Power Ranking the 10 Greatest College Football QBs of All Time
Being the single most important position on the football field, the quarterback receives a massive amount of attention from coaches, opponents and spectators alike.
And because they're so crucial to many of the best teams and greatest moments in college football, quarterbacks are the subjects of the most hotly contested debates among passionate fans—who is the best of all time?
It's practically an impossible task, trying to compare and rank legends from different time periods and different offensive systems. There's no perfect formula, and personal opinions of what makes a great quarterback play a huge role.
In this particular top-10 power ranking of the best college football quarterbacks of all time, I broke down plenty of signal-callers considered to be the greatest by a number of factors—career record as a starter, total touchdowns, QB rating, major individual awards and championships won.
I'm looking for the quarterbacks who ultimately made the biggest impact on winning teams in their years as starters. I looked at wins and touchdowns per season, for example, to compare a record-breaking two-year starter from a consistently strong quarterback who started every year for his team.
There's no strict mathematical formula for this top 10, as comparing quarterbacks from different eras can be tough when looking solely at stats. It's my personal opinion of a quarterback's total college resume based on the above factors. There's bound to be a lot of disagreements here.
Of course, some players who didn't make my cut might be no-brainer choices for others. So give us your top 10 college quarterbacks of all time in the comments below.
Only 10 quarterbacks could make the cut on this list—and it was downright brutal leaving off several of these all-time greats. (Some legendary quarterbacks didn't even make this pool, which is sure to spark debate as well.)
But here are 15 more signal-callers, in alphabetical order, who comprised the top 25 pool of choices for this difficult task based on their wins and production at the college level.
- Eric Crouch (Nebraska): 33-5 record in three seasons as starter, 121.1 QB rating, 90 total TDs, one Big 12 title, 2001 Heisman Trophy winner
- Ty Detmer (BYU): 28-9-2 in three seasons as starter, 162.7 QB rating, 135 total TDs, three WAC titles, 1990 Heisman Trophy winner, two-time consensus All-American
- Ken Dorsey (Miami): 35-2 record in three seasons as starter, 147.4 QB rating, 88 total TDs, one national title, three Big East titles
- Doug Flutie (Boston College): 32-14-1 record in four seasons as starter, 130.9 QB rating, 74 total TDs, 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- Andrew Luck (Stanford): 31-8 record in three seasons as starter, 162.8 QB rating, 89 total TDs
- Peyton Manning (Tennessee): 39-6 record in four seasons (three full) as starter, 147.1 QB rating, 101 total TDs, one SEC title, consensus All-American
- Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M): 20-6 record in two seasons as starter, 164.1 QB rating, 93 total TDs, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- AJ McCarron (Alabama): 36-4 record in three seasons as starter, 162.5 QB rating, 80 total TDs, two national titles, one SEC title
- Colt McCoy (Texas): 45-8 record in four seasons as starter, 155.0 QB rating, 132 total TDs, one Big 12 title, two-time consensus All-American
- Davey O'Brien (TCU): 15-4-2 record in two seasons as starter, 164.3 QB rating, 24 total TDs, one national title, one SWC title, 1938 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- Roger Staubach (Navy): 16-10-1 record in three seasons as starter, 132.1 QB rating, 36 total TDs, 1963 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- Vinny Testaverde (Miami): 21-3 record in two seasons as starter, 152.9 QB rating, 56 total TDs, 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- Michael Vick (Virginia Tech): 22-2 in two seasons as starter, 150.6 QB rating, 38 total TDs, two Big East titles
- Jameis Winston (Florida State): 26-1 record in two seasons as starter, 163.3 QB rating, 72 total TDs, 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, consensus All-American
- Steve Young (BYU): 19-5 in two seasons as starter, 149.8 QB rating, 74 total TDs, two WAC titles, consensus All-American
10. Kellen Moore (Boise State)
Record as starter: 50-3 (four seasons)
Total TDs: 145
QB rating: 169.0
Major awards: 7th in Heisman voting in 2009, 4th in 2010 and 8th in 2011
Championships: Three WAC titles
Whittling down the pool of all-time great quarterbacks in the previous slide down to the top 10 was tough, and the cutoff between No. 10 and the rest was extremely difficult. But judging by the wins, touchdowns and efficiency of his college career, Boise State great Kellen Moore was a deserving choice to make the cut.
In four seasons as Boise State's starting quarterback, Moore won an FBS-record 50 games and only lost three times—two one-point losses to fellow mid-major power TCU and an overtime loss at a ranked Nevada team led by Colin Kaepernick. He led the 2009 Broncos to a 14-0 record and a BCS bowl victory over those pesky Horned Frogs.
Moore ranks fourth all-time in career pass efficiency behind Sam Bradford, Marcus Mariota and Tim Tebow, and his 142 career passing touchdowns are second-most in FBS history behind Case Keenum. While his conference competition in the WAC and the Mountain West might've hurt his overall perception, he still finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting three times in four years.
Other highly deserving quarterbacks such as Ty Detmer, Ken Dorsey and Peyton Manning might have had more awards and national recognition than Moore over their careers. But none of them won as many games as the underrated king of the "Smurf Turf" in Boise.
9. Sammy Baugh (TCU)
Record as starter: 29-7-2 (three seasons)
Passing TDs: 40
QB rating: N/A
Major awards: Two-time consensus All-American and 4th in 1936 Heisman Trophy voting
Championships: One national title
While college football is more of a quarterback's game now, the majority of the sport's history has been dominated by the ground game. However, in the 1930s, TCU's Slinging Sammy Baugh became the first elite, game-changing quarterback at the college level.
"Always the perfectionist, Baugh set out to master the art of passing when he became the quarterback of his high school team," Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com wrote in 2008. "Using rope, he suspended an old automobile tire casing from a high tree limb in his yard ... He drilled this way for hours, often practicing throwing on the run."
Before he made the forward pass famous in the NFL, Baugh threw for 40 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards in three seasons at TCU, winning two major bowl games and a national title in the process. Those attention-grabbing numbers and victories were unheard of during that time period, especially for a school as tiny as TCU.
A pioneer of the passing game, Baugh racked up plenty of wins as a college quarterback and put the Horned Frogs on the map nationally. His impact on his team and the game as a whole in a run-dominated era makes him truly one of the all-time greats.
8. Charlie Ward (Florida State)
Record as starter: 23-2 (two seasons)
Total TDs: 59
QB rating: 141.4
Major awards: 1993 Heisman Trophy winner (6th in 1992) and consensus All-American
Championships: One national title and two ACC titles
Perhaps the best pure athlete on this entire countdown, Charlie Ward made his living after his college days as a former first-round pick in the NBA with the New York Knicks. But his football career at Florida State was extraordinary.
When Ward became the starting quarterback for Florida State in 1992, the Seminoles were making their initial voyage into life as a member of the ACC. Ward quarterbacked FSU to back-to-back ACC championships, going a combined 16-0 in conference play.
Ward played well enough to finish sixth in Heisman voting in 1992, when FSU lost a lone game to Miami by three points. But in 1993, he took home the famous award by a landslide after leading the nation in completion percentage, passing for more than 3,000 yards and cutting his interception total down from 17 to just four.
The Seminoles overcame a loss to Notre Dame that season to make it to the Orange Bowl, where they defeated Nebraska in a thriller to become consensus national champions. In just two seasons, Ward proved to be one of the best in college football history with his sparkling record, trophies and impressive passing numbers against a tough strength of schedule.
7. Cam Newton (Auburn)
Record as starter: 14-0 (one season)
Total TDs: 51
QB rating: 182.0
Major awards: 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and consensus All-American
Championships: One national title and one SEC title
College football only got one season of Cam Newton as a starting quarterback, but it was one of the best by any player in the sport's history. In just 14 games, Newton showcased the immense talent that has made him a Super Bowl-bound MVP front-runner in the NFL.
Newton, a former 4-star recruit, left Florida in 2008 after an off-field incident involving a stolen laptop. (His charges were later dropped.) He got back on track by winning a JUCO national title at Blinn College in 2009 and transferring to Auburn, where he won the starting quarterback job prior to the 2010 season.
That year, Newton put up more than 4,000 yards of offense and scored 51 total touchdowns—30 passing, 20 rushing and one receiving—in a Heisman-winning campaign. Newton famously led Auburn to a huge comeback victory at defending national champion Alabama at the end of the regular season, and the Tigers would go onto win both the SEC and BCS national championships.
Newton had one of the most efficient passing seasons in college football history and won everything in sight before becoming a No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. If he had started in multiple seasons at the college level, he could've made a real run at the title of best ever.
6. Marcus Mariota (Oregon)
Record as starter: 36-5 (three seasons)
Total TDs: 134
QB rating: 171.8
Major awards: 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and consensus All-American
Championships: One Pac-12 title
From a purely statistical perspective of quarterback play, Marcus Mariota might have run away with an all-time list like this one. After all, he averaged nearly 45 touchdowns a season at Oregon and has the second-best career pass efficiency rating in college football history.
The Hawaiian quarterback was a dream fit in Oregon's high-flying offense, and he hit the ground running as a freshman starter in 2012 with 37 total touchdowns for the 12-1 Ducks. In his second season, Mariota broke the 4,000-yard mark on the season and scored 40 touchdowns as the program adjusted to the departure of coach Chip Kelly to the NFL.
But Mariota's 2014 campaign will be the one that will let him live forever in college football history. He led Oregon to the first College Football Playoff national championship game and finished his Heisman season with the jaw-dropping stat line of 5,224 total yards, 58 total touchdowns, a 181.7 efficiency rating and a mere four interceptions.
Mariota may have only won one championship—the 2014 Pac-12 title—during his time with the Oregon Ducks, but he became the perfect model of efficiency and explosion at the modern college quarterback position in just three seasons.
5. Danny Wuerffel (Florida)
Record: 45-6-1 (two full seasons as starter, split time on first team in two)
Total TDs: 122
QB rating: 163.6
Major awards: 1996 Heisman Trophy winner (3rd in 1995) and consensus All-American
Championships: One national title and four SEC titles
Steve Spurrier coached several star quarterbacks in his fun 'n' gun offense during his illustrious career, but none of them mastered the craft better than Danny Wuerffel. In the mid-1990s, Wuerffel was a key player on four straight SEC championship teams and a national title winner.
In 1993 and 1994, Wuerffel split time with Terry Dean as the Gators' top quarterback, later taking the job over full time in the second half of his sophomore season. He threw for 40 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in those first two years, knocking off Alabama in back-to-back SEC championship games.
When Wuerffel became the clear-cut No. 1 at the start of the 1995 season, his numbers went to the next level. He averaged more than 10 yards per attempt that season and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 35-to-10 as the Gators captured another SEC crown but lost to Nebraska for the national title.
Wuerffel went from Heisman finalist and national runner-up in 1995 to Heisman winner and national champion in 1996, wrapping up an illustrious career with 39 more passing touchdowns. He and the Gators avenged a loss to rival Florida State with a 52-20 rematch rout in the Sugar Bowl. Wuerffel won a lot of hardware and smashed a lot of records in the process, making him a top-five QB here.
4. Vince Young (Texas)
Record as starter: 30-2 (two full seasons, one partial)
Total TDs: 81
QB rating: 144.9
Major awards: 2nd in 2005 Heisman Trophy voting and consensus All-American
Championships: One national title and one Big 12 title
One of the most effective dual-threat weapons of all time, Vince Young was a game-changing superstar during his three seasons of at Texas. Young's athletic gifts alone made him a 5-star recruit and a can't-miss playmaker at the college level.
"We thought he could be a dominant quarterback," Mike Ferrell of Rivals said in 2015. "We thought he could be an absolute difference-maker, even though his mechanics were awful ... The best compliment to Vince Young was if this kid stinks at quarterback, he could be an All-American safety."
He definitely was a dominant quarterback. After splitting time as a redshirt freshman in 2003, Young led Texas to the Rose Bowl with a 11-1 record and 26 touchdowns in his first full year as a starter. The next season, he finished second in Heisman voting with more than 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 38 total touchdowns.
The electric Young shook off the award loss by leading unbeaten Texas to a famous national title win over USC in which he scored the game-winning touchdown on a last-second fourth-down scramble. The two-time Rose Bowl MVP averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt and 6.8 yards per carry in a short but sweet career as the Longhorns' big-play star.
3. Matt Leinart (USC)
Record as starter: 37-2 (three seasons)
Total TDs: 109
QB rating: 159.5
Major awards: 2004 Heisman Trophy winner (6th in 2003 and 3rd in 2005) and consensus All-American
Championships: One national title and three Pac-10 titles
While Vince Young may have bested him in the epic 2005 national championship game, Matt Leinart gets the slight edge over the former Longhorn for what he was able to do in three magical seasons at USC.
Leinart took over the starting job for Pete Carroll's Trojans in the 2003 season, when he threw for what would be a career-high 38 touchdowns. One-loss USC was shut out of the national title game by the BCS, but Leinart returned with a vengeance in 2004 by leading the Trojans to a 13-0 season complete with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy.
The USC star returned to the Heisman race in 2005 with 34 total touchdowns in another undefeated regular season that featured a Pac-10 championship—only to fall in voting to teammate Reggie Bush and Young. Leinart's only two losses as a starter came in a triple-OT thriller against Cal in 2003 and in Young's crowning moment in the 2005 BCS title game.
Leinart called Young the best quarterback of all time on Fox Sports in 2013. But Leinart averaged more touchdowns per season as a starter, was a Heisman finalist twice and also went three-of-three as a conference champion. He's ahead of Young in my eyes.
2. Tommie Frazier (Nebraska)
Record as starter: 35-3 (three full seasons, one partial)
Total TDs: 79
QB rating: 138.1
Individual awards: Consensus All-American
Championships: Two national titles and four Big Eight titles
Tommie Frazier doesn't have the gaudy passing statistics to stack up against some of the best quarterbacks in today's college football. But what the former Nebraska star does have is plenty of titles and big-game victories from four outstanding years in Lincoln.
From 1992 to 1995, Frazier was virtually unstoppable as the leader of the Huskers' option attack, scoring 36 rushing touchdowns and running for nearly 2,000 yards in his career. And while those highlight-reel runs will live forever in college football lore, he also threw for 43 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions despite completing fewer than half of his career passes.
Perhaps the most incredible statistic of Frazier's career is that he was named the MVP of three straight national championship games. He won two of those with the Huskers and only lost three total games as a starter—all coming in his first two years. In 1994, Frazier missed most of the regular season with blood clotting in his calf but returned to lead a comeback victory for the national title in the Orange Bowl.
Frazier's 1995 campaign was his best one, as he scored 31 total touchdowns while posting career-highs in nearly every passing category as the Huskers captured their second straight perfect season and national championship. Frazier never won a Heisman, but he was the best player on a team that played for three straight national titles.
1. Tim Tebow (Florida)
Record as starter: 35-6 (three seasons)
Total TDs: 145
QB rating: 169.7
Major awards: 2007 Heisman Trophy winner (3rd in 2008 and 5th in 2009) and consensus All-American
Championships: Two national titles (one as starter), two SEC titles (one as starter)
In his four-year career at Florida, Tim Tebow didn't just make a fantastic case as the best quarterback in college football history—he made a case as the best all-around player in college football history.
With all the power of his 6'3", 245-pound frame, Tebow was one of the toughest rushers of his time. And while his passing didn't translate into a successful NFL career, he ranks third all-time in FBS history for career efficiency. As a starting quarterback, he averaged an incredible 44 touchdowns per season.
After winning a national title as Chris Leak's effective backup in 2006, Tebow won the Heisman Trophy with 55 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, even though the Gators went 9-4. He led the Gators to their second national title in three seasons in 2008 and came in third in Heisman voting despite having the most first-place votes.
Tebow couldn't get Florida back to the national title game in his senior season, but he still left Gainesville with plenty of school, SEC and national records as well as plenty of individual accolades. In terms of impact on a title-winning football team, Tebow is the most decorated quarterback the game has ever seen.
All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.