The Best Returning QB in Every College Football Conference for 2021
In Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and plenty of others, a loaded class of quarterbacks is on its way to the NFL draft.
Yet there is no shortage of talent under center in any of college football's 10 FBS conferences for the 2021 season.
The magnitude of star power is undeniably lower. Even the biggest names like Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell and Kedon Slovis can't hold a candle to the amount of buzz that Lawrence and Fields generated over the past three years.
But in lieu of those soon-to-be franchise quarterbacks, the talent pool appears to be quite wide. In each of the Power Five leagues, at least three players have a compelling case for the best returning quarterback.
In all, I jotted down 37 quarterbacks as candidates for this list, and it felt like I was being stingy in leaving several names off. There will inevitably be breakout stars in addition to the names we already know, too.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
AAC: Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
2020 Stats: 186-281, 2,296 yards, 19 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 152.9 rating; 592 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns
With both Brady White and Shane Buechele off to the NFL draft, there are only two viable options for the AAC: Desmond Ridder or Dillon Gabriel.
But it was difficult to make a decision between the two.
If we're talking purely about passing ability, Gabriel would be the obvious choice. UCF's signal-caller just led the nation in passing yards per game (357.0) while averaging 8.0 touchdowns per interception. Meanwhile, Ridder didn't have a single game with more than 338 passing yards.
That's at least partially a product of the massive gap between these two defenses. Gabriel needs to throw for 300 yards for UCF to have a shot while allowing 33.2 points per game. Ridder doesn't need to throw a ton for a Cincinnati team that allows 16.8 points.
Ridder's 338-yard game came against UCF, too, as he threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more while leading the Bearcats to a come-from-behind victory. And once you factor that rushing ability into the equation, Cincinnati's quarterback gets the slight edge.
It also bears mentioning that UCF is losing its top receiver (Marlon Williams) while Cincinnati is expected to bring back just about its entire offense aside from running back Gerrid Doaks, which may mean even more designed runs for Ridder.
ACC: Sam Howell, North Carolina
2020 Stats: 237-348, 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 179.1 rating; 146 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns
Last week, I put together a way-too-early list of 2021 Heisman candidates. Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei was No. 2 on that list, Miami's D'Eriq King was No. 7 and Sam Howell was No. 8. And I just want to clarify that I'm not suddenly reversing course on that ranking.
Howell is the best, most proven quarterback in the ACC. He threw for 38 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, and he was even more efficient in 2020. He might/should be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. But he's also losing all four of his favorite weapons and North Carolina's defense arguably isn't good enough to contend for a national championship, which is why he trails both Uiagalelei and King in the Heisman rankings.
Howell is such a delight to watch, though.
Yes, he's losing all of his top targets, but he was instrumental in making those guys potential NFL draft picks. Dyami Brown had 173 receiving yards in 2018 before racking up at least 1,000 in back-to-back years with Howell. And Michael Carter and Javonte Williams blossomed into backfield stars in part because Howell forced opponents to respect the deep pass on any down and distance.
Similar to the degree of faith we had in Trevor Lawrence this season while Clemson had to adjust to life without Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Howell continues to thrive by turning Josh Downs, Khafre Brown and Emery Simmons into his new go-to guys. He's that talented.
Big 12: Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
2020 Stats: 214-317, 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 172.6 rating; 160 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns
The Big 12 has four returning quarterbacks (Spencer Rattler, Brock Purdy, Jarret Doege and Spencer Sanders) who threw for at least 2,000 yards in 2020, plus a solid dual-threat quarterback (Max Duggan) and an unproven guy who was sensational in limited playing time this season (Casey Thompson). There's no other conference in which you could easily make the case for 60 percent of the returning quarterbacks.
But the pick has to be Rattler, right?
Oklahoma's redshirt freshman quarterback led the Big 12 in completion percentage, total yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating. Rattler did so largely without the services of Jadon Haselwood (injury) and Trejan Bridges (suspension), who were the No. 1- and No. 11-rated wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class, respectively.
That duo made a combined total of six receptions this past season, but they—along with Marvin Mims and Theo Wease—should be primary targets in 2021. Because of that collection of talent, Rattler is the early favorite to win the Heisman.
As an aside, it's kind of funny that Rattler's worst game of the season came in Oklahoma's 62-9 victory over winless Kansas. Even in that one, he threw for more than 200 yards and was responsible for two scores. But to make a real run at the Heisman next year, those are the types of games in which he needs to pad his stats.
Big Ten: Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
2020 Stats: 124-220, 1,645 yards, 14 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 136.5 rating
With the exception of soon-to-be first-round pick Justin Fields, it was an awful year for Big Ten quarterbacks.
Penn State's Sean Clifford ranked second in the conference with 16 passing touchdowns, but he threw eight interceptions during the Nittany Lions' five-game losing streak to open the season and didn't have a truly impressive performance until the season finale against Illinois.
Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa had the second-best rating among qualified Big Ten quarterbacks at 138.6, which is hard to believe since he had only seven touchdowns and seven interceptions on the year. And 138.6 is a pretty pathetic second-best rating. The SEC had four quarterbacks north of 160, and the ACC had nine players finish the year at 138 or better.
Either of those guys could be the Big Ten's best quarterback in 2021. Wisconsin's Graham Mertz is definitely in the conversation as well, even though he struggled mightily after his sensational, almost-perfect debut against Illinois.
But our pick is Indiana's Michael Penix Jr., provided he makes a full recovery from the torn ACL he suffered over Thanksgiving weekend.
After winning the season opener against Penn State with that stretch to the pylon on the two-point conversion in overtime, Penix suddenly became unstoppable. Over his next four games before the injury, he averaged 347.8 passing yards with 13 touchdowns against three interceptions. The 491 yards and five touchdowns in the close loss to Ohio State really put Penix on the national radar, and it's a shame he got hurt in the subsequent game against Maryland.
With star wide receiver Ty Fryfogle coming back, Penix should have another solid season.
Conference USA: Grant Wells, Marshall
2020 Stats: 165-270, 2,091 yards, 18 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 141.5 rating
Middle Tennessee's Asher O'Hara is currently in the transfer portal. If he changes his mind and returns to the Blue Raiders, that dual-threat QB would probably enter 2021 as Conference USA's top quarterback.
If O'Hara is gone for good, though, perhaps Marshall's Grant Wells will be able to bounce back from his disappointing finish to the 2020 campaign.
During Marshall's 7-0 start, the redshirt freshman was rock solid. Wells averaged 239 passing yards and 22 rushing yards per game while throwing for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
In the subsequent three-game losing streak, though, Wells was all over the place. He threw five interceptions in the shutout loss to Rice. He completed 34.8 percent of his passes against UAB in the C-USA title game. And in the Camellia Bowl loss to Buffalo, he managed only 114 passing yards and minus-one rushing yard with no touchdowns.
Which Wells is the real Wells? And what will Marshall's offense look like as a whole in its first year after kicking head coach Doc Holliday to the curb?
On both fronts, we'll just have to wait and see. But Wells was impressive enough through November that we'll assume he just got out of rhythm during a three-week hiatus or ran out of gas in December.
Mid-American: Dustin Crum, Kent State
2020 Stats: 83-113, 1,181 yards, 12 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 192.7 PER; 240 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns
Kent State managed to play only four games this fall, so we didn't get to see a ton of Dustin Crum. But in that small sample size, he was even better than he was in his impressive 2019 campaign.
As a junior, Crum averaged 256 combined passing and rushing yards per game, accounted for 26 touchdowns and threw only two interceptions. After five consecutive seasons with at least nine losses, the Golden Flashes rode their star quarterback to a 7-6 season, including the first bowl victory in program history. And in that bowl victory over Utah State, Crum had 436 total yards and three touchdowns.
And as a senior, he kicked it up a notch to nearly 300 passing yards, 60 rushing yards and four touchdowns per game.
To be fair, two of his four games were against Akron and Bowling Green, which have been just plain awful over the past few years. But it isn't like he was only special in those games.
Crum is exercising his right to a free year of eligibility to come back in 2021. So is Ball State senior quarterback Drew Plitt, who just led the Cardinals to a 7-1 record. Plitt has thrown for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns over the past two seasons and was a strong candidate for this spot. Crum has been more efficient, though, and he's a bit more deadly because of his ability to run.
Mountain West: Carson Strong, Nevada
2020 Stats: 249-355, 2,858 yards, 27 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 160.6 rating
For most of the 10 conferences, choosing the best returning quarterback was a legitimately difficult decision.
In the Mountain West, it was an open-and-shut case.
In nine games, Nevada's Carson Strong averaged 317.6 passing yards and 3.0 touchdowns with a 70.1 completion percentage. Here's the full list of quarterbacks in 2020 who played in at least four games, completed at least 70 percent of their passes and averaged at least 300 yards: Strong, Alabama's Mac Jones, BYU's Zach Wilson and Ole Miss' Matt Corral.
Strong's talent was on full display in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Tulane, when he completed 22-of-28 passes with five touchdowns. It was his second five-touchdown performance in December.
Strong had 10 more touchdowns than the next-closest challenger in the Mountain West (San Jose State's Nick Starkel). He also led the conference in completion percentage, passing yards and rating.
If anyone is going to challenge Strong for the MWC throne in 2021, it would probably be Fresno State's Jake Haener. He originally chose Washington in 2017, redshirted that year, barely saw the field in 2018 and had to sit out the 2019 campaign when he transferred to Fresno State. It took a few games for him to get rolling for the Bulldogs, but he averaged 419.0 passing yards and 3.7 touchdowns over his final three contests.
Pac-12: Kedon Slovis, USC
2020 Stats: 177-264, 1,921 yards, 17 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 144.1 rating
Tyler Shough had an impressive first year as the starter at Oregon, and Arizona State's Jayden Daniels has 22 passing touchdowns and seven rushing touchdowns against only three interceptions since the beginning of the 2019 season. Either one of those quarterbacks could sneak into the mix for the 2021 Heisman.
We had to go with USC's Kedon Slovis, though.
Slovis had four games with at least 400 passing yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, and he averaged more than 320 passing yards per game as a sophomore. He led the nation at 44.0 pass attempts per game this past fall. No other returning Pac-12 quarterback threw the ball more than 34.0 times.
While most-used quarterback doesn't necessarily mean best quarterback, it probably does in this case. Former 5-star recruit JT Daniels transferred to Georgia last summer largely because of Slovis, as he recognized his best path to recapturing a starting job was via the transfer portal.
Slovis also led the Trojans to three come-from-behind victories in 2020. And we aren't talking about situations where they trailed early and rallied with plenty of time to spare, either. They scored those game-winning touchdowns with 80, 25 and 16 seconds remaining in regulation. And in all three games, USC needed multiple fourth-quarter touchdowns to complete the comeback.
Slovis clutch, and he's going to have a ton of talent at his disposal at receiver once again. Although Sam Howell is the early favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Slovis might go second overall.
SEC: JT Daniels, Georgia
2020 Stats: 80-119, 1,231 yards, 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 178.5 rating
Speaking of JT Daniels...
With Mac Jones, Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond headed to the NFL draft, three of the SEC's top four teams are making a substantial change at quarterback. The projected replacements for those guys—Bryce Young, Emory Jones and Zach Calzada, respectively—have a combined total of 132 career pass attempts at the collegiate level.
But Georgia is bringing back Daniels, who was outstanding when he was finally able to take the field in late November.
Before transferring to Georgia, his first season at USC was pretty rocky. He was a reclassified, 18-year-old true freshman, though, and he was handed the keys to an offense that had to replace its star running back and two of its three best wide receivers. That was a borderline impossible situation, and what Daniels accomplished in one-third of a season at Georgia is a much better indicator of his talent ceiling.
In that first game with the Bulldogs—after transferring during a pandemic and needing to rehab from a torn ACL—Daniels threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Give him a full offseason to work as QB1 with an almost entirely intact offense and he could be all sorts of special in 2021.
Ole Miss QB Matt Corral deserves an honorable mention, as he averaged 333.7 passing yards per game under Lane Kiffin's tutelage. But he also threw 14 interceptions, one behind Duke's Chase Brice for the most in the nation. Six were against Arkansas; five against LSU. When he's off, he's really off.
Sun Belt: Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
2020 Stats: 172-250, 2,488 yards, 26 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 184.3 rating; 569 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns
How unexpected was Grayson McCall's breakout season?
When Post and Courier's Danny Kelly wrote about Coastal Carolina's quarterback battle in early August, he never even mentioned the redshirt freshman. The focus was almost entirely on returning veterans Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter, who combined for 329 of the team's 334 pass attempts in 2019. The same goes for Benton Smith's look at Coastal Carolina for KUSports.com just three days before the Chanticleers' season opener against Kansas. Not a single mention of McCall.
Lo and behold, McCall accounted for five touchdowns against the Jayhawks and never looked back, leading the Chanticleers to an 11-1 season for the ages.
McCall rarely made a mistake. He completed at least 61 percent of his pass attempts in all but one game. In each of his three games with an interception, he made up for it with at least 300 passing yards, at least 40 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Among quarterbacks who played in at least seven games, only Mac Jones and Zach Wilson had a better rating.
Watch out for Arkansas State's Layne Hatcher, though. The former Alabama reserve racked up more than 5,000 passing yards and 46 touchdowns over the past two seasons while splitting reps with Logan Bonner. With Bonner now on his way to Utah State, Hatcher will presumably take on the lion's share of the passing for a team that averaged 364.4 passing yards and 3.5 touchdowns per game in 2020.