Quarterback Battles That Will Have the Biggest Impact on the 2021 CFB Season
The start of the 2021 college football season is rapidly approaching, and for a lot of teams expected to compete for a spot in a New Year's Six bowl, that means time is running out to make a decision on who starts at quarterback.
Unlike last year, at least those teams have the benefit of a mostly normal offseason.
Spring camp has long been in the books, summer workouts are taking place and fall camp is just beyond the horizon. Decisions about starting quarterback jobs that weren't already made (publicly or privately) in April will be made based on how the various candidates fare on the practice field in August.
A fair number of those quarterback battles involved teams all but certain to open the season ranked in the AP Top 25.
So which players are involved in those contests?
Who is most likely to win?
We'll see what the coaches decide, but we are generally erring on the side of experience in our guesses at that latter question.
Schools are listed in ascending order of how likely it is for the decision to have College Football Playoff implications.
Other Battles to Monitor
We'll dive a bit deeper into the five battles that figure to have the most impact on conference races and maybe even Heisman voting, but here are five others certainly worth keeping an eye on this fall.
Anthony Brown, Jay Butterfield, Ty Thompson, Robby Ashford
It's hard to believe this is actually a battle, which is why it doesn't appear in the top five. Brown has nearly 5,000 career passing yards while Butterfield, Thompson and Ashford have...*crunches calculator*...zero. When 2020 starter Tyler Shough unexpectedly left for Texas Tech in February, it clearly became Brown's job to lose. If he actually loses it, though, and true freshman Thompson gets the gig, Oregon could be very well positioned for several years to come.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Jack Coan, Drew Pyne, Tyler Buchner
As with Oregon, this doesn't seem like a real battle. Brian Kelly brought in Coan from Wisconsin to bridge the gap between Ian Book and the time when Buchner—a true freshman—should be ready for the full-time gig in 2022. Pyne had an impressive enough spring camp to at least have an outside chance at winning the job in the fall, but it's a safe assumption that, barring injury, Coan will be the starter in Week 1.
Florida State Seminoles
McKenzie Milton, Jordan Travis, Chubba Purdy
The big question at Florida State is: Who's healthy enough for the job? If we assume everyone is 100 percent healthy, Milton has to be the choice. He finished top-10 in the Heisman vote in both 2017 and 2018 at UCF before missing the past two seasons while recovering from a gruesome leg injury. Purdy could also factor into the equation if he has fully recovered from the collarbone injury that cost him a good chunk of last season and most of this spring. As is, it might be Travis getting most of the snaps (and doing a lot of scrambling).
Hendon Hooker, Joe Milton, Harrison Bailey, Brian Maurer
Jarrett Guarantano is out of the picture after transferring to Washington State, but Tennessee's QB situation is all sorts of convoluted for new head coach Josh Heupel. Both Hooker (at Virginia Tech) and Milton (at Michigan) threw for more than 1,000 yards last year prior to transferring to Knoxville. Maurer had that nice start against Georgia in 2019 and is now in his third year in the program. Bailey was the top-100 overall recruit in the 2020 class who had a few promising showings this past December. There are 24 possible ways to order this depth chart, and you could probably talk me into all of them.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Will Rogers, Jack Abraham, Sawyer Robertson
Transitioning from Washington State to Mississippi State didn't change the fact that Mike Leach's offense led the nation in passing attempts per game by a wide margin. And in the season opener against LSU, we were vividly reminded how quickly a quarterback can emerge as a Heisman candidate in this offense. Rogers is the incumbent who threw for nearly 2,000 yards last year as a freshman. Abraham is the transfer who threw for more than 7,000 yards over the past three seasons at Southern Mississippi. Robertson is the true freshman who wasn't even part of spring camp but who might still get the job this fall. Winner gets to throw the ball 50 times per game.
5. Michigan Wolverines
The Candidates: Cade McNamara, J.J. McCarthy, Alan Bowman
A returning player with minimal experience who put up "respectable enough" numbers during his time on the field.
A 5-star recruit who's more than talented enough to start right away at just about any school in the country.
An incoming transfer who threw for more than 5,000 yards during the injury-plagued previous portion of his career.
Michigan seems to have a little bit of every option in its quest to crown the quarterback who will (ideally) lead the team back from one of the most disappointing seasons in program history.
Cade McNamara is the only one with experience in Ann Arbor, giving the Wolverines one impressive performance (five total touchdowns) in a 2020 win over Rutgers, as well as a significantly less promising dud (12-of-25 for 91 yards) in a loss to Penn State one week later. But at least he knows Josh Gattis' offense at this point, as they have both been with the program since early 2019.
The highly touted true freshman is J.J. McCarthy. The big-armed quarterback led IMG Academy to a perfect 8-0 record in 2020 without throwing a single interception. While he isn't quite regarded as a once-in-a-generation type of talent like Trevor Lawrence was out of high school, there's no question the Wolverines would be in good hands if they put him on the field right away.
And the 11th hour X-factor was former Texas Tech starter Alan Bowman transferring into the program in late April—forced out of a job when Tyler Shough transferred from Oregon to TTU. Similar to Shea Patterson a few years ago, Bowman comes to Michigan with several 400-yard performances under his belt. He even had a 605-yard game as a freshman in September 2018.
If you're expecting to find out which direction the Wolverines are leaning prior to the Week 1 kickoff against Western Michigan, best of luck. Jim Harbaugh loves keeping this stuff as close to the vest (or khakis) as he possibly can. But this is a major decision for his future with the program and for the outlook of the Big Ten East in 2021. With a potent QB, Michigan would join Indiana and Penn State on the list of teams somewhat realistically hoping to knock Ohio State from its perch atop the division.
4. Texas Longhorns
The Candidates: Casey Thompson, Hudson Card
Before what turned out to be his final season as the head coach of Texas, Tom Herman signed two of the top five quarterbacks in the 2020 recruiting class. One of them (Ja'Quinden Jackson) transferred to Utah in December, but the other (Hudson Card) has become one of the two candidates to replace four-year starter Sam Ehlinger.
Can he bypass Casey Thompson, though?
Ehlinger's backup only accounted for 17 pass attempts last season, but he averaged 13.2 yards per attempt and threw for six touchdowns, including four in the Alamo Bowl victory over Colorado. By the end of that game, Thompson (and RB Bijan Robinson) had emerged as a legitimate Heisman candidate. When the Longhorns subsequently hired Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian as their new head coach, excitement about the potential of this offense percolated even more.
Given where things seemed to stand in early January, it's almost hard to believe this has turned into a position battle. That just goes to show how high Card's ceiling is, though.
Plus, as far as Sarkisian is concerned, everyone started the new regime on a level playing field.
"I just didn't feel like 15 (spring) practices was enough to name a guy a starter in a brand new system, a brand new scheme with brand new coaches," Sarkisian said at Big 12 media days, per Brian Davis of Hookem.com.
If and when the Longhorns figure out who is best suited to lead the offense this fall, the Big 12 could be all sorts of fun. Both Oklahoma and Iowa State have realistic College Football Playoff aspirations, and a third contender would really spice things up.
3. LSU Tigers
The Candidates: Myles Brennan, Max Johnson, Garrett Nussmeier
One year after Joe Burrow destroyed all sorts of passing records, LSU sputtered to a 5-5 record with three quarterbacks getting nearly identical opportunities to shine. Max Johnson attempted 150 passes, T.J. Finley threw the ball 140 times and Myles Brennan had 131 attempts.
That wasn't the design, of course. Brennan was initially the starter and was the only quarterback to attempt a pass in the first three games. He threw for at least 330 yards and three scores in each of those games and emerged as an early Heisman candidate, despite LSU's 1-2 record. However, an abdominal injury suffered during that third game knocked him out for the rest of the year.
Finley and Johnson split reps for the better part of a month before it became clear that the true freshman (Johnson) was LSU's best non-Brennan option. In leading the Tigers to season-ending wins over Florida and Ole Miss, he threw for 674 yards and six touchdowns and also rushed for 97 yards and two scores.
Finley transferred out of the program in May, though it already felt like the battle was down to Brennan and Johnson. With Finley's departure, top-100 overall true freshman Garrett Nussmeier entered the race for the starting job, albeit likely as the distant No. 3 candidate.
The fact that Brennan won the job last year and succeeded in that role would seem to suggest the fifth-year "junior" is the front runner heading into the fall. But would Johnson transfer, too, if the Tigers—who already have a 5-star QB committed in next year's class—opt for the veteran with two years of eligibility remaining? Will that factor into Ed Orgeron's decision, or how long he'll wait to make the decision?
Either way, LSU should rebound in a big way in 2021. The offensive line returns fully intact, and WR Kayshon Boutte should be headed for a huge year. The Tigers probably won't be first in the nation in scoring like they were in 2019, but either Brennan or Johnson should be able to lead a top-10 offense.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
The Candidates: Zach Calzada, Haynes King
Kellen Mond had quite the four-year run in College Station, finishing his Aggies career with 9,661 passing yards, 1,609 rushing yards and a combined 93 touchdowns. The only other players in SEC history with at least 7,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards were Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Dak Prescott.
Big shoes to fill, and tough to say whose feet will do the job.
Neither Zach Calzada nor Haynes King has any meaningful game experience. The former played a bit against Texas State, Lamar and UTSA in 2019. The latter made a pair of brief cameos last fall. They've attempted a combined total of 28 passes in garbage time of blowouts, so not much to make out of that.
Calzada has been on the roster for one more year than King, but the younger QB was the higher-rated recruit (4-star, No. 131 overall in 2020 vs. 3-star, No. 487 overall in 2019) and is the much more mobile option. That latter detail could be what pushes King into the driver's seat in this battle, as a dual-threat QB would be the simpler plug-and-play option for replacing Mond.
Aside from QB, the offense doesn't need to change much, which is why this is such an important battle to monitor. RBs Isaiah Spiller, Ainias Smith and Devon Achane each return, as do top receiving options Jalen Wydermyer, Chase Lane, Caleb Chapman and Hezekiah Jones. In fact, Mond is the only player who won't be back after accumulating at least 100 total yards from scrimmage for a team that almost made last year's College Football Playoff.
The Aggies have some time to figure it out, too. They play one of the easiest nonconference schedules in the country, opening their season with Kent State, Colorado and New Mexico. Don't be surprised if King and Calzada split reps for those first three weeks before Jimbo Fisher decides who is best suited to steer the ship through the heart of the schedule.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Candidates: C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III, Kyle McCord
Usually, when a (what figures to be) unanimous top-5 team in the preseason rankings has a quarterback controversy, it's a product of not knowing whether the team will stick with its incumbent, already-proven-successful starter or whether it will turn the reins over to the highly touted young guy. For example, back in 2018, both Alabama and Clemson still had the quarterback (Jalen Hurts for Alabama; Kelly Bryant for Clemson) who led them to the previous year's College Football Playoff, but they also had Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence waiting in the wings. Much debate ensued.
Ohio State's situation* is nothing like that. With Justin Fields out of the picture, there is no one left on the roster who has attempted a pass in a regular-season collegiate game, resulting in a three-way toss-up among a trio of freshman.
C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III were at least both on the roster last year, which might give them a playbook-knowledge edge over true freshman Kyle McCord. Conversely, if ever there were an opportunity for a true freshman to stroll in and immediately win the job, this is it.
Based on little more than a combination of OSU's spring game and Heisman hype, it seems likely that Stroud will be the starter with McCord as the primary backup. But something as minor as a sprained ankle or a good/bad few days of practice could change things in the six weeks left until the Sep. 2 season opener against Minnesota.
The winner of this battle will be inheriting a phenomenal situation. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are easily the best one-two punch at WR in the nation, and they are merely the top two of about nine receivers/tight ends with immense potential. Anchored by Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, the Buckeyes might also have the best offensive line in the country.
Despite the lack of experience, once a starting quarterback is declared he'll surely open the season as a top-five candidate for the Heisman.
*At least not this year. Next offseason, when the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2022 class Quinn Ewers arrives in Columbus and threatens to steal the job from whomever wins this year's battle, it will be exactly like that.