time be the charm?

    While Evan Prater had flashes for the Bearcats a year ago, it was an inconsistent and uneven performance and, at times, he failed to adequately move the ball, despite his athleticism. He definitely needs more time to develop, and there may be questions surrounding whether he stays.

    Ben Bryant is the best passer of the bunch and has yet another season of eligibility. He announced he is coming back to battle Jones, too, so this is a three-player race.

    It's totally up-in-the-air, but Jones has won the gig at two places before, so look for his talent to flash in the Queen City. Can he hang on to it, though? That's another question altogether.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 03: Carson Beck #15 of the Georgia Bulldogs warms up prior to the game against the LSU Tigers in the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    What Stetson Bennett has been able to accomplish the past two years in his return trip to Athens is remarkable. He may go down as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in college football history.

    Now that he's out of eligibility, where does Kirby Smart and coordinator Todd Monken go? The transfer portal already has been mentioned as a possibility by Smart in an article by 247Sports' Jordan D. Hill, but the replacement likely is already on the roster.

    Carson Beck is a 6'4" Florida native who looked terrific in limited action (32 passes) relieving Bennett this year, tossing four scoring passes. He has a big arm and is much more of a prototypical signal-caller than Bennett.

    The past two recruiting cycles, the Bulldogs have brought in high-upside quarterbacks in recruiting classes in Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton, and either of those guys have outstanding ability. They didn't sign one this time around.

    "We're very pleased with what we have in our quarterback room," Smart told DawgNation's Connor Riley. "We think we've got three quarterbacks that are going to be really good, so the concern wasn't about a quarterback."

    Smart recruits at too high of a level to get a transfer signal-caller for depth fodder, so if UGA goes in that direction, it would be to challenge Beck.

    But there's nothing wrong with putting your hope in the rising junior and letting him ride. With three potential years of eligibility remaining, he could be the guy to come in and keep the momentum going. Beck's the man; this is an easy call.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    IOWA CITY, IOWA- NOVEMBER 25:  Quarterback Casey Thompson #11 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers throws a pass during the second half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium, on November 25, 2022 in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    Matt Rhule has his boots on the ground in Lincoln and is already building toward starting "his" Nebraska football program, officially turning the page from the tumultuous Scott Frost and interim Mickey Joseph eras.

    He has a tough decision to make right off the bat.

    While lots of recruiting eyes are toward the Cornhuskers' pursuit of top 2024 quarterback prospect Dominic Raiola, he can't help the program rebuild in '23. That is going to be the job of either Casey Thompson or Jeff Sims.

    Who wins this one is up-in-the-air, at best.

    Thompson transferred from Texas a season ago, and like he did in Austin, he put up fine numbers for the Huskers, completing 63.1 percent of his passes for 2,407 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he doesn't win games.

    Sims had some moments in which he looked like a remarkable dual-threat quarterback for a bad team during Geoff Collins' tenure at Georgia Tech, but he didn't do enough to elevate that program.

    With Thompson rehabbing a shoulder injury that nagged him for much of the year, Sims may get a head start in the spring at impressing his coaches. That could lead to him taking the first snaps of the Rhule era. But both guys are going to play and get on-the-job training as they build for the future.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    COLUMBUS, OHIO - NOVEMBER 12: Kyle McCord #6 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws the ball during the fourth quarter of a game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium on November 12, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images)
    Ben Jackson/Getty Images

    In Columbus, Ohio, they're asking the same question that has to be wafting over Tuscaloosa, too: "How do we replace a generational talent at quarterback?"

    While he hasn't made the announcement yet, C.J. Stroud is expected to bypass his remaining eligibility with the Buckeyes and head to the NFL, where he'll be an early pick.

    That means coach Ryan Day is going to have a huge decision to make regarding the future of the position.

    Who's going to get that embarrassment of wide receiver riches featuring Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and friends the ball?

    Kyle McCord is a terrific athlete and former 5-star signal-caller who completed 16 of his 20 passes this year. Like Carson Beck (Georgia) and Ty Simpson (Alabama), talent isn't in question. But can he come in and dominate without any experience like Stroud?

    McCord's biggest on-campus competition is another former highly ranked recruit in Devin Brown. Both of those guys are going to have the chance to wow the coaches, but McCord has the advantage because he's been on campus a year longer.

    Ohio State may be one to watch in the next wave of transfer portal fishing to add depth at least. Incoming freshman Lincoln Kienholz has elite long-term potential, but it would be a surprise if he challenged McCord right away.

    The latter is going to be the man to take the first snap and be the next really good one for the Buckeyes, barring a big-time transfer find.

Oregon State Beavers

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    CLEMSON, SOUTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 26: DJ Uiagalelei #5 of the Clemson Tigers gets tackled by Nick Emmanwori #21 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
    Eakin Howard/Getty Images

    Maybe DJ Uiagalelei isn't ever going to live up to the massive expectations as a 5-star, top-two quarterback in the country like he was out of high school. But don't give up on his massive ability or his collegiate potential.

    It just isn't going to happen at Clemson.

    Uiagalelei has moved on to Oregon State, where he'll play for his brother Matayo's new Oregon team's biggest rival, the Beavers. Don't expect that he'll just be handed the job in Jonathan Smith's program, though.

    Oregon State finished 10-3 this year, and they have some really nice pieces for the future. As a freshman, Ben Gulbranson looked pretty good throwing for 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns. Chance Nolan entered the transfer portal.

    Even with Aidan Chiles, a 4-star quarterback who flashed in the All-American Bowl, coming in, this is a battle between Gulbranson and Uiagalelei. Chiles is the future, but he is raw and needs time to develop after breaking his arm and seeing the COVID-19 pandemic wreak havoc on his California high school career.

    Uiagalelei completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,521 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions at Clemson in 2022 while running for 545 more yards and seven scores. Yes, he's erratic, but he is still very talented.

    It's hard to envision that talent failing to flash in the competition with Gulbranson, so we'll lean to DJU taking the majority of snaps for the Beavs next year in an offense that is going to lean heavily on the run, regardless.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    UNIVERSITY PARK, PA - NOVEMBER 26: Penn State quarterback Drew Allar (15) throws a pass during the Michigan State Spartans versus Penn State Nittany Lions game on November 26, 2022 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    During last year's recruiting cycle, I was higher on Drew Allar than most throughout the entire cycle. Then the recruiting services caught on and finally made him a 5-star prospect.

    He's special, and that was obvious all year as Penn State coach James Franklin elevated him to Sean Clifford's backup, going on to complete 35-of-60 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns.

    With Clifford off to the NFL, the 2023 Nittany Lions should be Allar's team, but he will have to battle fellow classmate Beau Pribula and incoming true freshman Jaxon Smolik, who arrived in Happy Valley this month.

    So much youth permeates this position, it would be wise for Franklin to monitor and perhaps even utilize the transfer portal around the spring practice timeframe to bring in a veteran to battle Allar for the job. But don't mistake that statement for anything more than what it is.

    Clifford proved a lot of doubters (including me) wrong this past year with a fantastic year, but Allar has the highest ceiling on the roster, much the same way J.J. McCarthy did a season ago at Michigan despite splitting snaps with Cade McNamara.

    The reason why the college football universe should be excited about the Penn State quarterback competition is to finally get to see Allar lead "his" team. He's about to prove why he was so highly rated and will help PSU make the next step to national title contender.

TCU Horned Frogs

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    College Football: TCU Chandler Morris (2) in action, throws the football vs. Iowa State at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Fort Worth, TX 11/26/2022
CREDIT: Greg Nelson (Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) 
(Set Number: X164249 TK1)
    Set Number: X164249 TK1

    There was a point in time earlier this football season when the national runner-up TCU Horned Frogs thought Chandler Morris was their starting quarterback.

    Then, veteran Max Duggan came back in, embraced coach Sonny Dykes' scheme, became a Heisman Trophy finalist and changed the trajectory of the program. With him out of eligibility, somebody else has to take the reins.

    Morris is expected to be the guy. He completed 18-of-26 passes in limited action this year, but he could be a quality signal-caller in this program. He is a more fling-the-ball-around-everywhere quarterback Dykes traditionally employs. Sam Jackson is on campus, too.

    There haven't been many programs more active in the transfer portal than TCU, which already has five commitments, including three from Alabama. Dykes mentioned to Horned Frog Blitz's Dean Straka in December he expects TCU to look for a transfer quarterback.

    "We are trying to figure out what is next at that position," Dykes said, while mentioning Morris was aware there would be a competition. "A lot of that has just kind of played out in just waiting to see what was going to happen here and where we were going to go from here. My guess is that we are going to take a transfer at some point, but I'm still not really sure what that is going to look like. That is still kind of a moving target for us."

    After not signing a QB in the '23 class, TCU has to go in the portal for depth at least. With Dykes' quarterback-happy offense and the Frogs' success, they'll hit on a big one on the next wave of transfers. As of now, this will be Morris' job.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 24: 5-Star Tennessee Volunteers Quarterback commit Nico Iamaleava at Neyland Stadium before the game against the Florida Gators on September 24, 2022 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images)
    Donald Page/Getty Images

    Everybody is excited about 5-star prospect and the nation's fourth-ranked player, Nico Iamaleava, coming into Knoxville to be the next great Vols quarterback.

    It may have to wait another year.

    Joe Milton III won the job last year after transferring from Michigan during the first Josh Heupel season on Rocky Top, but he lost the reins to Hendon Hooker in the 2021 season's second game against Pittsburgh. Hooker surged afterward, and the rest is history.

    But after Hooker's Heisman Trophy season went down with an ACL injury against South Carolina, Milton showed flashes of brilliance. He specifically performed well in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson, completing 19-of-28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns.

    With Milton's immense physical ability, elite arm strength and pro upside, it's going to be hard unseating him. But there will be a true competition this spring, and Iamaleava is already on campus. Rising redshirt freshman Tayven Jackson has a lot of ability, too.

    Milton's problem has never been winning the starting job—he did so twice in Ann Arbor and once in Knoxville. It's been keeping it.

    He waited his turn behind starter and close friend Hooker, and Milton will be rewarded with the starting job because of his pro trajectory. But Iamaleava certainly will be worked in with reps in Milton's final year, getting much-needed experience to build toward the future.

    Strong days are ahead on Rocky Top.

Texas Longhorns

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    AUSTIN, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 25: Quinn Ewers #3 of the Texas Longhorns reacts after rushing for a touchdown in the first half against the Baylor Bears at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on November 25, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Everybody wants to anoint Arch Manning as the next big thing in Texas, especially after the up-and-down first year under center for Quinn Ewers.

    Don't do that just yet.

    Ewers completed just 58.1 percent of his passes for 2,177 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. It was obvious he wasn't ready for the big time, even after transferring from Ohio State. But don't forget, this was supposed to be his first season out of high school football after reclassifying.

    The 6'2", 206-pound field general still has a lot of upside and plenty of time to grow, learn and develop under Steve Sarkisian. But the temperature on that seat escalates quickly with Manning on campus.

    Few want to talk about it, but we really don't know what we're about to see with Manning. He may be the No. 1 overall player in the nation, but he rarely camped, didn't go to the Elite 11 and isn't playing in any high school All-American games. His name speaks for itself, but does his game?

    Manning didn't play great high school competition, which wasn't a big deal for uncles Peyton and Eli on the collegiate level. But it's going to be surprising if it's an immediate transition to the Longhorns.

    With Hudson Card out of the picture, this is a Ewers-Manning battle. Ewers will win it, but Sark will gradually work Manning into some reps as well.

UCLA Bruins

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    Dante Moore dominated the All-American Bowl and is heading to UCLA.
    Dante Moore dominated the All-American Bowl and is heading to UCLA.Credit: 247Sports

    The quarterback situation at UCLA under Chip Kelly is probably going to be the most fun battle of the offseason.

    Dorian Thompson-Robinson did a terrific job bringing the Bruins from a Pac-12 laughingstock back into playing important football, and Kelly's program looks like it may be ready to start competing for conference championships with the next era of signal-callers.

    But who's it going to be?

    Kent State transfer Collin Schlee is currently the fourth-rated quarterback who entered the portal, according to 247Sports. When head coach Sean Lewis left to be Deion Sanders' offensive coordinator at Colorado, Schlee also sought greener pastures, too.

    He completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,109 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions for a bad Golden Flashes team in 2022. But is he good enough to beat out Dante Moore?

    The incoming freshman was easily the biggest win of the Kelly era, and UCLA flipped him from Oregon in December. All Moore did was dominate the All-American Bowl, throwing four touchdown passes. He looks like the real deal.

    Even though it's a big deal for Kelly to have Schlee (and Ethan Garbers) on the roster for their veteran leadership and the fact they've had some game reps, we're going to go out on a limb and say Moore beats them both as a true freshman.

    He's that good.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    MORGANTOWN, WV - OCTOBER 13: Baylor Bears Quarterback Kyron Drones (15) throws the ball  during the second half of the college football game between the Baylor Bears and the West Virginia Mountaineers on October 13, 2022, at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    It's a shame, but nobody is paying any attention to the Virginia Tech Hokies program right now.

    Following a 3-8 season under first-year coach Brent Pry after he left his Penn State defensive coordinator position to replace Justin Fuente, the once-proud program has fallen completely off the sport's radar.

    In order for Pry to rebuild, he has to hit on a quarterback.

    Marshall transfer Grant Wells took the bulk of the snaps a year ago but, much like his time with the Thundering Herd, was just average, completing 59 percent of his passes and throwing as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns.

    South Carolina transfer Jason Brown was even worse and left Blacksburg for Jackson State. So, it's going to be a two-man battle between Wells and Baylor transfer Kyron Drones in 2023.

    There's reason to be excited about Drones, a 6'2", 223-pound Pearland, Texas, native who completed 14-of-23 passes for 219 yards last year backing up Blake Shapen for Dave Aranda's program. He also ran eight times for 49 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns.

    With a ton of upside and the time to develop outside of the spotlight, Pry should roll with Drones and let him be the man to get Virginia Tech back to a bowl game. Will he shrug at all the experience Wells brings to the table and go with sheer talent?

    At this point, what does he have to lose?

Wisconsin Badgers

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    ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - DECEMBER 17: Quarterback Tanner Mordecai #8 of the SMU Mustangs passes against the Brigham Young Cougars during the first half of the New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
    Sam Wasson/Getty Images

    There's nothing off-the-radar about Wisconsin football. The Badgers and everybody around Camp Randall are hungry to get back to the national spotlight (or at least the Big Ten race) following the tumble of the Paul Chryst era.

    When the Badgers made a huge hire in former Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell rather than sticking with interim coach and former defensive coordinator and player Jim Leonhard, it announced Wisconsin is serious about getting back in the heat of things.

    But they need a spark at quarterback. Enter Tanner Mordecai, who should easily beat out Myles Burkett, Chase Wolf and another intriguing transfer, Oklahoma's Nick Evers.

    Evers is a former top-200 QB prospect from the '22 class who committed to Oklahoma but probably realized he wasn't going to beat out Jackson Arnold in the future. He has a nice ceiling for the future.

    You'd be bonkers, though, to believe anybody but Mordecai is winning this job. Entering his sixth year, the two-time Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist will be playing at his fourth college. The past two seasons, he's thrown for more than 7,000 yards and 72 touchdowns in dynamic Mustangs offenses.

    Mordecai is the perfect weapon for offensive coordinator Phil Longo's system, even though he will have to win the job outright. Evers vs. Burkett as the backup battle could determine the future.