Ranking the 10 Best Quarterbacks in College Football So Far in 2021
No matter how the subject of college football's top contenders is approached, every conversation finds its way to a quarterback situation.
Elite defenses are impactful. Star playmakers are vital. Great offensive lines are beneficial, and dominant pass-rushers are special. But if a quarterback is anything from inconsistent to mediocre to underwhelming, that weakness can undermine any of those strengths—and championship dreams can suffer.
As the 2021 season approaches its halfway point in Week 7, we're looking around the nation at the best signal-callers to date.
While the list is subjective, the eye test and total production are primary factors. Strength of schedule, team performance and injuries are taken into account too.
10. Payton Thorne, Michigan State
Well, hello to you, Payton Thorne. Didn't see this one coming.
Last season, the 3-star freshman logged meaningful snaps in three games. Michigan State lost all three, averaging 12.0 points while Thorne posted 6.9 yards per attempt. Given the context of 2020, we weren't holding that against him as a long-term projection. Still, it suggested 2021 should be a learning year.
Wrong! Aided by Kenneth Walker III and a fantastic rushing attack, Thorne has excelled. He's tied for sixth nationally at 10.0 yards per throw, averaging 261.3 yards per game with 16 total touchdowns (14 passing) to two interceptions.
MSU's competition level rises dramatically in the second half, which features Top 10 teams Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. But the Spartans have an efficient threat to lead the offense.
9. Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
Between his performance at Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky's offensive system, the potential for high production was never in doubt. The question was whether Bailey Zappe could rapidly make the jump into the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That answer is a resounding yes.
The Hilltoppers are 1-4, and they won't be contending for a New Year's Six bowl berth, let alone anything more. However, they've also played a tough schedule competitively thanks to Zappe. Army (4-1) only beat WKU by three, Big Ten program Indiana won by two, the Hilltoppers scored 31 on Michigan State and undefeated UTSA held them off 52-46.
In those four losses, Zappe has racked up 1,811 yards and 15 total touchdowns with two interceptions. And in a victory over Tennessee-Martin, he threw for 424 yards and seven scores. He leads the FBS with 7.8 completions of 20-plus yards per game.
Zappe deserves a place on the list.
8. Tanner Mordecai, SMU
After spending three years as a backup at Oklahoma, Tanner Mordecai has found a home at SMU.
In his debut, the Big 12 transfer endeared himself to the program. Mordecai scorched the Abilene Christian secondary for 317 yards and seven touchdowns in a 56-9 blowout.
He's guided SMU to a 6-0 record that includes a road victory over TCU. Heading into Week 7, the Mustangs rank 23rd in the AP Top 25 while holding top-10 marks nationally in points (40.7; 10th) and yards (511.0; ninth) per game.
Although he's tossed seven interceptions, the positives far outweigh the negative. Mordecai, who leads the FBS with 26 touchdown passes, has made SMU a strong AAC contender.
7. Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Had the Panthers not lost to Western Michigan, Kenny Pickett might have garnered more attention.
Pickett has overseen a 4-1 start with victories over UMass, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Georgia Tech, so the lack of headlines is reasonable. Nevertheless, he's amassed 1,731 yards on 10.3 per attempt (tied for fourth in the FBS) with 19 touchdowns and an interception, also rushing for 142 yards and two scores.
Thanks to the upcoming schedule, though, the spotlight could shine on the fifth-year senior soon.
Pitt travels to Virginia Tech in Week 7 and then hosts Clemson and Miami on consecutive weekends. Pickett's spot in the rankings will be closely monitored through the rest of October.
6. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Zappe and Mordecai have overwhelming numbers. Desmond Ridder, on the other hand, is thriving within his role.
The senior has followed up a breakout 2020—in which he totaled 2,888 yards and 31 touchdowns—with a steady opening to 2021. Ridder has steered third-ranked Cincinnati to 5-0, allowing the Bearcats to lean on their running game and defense yet providing a handful of key plays.
Ridder engineered a game-winning drive at Indiana and scored the game-sealing touchdown at Notre Dame. He's tied for 18th nationally at 9.0 yards per pass attempt and has accounted for 1,408 yards and 15 scores.
Ridder's steadiness behind center is a major reason the Bearcats, if undefeated, can crash the College Football Playoff.
5. Malik Willis, Liberty
Malik Willis is a delight to watch.
Formerly a 3-star athlete who signed at Auburn, he's developed into an electrifying dual-threat quarterback at Liberty. In 2020, Willis gathered 2,260 passing and 944 rushing yards while tossing 20 touchdowns and running for 14 more.
This year, he's propelled Liberty to 5-1 with outstanding production. He's thrown for 1,327 yards and 13 scores, also running for 498 yards and seven touchdowns. Willis is 11th in yards per pass (9.7) and leads FBS quarterbacks in rushing.
He is really, really good.
Circle Nov. 6 on your calendar—Willis and the Flames head to Oxford to play Matt Corral and Ole Miss. If you like offense, you'll want to watch that one.
4. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
C.J. Stroud didn't have an impeccable start to 2021, but his last two performances should set off alarms in the Big Ten.
Stroud tallied 294 passing yards and four scores at Minnesota in his starting debut and then threw for 484 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to Oregon. But then a shoulder injury limited him against Tulsa and sidelined him opposite Akron.
In the last two weeks, however—wins over Rutgers and Maryland—Stroud has amassed 736 yards and 10 scores.
He ranks second nationally with 10.8 yards per attempt and is tied for fifth at 18 touchdown passes. He's beginning to match the lofty preseason expectations for 5-1 Ohio State, which is once again the Big Ten favorite and a national threat.
3. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
Relatively speaking, Coastal Carolina plays a below-standard level of competition. That's a reasonable concession.
But it hardly diminishes what Grayson McCall has accomplished.
Through six games, he's never finished below 11.6 yards per attempt—which, in short, is absurd. For context, 11.6 per throw is the single-season record former Oklahoma star Kyler Murray set in his Heisman Trophy-winning 2018 campaign.
Along with his FBS-best 13.6 yards per attempt, McCall has accounted for 16 touchdowns (14 passing) with one interception. Coastal Carolina is a perfect 6-0 as well.
If the Chanticleers claim the Sun Belt crown, they should earn a national stage to showcase McCall during bowl season.
2. Bryce Young, Alabama
Considering the Crimson Tide just lost to Texas A&M, this timing is unfortunate for Bryce Young. The once-prized prospect is having a terrific first year as a starter, though.
Young, a 5-star in the 2020 class, shot Alabama out to a 5-0 start. After shredding Miami for 344 yards and four scores, he tossed three touchdowns opposite both Mercer and Florida. Then he put up 313 yards and five scores against Southern Miss.
The sophomore had an efficient 9.3 yards per attempt in the victory over Ole Miss and recorded a career-best 369 yards with three touchdowns in the loss to Texas A&M. Young has avoided a subpar game en route to 1,734 yards and 20 scores, both of which are top-11 totals nationally.
Because of his week-to-week consistency and team projection, Young remains our slight favorite in the Heisman Trophy race. But on an individual basis, he narrowly trails the No. 1 choice here.
1. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Perhaps you grew tired of the Ole Miss hype in the offseason. But this explosive five-game stretch from Matt Corral is why Lane Kiffin's team attracted the recognition.
Corral has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 1,497 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception. He's tied for fourth nationally at 10.3 yards per attempt, leading the Rebels to the second-most yards (561.6) and fourth-most points (46.2) per game.
Additionally, the dynamic junior QB has rushed for 255 yards and eight scores—well on his way to smashing last season's total of 506 yards and long past 2020's four touchdowns.
As long as Corral is healthy, Ole Miss has a chance to win 10 games and land in a New Year's Six bowl.