College Football's Biggest QB Changes of the Last 10 Years

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IOctober 22, 2021

College Football's Biggest QB Changes of the Last 10 Years

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    Quarterbacks are usually college football's biggest stars. They are often highly recruited and are expected to do big things at the schools they play for. 

    But sometimes they don't pan out. That prompts head coaches to make changes at the position. Whether it's using other quarterbacks on the roster or landing a transfer QB, there are a number of ways coaches can successfully make a change. 

    Most recently, at Oklahoma, the Sooners have been able to find success with former backup quarterback Caleb Williams. The true freshman was behind Spencer Rattler but came in for the QB during the Red River Rivalry against Texas. The Sooners won 55-48, and Williams threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 88 yards and a score. As the starter in Week 7 against TCU, he threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns. 

    Other times, coaches have to make a change due to an injury to their starting quarterback, and they hit gold with the backup. Let's run through some of the best quarterback changes of the last decade in college football.

Tua Tagovailoa for Jalen Hurts at Alabama in 2018 CFP Championship

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    We'll kick things off with one of the more unforgettable quarterback changes at Alabama.

    It all started during the 2018 CFP National Championship Game featuring No. 4 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia. The Tide went to the locker room at halftime down 13-0. Starting quarterback Jalen Hurts went just 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards and rushed for 47 yards in the half.

    Needing a spark on offense, Alabama head coach Nick Saban opted to switch quarterbacks and give the nod to backup true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa came into Alabama as the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite. It was an interesting move, given that Hurts was 25-2 as a starter leading up to this title game, but Saban's decision ultimately paid off. 

    Tagovailoa led the Tide's sluggish first-half offense to four scoring drives. One of his most critical possessions was an eight-play, 66-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to tie the game up at 20 and force overtime.

    In OT, Alabama's defense held Georgia to a field goal on the Dawgs' first possession. On Alabama's ensuing drive, the Tide faced a 2nd-and-26 after Tagovailoa was sacked. But incredibly, Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown pass to win the Tide's 17th national championship, and the true freshman quarterback was an overnight hero in Tuscaloosa.

    Although there were rumors that Hurts would transfer from Alabama after the title game, he remained with the Tide for the 2018 season. Tagovailoa, unsurprisingly, was named Alabama's starter that season.

    But it wouldn't be the last we'd see of Hurts. In the SEC Championship Game against Georgia later that season, Tagovailoa went down with a leg injury with 11 minutes left in the game. Alabama was trailing 28-21 to the Dawgs, and Hurts came in for the Tide's injured starting QB.

    Hurts played hero this time, going 7-of-9 for 82 yards and rushing for 28 yards. He found Jerry Jeudy for a 10-yard touchdown pass to tie it up at 28 and then had the game-winning touchdown run with 1:04 left. 

    Tagovailoa ultimately led the Tide to a national title game appearance against Clemson during the 2018 season, and he finished with a 22-2 record as a starter at Alabama.

    His 2019 season was cut short due to a season-ending injury he suffered in November, but his impact at Alabama was significant. He threw for 7,442 yards and 87 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. His TD passes are a school record at Alabama. His two career losses were against teams ranked in the Top Two, as well. 

    Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, where he led the Sooners to a CFP semifinal berth in 2019. If Saban hadn't made the change to Tagovailoa, the Tide might not have won the national championship in 2017.  

Jake Fromm Replacing Jacob Eason in 2017

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    Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm made the most of his opportunity when he came in for injured starter Jacob Eason early in the 2017 season. Eason, a 5-star QB prospect and the No. 2 pro-style QB prospect from the class of 2016, per 247Sports' composite, was named the starter as a sophomore ahead of the 2017 season. But in Week 1 against Appalachian State, Eason exited the game early with a knee injury. 

    In stepped Fromm, the No. 3 pro-style QB prospect from the class of 2017. Fromm was verbally committed to Alabama before signing with Georgia's No. 3-ranked recruiting class of 2017. The QB not only played well for the Dawgs, but he also thrived.

    He led Georgia to an 11-1 regular-season record, highlighted by a huge road win over No. 11 Notre Dame in Week 2. The Dawgs defeated Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, which gave them the No. 3 spot in the CFP to face Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal.

    That game was a thriller, with Georgia defeating Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime. Fromm threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. Although Eason was healthy enough to return as the starter during the season, Fromm had already solidified himself as QB No. 1. 

    "People make a bigger deal out of it than it is," Smart said of his QB situation during the 2017 season. "Eason was out. And while Eason was out, we practiced Fromm. He got developed. He got better. He worked hard. He did some good things. He's gotten better with each game. He's playing well right now."

    Georgia fell to Alabama in the aforementioned national title game, but Fromm's season off the bench was remarkable. He threw for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

    Eason transferred to Washington after the season, and Fromm led the Dawgs to 11 wins in 2018 and 12 wins in 2019.

Justin Fields Transferring from Georgia to Ohio State in 2019

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    Fields arrived at Georgia as a true freshman in 2018. The 5-star QB prospect was the No. 1-ranked dual-threat prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite. Still, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart opted to go with Fromm over Fields as the Dawgs' starting quarterback in 2018.  

    Fields finished his true freshman season having played just 81 total snaps on the season. Unsurprisingly, he opted to transfer in January 2019 to Ohio State. He was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately for the Buckeyes, rather than having to sit out a season. 

    At Ohio State, Fields made Smart's decision to start Fromm over him look even more head-scratching.

    The Buckeyes went undefeated with Fields as their starting quarterback in 2019. OSU lost to Clemson in the CFP Fiesta Bowl semifinal, but Fields finished the year throwing for 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns with just three interceptions. That was good for the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the country. He set a single-season school record with a passer efficiency rating of 181.4, as well. He rushed for another 484 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

    He didn't put up quite as impressive numbers in 2020, since OSU played just eight games. Still, he threw for 2,100 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He led the Buckeyes to back-to-back CFP appearances for the first time in school history, beating Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

    OSU fell to Alabama in the national championship, but Fields finished his OSU career with a 20-2 record as a starter. His 63 career passing touchdowns rank second in Ohio State school history, too. 

Joe Burrow Tranferring to LSU in 2018

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Joe Burrow started his career at Ohio State, spending the 2015, '16 and '17 seasons there. He didn't see much playing time over his three years, however. The Buckeyes' QB room was a bit crowded, featuring the likes of J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller during those three years. 

    So Burrow opted to transfer to LSU for his junior season, and he won the starting job in 2018. In his first season running the Tigers offense, he threw for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns with just five interceptions. LSU finished 10-3 on the year, beating UCF in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off the season. 

    But all the stars aligned for Burrow and the LSU Tigers during his magical senior season in 2019. In the offseason, head coach Ed Orgeron hired Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints as LSU's passing game coordinator. Brady, alongside OC Steve Ensminger, transformed the Tigers offense into a juggernaut with Burrow running the show. LSU finished the season with a perfect 15-0 record and won the national title with a 42-25 win over Clemson. 

    Burrow's senior season was spectacular. The QB finished with 5,671 passing yards, including 60 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He rushed for five touchdowns, as well.

    He became the first player in SEC history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 TDs in a season. His 60 passing touchdowns and 65 total scores were NCAA records, and his 76.3 completion percentage ranked second in NCAA history, as well.

    Virtually all of his statistics were SEC single-season records, too. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2019, becoming the second LSU player to win the award. 

    Had Burrow not transferred to LSU, the Tigers likely wouldn't have won a national title in 2019. 

Kyle Trask Starting for an Injured Feleipe Franks in 2019

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    Former Florida QB Kyle Trask had to wait quite a while before becoming the Gators' starting signal-caller. He took a redshirt in 2016 and missed the 2017 season due to injury. In 2018 he appeared in four games, including an impressive outing against Missouri. But he suffered a season-ending foot injury following the Mizzou game that killed his momentum. 

    He finally got his shot in 2019, thanks to an injury to Feleipe Franks. Franks suffered a season-ending leg injury in the fourth quarter against Kentucky. Trask came off the bench and led the Gators to a 29-21 victory. That Kentucky game was the start of an illustrious Florida career for Trask.

    As Florida's starter, he led the Gators to an 8-2 record that season. Florida finished 11-2 on the season, capped off with an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia. Trask threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. 

    "Yeah I think about it a lot, because it's a huge moment for my career," Trask said of the 2019 Kentucky game. "Being a backup for all that time, it kind of is waiting on that moment where you get your opportunity, and that kind of was where I got my chance to really get some meaningful reps and do something good for my team.

    "So yeah, I do think about it a lot. Just kind of like my true beginnings in terms of when I finally got in the field for games."

    Franks, unsurprisingly, announced he would be transferring to Arkansas in January 2020. 

    But Trask's success didn't stop during his 2019 season. His 2020 senior season was better, leading Florida to a 8-4 record as the starter. Trask threw for 4,283 yards and 43 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. He led the nation in both total (46) and passing touchdowns (43) and finished the season as a Heisman finalist. He came close to knocking off No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game this season, as well, throwing for 408 yards and three touchdowns in the 52-46 loss. The QB set a single-season school record with five 400-yard passing games.

    Trask finished with a 16-6 record as Florida's starting quarterback and brought back success to the position in Gainesville that had been missing since Tim Tebow's departure in 2009.  

Trevor Lawrence Starting over Kelly Bryant in 2018

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    One of the more unforgettable quarterback changes for Clemson came in 2018. The Tigers had senior quarterback Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence on the roster. Bryant, who sat behind Deshaun Watson for two seasons, had a pretty successful junior season. He threw for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns with eight interceptions while leading the Tigers to a 12-2 record. Clemson fell to Alabama 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. 

    In 2018, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney opted to stick with Bryant as the Tigers' starting quarterback, but the two shared snaps. It was a bit surprising, given that Lawrence was the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation, per 247Sports' composite.

    In a Week 4 game on the road against Georgia Tech, Bryant struggled as Clemson punted in its first two drives. That prompted Swinney to put Lawrence in the game, and he threw for four touchdowns in the Tigers' 49-21 victory. Swinney decided to stick with Lawrence for the rest of the season. Here's more from the Tigers head coach from an ESPN story on Lawrence overtaking Bryant that year:

     "It had become obvious to everyone on staff," Swinney said. "[Lawrence] passed him -- in grade and in production. I knew I had to do what was best for our team, and Trevor deserved the opportunity to start."

    The next day, Bryant was summoned to Swinney's office. The coach delivered the news.

    Bryant talked through his options with his coach. There was a new rule in place that allowed players to appear in up to four games and retain a redshirt, meaning he could sit out the rest of the season and play elsewhere in 2019.

    Bryant transferred to Missouri for his final season in 2019, where he threw for 2,215 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

    The decision to go with Lawrence paid off, to say the least. The Tigers finished 2018 a perfect 15-0, capped off with a 44-16 national title win over No. 1 Alabama. Lawrence threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions on the year. He set school freshman records in passing yards, passing touchdowns and wins as a starting quarterback, as well.

    Lawrence went on to lead Clemson to a 34-2 record as a starter and three CFP appearances. He finished his Clemson career having thrown for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns with just 17 interceptions. 

Third-String QB Cardale Jones Winning a National Title for Ohio State in 2014

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    Ohio State's quarterback situation during the 2014 season was chaotic, to say the least. Two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller was set to return as the Buckeyes' starter, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before the season began.

    Miller's backup, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, performed well as the starter during the season. During Ohio State's regular season, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He rushed for another 938 yards and 11 touchdowns, too. Despite losing to Virginia Tech in Week 2, the Buckeyes had a clear path to win the Big Ten and get a CFP berth. 

    But in Ohio State's regular-season finale against Michigan, Barrett left the game with a leg injury early in the fourth quarter. In for Barrett came his backup Cardale Jones, a 3-star prospect, per 247Sports' composite. Ohio State defeated Michigan 42-28, but Jones had a big task in front of him. 

    First came the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, and Jones rose to the occasion. He threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, and the Buckeyes blew out Wisconsin 59-0.

    In the CFP semifinal against Alabama, Jones threw for 243 yards and a touchdown during OSU's 42-35 victory.

    In the national title game against Oregon, the Buckeyes won 42-20. Jones had 242 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception, and he also recorded 38 rushing yards and a touchdown. It was a storybook ending to a quarterback situation that could have easily ruined the Buckeyes' season at the start of the year. 

    "Late August, around camp, everybody counted us out when our Heisman Trophy quarterback [Miller] went down, and then when the first College Football Playoff rankings came out, we was like No. 16 or 17," Jones said after the game. "Long story short, we weren't supposed to be here." 

    In 2015, Jones started OSU's first seven games of the season but was benched for Barrett midseason. He declared for the NFL draft after the Buckeyes' 2015 season. 

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