Projecting Every Conference's Best QBs for the 2021 CFB Season
College football teams can ride a well-rounded roster to a Top 25 ranking. If they don't have a top-tier quarterback, though, they'll probably fall short of the ultimate prize.
Yes, winning the College Football Playoff national title is every team's primary goal. However, winning a conference crown should not be discounted in any league, no matter whether Power Five or Group of Five.
It's no coincidence that 2021's top conference contenders all have a great quarterback.
Unlike most positions in this preseason series, depth of talent isn't the focus. Basically every other position needs a rotation, but effective quarterback situations very much do not.
B/R's Best-of-the-Conference Series
AAC: Central Florida Knights
Were it not for Desmond Ridder, this would be a straightforward choice.
Last year, Cincinnati's quarterback totaled 2,888 yards and 31 touchdowns and lifted the Bearcats to an AAC title. Ridder is deserving of this honor, too.
However, UCF's Dillon Gabriel is fresh off two seasons of massive production.
As a freshman, he threw for 3,653 yards at 9.2 per attempt with a 29-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In 2020, Gabriel threw for 3,570 yards at 8.6 per attempt and 32 scores to four interceptions. He's also rushed for a total of six touchdowns.
Gabriel should continue thriving under the direction of new coach Gus Malzahn, even if Ridder and Cincinnati ultimately win the conference for the second straight year.
ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels
Although the ACC remains a Clemson-dominated conference, it also boasts some of the nation's best quarterbacks.
Miami returns D'Eriq King, who is recovering from an ACL injury but piled up 3,224 combined passing and rushing yards and 27 touchdowns last year. Clemson is set to showcase D.J. Uiagalelei, and both Phil Jurkovec (Boston College) and Malik Cunningham (Louisville) have considerable upside.
The brightest spotlight is on North Carolina's Sam Howell, though.
Considered the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Howell has 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns to 14 interceptions in two seasons. Few (if any) college quarterbacks throw a better deep ball than Howell, and he's plenty mobile, too.
Throwing to a revamped pass-catching corps may be a challenge early, but Howell has mastered Phil Longo's Air Raid attack.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners
If the ACC isn't 2021's unofficial conference of quarterbacks, the Big 12 undoubtedly is.
Spencer Rattler headlines the group and gives Oklahoma the No. 1 spot in this ranking. As a first-year starter, he threw for 3,031 yards (9.6 per attempt) and 28 touchdowns and ran for 160 yards and six scores. Under his guidance, the Sooners won the program's sixth straight Big 12 title.
Rattler, who enters the season as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, also has a 5-star backup in Caleb Williams.
Elsewhere in the conference, Iowa State's Brock Purdy, Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders, TCU's Max Duggan and Kansas State's Skylar Thompson are all established players. Oregon transfer Tyler Shough landed at Texas Tech, and optimism is high for Casey Thompson or Hudson Card at Texas, too.
Oklahoma is deservedly No. 1, but there's serious depth in the Big 12.
Big Ten: Indiana Hoosiers
If these rankings focused on the overall QB room, Ohio State and Michigan would have strong cases. C.J. Stroud seems destined for stardom at Ohio State, Michigan picked up Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman, and both programs added a 5-star in 2021.
But we already know Michael Penix Jr. has immense upside.
Prior to his season-ending ACL injury in 2020, the left-hander threw for 1,645 yards (7.5 per attempt) and 14 touchdowns to four interceptions. That followed a freshman year in which he had 1,394 passing yards (8.7 per attempt) and 10 touchdowns to four picks. He's 10-2 as a starter so far.
Penix has dealt with a variety of injuries (shoulder, concussion, upper body, ACL) in his two seasons. If he gets hurt again, attention will shift to Stroud.
For now, though, Indiana's QB is setting the bar.
C-USA: Marshall Thundering Herd
There is no awesome QB situation in Conference USA. A transfer—specifically Florida Atlantic's N'Kosi Perry (from Miami) or Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe (from Houston Baptist)—might be the best quarterback.
Granted, recency bias might be affecting this outlook.
Marshall signal-caller Grant Wells finished 2020 with a dreadful three-game stretch in which he averaged 5.3 yards per pass attempt and had a five-interception day. However, he averaged 8.7 yards per throw in the seven previous games, and he is undoubtedly capable of being the league's top QB in 2021.
UAB, the defending Conference USA champion, also returns Tyler Johnston III after he split time with Bryson Lucero last season.
MAC: Kent State Golden Flashes
Over the last two seasons, Kent State's Dustin Crum has been remarkably efficient. He's tallied 8.9 yards per pass attempt and thrown 34 touchdowns to only four interceptions.
And that's merely part of his appeal.
Crum scampered for 707 yards with six scores in 2019 and 240 yards with four scores in a four-game 2020 season. His rise to become one of the country's best dual-threat QBs has Kent State in position to challenge for its first MAC title in 49 years.
Ball State's Drew Plitt and Western Michigan's Kaleb Eleby will be Crum's main competition for the No. 1 spot.
Mountain West: Nevada Wolf Pack
Fresno State's Jake Haener merits serious consideration, but this is Carson Strong's position to lose.
Last year, the Nevada quarterback posted a 70.1 completion rate with 8.1 yards per throw. Strong totaled 2,858 passing yards and 27 touchdowns while tossing only four interceptions in 355 attempts. As a result, he earned Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors.
And his production should only improve in 2021.
Four offensive linemen are back to protect Strong, and the Wolf Pack return their five leading pass-catchers, too. That includes wide receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner, both of whom caught nine touchdowns in 2020. Plus, Elijah Cooks paced Nevada with 926 yards in 2019 and is returning from a shoulder injury.
Strong is best positioned to thrive, along with Haener and Boise State's starter (Hank Bachmeier or Jack Sears).
Pac-12: USC Trojans
Kedon Slovis burst into the national conversation with 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman. Last season, however, USC's signal-caller had a difficult year.
Despite leading the conference in yards per game, Slovis mustered only 7.3 yards per attempt. While a downright bad offensive line didn't help, he was also prone to a string of poor decisions. Most notably, he tossed three interceptions in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Oregon.
But Slovis' best moments are fantastic. And the receiving corps led by Drake London and Bru McCoy should give him plenty of chances to excel in Graham Harrell's offense.
Arizona State's Jayden Daniels will push Slovis for conference supremacy, but USC's quarterback enters 2021 atop the Pac-12.
SEC: Ole Miss Rebels
I can hear it already: What? Not Georgia?!
JT Daniels ended 2020 on a tear, throwing for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns and leading Georgia to a Peach Bowl victory. And, yes, he may render this prediction somewhere between silly and dumb.
Daniels is behind Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, though.
Despite struggling through two miserable games last season, Corral still completed 70.9 percent of his passes with a scorching 10.2 yards per throw. He isn't guaranteed to cut down on his mistakes, but Lane Kiffin has a history of developing efficient QBs. Having a full, normal offseason to work together should lead to a more precise year.
Throw in his mobility (506 yards and four touchdowns last year), and Corral is the most dynamic quarterback in the SEC.
Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
You might prefer Levi Lewis, the longtime Louisiana starter who has racked up 5,854 total yards and 53 touchdowns over the last two seasons. And after 2020, Georgia State quarterback Cornelius Brown IV looks like a potentially elite dual threat.
But this honor goes to Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall.
As a true freshman, McCall made a seamless transition into the Chanticleers' option-heavy attack. He averaged 10.0 yards per passing attempt with a 68.8 completion rate, rushed for 569 yards at 5.1 per carry and totaled 33 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
CCU's top three receivers and all five starting linemen are returning, so McCall is primed for another huge season.