College Football Playoff Contenders Forced to Start Inexperienced Quarterbacks
To win a college football national championship, a strong quarterback is a must.
Contenders must have someone who can handle the pressure, someone who isn’t afraid to face a fourth-quarter deficit and lead his team on a crucial drive with 80,000 hostile fans screaming in his ear.
Teams need someone they can trust. Ideally, a veteran.
This fall, some college football playoff contenders won’t have that luxury. While Jameis Winston proved in 2013 that experience isn’t a must while he led Florida State to a BCS National Championship (picking up a Heisman Trophy along the way), coaches prefer an experienced quarterback whom they can count on in the toughest situations.
That said, here’s a look at some College Football Playoff contenders who’ll be forced to start inexperienced quarterbacks this fall.
All quotes for this article were obtained from ASAP Sports transcripts of Big 12 and SEC media days.
Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin face one of the more unenviable tasks in college football this fall: replacing A.J. McCarron. McCarron was one of the winningest quarterbacks in college football history, finishing his Alabama starting career 36-4 with a pair of national championships.
This spring, Alabama fans watched a wide-open competition that ultimately unfolded like a WWE championship ladder: Five quarterbacks competed to, ultimately, be crowned as the No. 1 contender and advance to face another title contender in the main event.
Senior Blake Sims won that half of the battle, besting four other signal-callers to emerge as the top contender following spring practice. He didn’t have a great spring game but was impressive in two other scrimmages completing 40 of 62 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns, according to the Associated Press.
He served as McCarron’s backup last season, completing 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns but having little opportunity to prove himself when the situation mattered.
His spring effort earned Sims the right to face off with Jacob Coker. Coker, who stands 6’5”, 230 pounds, lost a battle in preseason practice with freshman Jameis Winston last fall at Florida State and watched as Winston emerged as one of the best players in college football. He utilized the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which allows players to transfer with immediate eligibility if they have graduated, and he arrived at Alabama in May.
Saban said at SEC media days, per ASAP Sports, that Coker “has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position.”
Last fall, Coker completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in mop-up duty. Both he and Sims are pro-style quarterbacks with the ability to throw or run, which will fit in well in Kiffin’s offense.
Also, with a deep offense led by junior tailback T.J. Yeldon and junior wideout Amari Cooper, the pressure won’t all be on the new guy’s shoulders.
However, the new guy must adjust quickly, Saban said.
Decision making and judgment is a critical factor, accuracy with the ball is a critical factor, and leadership is a critical factor. Two out of three of those things are a little bit innate in terms of a guy understanding a system, feeling confident in application of that system so they can make good choices and decisions, can lead, can be accurate, to enhance the players around him.
That's the challenge with a young quarterback. How long is it going to take that guy to go through that process? How long is it going to take him to where he can do those things effectively and gain the respect of his teammates and have an effect on them so that you play well together as a unit? I think that's the biggest challenge.
Through ups and downs over the last four years, Georgia fans could always count on Aaron Murray. Murray developed into the most prolific quarterback in SEC history, setting SEC career records for completions (921), passing yards (13,166), touchdown passes (121) and total offense (13,562) while becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
Behind him, Hutson Mason waited his turn. Mason signed with Georgia as a Parade All-American and was plenty prolific himself, throwing for 4,560 yards and 54 touchdowns as a high school senior (both Georgia state records).
But he couldn’t unseat Murray, and he actually redshirted in 2012 so he could separate himself from Murray’s career path.
When Murray suffered a torn ACL in the Bulldogs’ 11th game last fall against Kentucky, the 6’3”, 202-pound quarterback finally got his chance. Mason led a 20-point comeback against Georgia Tech, rallying the Bulldogs to a 41-34 double overtime win with 299 yards and two passing scores. He had 320 yards passing in a 24-19 Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska, and he’s the unquestioned starter, at long last, this fall.
Mason will have plenty of weapons around him, with one of the nation’s top tailback duos in juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall as well as senior wideouts Chris Conley and Michael Bennett and junior Malcolm Mitchell.
He's really sacrificed a lot for this team. He's staying because he loves Georgia and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come and he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys, a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago. I think the stage is set for him to have a tremendous senior year.
Zach Mettenberger provided LSU with major consistency, developing into the kind of player who could win games with his arm, if necessary. LSU coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron knew replacing him would be one of the biggest priorities of the offseason.
Mettenberger’s torn ACL, suffered in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, moved up that timetable.
Anthony Jennings stepped in and flashed potential, leading a 99-yard game-winning drive with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural. He also started the Outback Bowl against Iowa but was less-than-impressive, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
He was pushed hard this spring by incoming freshman Brandon Harris, rated as the nation’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports. Like Jennings, Harris is an athletic quarterback who can make plays in a variety of ways with excellent strength, footwork and accuracy.
Their battle figures to last through preseason practice and perhaps into the season. Miles said at SEC media days, per ASAP Sports, that it will “be a competitive event from start to finish.”
Whoever emerges will control an offense that returns four starting offensive linemen and a number of talented young players, including tailback Leonard Fournette (rated as 247Sports’ No. 1 overall recruit) and wideouts Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.
LSU opens in Houston against Wisconsin, but the Tigers will need a starter set by early October, when they face back-to-back games at Auburn and Florida, which could serve as an early defining stretch for their College Football Playoff hopes.
Trevor Knight was considered the quarterback of the future when he signed with Oklahoma two years ago. The 6’1”, 201-pounder was rated as the nation’s No. 8 dual-threat quarterback and a 4-star recruit by 247Sports.
However, he struggled at times to live up to that hype last fall. Knight started the season opener against UL-Monroe and rushed for 103 yards while throwing three touchdowns, but he started only three more games the rest of the regular season.
For Knight, the Sugar Bowl was sweet redemption. He had a coming-out party, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-34 upset of Alabama, a game that branded the Sooners as College Football Playoff contenders entering this season.
Now, Knight is the Sooners’ unquestioned starter. He’ll be looking to build on a freshman season that saw him throw for 819 yards with nine touchdowns against five interceptions, adding 445 yards with two touchdowns on the ground.
If he can show the confidence that he displayed in spades against a good Crimson Tide defense, Oklahoma should be able to hold up against the Big 12’s best. He’ll have talent around him with the likes of junior wideout Sterling Shepard and tailbacks Keith Ford and Joe Mixon.
Over the last three years, Connor Shaw emerged as one of college football’s grittiest quarterbacks, leading South Carolina to 33 wins, the best run in program history.
Now that Shaw has moved on to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, the task of replacing him has fallen to his longtime backup, Dylan Thompson. The 6’3”, 218-pound senior has been effective as an injury replacement for Shaw, compiling a 3-0 record as a starter.
He has thrown for 1,827 yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in his career and has proven himself in big moments. Two years ago at Clemson, he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in a South Carolina win and also hit Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to win the Outback Bowl. USC coach Steve Spurrier said at SEC media days, per ASAP Sports, that Thompson “has to pack his college career into one season” but is very confident in his abilities.
Dylan has been very patient. He and Connor Shaw are best of friends all four years. Now he's got it all by himself. It just worked out that way. It just happened that day. Occasionally it does.
He's played a little bit, though. Two years ago we went to Clemson, and Connor had a little injury of some nature. I said, You're ready to go this week, aren't ya? He said, Yes, sir. I said, It's your game. We'll tell the media boys right before the game starts. He knew it was his game. Played extremely well. I think that was a 27‑17 game. He's a good player. He's ready to play.
He’ll have to improve on his career 55 percent completion percentage, and with South Carolina hoping to take the next step towards a College Football Playoff berth, a steady hand will be needed.
Kevin Sumlin faces an unenviable task this fall: replacing the phenomenon that is Johnny Manziel. In two seasons of college football, Manziel led Texas A&M back into the college football spotlight, winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy and galvanizing fans with his electric style of play.
Manziel declared for the NFL draft after a 2013 season that saw him throw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores. CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler said Sumlin is treating Johnny Football like Johnny Forgotten.
A pair of quarterbacks emerged this spring as the main competitors for his job in sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen, an early enrollee.
Hill is an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who is far more like Manziel, which could give him an edge if Sumlin is looking for a player who can run the office like Manziel did.
Allen was rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No.1 pro-style quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect. He’ll have an equal shot at winning the role this fall following an impressive spring.
Sumlin said keeping the pressure off the new quarterback is just as important as the quarterback’s adjustment, according to ASAP Sports.
Both these guys have shown the ability to be resilient. Both have been through it a little bit as high school and younger players. Certainly none of them have been through what they're going to face that day.
It's our job to try to give them a plan that they can execute, number one, but number two gets back to what I talked about earlier, about the other guys on the field. The other guys on the field making the offense quarterback friendly, and the quarterback not having to do everything on his own.