College Football: Ranking the 10 Best QBs Most Likely to Return in 2021
While returning a standout quarterback does not guarantee success in college football, expectations are generally more optimistic when a signal-caller returns.
Looking ahead to the 2021 season, several high-level quarterbacks are likely to leave for the NFL. That group includes Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Kyle Trask (Florida) and Mac Jones (Alabama), among others.
Their departures will leave room for a fresh wave of top players at the position. Sam Howell (North Carolina) and Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) are the early contenders for best in the nation, but they'll have plenty of competition from familiar names such as D'Eriq King (Miami), Kedon Slovis (USC) and more.
While former top recruits Bryce Young (Alabama) and D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson) are set to replace outgoing quarterbacks, the list is focused on established college players.
Note: The ranking assumes Lawrence, Fields, Trask, Jones, Zach Wilson (BYU), Ian Book (Notre Dame), Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), Brock Purdy (Iowa State), Sam Ehlinger (Texas) and Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) move on from college.
More top quarterbacks, listed alphabetically:
- Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
- Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan
- Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
- Layne Hatcher, Arkansas State
- Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
- Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
- Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
- Tyler Shough, Oregon
- Skylar Thompson, Kansas State
- Tyler Vantrease, Buffalo
- Malik Willis, Liberty
10. Matt Corral, Mississippi
Turnovers are a concern for Matt Corral, who tossed 14 interceptions in nine games as a sophomore. Few offenses were more explosive than Corral-led Ole Miss, though.
He led the nation with 11 passes of 50-plus yards, ranked fourth in yards per attempt (11.2) and finished fifth in passing yards per game (332.8). He totaled 2,995 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air, also posting a 71.3 percent completion rate.
And he's a dangerous runner, too. Corral scampered for 469 yards and four more scores.
One regular offseason with Lane Kiffin should help Corral clean up his turnover issues and unleash a thriving offense in 2021.
9. JT Daniels, Georgia
In theory, JT Daniels could declare for the 2021 NFL draft. But because he only appeared in three games this season, it's likely he returns to Georgia in hopes of becoming a first-round lock.
The former USC starter provided a major boost to UGA's offense down the stretch. He collected 839 yards with 10.4 per attempt, tossing nine touchdowns and only one interception. Georgia averaged 41.7 points in his three starts.
Provided he returns, Georgia's upside in 2021 is appealing. George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton and Darnell Washington are all freshman or sophomore receiving options. Plus, senior Demetris Robertson could use the extra year of eligibility to return.
Daniels has a great opportunity to compete for both SEC and national titles while raising his NFL profile.
8. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Unfortunately for Michael Penix Jr., a torn right ACL brought his 2020 season to an unceremonious end. Before the injury, however, he helped make Indiana a legitimate Big Ten contender.
Penix threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions, adding two rushing scores in six appearances. Most impressively, he threw for 491 yards and five scores at Ohio State.
He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, and that strong 2020 followed a season in which he totaled 1,513 yards and 12 touchdowns in six games.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen said Penix is expected to be ready for the start of 2021.
7. Carson Strong, Nevada
Last season, Carson Strong mustered 2,335 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions. But he absolutely excelled in the shortened 2020 campaign.
While leading Nevada to a 7-2 record—matching its 2019 win total in four fewer games—Strong notched top-10 marks nationally in every major category. He threw for 2,858 yards and 27 scores with a 70.1 completion rate, tossing only four interceptions.
Efficiency is important, but that doesn't mean Strong is risk-averse. Nevada often takes downfield shots, and Strong launches a smooth, effective deep ball. He had 19 passes of 20-plus yards in 2020.
Since the Wolf Pack may return every significant pass-catcher in 2021, Strong could have an enormous year.
6. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
One of the most impressive freshmen in the country, Grayson McCall sparked Coastal Carolina's outstanding year.
He perfectly fit CCU's unique offense, which is a spread attack that leans on triple-option principles to frustrate defenses. But unlike a normal triple-option team—think Army, Navy or Air Force—the Chanticleers had a legitimate two-way threat.
The 6'3", 200-pound McCall hit 68.8 percent of his throws for 2,488 yards and 26 scores, tallying 10 yards per attempt with only three interceptions. He also rushed for 569 yards at an impressive 5.1 yards per carry with seven more touchdowns.
Running back CJ Marable is headed to the NFL. But if wideout Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely return alongside McCall, the Chants will be highly respected next season.
5. Kedon Slovis, USC
Based on 2020 alone, Kedon Slovis wouldn't be this high. It would be foolish to overlook his 2019 performance, though.
After a knee injury ended JT Daniels' season, Slovis put together an excellent freshman year. While completing 71.9 percent of his passes at 8.9 yards per attempt, he recorded 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Slovis fell short of that efficiency in 2020, ending with 7.3 yards per attempt and seven interceptions. Still, he put up 1,921 yards and 17 scores and helped USC finish 5-1.
USC could lose Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown to the NFL, but Slovis will still be throwing to a terrific pair of receivers in Drake London and Bru McCoy.
4. Dillon Gabriel, UCF
Dillon Gabriel has two outstanding years on his resume.
As a freshman, he racked up 3,653 yards through the air, accounted for 33 total touchdowns and tossed seven interceptions. This past season, the left-hander threw for 3,570 yards, totaled 34 touchdowns and had four picks. His 357.0 passing yards per game trailed only Kyle Trask's 375.0.
There is one significant negative for Gabriel.
In the last two years, UCF has played four opponents that ended the season in the Top 25. Gabriel hasn't cracked 6.5 yards per attempt in any of them, and UCF is 0-4 in those games.
His production, though, is undeniable. Gabriel can solidify himself as a top college quarterback if he reverses the trend in 2021.
3. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Had the Oklahoma Sooners avoided two early losses and remained in the College Football Playoff picture, Spencer Rattler would have attracted a whole lot more attention.
Despite the slow start, the redshirt freshman guided Oklahoma to a Big 12 title. Along the way, he completed 68.0 percent of his passes for 2,784 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranks 11th nationally at 9.5 yards per attempt and has five rushing scores.
It's fair to anticipate high expectations for OU in 2021.
Top receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease will return, along with H-back Austin Stogner and a healthy Jadon Haselwood. Charleston Rambo, who tallied 743 receiving yards in 2019, may consider the NFL draft but should probably stay.
Rattler will enter 2021 as a popular Heisman Trophy candidate.
2. D'Eriq King, Miami
Since the 2020 season is effectively a free year of eligibility, seniors can return in 2021. So far, D'Eriq King is the most notable player who has announced his plans to take advantage of the rule.
After transferring from Houston, King brought a mobile element to a Miami offense that desperately needed it. While throwing for 2,683 yards and 23 touchdowns with only five interceptions, he scampered for 538 yards and four more scores.
King also totaled 3,656 yards and 50 touchdowns at Houston in 2018.
Note: King exited the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State due to a knee injury. The severity of the injury is unclear.
1. Sam Howell, North Carolina
In all likelihood, Sam Howell will be the favorite for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
He had a sensational freshman year in 2019, throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 scores with seven interceptions. He followed it up with 3,352 yards, 27 touchdowns and six interceptions this season, also running a bit more and scoring five times on the ground.
Thanks to Howell, UNC improved from back-to-back nine-loss seasons in 2017 and 2018 to 7-6 in 2019 and 8-3 in 2020, pending the result of the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M.
Although the Heels will revamp their offensive personnel in 2021, Howell is the cornerstone of offensive coordinator Phil Longo's prolific system. UNC has averaged 556.6 yards and 43.0 points this season.