The Best QB in Every College Football Conference for 2019

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2019

The Best QB in Every College Football Conference for 2019

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    Kyler Murray is gone, Jalen Hurts is moving along and Will Grier is out, too. Other signal-callers like Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones left their respective schools early for the NFL, as well.

    College football's landscape of quarterbacks will look different in 2019.

    With Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa back and leading the pack, though, there will be several marquee names returning. Those two should not only be the top signal-callers in their respective conferences but in the country.

    They'll probably have some emerging company, too. You've heard about plenty of guys who'll step in and carry the torch among the nation's elite at their position, and, in some cases, other breakouts will take you by surprise.

    All of these OBs have the necessary tools to be The Man in '19. Some of them will even contend for the Heisman Trophy.

    Using the resume they've already compiled on the field or, in some cases, the massive potential lying just under the surface, let's take a look at who will be the top quarterback in each conference in 2019.

AAC: D'Eriq King, Houston

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    When Houston quarterback D'Eriq King went down in mid-November with a season-ending knee injury, things went south in a hurry for the Cougars. They were dominated by Army in their bowl game, and coach Major Applewhite ultimately got fired.

    With King back in 2019 and new coach Dana Holgorsen calling the shots, the 5'11", 195-pound dual-threat signal-caller is a dark-horse candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. He had surgery for a torn meniscus and should return just fine.

    Last year, he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,982 yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first season as a starter in 2018. He also ran for 674 yards and 14 more scores. King will build on that torrid start and be the American Athletic Conference's top quarterback.

    Departed Houston star defensive tackle Ed Oliver took to Twitter last October, according to the Houston Chronicle's Joseph Duarte, to tell the world "I told you so" about King's abilities, noting he should have been considered for the Heisman from the jump.

    "I told y'all at the beginning of the year put him in the race," Oliver posted, per Duarte. 

    With Central Florida's McKenzie Milton's injury status making him a massive question mark for the '19 season, this is King's league. He should be an even more exciting player in Holgorsen's offense.

    Temple's Anthony Russo could shine, and Memphis' Brady White is poised to put up big numbers. Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder could bust out, too. But it's time for King to be royalty in the AAC.

ACC: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

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    When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney elected to bench Kelly Bryant a few games into the 2018 season in favor of gunslinging freshman Trevor Lawrence, he did so with greater things in mind.

    The Tigers are the class of the ACC, and it was going to take a big upset for somebody in the conference to beat a team that talented. So Swinney needed his 6'5", 205-pound phenom to take his lumps and develop into the star he thought he could be.

    Right away, Bryant transferred, leading to some surface-level controversy. But after suffering an injury against Syracuse and backup Chase Brice led the team to victory, Lawrence improved each week thereafter.

    He dominated Alabama to win a national championship.

    "At the end of the day, this is not middle school," Swinney said in September, per the Associated Press. "There's tough decisions that have to be made at his level and you have to do what's best for the team."

    As Lawrence flung darts to Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Co. in the championship game, it was obvious the Cartersville, Georgia, native is best for the team. He'll continue to be for the next couple of seasons if he stays healthy.

    Sure, the ACC boasts such bounce-back candidates at the position as Florida State's Deondre Francois and Virginia Tech's Josh Jackson. Virginia's Bryce Perkins has some ability to get a lot better, too.

    But this is Lawrence's domain, and college football feels like his world; we're all just living in it. He finished 2018 with 3,280 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

    Those numbers could get even better next year.

Big 12: Sam Ehlinger, Texas

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    Every year, these days, Oklahoma adds a quarterback it didn't recruit, Lincoln Riley injects him into the offense and the Sooners become one of the top three most dynamic offenses in the country.

    First, it was former walk-on Baker Mayfield, who went from Texas Tech to OU and won a Heisman. Then, Kyler Murray transferred from Texas A&M and won a Heisman. Now, former Alabama signal-caller Jalen Hurts is playing his final year in Norman.

    Could more hardware be on the way? Don't count on it.

    Hurts will be a great player, but he won't even be the best quarterback in the league. That distinction will belong to Texas' rising 6'3", 235-pound dual-threat star Sam Ehlinger, who grew up a Longhorns fan and has turned Tom Herman's team into a power.

    It seems Texas is finally "back" after a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, and Ehlinger should make the Longhorns hard to handle for at least next season and probably two more. In 2018, Ehlinger completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 3,292 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions. 

    He added 482 yards and 16 more scores on the ground.

    "Look, the Big 12 has some very good returning quarterbacks…" the Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton wrote. "But Ehlinger accounted for 41 touchdowns this season, which is a ton, and helped Texas get to 10 wins for the first time since 2009. His improvement from his freshman to sophomore year was marked. Don't be surprised if he gets some Heisman hype as well."

    Brock Purdy should make a big leap as a sophomore for Iowa State, and Baylor's Charlie Brewer is a good-looking prospect who could keep Matt Rhule's team climbing. Hurts will be a headline hog who will produce in a big way. But Ehlinger is the real deal, too. 

    The burnt-orange hype is real.

Big Ten: Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

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    It's going to be an intriguing storyline to watch Big Ten quarterbacks in 2019.

    If Georgia transfer Justin Fields is immediately eligible for Ohio State, he could be a phenom who lives up to his immense potential right away under the tutelage of new quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich. Can Michigan's Shea Patterson hold off all the young talent in Ann Arbor?

    Iowa's Nate Stanley, Indiana's Peyton Ramsey and others could rise up, while Michigan State's Brian Lewerke and Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook need to rebound from awful '18s.

    But we're going with a wild card for the league's top quarterback in Nebraska's Adrian Martinez. 

    As a freshman learning Scott Frost's offense, Martinez completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 629 yards and eight more scores.

    Those numbers just scratched the surface of his abilities, and Martinez played for a bad team. As Frost surrounds him with more weapons, things will open up even more for the Californian, and he'll respond with huge numbers.

    It's time for him to take on more leadership responsibilities.

    "I'm excited about this new challenge," Martinez said in a radio interview with Greg Sharpe of Husker Sports Network (via Husker247's Brian Christopherson). "I think last year my play can only get better, and I think I can only improve as a player, as a person. I think the guys on the team respect my mentality, and I'm really trying to establish myself as that leader, as someone they can look to be consistent on and off the field."

    If he makes that leap immediately, he will turn the Cornhuskers into one of the biggest storylines of 2019. He is a great prospect who is ready to be one of the biggest stars in the B1G.

Conference USA: Mason Fine, North Texas

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    North Texas ran into a buzz saw in the New Mexico Bowl when the Mean Green were dominated 52-13 by Utah State in a game that got worse when quarterback Mason Fine went down with a pulled hamstring in the first quarter.

    The Mean Green also dodged an offseason setback when coach Seth Littrell's conversations to be the next head coach at Kansas State broke down.

    Now, both Fine and Littrell are back for another year, and it could be a huge season for UNT in Conference USA.

    Fine was the league's best quarterback in 2018, and with Middle Tennessee's Brent Stockstill gone, nothing should change. The conference does have some intriguing signal-callers returning, though.

    Florida International's James Morgan and Southern Miss' Jack Abraham each could give Fine a run for his money as the top player in Conference USA. Promising freshmen Isaiah Green (Marshall) and Chris Robison (Florida Atlantic) could make major leaps forward, too.

    But they won't overtake the two-time defending Conference USA Player of the Year. He has 9,417 career passing yards and 64 passing touchdowns and leads a group of 13 returning starters.

    The depth of talent is getting better and better, and Fine still hasn't led the Mean Green to a bowl win.

    The Mean Green won nine games a year ago under Littrell, and this season should be an improvement. Look for Fine to cement his legendary status.

MAC: Nathan Rourke, Ohio

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    This past season was a forgettable one for the Mid-American Conference, which struggled at the end of the season and came away as the worst FBS league.

    Things don't look overwhelmingly better in 2019, either.

    Star power took a major hit when Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson declared himself a transfer option from the Bulls before ultimately deciding to enter the NFL draft. The tall, strong-armed signal-caller is going to leave a big void in a league needing big-time talent.

    Three strong options for the top quarterback in the league with Jackson leaving are Bowling Green's Jarret Doege, Northern Illinois' Marcus Childers, and Toledo's Eli Peters. But the pick here is going to be Ohio's Nathan Rourke.

    In leading the Bobcats to a 9-4 (6-2) record a season ago, the 6'2", 208-pound Rourke was a steady force, completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,434 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 860 yards and 15 touchdowns.

    Those are pretty stout numbers entering his senior year, and Rourke should have high hopes under Frank Solich again this season.

    In the past two years, Rourke has 40 passing touchdowns and 36 scores on the ground, but his Bobcats have narrowly missed out on the MAC East title, keeping them from claiming the school's first conference championship since 1968.

    Could this be the year they do it? If so, Rourke will be the centerpiece.

Mountain West: Jordan Love, Utah State

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    When it comes to ranking the top quarterback in each conference, a lot of these are no-brainers. The Mountain West Conference isn't one of them.

    With Boise State's Brett Rypien, Fresno State's Marcus McMaryion and Nevada's Ty Gangi gone, the conference opens up a little. But there are still two legit signal-callers who should be head and shoulders above the rest.

    Many will point to the islands of Hawaii, where Cole McDonald was an early-season stat hog for the Warriors in 2018 before tapering off a bit once conference play heated up. He's still a dynamic talent in the run-and-shoot scheme of coach Nick Rolovich.

    But the top quarterback in the league is going to be Utah State's Jordan Love. Even with coach Matt Wells leaving the Aggies for Texas Tech, USU should be a force in the league this season if not the favorite. Without McMaryion and Rypien standing in their way, this could be the Aggies' year.

    Utah State replaced Wells with Gary Andersen, who sat at the helm of the program from 2009-12 before bolting for Wisconsin. After a year as an assistant under Kyle Whittingham at Utah, Andersen is back and hoping to pick up where he left off with the Aggies.

    If he does, it'll be because of Love. The rising junior had a legit case to be the Offensive Player of the Year in the league a year ago, but Rypien won. The 6'4", 225-pound signal-caller completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and six picks.

    He distributed the ball to his playmakers and was a big reason why the Aggies had an opportunity to go to the league title game leading up to the season finale, a 33-24 loss to Boise State.

    If Love can duplicate his season with a much tougher schedule that includes Wake Forest, LSU and BYU in 2019, he'll be a player coveted by many NFL teams.

Pac-12: Justin Herbert, Oregon

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    The 2018 season was one the Pac-12 probably would like to forget. For much of the season, the league struggled to place any prominent national title contenders at the forefront of college football. With USC and UCLA down, the league lacked front-runners.

    Now, Washington (Jake Browning) and Washington State (Gardner Minshew) face 2019 seasons in which they've got to replace their top dog under center. Does that open things up in the conference? We'll see.

    There's no question USC's JT Daniels has all the tools to be great, but can he put everything together, especially with the Trojans devoid of an offensive coordinator following Kliff Kingsbury's departure to the Arizona Cardinals?

    Other possible budding stars are Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who enters a plum situation with the Huskies replacing Browning, and Steven Montez, who needs to be much more consistent in Mel Tucker's first season as Colorado's head coach.

    But the two quarterbacks who should battle for the top signal-caller in the league are Stanford's K.J. Costello and Oregon's Justin Herbert.

    There's no question Herbert's decision to return to the Ducks for his senior season was a boon for coach Mario Cristobal's program, especially with the way they have recruited. With stud receiver Dillon Mitchell gone to the NFL a year early, it's no guarantee Herbert will post big numbers.

    But he has big potential. 

    Herbert is a no-doubt NFL prospect who has first round written all over him, but he needs more college seasoning. With all the tools, a great frame and an elite arm, Herbert could be one of the most exciting passers in the country if he puts everything together.

    Herbert gets the nod here for his potential, but he must do better than completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes. The 3,151 yards, 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions are good numbers, but Herbert needs to prove he can take the Ducks to the next level and compete for a conference title.

    If he does that, Oregon could have a superstar on its hands.

SEC: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

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    Will Tua Tagovailoa come back with a chip on his shoulder after he was shut out of the Heisman Trophy and Alabama was dominated by Clemson in the national championship game?

    If he does, watch out.

    Yes, Tagovailoa struggled against the Tigers defense in the title game, but leg injuries hobbled him much of the second half of the season, allowing Kyler Murray to catch and eventually overtake him for college football's top individual honor.

    Now, everybody should pay attention to how the marriage works between Tua and Steve Sarkisian. With offensive coordinator Mike Locksley gone to Maryland as head coach and Dan Enos at Miami as the offensive coordinator, there is change in Tuscaloosa. Will it affect Tagovailoa?

    There's no question Tua is the most exciting and talented quarterback in college football's best league. But he's hardly by himself.

    Georgia's Jake Fromm deserves more headlines. All he's done in the past two years is force a transfer from former 5-stars Jacob Eason and Justin Fields as he's led the Bulldogs to the national title game one year and SEC Championship Game the next. Entering his junior year, he's only going to get better.

    Texas A&M's Kellen Mond is a mega-talent who should make strides with another year under Jimbo Fisher's tutelage, and South Carolina's Jake Bentley could have a huge senior year, as could LSU's Joe Burrow.

    But the SEC will miss the departing talent like Missouri's Drew Lock, Ole Miss' Jordan Ta'amu, Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald and Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur.

    None of those guys were as good as the sophomore version of Tagovailoa, anyway, and if the Alabama signal-caller stays healthy and clicks with the new staff members, watch out. He could get even better.

Sun Belt: Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

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    Talking about coaching staff changes and how they may affect players, there's no program that should be more concerned than Appalachian State. The Mountaineers enjoyed immense success under the legendary Jerry Moore, and they didn't miss a beat when Scott Satterfield replaced him.

    Now, Satterfield has gone to Louisville, and former North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz is the new head coach in Boone. The good news is he's a known quarterback developer who has a strong instrument with which to work in Zac Thomas.

    The bad news is he isn't Satterfield, who built a mid-major powerhouse at his alma mater.

    Let's see if Thomas continues to blossom in his junior year under Drinkwitz. This past year, the dual-threat signal-caller completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,039 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. He added 504 rushing yards and 10 more scores.

    It'll help Thomas that former star collegiate quarterback Ken Dorsey is on Drinkwitz's first staff in Boone, too.

    Thomas has room for growth, but he was strong against Penn State in the season opener and progressed throughout the season. His numbers would have been better, too, but he missed a game after suffering a head injury early in the Georgia Southern game.

    The Sun Belt has several quality quarterbacks such as Georgia Southern's dual-threat star Shai Werts, Sawyer Smith at Troy, who will give new coach Chip Lindsey a strong weapon around which to build his offense, and Caleb Evans at Louisiana Monroe.

    But Thomas is the best signal-caller in the league, and it shouldn't be close. He'll help Drinkwitz usher in a seamless transition for the Mountaineers.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from 247Sports' composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.


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