The Best Returning QB in Every College Football Conference for 2020

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2020

The Best Returning QB in Every College Football Conference for 2020

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    So much quarterback talent is flying off the college football shelves and preparing to outfit the NFL with one of the deepest, most talented groups of signal-callers in a while.

    Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason, Jordan Love, Jalen Hurts and others are off to the NFL draft, where they'll try to prove to scouts they're good enough to improve their stock. But the amateur game will be just fine without them.

    With Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields of Ohio State back, as well as next year's projected No. 1 overall pick, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, the top of the group returning for 2020 is perhaps even stronger than this year's.

    There are plenty of other capable gunslingers, too. The Big 12 has plenty of talent, and while the SEC isn't as strong at the position as it has been in years past, the league still has a sturdy group of throwers ready to take the reins.

    So, who are some of the names you need to watch as the cream of their conferences? Using stats and performances so far, along with talent and ability, let's take a look at the top returning quarterback in each conference heading into next season.

    As always, make your thoughts known in the comments section.

American Athletic Conference: Brady White, Memphis

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    The American Athletic Conference has plenty of top-caliber talent, and the quarterback position is no different. This is actually one of the most competitive conferences on the list for our purposes.

    Rising SMU senior and former Texas transfer Shane Buechele is back for an encore to a fantastic 2019 season. Temple's Anthony Russo is a strong-armed signal-caller who posted quality numbers as a junior and could be better next year.

    Then there's Central Florida, where Dillon Gabriel had a fantastic freshman season. But what happens if former Heisman Trophy candidate McKenzie Milton returns from his year-plus hiatus due to injury? Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder would be a strong pick, too.

    But the honor here goes to Memphis senior signal-caller Brady White. The former Arizona State transfer has been an offensive catalyst for former head coach Mike Norvell. But even with him off to Florida State, he should still be just fine under Ryan Silverfield, who was promoted to head coach.

    White has a stable of quality pass-catchers returning, led by all-conference talent Damonte Coxie, who should be one of the top playmakers in the league. When you factor in a strong running game helmed by super sophomore Kenneth Gainwell, the Tigers offense isn't going anywhere.

    White is the guy who makes everything tick. He completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 4,014 yards, 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2019, and he should improve upon those numbers—or at least post nearly the same ones in 2020.

    If he does, it's going to be another big year for the Tigers.

ACC: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

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    For all the crowing about Trevor Lawrence's consistency early in the season, all he did as a sophomore was complete 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

    Oh yeah, he also led the Tigers back to the national title game.

    Though the bid for a repeat fell just short in a loss to LSU, Lawrence will be back in 2020 with another loaded group of offensive stars that should keep Clemson right in the thick of the national championship picture. If you're betting against head coach Dabo Swinney's team making it back to the College Football Playoff later this year, you're in the minority.

    The days of ACC futility are dwindling, though.

    Miami got a massive commitment from the biggest transfer in the portal in Houston's D'Eriq King. North Carolina rising sophomore Sam Howell is a star in the making who is going to be a household name before long—if he isn't already one.

    The league does lose a couple of playmakers at the position in Bryce Perkins, who is off to the NFL, and Jamie Newman, who transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia.

    But the league is healthier than ever. And with King and Howell leading their teams and Mike Norvell upgrading the offense at Florida State, the ACC is going to be strong.

    Lawrence is the strongest signal-caller of the bunch, and he leads the top team. He's probably going to be the top pick in next year's NFL draft if he stays healthy and elects to leave after his junior season. But he's got another national title on his mind before that.

Big 12: Sam Ehlinger, Texas

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    There's no question the 2019 season wasn't kind to the "Texas is back" crowd. The Longhorns wound up going 8-5 in a season that saw them ravaged by injuries. Head coach Tom Herman wound up firing both coordinators, and there is going to be plenty of newness in Austin throughout 2020.

    Sam Ehlinger will be the steadying force, though, after electing to return for his senior season. That's huge news, too. He did nothing wrong in a '19 campaign that saw him throw for 3,663 yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing more than 65 percent of his passes.

    With Jalen Hurts gone, Ehlinger will get the publicity he deserves.

    There's still plenty of talent at the position in the Big 12, though. Iowa State's Brock Purdy, Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders, Baylor's Charlie Brewer and Texas Tech's Jett Duffey could all have big 2020s.

    But this should be Ehlinger's year.

    The Longhorns inked Mike Yurcich to be their next offensive coordinator, and he has ties to the conference after serving as Mike Gundy's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before he was hired away to be Ohio State's passing game coordinator a year ago.

    Everyone knows the kind of season Justin Fields had in Columbus last year, and Yurcich's fingerprints were all over that performance. So, what can he do with Ehlinger? The dual-threat playmaker is thought of as a great college quarterback, but his pro stock is all over the map.

    If he can put together a massive senior season and lead Texas back to prominence, he could really see his NFL stock soar. He could wind up clicking with Yurcich in a big way, and if that happens, the Longhorns would have the talent to enjoy a bounceback season.

Big Ten: Justin Fields, Ohio State

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    Trevor Lawrence gets plenty of the headlines because of all he's able to do, but Justin Fields had a better 2019 season.

    The former Georgia high school prep stars didn't grow up that far apart, and they met in a classic College Football Playoff battle a few weeks back, which was won by Lawrence and the Tigers. Don't be surprised if Fields' Buckeyes meet up with them again in the next championship game.

    The Big Ten isn't loaded with elite quarterbacks next year, with Penn State's Sean Clifford, Minnesota's Tanner Morgan, Indiana's Peyton Ramsey and Nebraska's Adrian Martinez leading the way. Gone are Michigan's Shea Patterson, Michigan State's Brian Lewerke and Iowa's Nate Stanley.

    But Fields bested them all, along with basically every other quarterback in the country.

    After transferring from Georgia, he fit perfectly into Ryan Day's system, finishing the year completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns and three interceptions. He added 484 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but he can be an even bigger threat on the ground, if needed.

    The Buckeyes are returning a bevy of playmakers in the receiving corps in '20, led by Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Yes, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack are gone, but the Buckeyes have a lot of guys ready to step in and recruited as well as anybody at the position, led by incoming freshman Julian Fleming.

    There will be no shortage of guys to catch Fields' passes, and 2020 could wind up being an even bigger season than this past year. With a potential return to the College Football Playoff on the line, there will be no bigger stage than the one in Columbus each weekend.

    With Day calling the plays and Fields executing them, Buckeyes fans have to like their chances to go even further in 2020.

Conference USA: Chris Robison, Florida Atlantic

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    It's going to be tough for Florida Atlantic without innovative play-caller Lane Kiffin at the helm. The Lane Train jumped the tracks and headed to Oxford so Kiffin could serve as Ole Miss' next head coach.

    But the Owls made a shrewd hire in Willie Taggart, and though he had a forgettable year-plus at Florida State, he proved he could coach at Oregon and South Florida. Things didn't go his way in Tallahassee, but he is a terrific candidate to have a rebound year at a lower level.

    A lot of that will hinge on the progress of Chris Robison, who had a monster season leading the team in 2019, completing nearly 62 percent of his passes for 3,701 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Robison transferred from Oklahoma after a violation of team rules and has resurrected his career in Boca Raton.

    Things will be different without Kiffin as the two made a great team. But Taggart's programs have posted big offensive numbers in the past, too.

    CUSA has several quality signal-callers in Southern Miss' Jack Abraham, Middle Tennessee's Asher O'Hara, UAB's Tyler Johnston III and Charlotte's Chris Reynolds, but the league lost some playmakers, too. North Texas' Mason Fine is gone, as are FIU's James Morgan, Western Kentucky's Ty Storey and Louisiana Tech's J'Mar Smith.

    Robison is still the clear-cut top quarterback returning to the league, and if he meshes well with Taggart, the Owls are going to be a threat to repeat as conference champions.

    "Robison set single-season program records for passing yards and completions while establishing himself as one of the nation's top young quarterbacks," the Palm Beach Post's Jake Elman wrote. Even without standout tight end Harrison Bryant, the Owls can match their 11 wins with the junior back.

Independent: Ian Book, Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame decided to stick with continuity in its offensive coordinator journey, conducting a national search to replace ousted Chip Long that wound up right back where it started: in South Bend with former Irish signal-caller and quarterbacks coach for the past three years, Tommy Rees.

    All Rees has done during that time is take Ian Book and turn him from a run-first, clunky quarterback to one of the best all-around players in college football. Book's throwing motion is better, and his athleticism now allows him to beat teams with his arm or his feet.

    That's why the Fighting Irish have a chance to return to the College Football Playoff in 2020 after a one-year hiatus.

    Book is back for his senior season after completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 34 touchdowns and six interceptions. He added 546 rushing yards and four more touchdowns on the ground, but he focused more on his passing in 2019, and it showed. Though he's still not polished, he is surging in the right direction.

    Losing wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, as well as tight end Cole Kmet, will be big blows for the Irish, but head coach Brian Kelly has done a good job recruiting offensive skill-position players. Plus, Book's return for his fifth season is huge news for the development of a unit that is going to be younger but perhaps more dynamic in 2020.

    Yes, Book has to improve against the best defenses on Notre Dame's schedule. But as far as he's progressed in his first four years, it would be unwise to bet against him. This is a player who continues to grow, and he could wind up having a breakout season.

    If he does, the Irish could be one of the surprise teams in the nation.

MAC: Drew Plitt, Ball State

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    The MAC was not loaded with star players in 2019, and that goes for the quarterback position, too. The league will have to reload at that spot later this year as many of its top passers are out of eligibility.

    While Miami (Ohio)'s Brett Gabbert could take a huge leap forward in his sophomore year and wind up becoming the best player in the league and Kent State's Dustin Crum could improve on his ridiculous 20 touchdowns against just two interceptions, neither gets the nod here.

    The honor for best returning signal-caller in the league goes to Ball State's Drew Plitt, who completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,918 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 5-7 team in 2019. If he gets a little more help next campaign, he could have an even bigger senior season.

    It's going to be tough to replace running back Walter Fletcher and wide receivers Antwan Davis and Riley Miller, but head coach Mike Neu needs to be able to do exactly that if he's going to keep his job. A big season from Plitt, a former Cincinnati prep quarterback who has produced quality numbers, is also necessary.

    The Cardinals couldn't close down the stretch in '19, and they haven't earned a bowl berth since 2013. Plitt could change that with a big redshirt senior year.

    Before the final three games—the team needed to win two out of three to make a bowl game but went 1-2—Neu commented on his squad's positive energy.

    "This is the best team that we've had in terms of the chemistry part in the locker room and the togetherness part in the locker room," he told the Ball State Daily's Zach Piatt. "This team's been as good as I've been around in terms of the character piece here and the best we've had here."

    It wasn't enough in 2019. But maybe the Cardinals can take the next step this year with Plitt at the helm.

Mountain West: Hank Bachmeier, Boise State

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    The Mountain West Conference has enjoyed plenty of star quarterbacks the past few years, led by whichever playmaker the Boise State Broncos trot out there each season.

    That wasn't the case in 2019 as the Broncos won the league and finished 12-2 despite playing musical chairs all season at the most vital position. It was truly a terrific coaching job by Bryan Harsin, who got quality play out of Hank Bachmeier, Chase Cord and Jaylon Henderson throughout the year.

    Both Bachmeier and Cord dealt with injuries. The former showed tons of promise at the beginning of the year, winning the job as a true freshman, but he was pummeled throughout his starts due to a porous offensive line and was eventually hurt most of the year.

    Still, he finished with eight games under his belt, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes for 1,879 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He did not have his best performance in the 38-7 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Washington, but that shouldn't tarnish his season.

    There is a reason the Murietta, California, prospect was a 4-star talent, and he's going to have a bright future playing for Harsin if he can stay healthy. That's why we're betting here that he beats out Cord for the starting gig again in '20 and winds up the best signal-caller in the league.

    At 6'1", 202 pounds, Bachmeier needs to add some bulk in the offseason, and Boise State needs to fix its offensive line issues. But the MWC is losing a bunch of star quarterbacks, too.

    Utah State's Jordan Love is expected to be taken in the top two rounds of the NFL draft. San Jose State's Josh Love and Hawaii's Cole McDonald (who is leaving early) had strong years prior to their departures. Fresno State's Jorge Reyna is also gone.

    Air Force's Donald Hammond III threw for 13 touchdowns and ran for 13 more in '19, and he is a candidate to have a strong senior season. Colorado State's Patrick O'Brien could thrive if he clicks with a new coaching staff. Nevada's Carson Strong also shows promise.

    But Bachmeier has an elite skill set, and he's on track to outpace them all in 2020.

Pac-12: Kedon Slovis, USC

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    Talk about stumbling on to something special.

    The USC Trojans were all set to ride former 5-star quarterback JT Daniels and expected him to take a huge jump in his second full season as the team's starter. Instead, he went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Fresno State.

    Enter Kedon Slovis.

    The freshman wasn't a highly rated prospect at all, but that mattered little when he got on the field. As the season progressed, his numbers were exceptional, especially for a first-year player. He also flashed poise and leadership skills that have everyone at USC excited for the rest of his career.

    Head coach Clay Helton needs Slovis to keep improving for the team to maximize its potential and, quite frankly, for him to keep his job. But Daniels isn't going anywhere, either. He is staying to compete for the job, and he has an elite arm and limitless potential, too. 

    Right now, though, the Trojans are Slovis' team. He completed nearly 72 percent of his passes as a freshman for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. If Daniels beats him out, it'll be because he had a huge spring and preseason.

    So, Slovis gets the nod over a group of young, exciting quarterbacks in the Pac-12.

    Arizona State's Jayden Daniels is a dual-threat quarterback who also possesses that moxie and could take a huge leap forward after an impressive first season. Losing playmakers like running back Eno Benjamin and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk won't help, though.

    UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a dynamic player who looks like he's close to putting everything together. Utah's Jake Bentley could make some noise after transferring from South Carolina. Even though he isn't the starter now, Daniels has a lot of potential.

    But this is Slovis' spot to lose.

SEC: Kyle Trask, Florida

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    It's next to impossible to replace two top-of-the-line playmakers at quarterback like LSU's Heisman Trophy-winning Joe Burrow and 2018's Heisman runner-up, Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama. When you throw in Georgia's steady Jake Fromm, that's a ton of star power gone from the SEC's arms race.

    Several capable players return, such as Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, Alabama's Mac Jones, Auburn's Bo Nix, Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano, South Carolina's Ryan Hilinski and Ole Miss' John Rhys Plumlee. Georgia also got a star transfer in Wake Forest's Jamie Newman to fling into the mix.

    But the best returning quarterback is Florida's Kyle Trask, who wasn't even the starter at the beginning of 2019, sitting behind Feleipe Franks (now a graduate transfer at Arkansas). Trask, as is well-documented, didn't even start for his high school team, instead watching D'Eriq King light it up.

    Trask got his opportunity when Franks went down with a season-ending injury, and he never looked back, leading the Gators to 11 wins and completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    He doesn't have elite skills, but he just gets the job done. He's entering his senior season, and big things are expected of him and the Gators during head coach Dan Mullen's third season. He is steady, and while not flashy, he makes the plays that win games.

    This is really a two-player race, though.

    A season ago, Newman had 2,868 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and more than 500 rushing yards for Wake Forest. With a better supporting cast around him and with offensive coordinator Todd Monken now helping mold him, he could break out. It's going to be exciting to see what he brings to the table in Athens.

    If the Bulldogs can tap into Newman's elite skill set while he trims down the turnovers, he'll be the SEC's best in 2020. But, right now, that distinction belongs to Trask.

Sun Belt: Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

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    Speaking of two-player races, Arkansas State has one of the country's most exciting young signal-callers in Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Layne Hatcher.

    But he's battling steadily rising senior Zac Thomas at Appalachian State to be the top quarterback in the league, and all Thomas does is win conference championships. That's also all he needs to hold the edge over the Red Wolves' youngster.

    Thomas returns in 2020, but he'll be operating with his third head coach in as many seasons. He got his start and starred with Scott Satterfield at the helm and had another solid season with Eli Drinkwitz last year.

    Now, former offensive line coach Shawn Clark takes over. He knows Thomas and is familiar with his skill set, but how is it going to translate now that he's a head coach?

    Last year, Thomas completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 2,718 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions and was third-team All-Sun Belt, taking a tiny step back from 2018's second-team finish. He wasn't quite as lauded as Troy's Kaleb Barker or Georgia State's Dan Ellington, both of whom were seniors in 2019.

    As for Hatcher, he completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those numbers are similar to Thomas', but the championships make the difference.

    Thomas should continue to do plenty of damage for the Mountaineers, who've built an impressive dynasty in the Sun Belt since moving up from FCS football. Though he doesn't get the headlines or put up flashy numbers, the rising senior is arguably the school's best quarterback ever.

    It's going to be fun to see what he does in the final chapter of his career.