Big CFB Programs with the Toughest QB Decisions Entering 2020

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2020

Big CFB Programs with the Toughest QB Decisions Entering 2020

0 of 13

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Some of you may interpret "tough" quarterback situations as those with no good outcome, but that's not the case for a lot of big-name college football programs entering the 2020 season.

    Many of the teams you're used to watching have tough decisions to make when it comes to who they'll be trotting out on Saturdays.

    Some teams have unproven-but-talented quarterbacks returning. Others have incumbents but have recruited elite talents who will push them for the starting job, whether they are already on the roster or first-year players entering this spring or summer.

    Other teams, like Michigan, may have two exciting players who've waited their turn and will now battle it out. Finally, a team may return a former starter from injury to throw a major curveball at the quarterback situation.

    Challenging choices await quarterback races all over the country. It's going to make for some exciting headlines leading up to the opening kickoff. Let's examine some of the college football teams around the country facing dicey signal-caller situations.

Alabama Crimson Tide

1 of 13

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    One of the most intriguing decisions in college football will be Alabama coach Nick Saban's quarterback choice for the post-Tua Tagovailoa era.

    Will it be rising junior incumbent Mac Jones, who took over in 2019 when Tagovailoa was lost for the year? Could it be Tagovailoa's little brother, Taulia, or another 4-star talent from the 2019 class in Paul Tyson? Or will it be electric 5-star incoming freshman Bryce Young?

    Everybody wants to know, but Saban's meticulous approach ensures it's going to be a while before we find out.

    Remember the days Saban was accused of struggling to recruit top-flight quarterbacks when Alabama deployed so-called "game managers"? Those days are over. Even so, the Crimson Tide won their fair share of championships with guys like Greg McElroy, Jake Coker and A.J. McCarron.

    Nowadays, the Tide are signing elite quarterbacks.

    Whoever wins the gig will have plenty of top talent at his disposal with receivers like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and runners like Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders around them. It's about finding the best weapon to guide it all.

    Jones is a known commodity who is steady but not spectacular. Young is an intriguing option who looked like a Russell Wilson clone at Mater Dei (California) High School, but whether it will translate in the SEC is a question. The other two youngsters are unknowns, too.

    This is going to be a fascinating race worth reading about.

Boise State Broncos

2 of 13

    David Becker/Getty Images

    One of the best—and quietest—coaching jobs in the 2019 college football season came from Boise State's Bryan Harsin.

    With an atrocious offensive line, the Broncos played musical chairs at the quarterback position because nobody could stay healthy. Entering the year, they had an enviable group of signal-callers. One by one, they fell to the wayside.

    Talented true freshman Hank Bachmeier started under center, but injuries forced him to the sideline and Chase Cord onto the field. Once Cord got hurt, it was senior Jaylon Henderson who entered before Bachmeier ended the year back at the helm.

    Even though Boise had a disappointing 38-7 Las Vegas Bowl loss to end the season, the Broncos still finished 12-2 and won the Mountain West Conference in a strong year for the league. Now, with Henderson graduated, it's a Bachmeier-Cord battle to see who starts in 2020.

    Bachmeier is the highest-rated signal-caller to ever sign with the Broncos, and he should be stronger and bigger with a year in the weight room, so he should be the favorite. But Cord has some ability, too, and Harsin is going to play the guy who gives the team the best chance to win.

    If Bachmeier can stay upright and make smarter decisions, he has the highest ceiling. But with Cord on the sideline, the race will be tight and the leash is going to be short for whoever wins the job.

    This is going to be one of the two biggest Group of Five battles to watch.

Florida Gators

3 of 13

    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    You may ask why Florida is on this list when Dan Mullen seemingly struck gold in 2019. When Feleipe Franks went down for the year, lifelong backup Kyle Trask began his sensational run as the Reptile Rocket.

    After spending his high school days backing up D'Eriq King and most of his first three college years watching from the sideline, Trask was so good that Franks transferred to Arkansas. But it's no guarantee the Texas product is going to be leading the way for the Gators in 2020.

    He's the heavy favorite to win the job and may even be the SEC's top returning signal-caller. But redshirt sophomore Emory Jones showed flashes of brilliance in '19 while the Gators went 11-2, too.

    Competition is healthy, and it should make Trask and Jones better. Even if the latter doesn't start right away, he at least should have a package like he did a season ago, and it should be expanded moving forward.

    Jones' running ability is elite, and, historically, Mullen's offenses have been at their best with a mobile quarterback (see: Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott). Trask is no statue in the pocket, but Jones has a superior gear that can put defenses on their heels.

    Jones needs to show drastically improved passing, but it's possible he'll do just that and Mullen's familiarity with a quarterback like him will lead to an increased role.

    It's more likely, however, Trask gets the nod, and Jones gets his two years at the top beginning in '21 when the Gators will have another decision to make once incoming freshman Anthony Richardson matures. The Swamp looks set for the future under center.

Florida State Seminoles

4 of 13

    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Things are about to open up for the Florida State offense, but don't expect Mike Norvell's philosophy to be perfected overnight. It's going to take the Seminoles a while before things get into place to run the system that was effective at Arizona State and Memphis.

    Now, the biggest question is who's going to run it in 2020?

    Incumbent James Blackman should start the spring as the first quarterback on the practice field, but he didn't have the type of season last year that would strike fear in the hearts of any incoming freshman. He mostly kept things in the intermediate passing game and wound up throwing a lot of safe passes.

    His numbers (63 percent, 2,339 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) weren't bad for a sophomore season that was his first as the full-time starter, but they weren't dynamic, either. Now, he will start on the same plain as every other FSU signal-caller.

    Blackman has plenty of talent, but FSU has hamstrung him by inconsistency with its coaching carousel, and he hasn't developed the way he could have. Is it too late, or will he be a strong pro-style passer under Norvell?

    Redshirt sophomore Jordan Travis had some electric moments last year, but he has obvious throwing limitations, so it's doubtful his future in Tallahassee will be behind center.

    Norvell grabbed two quarterbacks in the 2020 class in 3-star Tate Rodemaker, who may or may not be college-ready, and 4-star Chubba Purdy, who flipped from Louisville to give the Noles class a spark.

    Rodemaker is on campus for spring practice, but Purdy isn't. The big question is whether Norvell will go with one of "his" guys or try to remake Blackman in his image.

LSU Tigers

5 of 13

    Michael Democker/Associated Press

    Replacing Joe Burrow is going to be impossible. 

    You know you were thinking it, because it's true.

    While you won't see anybody at LSU saying it, the bottom line is whoever steps into the role as the Bayou Bengals' signal-caller in 2020 is going to face that impossible task. Not only did Burrow win the Heisman Trophy and a national title, but he also posted arguably the best single season in Division I history.

    Unless something wild happens, rising junior Myles Brennan will be the guy for offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger to mold into a quality SEC quarterback. The key for Brennan is to just be himself, especially since he's going to have plenty of capable weapons surrounding him.

    The Tigers lost a lot, but they return Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase, quality pass-catcher Terrace Marshall Jr. and a stable of capable running backs, and elite freshman tight end Arik Gilbert will be making his debut season. 

    If Brennan can't cut it, coach Ed Orgeron has a pair of good-looking freshman quarterbacks who could take over.

    Max Johnson of Oconee County High in Georgia is a 6'4", 215-pound incoming freshman who is the son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson and the nephew of former Georgia and Miami head coach Mark Richt.

    Then there's the intriguing, 6'7", 230-pound T.J. Finley, who is coming out of Ponchatoula (Louisiana) High School. Both guys have quality futures, and while few expect Brennan to lose the job to a first-year player, they're strong options who could push the upperclassman.

    Coming off a title, LSU isn't going to play around with the most important position on the field, so Brennan had better bring it in practice.

Michigan Wolverines

6 of 13

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    If Michigan is going to take the next step forward with Jim Harbaugh as coach, the onus will fall upon the winner of this year's quarterback battle.

    The pair of intriguing options to replace Shea Patterson have a lot to prove but a ton of upside, too. 

    Though Patterson struggled to be consistent after transferring from Ole Miss, he ended his career in Ann Arbor with a strong 2019 campaign, meaning it's going to be tough to replicate what he gave the Wolverines under center. Thankfully for Harbaugh, he's recruited extremely well at the position.

    Will the quarterback be rising junior Dylan McCaffrey, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers running back and Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, who is an elite athlete and has patiently waited his turn? Or will the big-armed, uber-talented Joe Milton get the call?

    That's the question everybody wants answered, and it's going to be fun to watch it unfold.

    Nobody is expecting him to be Cam Newton, but Milton is a 6'5", 235-pound athlete who can make all the throws and extend the play with his feet. He has the ability to develop into a difference-maker and has an extra year of eligibility than his contender for the starting gig.

    McCaffrey plays a reckless, no-holds-barred style. He will have to play smarter with the team on his shoulders, but he can do a lot of things to help you win a game.

    This will be one of the most fun battles to watch because the options are so different. Harbaugh has a difficult decision because both look like they're ready to help the Wolverines win.

Oklahoma Sooners

7 of 13

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    For much of his redshirt freshman season in 2019, Tanner Mordecai was the primary backup quarterback for Oklahoma. Mordecai completed 16 of his 26 passes for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns in garbage time of six games. 

    Did he get garbage-time reps because he was the best option after Jalen Hurts, or was it because Sooners coach Lincoln Riley wanted to redshirt elite freshman Spencer Rattler?

    With OU getting throttled in the Peach Bowl, Rattler got the leftover snaps, and that may be a sign of things to come. This spring will tell the story. For the first time in a couple years, OU wasn't in the market for a transfer quarterback, so Riley must like what he has.

    Mordecai and Rattler are both quality options.

    The latter was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school in Arizona, and though he does not have elite arm strength or NFL size, he extends plays with his feet, plays bigger than his frame and possesses excellent touch, with the capability to make all the throws.

    Mordecai is more of a pocket passer, but neither of them are going to give the Sooners the type of running ability Hurts possessed. The good news is both have the ability to be better downfield passers, and that probably makes them a better system fit for Riley.

    With Charleston Rambo returning as the deep threat to take CeeDee Lamb's spot, and the young trio of Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges ready to take their turn in the spotlight, whoever wins the QB battle is going to have some exciting weapons. The running back room is loaded, too.

    All that points to Rattler being the guy because he's the most exciting option. 

Oregon Ducks

8 of 13

    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has a type when it comes to quarterbacks.

    Why not want your starter to look like tall, big-armed departing senior Justin Herbert, who helped bring the Ducks back to the forefront of the Pac-12? That's exactly how the two front-runners for this year's job look.

    You may forget that Tyler Shough was a 2018 4-star prospect, but he was a player a lot of teams coveted coming out of high school.

    Though Shough threw just 15 passes (completing 12 of them for three touchdowns) in garbage-time relief of Herbert in 2019, the 6'5", 219-pound field general is fully capable of claiming the job in his redshirt sophomore season.

    His primary competition may be the duo of redshirt freshman Cale Millen and incoming 4-star Jay Butterfield, who was one of the jewels of yet another stellar recruiting class in the 2020 cycle for Cristobal.

    Butterfield, too, is a long, lanky quarterback with a strong arm, and though he'll need to add some weight at 6'4", 180 pounds, he has the frame to put it on quick once he gets in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

    Everybody thought Trevor Lawrence was too skinny coming out of high school, but talent ultimately won the day. It may be the same case for Butterfield.

    Cristobal checked many boxes in quarterback recruiting in his elite '20 class, and he will examine all options, including summer arriver Robby Ashford. There are several capable signal-callers to fill Herbert's cleats, and a long, detailed look awaits all the options.

Tennessee Volunteers

9 of 13

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Vols salvaged an 8-5 record after a dreadful start to 2019 included losses to Georgia State and BYU. But that doesn't change the fact that the quarterback position was mostly a mess.

    Brief spurts of success for true freshman Brian Maurer and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout kept UT afloat for important moments, but the Vols were junior Jarrett Guarantano's team for the most part, for better or worse.

    In an odd twist, Guarantano actually was much better during Tennessee's terrific late-season run when he came off the bench. Despite a tumultuous career in Knoxville that has made him a bit of a contentious figure among Vols fans, Guarantano is returning for his final season, and that's good news for Pruitt.

    But will he be the starter?

    Tennessee signed 247Sports 4-star quarterback Harrison Bailey, who was a 5-star prospect on Rivals, and he looks like a college-ready signal-caller. Dual-threat incoming freshman Jimmy Holiday is in the mix, and Maurer and Shrout are back to battle this spring, too.

    There is a strong group of potential signal-callers with a diverse skill set in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's quarterback room, and Guarantano should have to earn it if he's going to get the starting nod this year.

    If the Vols are going to take the next step forward and contend for the SEC East with Georgia and Florida, they have to upgrade their quarterback play immediately. They're hoping competition breeds the consistency missing from the position a season ago.

Washington Huskies

10 of 13

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After he replaced Chris Petersen as Washington's head coach, former defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake's first order of business was to secure the Huskies' quality recruiting class. He did that, taking care of things mostly in December.

    Now comes the most important immediate task: finding the on-field leader for the 2020 offense.

    With Jacob Eason electing to gamble on his talent rather than his pro readiness and head to the NFL a year early, Washington has to open the quarterback race, and it is as up in the air as any in the nation. If the Huskies are going to return to the top of the Pac-12, Lake has to get this right.

    Though U-Dub has seen its share of transfers at the position recently (Jacob Haener to Fresno State and Colson Yankoff to UCLA), it still has a trio of intriguing options on campus. 

    The favorite, perhaps, is 6'5", 234-pound redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, the nephew of former NFL player Peter Sirmon and son of David Sirmon, who played at Montana. He's a big-bodied, big-armed field general who flirted with the transfer portal last offseason before returning.

    He'll have to beat out a couple of top-flight quarterbacks from the past two recruiting classes. Local product Dylan Morris committed to the Huskies as part of the 2019 class and redshirted while leading the scout team last season.

    Ethan Garbers was the nation's fourth-rated pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class, and his brother, Chase, is already a starting quarterback in the Pac-12 at Cal. 

    Though this is likely to be a Sirmon-Morris battle, Garbers provides an exciting option if he develops quickly. Lake has a lot of good-looking prospects, but nobody is proven. It's time to see what they can do.

Wisconsin Badgers

11 of 13

    Alika Jenner/Getty Images

    Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is a lot of things, but he'll never be mistaken for an exciting, out-of-the-box thinker.

    The Badgers have a long-standing redshirt program that makes it difficult for first-year players to see a lot of on-field action. Also, more often than not, the upperclassmen are going to play.

    That's why—much to the chagrin of Badgers fans who were excited to watch him play—Graham Mertz didn't win the starting quarterback job in 2019, despite being one of the highest-profile signal-callers to ever head to Madison.

    Instead, Chryst played junior Jack Coan, and, though he had a decent season by completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, he didn't exactly strike fear in Wisconsin's opponents.

    Now with Coan back for his final season, it's going to be interesting to see if he automatically gets the nod or if Chryst goes with Mertz. The Kansas native completed nine of his 10 passes a season ago for 73 yards after dominating the U.S. Army All-America Bowl before heading off to college.

    He has an elite skill set and could take the Badgers to another level in the post-Jonathan Taylor era where the offense probably needs to be a little more balanced. Coan hasn't necessarily done anything to lose the job, but Mertz's ceiling is too much to shrug him off as an insignificant piece of the 2020 puzzle.

    It may be time for Chryst to take a gamble and play the most talented of the pair.

UCF Knights

12 of 13

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last year wasn't the type of season the UCF Knights were used to as they went only 10-3 and failed to play in the AAC Championship Game.

    They should be right back in the mix in 2020, though, along with Memphis and Cincinnati. Things get a lot more interesting in Orlando if McKenzie Milton is healthy enough to play.

    By now, you've perhaps forgotten what kind of talent Milton is. He's never lost a game as the UCF starting quarterback, and he's trying to return from a horrific leg injury suffered in the 2018 regular-season finale against South Florida that changed the Knights' fortunes and put Milton's career in jeopardy.

    Recently, though, Milton shed his knee brace and looks like he may have the chance to play next year.

    "He still has a long way to go and he knows that, but he's got great joy," UCF coach Josh Heupel told the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Murschel. "He's really excited to where he's at and where he has an opportunity to go."

    If Milton can go, the question then becomes whether he'll be the same Heisman Trophy candidate player he was before the injury. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2017 and 2,663 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2018.

    If he can't, the Knights have another quality option ready to go.

    True freshman Dillon Gabriel followed in Milton's footsteps from their hometown of Mililani, Hawaii, into the UCF spotlight, beating out Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush and throwing for 3,653 yards, 29 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2019. He can run a little, too.

    If Milton can go, Heupel could work a two-quarterback system to ease some of the pressure off his returning star. There's flexibility in the quarterback room in Orlando.

USC Trojans

13 of 13

    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    USC won one of the biggest recruiting battles of the 2018 cycle when JT Daniels elected to stay home, commit to the Trojans and forgo his final season of high school to come in a year early and lead the proud program back to college football's Promised Land.

    It hasn't quite worked out that way.

    Following a freshman year riddled with inconsistency in which Daniels showed plenty of youth and inexperience, he got injured in the '19 season opener against Fresno State and was lost for the year.

    That sent the door gaping open for lightly heralded Kedon Slovis to enter the picture as a redshirt freshman.

    All the former Arizona high school product did was elevate the play for the Trojans, helping them overcome a putrid defense to go 8-5. He guided a prolific offense, completing nearly 72 percent of his passes for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

    Now, though this is Slovis' offense, Daniels is back, and he's sticking around to compete for the job.

    "He's a very competitive kid and has never run from a challenge before," Daniels' father, Steve, told 247Sports' Greg Biggins in December. "Kedon played really well and JT was happy for him but at the same time, JT is a competitor and once he's back to 100%, he wants to compete for that job."

    The elder Daniels noted his son's USC tattoo on his leg as being an indicator of his commitment to the program. And while that's a commendable stance, Daniels is far too good of a prospect to stand on the sideline. But so is Slovis.

    This is going to create an uncomfortable, transfer-worthy outcome for the loser of the Trojans' 2020 quarterback battle. Whoever wins it may wind up with coach Clay Helton's future on his shoulders, too.

    No pressure, huh?


    Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted and statistics courtesy of