Why Cody Kessler Is the Most Underrated QB in College Football

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2015

SAN DIEGO, CA -  DECEMBER 27:  Cody Kessler #6 of the USC Trojans throws a pass against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the National University Holiday Bowl on December 27, 2014 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

You can count on one hand (and have fingers left over) the number of positions in college football that are more prestigious than the quarterback job at USC. A scan of the names associated with this position since the turn of the century reads like a list of Steven Spielberg movies, where even the ones that didn't turn out as good as expected were still pretty good.

But the last name on the list doesn't jump off the page like those before him, like past Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, or former first-round NFL draft picks like Leinart, Palmer and Mark Sanchez. Even John David Booty has more name recognition than Cody Kessler.

"Some casual college football fans might have a hard time even naming USC's starting quarterback," ESPN.com's Sharon Katz wrote of Kessler last December, just before he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

Kessler, a fifth-year senior heading into his third season as the Trojans' starting QB, has somehow managed to escape being in the same national spotlight that all those before him were cast. Rather, he's not been able to get that light to shine in his direction despite being arguably the best of the lot from a statistical standpoint.

Comparing USC's Starting Quarterbacks, 2000-Present
Player (Years)Years as starterYardsTDComp. %Rating
Matt Barkley2009-1212,32711664.1148.7
John David Booty2006-076,1255562.3140.9
Cody Kessler2013-present6,8035967.9158.9
Matt Leinart2003-0510,6939964.8159.5
Carson Palmer2000-0211,8187259.1131.2
Mark Sanchez20083,9654164.3153.9
Statistics are for career, not just years as starter

Kessler completed 69.7 percent of his throws last season, third-best in the FBS, and his 167.06 quarterback rating was fourth overall. Both of those were school records, while his 39 passing touchdowns tied Matt Barkley's mark from 2011, and his 3,826 yards were just 116 short of Palmer's tally in 2002.

Yet because of Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Kessler was relegated to being one of six quarterbacks to receive honorable mention honors on the Pac-12's all-conference team.

Mariota and Hundley have moved on, and while Kessler will likely be selected as the league's preseason first-teamer, he's not making it that far on most national lists. Phil Steele has him on the first team, but Athlon Sports dropped him to the third teamSporting News didn't have him on either of its preseason All-American teams, though it did have Ohio State's Cardale Jones, who could end up being his team's third-string quarterback.

From a Heisman standpoint, Kessler has seen his odds rise to 12-1, per OddsShark.com, which puts him tied for third among quarterbacks. One of the guys he's tied with? Auburn's Jeremy Johnson, he of the two career starts.

What is it about Kessler that makes him not stand out like others? Is it because he doesn't have that "NFL" body, standing only 6'1" (while USC's previous five starters were all between 6'2" and 6'5")? Is it because he wasn't a 5-star prospect coming out of high school like Barkley, Sanchez and Kessler's backup, sophomore Max Browne, were?

Those things matter, but there are two other factors that stand out: his recruiter and his rival.

A product of the ill-fated Lane Kiffin era, Kessler was one of three passers that Kiffin signed in 2010 and 2011 (along with Jesse Scroggins and Max Wittek, neither of whom would pan out at USC). He backed up Barkley in 2011-12 and then won a prolonged battle with Wittek for the starting job that extended into the 2013 season.

That was the year that Kiffin was famously sent packing while on the way home following a blowout loss at Arizona State. And while Kessler's numbers that year were strong for a first-time starter, they didn't register nearly as much as the soap opera-like atmosphere surrounding the program.

Kessler thrived in Steve Sarkisian's downfield-heavy pro offense last year, throwing only five interceptions in 452 pass attempts, yet he might have been no better than the 10th-most recognizable player on the team.

He's not much higher heading into 2015. The stories coming out of the Los Angeles Coliseum are about multiway star Adoree' Jackson, defensive stud Su'a Cravens, the best young offensive line in the country and the latest recruiting class, which nearly ended Alabama's prolonged run of top-rated classes.

But Kessler? He's mostly getting the Marla Hooch treatment. "What a player" is the common theme when the senior is described.

Kessler has also had the misfortune of being on the losing end of two of USC's three straight losses to crosstown rival UCLA. All three of those setbacks came at the hands of Hundley, who accounted for 860 yards of total offense and nine TDs in those games.

Kessler threw for 214 yards and a TD in 2014 and 174 yards with a score in 2013, each of those ranking (in terms of yardage) among his seven worst games as a starter.

There's still one more year for Kessler to get his due, and as a senior at the helm of an impressive offense on a team with high expectations, the notoriety is there for the taking. So, too, is the chance to end the Trojans' skid against UCLA, as the Bruins are likely going with true freshman Josh Rosen to replace Hundley.

A win in that game later this year could help Kessler "join the lineage of great Trojans passers not just on paper, but in the hearts and minds of USC fans," as Grantland's Matt Hinton put it prior to last year's loss to UCLA.

A run to the College Football Playoff could also change a lot of the perception toward Kessler, as success tends to do. The Trojans have been pegged by many experts as a championship contender, and the longer they stay in the discussion from a team standpoint, the more Kessler will finally be noticed for what's been a very good career.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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