The Best Returning QB in Every College Football Conference for 2023
The 2022 college football season just ended earlier this month, with Georgia winning the national title for a second consecutive year. Still, it's never too early to start looking ahead at the 2023 season.
Quarterback play is often what makes or breaks a team's season. As we preview the upcoming campaign, there are a number of talented signal-callers returning to campus.
Let's take a look at the best quarterback from each conference. We'll go alphabetically by conference for this one.
AAC: Memphis' Seth Henigan
Memphis didn't have the best season in 2022, finishing 7-6 with a bowl win over Utah State in the First Responder Bowl. But a bright spot was how sophomore quarterback Seth Henigan played during the season.
The Tigers QB finished with 3,571 passing yards and 22 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He finished third in the AAC in passing yards, behind seniors Clayton Tune from Houston and ECU's Holton Ahlers, both of whom are heading to the NFL.
Henigan had two games with over 400 yards passing in 2022, the first of which came in Week 2 against Navy when he completed 70.6 of his passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns. Then during Memphis' 47-45 quadruple overtime loss to ECU, Henigan finished with 407 yards passing, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Henigan will have to deal with some losses in the receiving corps next season. His leading receiver from last season, Eddie Lewis, has transferred to South Carolina, while his second go-to guy, tight end Caden Prieskorn, has transferred to Ole Miss. Despite those losses, the signal-caller could have another big year if he can maintain his momentum from his sophomore campaign.
ACC: North Carolina's Drake Maye
It shouldn't be too surprising who's on this list for the ACC, right? Redshirt freshman Drake Maye had a sensational season in 2022, throwing for 4,321 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He led the ACC in passing yards en route to breaking the UNC single-season record previously held by Mitchell Tribusky, who threw for 3,748 yards in 2016. Drake's 39 career passing touchdowns already puts him at seventh all-time in program history, and his 38 passing scores from this past season tied the single-season school record too.
Maye can make plays with his feet when he needs to as well, rushing for 698 yards and seven touchdowns this past season.
The QB's best game came during UNC's 36-34 win over Wake Forest on Nov. 12. He finished the game with a whopping 448 passing yards, 71 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
The QB helped lead the Tar Heels to their first ACC title game since 2015 and a Holiday Bowl berth against Oregon. Although there were rumors that Maye might transfer following the 2022 season—including a claim by Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi that Maye was offered a pair of $5 million NIL deals to transfer—Maye is staying put in Chapel Hill. Both of the QB's parents went to UNC.
"It wouldn't sit right, especially with all my family..." Maye told Pete Thamel of ESPN of transferring in December. "Switching it up after everything the Mayes went through wouldn't represent what the university means to me or how much it means for me to go there. It'd mess up the mojo and all we've built there. That Carolina blue is special. There's no other color in the world that meaningful."
We'll see how far Maye can take the Tar Heels in 2023. He'll be coached under a new offensive coordinator in Chip Lindsey, who was hired from UCF to replace Phil Longo. It shouldn't matter much who's calling the plays for Maye to have another big season.
Big 12: Oklahoma's Dillon Gabriel
Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders would've been the pick, but he has since transferred to Ole Miss in the SEC. So we're giving this one to Oklahoma's Dillon Gabriel, who finished with 3,168 yards passing along with 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Gabriel rushed for a career-high 315 yards and six touchdowns, as well.
Gabriel finished second in the Big 12 in passing, despite missing most of Oklahoma's game against TCU and the next game against Texas with a concussion. Prior to transferring to Norman last offseason, the QB played his first three seasons at UCF. He had the best season of his collegiate career there in 2019, throwing for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns and leading the Knights to a 10-3 record.
The blame doesn't fall solely on Gabriel, but Oklahoma had quite the disappointing season in 2022. Despite entering as a playoff contender, The Sooners finished 6-7 with a Cheez-It Bowl loss to Florida State. It was Oklahoma's first losing season since 1998.
But Gabriel returning at QB will be good for some consistency for the Sooners at the position. OU hasn't had the same quarterback start the majority of the season in back-to-back years since Baker Mayfield in 2017. Since then, we've seen Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams under center for the Sooners.
With a returning quarterback, let's see if Oklahoma can compete for a Big 12 title in 2023.
Big Ten: Michigan's J.J. McCarthy
In 2022, Michigan won the Big Ten and beat Ohio State thanks in large part to the play of quarterback J.J. McCarthy. But at the beginning of the season, it wasn't clear that McCarthy would start under center.
In the weeks leading up to the season, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said he planned to play both McCarthy and Cade McNamara, who led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title and playoff berth as Michigan's starter during the 2021 season.
Although McNamara started during Michigan's Week 1 51-7 win over Colorado State, McCarthy did so in Michigan's Week 2 game at home against Hawaii. On McCarthy's first throw of the game, he found Roman Wilson for a 42-yard touchdown pass. McNamara completed just four passes for 26 yards and an interception in the game, whereas McCarthy finished with 229 yards passing and three touchdowns. The job was McCarthy's for the rest of the season, unsurprisingly.
The QB totaled at least three touchdowns in five of the last six games, a stretch that included a four-touchdown performance against Ohio State (three passing, one rushing) and an up-and-down performance against TCU. He had a career-high 395 total yards against the Horned Frogs in the CFP semifinal, but he also threw two pick-sixes.
McCarthy, who will be a junior in 2023, returning puts Michigan in a great spot. Not to mention U-M's second-leading receiver from last season, Cornelius Johnson, is returning, too. Can Michigan do the unthinkable and beat Ohio State for a third consecutive year? That hasn't happened since the mid-1990s. But with McCarthy returning and Ohio State replacing two-time Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud, the Wolverines have a good shot at doing it.
Conference USA: Western Kentucky's Austin Reed
If you haven't heard much about Western Kentucky QB Austin Reed, you should get familiar with him. The Hilltoppers signal-caller finished first in the FBS in passing yards last season, amassing 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions.
Reed helped the Hilltoppers record nine wins for a second consecutive season in 2022, capped off with WKU's 44-23 win over South Alabama. In that game, Reed set a New Orleans Bowl record with 497 passing yards, adding four touchdowns and one interception on the night. On the season, Reed finished with four games of 400 or more passing yards, including nine games with at least 300 passing yards.
It was a remarkable first season in the FBS for Reed, who transferred to WKU from D-II West Florida. In 2019, he led the Argos to a D-II national title, throwing for 4,089 yards and 40 touchdowns with another six rushing touchdowns on the ground, per WKU.
There was a chance Reed was going to take his talents elsewhere in 2023. After entering the transfer portal on Dec. 5, Reed withdrew his name on Dec. 13. That's good news for the Hilltoppers, who will be seeking a C-USA title for the first time since 2016. Getting Reed back under center for WKU is a great first step in doing just that.
Mid-American Conference: Ohio's Kurtis Rourke
In 2022, the Ohio Bobcats made it to their first MAC title game since 2016 and finished with 10 wins for the first time since 2011. A big reason for Ohio's success was Kurtis Rourke.
The quarterback had 3,257 yards passing and 25 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He rushed for another 245 yards and four scores on the ground, too. He led the MAC in passing by over 200 yards and recorded the best passer rating in the conference (167.70). His best game came in Week 4 against Fordham. During Ohio's 59-52 win, Rourke had a school-record 537 passing yards and four touchdowns, including another 41 yards and a score on the ground. Rourke will have to rehab some injuries this offseason. On Nov. 15 against Ball State, he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus that cut his 2022 season short.
Rourke is from Ontario, Canada, and is the younger brother of Nathan Rourke, who played for the CFL's BC Lions in 2022 and signed with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars a week ago.
Nathan himself played at Ohio from 2017 to '19. His best season with the Bobcats in 2019 didn't even come close to his younger brother's numbers, as Nathan had 2,820 passing yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. Kurtis was at Ohio as a true freshman in 2019, so the brothers did have some time overlap.
"It was almost like a dream come true," Kurtis said via BVM Sports about playing alongside his brother. "Coming in as a freshman with nobody from your high school at all, just being able to know someone like your brother to help show you the ropes, not even just with football but how to deal with college and the college life … I truly appreciate that year. It's been something that we've thought about growing up and we were finally able to do that. … He taught me a lot of things and gave me insight a lot of quarterbacks wouldn't have given a young freshman."
We'll see if the Kurtis Rourke can lead Ohio to a MAC title in 2023.
Mountain West Conference: San José State's Chevan Cordeiro
San José State quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is familiar with the Mountain West Conference. He began his career at Hawai'i in 2018 before transferring last offseason. Cordeiro, a native of Honolulu, played 36 games with 23 starts for the Rainbow Warriors, throwing for 6,167 yards and 45 touchdowns with 22 interceptions.
But Cordeiro thrived with the Spartans, putting up the best numbers of his career in 2022. He finished with 3,251 yards and 23 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He even got to exact a little revenge, as SJSU beat Hawai'i 27-14 in the last week of the regular season. Cordeiro threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
His best game came against Eastern Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Though San José State lost 41-27, Cordeiro finished with a season-high 366 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, plus 50 yards and a score on the ground.
The next step for Cordeiro and the Spartans? Competing for the Mountain West title. San José State won the conference in 2020 but have finished third and fourth in the West Division in the last two seasons. If Cordeiro can put up more big numbers, the Spartans might have a shot to make it back to the conference title game.
Pac-12: Caleb Williams and Michael Penix Jr.
The Pac-12 will feature some very talented quarterbacks returning in 2023. While USC's Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy last season, Washington's Michael Penix Jr. had a great season himself, even if he didn't get the national recognition Williams did.
We'll start with Williams, who led USC to an 11-3 finish in head coach Lincoln Riley's first season. Williams put up the best numbers of his career, finishing with 4,537 passing yards and 42 touchdowns with just five interceptions.
Williams broke the program record of 41 total touchdowns set by Matt Barkley in 2011, finishing with 52.
On the other hand, Washington looks like a dark-horse playoff contender with Penix returning. He finished second in the FBS behind the aforementioned Austin Reed with 4,641 passing yards—a Huskies record—31 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also broke Washington single-season records for total offense, total offense per game and total offense per play. He had more passing yards than Williams even though he played in one fewer game.
Last but certainly not least, Oregon's Bo Nix deserves an honorable mention. Nix spent the first three years of his career at Auburn before transferring. He put up the best numbers of his career in Eugene, finishing with 3,593 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He rushed for another 510 yards—a career high—and 14 touchdowns, too.
It will be a blast to watch these three face off for the Pac-12 title and a playoff bid.
SEC: Mississippi State's Will Rogers
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers will be back for his third season in Starkville. He had the best campaign of his career in 2021, when he finished with 4,739 yards and 36 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. He even broke Dak Prescott's program record for total offense that year.
Though last season Rogers' numbers weren't quite as impressive, he still had a big year. He finished second in the SEC in passing yards with 3,974 and added 35 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He had three games with over 400 yards passing, including 450 yards and five touchdowns with an interception against Memphis and 409 yards with six touchdowns versus Bowling Green.
Rogers will be surrounded by new options in 2023. Mississippi State landed a big-time receiver transfer in former Eastern Washington star Freddie Roberson. The Bulldogs lost receivers Rara Thomas to Georgia and Caleb Ducking and Austin Williams to graduation. (Thomas was arrested Monday on charges of felony false imprisonment and misdemeanor battery-family violence.)
We'll see what Rogers can do. After the death of MSU head coach Mike Leach in December, he will be playing in less of an Air Raid system under new head coach Zach Arnett.
Arkansas' KJ Jefferson deserves an honorable mention here, too. The Razorback finished 2022 with similar numbers as in 2021: 2,648 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. He added 640 yards with a career-high nine touchdowns on the ground.
Jefferson missed two games in 2022, most notably suffering a shoulder and clavicle injury that kept him out against LSU on Nov. 12. If he stays healthy, he could have the best season of his career.
Sun Belt: South Alabama's Carter Bradley
Carter Bradley started his career at Toledo, spending the 2018-21 seasons with the Rockets. He completed just 182 passes for 2,377 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
After he transferred to South Alabama, Bradley won the starting job and didn't slow down. He finished 2022 with 3,326 yards passing and 28 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Perhaps most impressively, he helped lead South Alabama to its first 10-win FBS season.
Though the Jaguars' loss to Troy sent the Trojans to the conference title game, it was still a great season—especially considering their only other loss before the New Orleans Bowl was by one point to UCLA.
Bradley's best game came in mid-October in a 41-34 win over Louisiana Monroe. Bradley finished with 420 yards passing and three touchdowns, averaging 12.7 yards per throw. If he can put up numbers like he did last season, South Alabama's first Sun Belt title could be on the table.