Ranking the Best Quarterbacks in College Football This Season

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVOctober 22, 2018

Ranking the Best Quarterbacks in College Football This Season

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    Brad Tollefson/Associated Press

    The 2018 college football season is hitting the second half of the schedule, meaning the biggest games of the year are shaping up.

    Quarterbacks are often the difference-makers between contenders and pretenders, but they can receive too much credit or blame, even though they play the most important position on the field.

    Through eight weeks, more than a dozen signal-callers have shone as elite playmakers. We've whittled down that list to 10, which was a tough task because of the numerous stellar candidates. Several of the triggermen are under the radar and likely unfamiliar names.

    There's not a standard bar for this list. Statistics matter, but so do the context of those numbers and the isolation of play. Drops, poor offensive line play and scheme all affect statistics. It's hard to compare a pocket passer like Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins to a dual threat like UCF's McKenzie Milton with numbers, so their impacts and individual performances matter as much as their accomplishments.

    Oregon's Justin Herbert, Ole Miss' Jordan Ta'amu, Boise State's Brett Rypien, Memphis' Brady White and Iowa's Nate Stanley were the next-best to not make this list. It's not a slight on their play, but these 10 quarterbacks were even better. Being in the top 15 is still impressive.        

10. Mason Fine, North Texas

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    2018 highlights

    Mason Fine helped the North Texas Mean Green build one of the best offenses in the country in 2017, and this year, he's been even more efficient. With 19 touchdowns and one interception thus far, Fine has taken a big step in his development. He's dominated his competition as well as anyone could expect, leading his team to a 6-2 record.

                                                                               

    Greatest strengths

    Likely dismissed by many because of his 5'11", 185-pound frame, Fine comfortably delivers accurate throws up to 40 yards in rhythm. He boasts a strong arm and pocket mobility in North Texas' spread, zone-action offense. Defenses struggle to key in on plays because of Fine's consistency in making the correct read at the mesh point and his ability to accurately throw the ball (154.6 passer rating in 2018).

                                                         

    Rest-of-season outlook

    After a 29-21 loss to UAB that featured a scoreless second half, Fine doesn't appear to have a significant defense left on the schedule. He should continue to post gaudy numbers and keep his team in games, if not outright win the final four regular-season contests (vs. Rice, at Old Dominion, vs. Florida Atlantic, at UTSA).

9. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo

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    2018 highlights

    Possessing a massive 6'7", 245-pound frame, Tyree Jackson is an imposing dual-threat presence. He takes care of the ball well, with 20 touchdowns to only eight interceptions, and has taken only six sacks on the year. Buffalo has raced out to a 7-1 record as it relies on Jackson's decision-making and playmaking talent.

                            

    Greatest strengths

    Jackson can make any throw, but he is specifically a terror when rolling out of the pocket for downfield throws. The Bulls rely on him more than most teams would because they run isolation routes for receivers, so his margin for error is small. His completion percentage (56.5) has dipped this season, but his level of play remains high. And he's always a big threat to hit the home run.

                                                                             

    Rest-of-season outlook

    Key games against Miami (Ohio) and Ohio University loom in Weeks 10 and 12, but neither will be favored against the Bulls. Jackson's production has dipped recently as defenses have keyed in on slowing down him and receiver Anthony Johnson. It'll be important for the Bulls to create more easy looks for Jackson to exploit so the offense can hit its stride before the team goes bowling.

8. Gardner Minshew II, Washington State

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    2018 highlights

    As No. 14 Washington State (6-1) has climbed the rankings, quarterback Gardner Minshew II has been making a major impact. He replaced Luke Falk without skipping a beat. The senior outdueled NFL prospect Justin Herbert in Week 8, showing off his mastery of head coach Mike Leach's Air Raid. His completion percentage has leaped by over 10 percent compared to 2016-17 due to his improved pocket presence and accuracy.

                                 

    Greatest strengths

    Minshew knows where to go with the ball as well as any quarterback Leach has had in years. He's avoided mistakes too, throwing only six interceptions despite passing 364 times (first in the country). It's also impressive that he and the offensive line have allowed only five sacks on the year. Most quarterbacks suffer without a running game—the Cougars rank 129th in rushing offense—but Minshew has had no issues compensating with short passes.

                            

    Rest-of-season outlook

    The Cougars don't have an easy matchup left on their five-game schedule. The difficulty ramps up as they travel to Stanford and Colorado and host Cal, Arizona and Washington. These teams will test the quarterback's mettle, as they are more athletic and capable of creating pressure. If Minshew plays well, the Cougars will have a good chance to win the Pac-12.

7. McKenzie Milton, UCF

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2018 highlights

    As the UCF Knights have taken a small step back after losing coach Scott Frost to Nebraska, as well as Tre'Quan Smith and Shaquem Griffin to the NFL, quarterback McKenzie Milton has continued to meet the challenge. His numbers aren't as gaudy as last year's, but his big games against Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh and Memphis were critical for this team to stay undefeated. His 22 total touchdowns are one indicator of how important he's been to this offense.

                                                             

    Greatest strengths

    Milton makes some of the most amazing throws you'll see on a weekly basis. The 5'11", 185-pounder has suffered from drops and less effective scheming compared to last year but scrambles to buy time for his receivers to find open field. His clutch plays have repeatedly helped his team reach its 7-0 record.

                                      

    Rest-of-season outlook

    Each week will be a must-watch, key game for the Knights.

    Temple, Navy, Cincinnati and South Florida are all solid opponents who have tough defenses. Milton, who missed Week 8 with an ankle injury, may need to use his legs more than he's had to this year. His completion percentage (59.5) has dipped, but his personal consistency hasn't. He'll deserve considerable Heisman Trophy hype should he navigate his team to another undefeated season.

6. Cole McDonald, Hawaii

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    Marco Garcia/Associated Press

    2018 highlights

    Hawaii runs one of the most unique and fun offenses in the country, and Cole McDonald has maximized the pistol-heavy scheme to its fullest extent. The 6'4", 205-pound sophomore has accumulated a whopping 29 touchdowns to only three interceptions despite missing one game because of injury. He has five games with over 300 passing yards as the Rainbow Warriors have leaped out to a 6-3 record.

                                  

    Greatest strengths

    McDonald has a quick release and an especially strong arm up to 20 yards. He makes deep out routes look routine and better than all but maybe three quarterbacks in the country. His running ability has also been a threat, leading to 270 yards and two touchdowns. Defenses have a difficult job trying to neutralize him when he's in rhythm.

                                                      

    Rest-of-season outlook

    The Rainbow Warriors have a difficult remaining schedule. Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State are all legitimate foes. McDonald will have to be at his best for Hawaii to win each matchup since it's unlikely to be favored. The team has dropped two in a row, and the season could end in ugly fashion despite his brilliance.

5. Will Grier, West Virginia

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    Ray Thompson/Associated Press

    2018 highlights

    West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier had been unstoppable up until a shocking loss to Iowa State in Week 7. The senior quarterback had five straight games with at least a 65.9 completion percentage and 332 passing yards, but the Cyclones sacked him seven times. Still, Grier has been very good while leading one of the best offenses in the nation. He's seventh in passing touchdowns (22) and averaging an absurd 10 yards per attempt (third in the country).

                                                                       

    Greatest strengths

    The partnership between head coach Dana Holgorsen and Grier has been devastating to defenses. Grier's ability to read pre-snap looks creates easy chunk plays for his receivers. His ball placement allows his terrific receivers to maximize their yards-after-catch opportunities as well. He may not have the strongest arm, but he gets the ball out quickly and delivers it to the right spot to counter his physical limitations.

                                              

    Rest-of-season outlook

    It's tough sledding from here on out. The Mountaineers travel to Texas and Oklahoma State and host TCU and Oklahoma before the end of the year. None of those contests is easy, let alone without a bye week to prepare for unique schemes. Grier's Heisman candidacy and NFL outlook will be decided over this time period.

4. D'Eriq King, Houston

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    2018 highlights

    D'Eriq King, Houston's dynamic dual-threat quarterback, leads the nation in total touchdowns and has re-energized the Cougars offense after a slow 2017 season. Defenses haven't been able to contain him, and he has 32 total touchdowns to just three interceptions and four sacks. The team's only loss came against Texas Tech, which scored 63 points.

                                           

    Greatest strengths

    The Cougars are able to score points quickly as King thrives in their vertical passing game. There's not a better deep spread quarterback in the country since King also has the legs to take advantage of man coverages. His performance against Navy in Week 8 was a perfect example of how he challenges defenses, as he totaled 469 yards and four touchdowns on only 45 touches.

                                           

    Rest-of-season outlook

    Three key games remain for the Cougars to challenge in the AAC: South Florida, Temple and Memphis. King's passing consistency will be tested against each of those three opponents as they try to limit his efficiency. He's been able to hit big plays to offset some accuracy issues, and that'll be a key area to watch the rest of the year.

3. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma

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    2018 highlights

    The Oklahoma Sooners are tied for fourth with 26 passing touchdowns. Not many thought the passing attack would see such little drop-off from Baker Mayfield. Kyler Murray has been fantastic in his debut season as a starter for the Sooners, showing more accuracy and consistency than he ever did at Texas A&M. He's maximized his deep group of playmakers with a 72.3 completion percentage and 12.4 yards per attempt.

                                                  

    Greatest strengths

    Murray's quick release and explosive acceleration in the pocket are a major problem for defenders. He can escape from pressure with his arm or his feet, making it nearly impossible to get him into dead-to-rights situations. His deep passing has improved as well, and he benefits from an elite scheme and surrounding cast. He sets the tone for a healthy offensive ecosystem in Oklahoma.

                                                           

    Rest-of-season outlook

    He's going to continue posting ridiculous numbers. The best defense he faces will be West Virginia to end the season, but the rest offer little to no resistance. Expect Murray to solidify his trip to New York as a Heisman finalist over the next five weeks as Oklahoma (6-1) rolls over lesser opponents.

2. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2018 highlights

    The Ohio State offense remains productive despite a limited running game (69th in the nation) and mediocre defense (70th). Teams know Dwayne Haskins must throw the ball for the offense to create, and he's responded well as a first-year starter. He's first in the nation with 30 passing touchdowns and 2,801 yards through the air, and he boasts 8.9 yards per attempt. He's eviscerated teams from a clean pocket.

                                                        

    Greatest strengths

    Haskins is an elite pocket passer with his arm strength and ball placement. He can hit any throw on the field. Though he's not been effective creating plays when pressured, he's also avoided costly mistakes. Too much is made of the screen game Ohio State has utilized as a replacement for its rushing attack. Haskins keeps the offense on schedule with short throws and is devastatingly effective on intermediate and deep concepts.

                                           

    Rest-of-season outlook

    After being blown out at Purdue, Ohio State must win out to have a shot at the College Football Playoff. Key games against Michigan State and Michigan loom large. The Buckeyes have been lacking in their performances lately, leaving Haskins to do much of the lifting even though he's just a sophomore.

    He's been the main reason why the team has been much more effective throwing the ball compared to a similar roster last campaign (second in passing offense this season after being 36th in 2017).

1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

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    2018 highlights

    There's been no question as to who the best quarterback in the country has been. Tua Tagovailoa has 25 touchdowns on just 152 passing attempts, making it look like he's playing against middle schoolers. He's had just one game in which he completed less than 65 percent of his passes and zero in which he had under 10.6 yards per attempt. He's accumulated these numbers without having to play in the second half of most games.

           

    Greatest strengths

    Tagovailoa is one of the best pure passers in the last decade in college football. The lefty has a quick, smooth release that generates great velocity without compromising his precision. He allows his receivers to accumulate massive yards after the catch with his timing. His quick decision-making and accuracy have led to zero interceptions and just three sacks as well. There's not a negative to his play this year.

                          

    Rest-of-season outlook

    The Texas A&M defense is the only respectable one the Tide have faced thus far, and Tagovailoa eviscerated it. Key games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn will challenge Alabama's offense as much as, if not more than, the Aggies because of each team's speed and length in the secondary, so we'll learn more about Tagovailoa over those contests. Tagovailoa likely will cruise to winning the Heisman if he's able to be solid and win even two of those contests because he's been so dominant in other games.