Position Battles That Will Have the Biggest Impact on the 2019 CFB Season
Few parts of college football create more intrigue than the unknown. Predictions for the 2019 season often vary because of a specific group of position battles yet to be decided.
Several competitions stand out as the most impactful ones when looking at teams seemingly built to contend for conference titles. And in most cases, that battle takes place at quarterback.
This isn't to suggest we have all the answers, yet the impact is apparent. Coaches can hardly afford to make the wrong choices.
Find the right option and a program should be in the mix for a conference—or even national—crown. But the wrong decision may result in a disappointing year, perhaps placing a coach on the hot seat.
Joey Gatewood (R-Fr.), Bo Nix (Fr.)
Jarrett Stidham departed for the NFL, creating a void at the SEC West program. Malik Willis served as the seldom-used backup last year, but he entered the transfer portal after exiting the spring trailing in the competition.
Gatewood's primary advantage is having a year in the system, but he totaled one pass attempt and three carries in 2018. Nix, a 5-star prospect, enrolled early and impressed.
Playing in the same division as Alabama is hard enough, but Auburn's 2019 slate is probably best described as merciless.
After opening against Oregon, the Tigers head to Texas A&M, host Mississippi State and travel to Florida over a three-week stretch into October. Their final six games include a trip to LSU and home clashes with Georgia and Alabama.
If head coach Gus Malzahn fails to identify the proper quarterback, his warming hot seat will approach a nervous level.
Boise State Quarterback
Chase Cord (R-So.), Jaylon Henderson (R-Sr.), Hank Bachmeier (Fr.)
Boise State must replace four-year starter Brett Rypien, who posted the second-most passing yards and touchdowns in program history. Early in 2018, it seemed Cord was the obvious replacement. However, a torn right ACL ended his season after four games.
Cord's recovery has provided a window for prized freshman Hank Bachmeier and UTSA transfer Jaylon Henderson. They handled a strong majority of reps in the spring.
Heading into 2019, Boise State is the consensus Mountain West favorite. Yet if the Broncos are to join the national conversation as the Group of Five's representative in a New Year's Six bowl, they'll likely need to upend Florida State in the opener.
Cord may be cleared for that contest, but Henderson and Bachmeier will continue vying for that No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
Regardless, Boise State matching its high expectations for 2019 is dependent on a new quarterback steadying the offense.
Clemson Slot Receiver
Diondre Overton (Sr.), Cornell Powell (R-Jr.), T.J. Chase (R-Jr.)
Exiting the 2018 campaign, this was hardly a conversation. Replacing a third-down ace in Hunter Renfrow wouldn't be painless, but Clemson was returning Amari Rodgers, who had 55 catches last season.
However, a torn right ACL ended Rodgers' spring session in late March. While reports have indicated he's ahead of schedule, pegging a September return is rather optimistic. If he's back, great. But a six-month recovery is exceptionally uncommon.
Clemson dives right into ACC play, taking on Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina before the end of September. Following a bye, the Tigers host Florida State on Oct. 12. That quartet of games can effectively show whether anyone will dethrone them.
The rest of Clemson's skill-position talent is elite. Adding one more upper-tier contributor would solidify the high-powered attack. It's fair to expect a rotation anyway, yet having a target even half as reliable as Renfrow would be fantastic.
N'Kosi Perry (R-So.), Jarren Williams (R-Fr.), Tate Martell (R-So.)
Mark Richt's unnecessary quarterback carousel in 2018 sparked a whole lot of drama. Perry always had the possibility of getting benched on his mind, Williams entered and exited the transfer portal, and Richt ended up resigning after a brutal 7-6 season.
And then Martell transferred from Ohio State when Justin Fields left Georgia for Columbus.
On talent alone, Miami should be dominating the ACC's Coastal Division. Poor quarterback play has consistently plagued the 'Canes, though.
Miami will probably regress a bit defensively because the secondary is being revamped, but it should remain a top-tier ACC unit overall. If the passing game ascends to even an average level in 2019, Manny Diaz's team could run away with the Coastal.
Or, conversely, it could fail spectacularly again.
Mississippi State Quarterback
Keytaon Thompson (Jr.), Tommy Stevens (R-Sr.)
Nick Fitzgerald ended his Mississippi State career trailing only Dak Prescott in total offense and total touchdowns. The initial thought was that Keytaon Thompson, who totaled 684 yards and 10 touchdowns in scattered action last season, would take over.
Thompson still may do that, but he'll need to defeat Tommy Stevens.
Stevens transferred from Penn State and is rejoining his former offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, who's now MSU's head coach.
Mississippi State is a wild card because LSU and Alabama travel to Starkville. While both programs have an undeniable talent edge, few games are more dangerous than a road contest in conference play.
If either Thompson or Stevens excels at the right moment, the Bulldogs could throw an intriguing twist into the SEC race.
Oklahoma State Quarterback
Dru Brown (R-Sr.), Spencer Sanders (R-Fr.)
In his lone season as the starter, Taylor Cornelius accounted for 4,384 yards and 42 touchdowns. Oklahoma State, though, managed just seven wins because of a 3-6 Big 12 record. The Pokes are now looking to rebound with either Brown or Sanders at the helm.
Oklahoma State also has a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in Sean Gleeson, who arrived from Princeton. He's tasked with finding the right option to oversee the tweaked offense.
Similar to Mississippi State, OSU is a midtier program with the ability to shake up the conference race. Last year, the Pokes beat ranked Boise State, Texas and West Virginia teams and were a misfired two-point conversion from stunning Oklahoma.
But they're vulnerable to upsets, too.
Oklahoma State needs Brown or Sanders to make that game-changing throw against TCU and Baylor, not just Oklahoma and Texas. Heading into fall camp, we're still waiting for a leader to emerge.
Darriel Mack Jr. (R-So.), Brandon Wimbush (R-Sr.)
In the best-case scenario, this wouldn't be a discussion. UCF would be returning McKenzie Milton, a two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year.
However, a horrible right leg injury will sideline Milton for all of 2019. After that injury to the starter against South Florida, Mack stepped into the lineup and guided UCF to its second straight AAC title and NY6 appearance. Wimbush, meanwhile, lost his starting job at Notre Dame in 2018 and transferred to UCF.
Over the last two seasons, the Knights have rattled off a 25-1 record and will enter 2019 as a proven NY6 threat. Still, a new quarterback and Stanford looming in September mean the Knights have a small margin for error. Mack suffered an ankle injury last week that isn't believed to be season-ending, so this competition will extend into the fall.
Sure, that's nothing new for a program fighting the non-power stigma. Yet that doesn't change the significance of the result against the only true brand-name school on the schedule.
Washington State Quarterback
Gage Gubrud (6yr-Sr.), Anthony Gordon (R-Sr.), Trey Tinsley (R-Sr.), Cammon Cooper (R-Fr.)
Washington State enjoyed one of 2018's breakout performers in Gardner Minshew II. A transfer from East Carolina, he paced the Football Bowl Subdivision at 367.6 yards per game. The Cougs are hoping the portal pays off again in 2019.
Gage Gubrud left Eastern Washington after a toe injury ended his 2018 season, but he received a sixth year of eligibility. He brings 11,000-plus yards of total offense and is competing with Trey Tinsley and Cammon Cooper in the nation's most alliterative QB room, along with Anthony Gordon.
No matter who wins the competition, will he defeat Washington?
That's the pressing question for Wazzu, which hasn't toppled its in-state rival since 2012 and has dropped nine of the last 10 meetings. Washington, meanwhile, has prized Georgia transfer Jacob Eason ready to take over the offense.
Washington State travels to Utah, Oregon and Washington this season, so contending in the Pac-12 hinges upon having a quarterback unfazed in road environments.