Is Trevor Lawrence vs. Joe Burrow the Best QB Title-Game Matchup in CFB History?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 9, 2020

LSU QB Joe Burrow
LSU QB Joe BurrowJohn Amis/Associated Press

When No. 3 Clemson and No. 1 LSU square off for college football's title game Monday at the Superdome, it should be an incredible all-Tigers matchup to crown a second consecutive 15-0 champion.

Elite quarterback play is the biggest reason each of these teams has made it to this point.

In the purple-and-gold corner, LSU has Joe Burrow.

It took three years and a change of schools for him to finally get his chance to shine, but he won this year's Heisman Trophy by the widest margin ever and is the heavy favorite to be taken by the Cincinnati Bengals with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. He needs three passing touchdowns in this game to tie the FBS record (58) for a single season. Considering he just tossed seven against Oklahoma in the first half of the Peach Bowl, we like his chances.

In the purple-and-orange corner, Clemson has golden-haired wunderkind Trevor Lawrence.

Coming out of high school, he was 247Sports' highest-rated quarterback since Vince Young received a perfect grade in 2002, and he has lived up to that nearly unattainable hype. The sophomore has not yet tasted defeat in college, he's the early co-favorite (along with Ohio State's Justin Fields) for next year's Heisman and he is likely going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

You couldn't ask for more, and it led us to wonder if there has ever been a national championship QB showdown quite like this.

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Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Clemson QB Trevor LawrenceRick Scuteri/Associated Press

Dating back to the beginning of the BCS in 1998, this will be the 22nd national championship game. And for the most part, the first 21 featured at least one quarterback who was forgettable.

Eric Crouch, Jason White, Troy Smith, Josh Heupel and AJ McCarron each won or placed second in a Heisman race and played in a national championship, but none of them amounted to much in the NFLif they even made it onto a roster.

At least those five guys were well-respected in college, though. Below that tier, you have Chris Leak, Darron Thomas, Everett Golson, Jake Coker, Jordan Jefferson, Nick Marshall and Todd Boeckman, none of whom finished top-10 in a Heisman vote, had his name called on draft day or made a start (at quarterback) in the NFL.

There's also Cardale Jones, Tee Martin, Greg McElroy and Matt Mauck, each of whom was taken in the latter half of the draft only to make either zero or one starts in the NFL.

Throw Craig Krenzel, Matt Flynn and Ken Dorsey in there as latter-half-of-the-draft guys who made a handful of spot starts, and now you've got 19 of the 30 players who started at quarterback in a national championship between 1998-2015none of whom are even remotely on the same tier as Burrow or Lawrence.

Even though there were a fair number of national championships with one good-to-great quarterbackMatt Leinart in 2004, Cam Newton in 2010, Jameis Winston in 2013, Marcus Mariota in 2014 and Deshaun Watson in 2015—we can remove those games from this conversation because their opponents weren't packing much of a punch.

Aside from the recent pairings involving Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm and Lawrence (we'll hit on those later), that leaves us with three candidates to discuss: Michael Vick vs. Chris Weinke in 1999, Matt Leinart vs. Vince Young in 2005 and Sam Bradford vs. Tim Tebow in 2008.

Texas QB Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl
Texas QB Vince Young in the 2006 Rose BowlCHRIS CARLSON/Associated Press

With all due respect to Weinke, we can quickly rule out the first one as a possible equal to Burrow vs. Lawrence. The Seminoles QB didn't finish top-10 in the Heisman vote until the following seasongranted, he did win the award in 2000and he didn't have much NFL allure because he was already in his late 20s. Fans and scouts were more interested in Weinke's primary target (Peter Warrick).

The other two are mighty juicy exceptions to the norm, though, and both marginally more noteworthy than what we'll be watching Monday.

That Leinart-Young showdown is retrospectively helped out by the fact that it ended up being one of the greatest college football games of all time. But even before Texas and USC played in that unforgettable Rose Bowl, it was a highly anticipated quarterback duel.

Leinart finished top-six in the Heisman vote in 2003, 2004 and 2005, winning it in '04. In his 39-game college career for USC, he only had a couple of bad starts and never had a completion percentage of 50 or below. Though his NFL career was nowhere near as noteworthy, he was the No. 10 pick in the 2006 NFL draft and was at least expected to be a star.

It took a couple of years for Young to live up to the previously mentioned perfect recruiting grade, but he was sensational as a junior. In leading the Longhorns to an undefeated season, he threw for more than 3,000 yards, rushed for more than 1,000 and scored a total of 38 touchdowns.

Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts have obliterated those marks in recent years, but 3,000 and 1,000 in a single season was unheard of prior to VY.

Young finished second in the Heisman vote that yearfirst if you want to pretend Reggie Bush didn't win itand was taken third in the 2006 NFL draft. For at least another 16 months, that makes this the only national championship between quarterbacks who were both selected in the top 10.

But the gold standard is Bradford-Tebow.

Florida QB Tim Tebow
Florida QB Tim TebowMark Humphrey/Associated Press

Like Leinart, Florida's left-handed QB won the Heisman the year before this colossal showdown and finished third that season. Tebow also finished fifth in 2009. He ended his illustrious college career with 88 passing touchdowns, 57 rushing touchdowns and more than 12,000 combined yards. Not bad for a guy who didn't play much as a freshman.

Also like Leinart, Tebow flamed out in the NFL in a hurry. However, he was a first-round draft pick (25th) in 2010, he did have that unforgettable overtime touchdown pass in the 2011 AFC Wild Card Game, and it'll be a long time before Tebow isn't one of the first names mentioned in any debate about the greatest college quarterbacks ever.

And he was the less noteworthy of the two quarterbacks in this game.

Bradford won the Heisman in 2008 and got to 50 passing touchdowns by the end of this national championship. He likely would have been the No. 1 pick in the draft a few months later, but he returned to Oklahoma for one more year.

He suffered a shoulder injury, missed most of the 2009 season, wasn't even able to throw at the combine and was still the No. 1 draft pick in 2010. That should tell you how much potential Bradford possessed if he had just been able to stay healthy. Though he continued to battle more than his fair share of injuries, he (thus far) had the third-best pro career among quarterbacks to play in a national championship, trailing only Vick and Newton in that debate.

Both Tebow and Bradford had already won the Heisman by the time the game was played. Both eventually became first-round draft picks. Even though the actual matchup wasn't as great as anticipated—a 24-14 game in which each quarterback threw a pair of interceptions while posting his worst passer efficiency rating of the seasonit's hard to argue with those accolades.

Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford
Oklahoma QB Sam BradfordLynne Sladky/Associated Press

Hurts had a great college careerone I believe we'll come to appreciate more when reflecting upon it in future yearsbut he didn't win a Heisman. And he's not expected to be selected in the first round of the draft. His matchup with Watson in 2016 was much more noteworthy than Jake Coker's from the previous year, but it's a far cry from Bradford-Tebow or Burrow-Lawrence, as is the 2017 game he started against Georgia's Jake Fromm.

The battle between Lawrence and Tagovailoa was expected to be an all-timer. However, Tagovailoa never won a stiff-armed trophy, and he is almost certainly going to be drafted behind Burrow in April. Throw in the fact that Lawrence is one year older and wiser, and you've got to rank this year's QB clash ahead of last year's, right?

Thus, while we are unwilling to crown Lawrence vs. Burrow as the singular greatest quarterback matchup in national championship history, it definitely ranks in the top three and is the best one in at least a decade. If this thing lives up to the hype, there could be 100 points scored in an instant-classic, pantheon-level game.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.


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