The Best QB in Every College Football Conference for 2016
Quarterback is the most scrutinized position in the game of football. We obsess over quarterback recruitment, skills and competition. There are many ways to win in college football, but if you don’t have a talented quarterback at the helm of your offense, chances are a good defense and a solid running game will go for naught.
The advent of fast-paced, high-scoring spread offenses has only increased the worth of a good quarterback. They’re more prolific and powerful than ever, and the 2016 season will feature a plethora of talented signal-callers.
Here’s a look at the top quarterback in every FBS conference. Players were chosen for their skills, past statistics and overall reputation.
American Athletic Conference
Tom Herman got the most out of Houston—and then some—in his first season as the Cougars head coach. A formerly underachieving program went 13-1, won the American Athletic Conference and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
It turned out that Herman’s fast-paced offense was a perfect fit for Greg Ward Jr. He passed for 2,828 yards with 17 touchdowns against six interceptions and was also Houston’s leading rusher, piling up 1,108 yards with 21 scores on the ground. Ward and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson were the only FBS quarterbacks to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 last fall.
Ward stretches defenses with his dual-threat skills, scrambling at will while making plays with his feet and his arm. The Cougars are a dark horse College Football Playoff candidate, and if they make a run, it will be with their senior quarterback making big play after big play on a weekly basis.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Last fall, Clemson lost offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who became SMU’s head coach. But the Tigers were better than ever, pairing a solid defense with a strong offense. They averaged 38.5 points per game (No. 16 nationally) and 514.5 total yards per game (No. 11 nationally), finishing 14-1 as the national runner-up to Alabama. What changed? They got a full, healthy season from Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s potential tantalized as a freshman, but he couldn’t stay on the field. The 6’2”, 210-pound passer missed at least part of seven games with a broken finger and later a torn ACL. Last fall, he didn’t miss a single game and threw for 4,104 yards with 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and also topped 1,000 yards rushing, becoming the first player in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
He is an excellent leader with a strong arm and solid mobility. Clemson has built a strong offense around him as well. The Tigers will return eight offensive starters, including receiver Artavis Scott (who had 93 receptions for 901 yards and six scores last fall), tight end Jordan Leggett (a returning finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end) and powerful back Wayne Gallman.
In addition, Mike Williams—a 1,000-yard receiver in 2014 who redshirted last fall after suffering broken bones in his neck on the opening drive of the season against Wofford—will return healthy this fall.
The ACC has some talented quarterbacks, including Miami’s Brad Kaaya, but Watson is a strong Heisman contender and the top passer in the ACC and across America.
Big Ten Conference
Change will be the order of the day in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016. Ohio State lost nine underclassmen early to the NFL draft, and 12 Buckeyes were picked overall, tying an FBS record. Head coach Urban Meyer will return just six starters from 2015 and rely heavily on young but talented players.
Luckily, J.T. Barrett is still around. Two years ago, Barrett emerged as a star, becoming Ohio State’s starter after Braxton Miller underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. He threw for 2,834 yards with 34 touchdowns against 10 interceptions before his season ended with a broken ankle against Michigan in the regular-season finale.
Fellow backup Cardale Jones finished the job and led Ohio State to a national title, and kept his job last fall after a hotly contested position battle. However, Barrett was Ohio State’s starter again by midseason, throwing for 992 yards and 11 touchdowns against four interceptions while rushing for 682 yards and 11 scores in 11 games.
The Buckeyes will have some growing pains against a tough schedule that includes trips to Oklahoma and Michigan State along with the traditional finale against Michigan, but Barrett will be a security blanket with solid leadership and dual-threat skills. He’ll be the Big Ten’s best quarterback this fall.
Big 12 Conference
Oklahoma made a significant turnaround in 2015, going from 8-5 to 11-2 with a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth. What were the biggest keys? The arrival of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and his Air Raid offense along with Baker Mayfield’s installation as the starting quarterback. The Texas Tech transfer was excellent, throwing for 3,700 yards with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions while rushing for 405 yards and seven scores.
Mayfield is a solid dual-threat passer who is capable of hurting defenses in a number of ways. He also has excellent attitude and moxie, adding a fearless element to Oklahoma’s offense. The Sooners must adjust after losing top receiver Sterling Shepard to graduation, but No. 2 receiver Dede Westbrook (46 receptions, 743 yards, four TDs in 2015) and Penn State graduate transfer Geno Lewis are excellent candidates to emerge as key targets.
With Mayfield at the controls, the Sooners (who averaged 43.5 points per game last fall, No. 4 nationally) will score, score and score some more and be a strong playoff contender. Mayfield should also make a push for the Heisman Trophy.
Head coach Todd Monken brought Southern Miss back to life. The Golden Eagles had lost 33 of 36 games entering 2015, but had a breakthrough season, winning nine games and the Conference USA West Division. Monken left USM in a lurch by bolting for an NFL assistant job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just before signing day, but he also left new head coach Jay Hopson a good housewarming gift in quarterback Nick Mullens.
Mullens threw 521 times as a junior, passing for 4,476 yards with 38 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He made huge progress from a sophomore season that saw him throw for 2,470 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine picks.
Mullens threw for at least 300 yards 10 times and torched Nebraska for 447 yards and two scores in a 36-28 defeat. He finished sixth nationally in passing yardage and will be the third-best returning passer this fall behind Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Washington State’s Luke Falk.
The Air Raid offense won’t change much under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, and Mullens will pile up the stats on C-USA’s best team
Head coach P.J. Fleck has done an excellent job at Western Michigan. He has turned the Broncos around, as they went 8-5 and won the program’s first bowl game last season, taking the Bahamas Bowl over Middle Tennessee State. A solid offense that averaged 36.0 points and 287.4 passing yards per game (both No. 26 nationally) helps, and senior quarterback Zach Terrell makes the system go.
Last fall, Terrell threw for 3,526 yards and 29 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. He should be even better in 2016. The Broncos return eight offensive starters, including senior wide receiver Corey Davis, one of the nation’s best wideouts with 90 catches for 1,436 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
The MAC has its share of solid passers, but Terrell is clearly the best.
Mountain West Conference
Boise State has one of the strongest Group of Five programs. How good are the Broncos? 2015’s 9-4 record was a disappointment, especially coming a year after a Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona.
One positive to come out of the season? Brett Rypien.
The nephew of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Mark Rypien, Brett was thrust into action after starter Ryan Finley suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the season’s third game.
He was excellent, throwing for 3,350 yards with 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions as the only true-freshman quarterback to average 300-plus passing yards per game. The Broncos return eight starters on offense, including top receiver Thomas Sperbeck (88 receptions, 1,412 yards and eight scores), and Finley is gone, departing to N.C. State as a graduate transfer.
This is Rypien’s team now, and he should only get better as the Mountain West’s top quarterback.
The Pac-12 suffered a serious quarterback drain following 2015. Cal’s Jared Goff left school early and became the top overall pick in the NFL draft. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan graduated after leading the Cardinal to three league titles in four seasons, and Southern Cal’s Cody Kessler departed following an underrated career.
It’s a good thing Josh Rosen is only a sophomore. Rosen claimed UCLA’s starting role last fall as a true freshman and showed great potential. He threw for 3,669 yards with 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions while playing in Noel Mazzone’s spread offense.
However, Rosen is more of a traditional pocket passer, and the Bruins will build around him with a pro-style offense this fall. He should show significant growth as a sophomore and cement his status as the league’s top passer.
It took a little longer than he wanted, but Chad Kelly has found himself a home at Ole Miss. Kelly originally signed with Clemson, but was dismissed by head coach Dabo Swinney after a public argument with an assistant coach during the Tigers’ spring game. Following a stopover at East Mississippi Community College, Kelly landed at Ole Miss and won the Rebels’ starting quarterback role.
He hasn’t looked back. Last fall, he threw for 4,042 yards with 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions and rushed for 500 yards and 10 scores, leading the Rebels to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State.
The Rebels return just five starters and lost top receiver Laquon Treadwell as a first-round NFL draft pick. But Kelly doesn’t lack skills or confidence, telling reporters recently that he considers himself the best quarterback in the nation, per ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf:
You have to feel that way. In order to have confidence in yourself and team, you have to think you're the best. That's what I want our whole team -- from offensive linemen to running backs -- we have to think we're the best players and the best team out there. I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback that ever played.
This fall, he’ll get a chance to back up his words against SEC defenses.
Sun Belt Conference
Appalachian State’s transition to the FBS ranks is moving along swimmingly. The former FCS power enters their third season at college football’s highest level as a polished product. Last fall, the Mountaineers went 11-2, finished second in the Sun Belt and took home the program’s first bowl win, defeating Ohio in the Camellia Bowl.
They should be equally solid in 2016. Head coach Scott Satterfield returns 16 starters, led by junior quarterback Taylor Lamb. He threw for 2,387 yards and 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions as a sophomore, setting a single-season program record for touchdown passes. He should build on those results despite breaking in a new group of receivers in 2016 and cement App State’s status as a Sun Belt power.