The Best Returning QB in Every College Football Conference for 2022
We're only a few weeks removed from the end of the 2021 college football season, with Georgia defeating Alabama in the national championship on Jan. 10. Although the 2022 season seems like it's a long ways away, it's never too early to start looking ahead.
There are a number of quarterbacks who made names for themselves in 2021, and a lot of them will be returning in 2022. Let's go ahead and look at the best returning quarterbacks in each conference for next season. We'll go in alphabetical order by conference.
AAC: SMU's Tanner Mordecai
SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai has gone on a bit of a journey, but it looks as if he has found where he is supposed to be at SMU. Mordecai, a 4-star quarterback prospect out of Waco, Texas, started his career at Oklahoma. He saw limited playing time in 10 games in Norman in 2019 and 2020, sitting behind quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Spencer Rattler.
In Mordecai's first season at SMU after he transferred, he threw for 3,628 yards—the most in the AAC—and 39 touchdowns with just 12 interceptions. He rushed for another 202 yards and two touchdowns.
In his first college start against Abilene Christian in Week 1, he broke the SMU single-game record with seven touchdowns. His seven scores tied the AAC record too. Although the Mustangs started the season 7-0, SMU dropped four of its last five games to finish 8-4 on the year. The Fenway Bowl it was supposed to play against Virginia was canceled because of COVID-19.
Despite being draft-eligible and going through a coaching change after Sonny Dykes left for TCU, Mordecai announced on Instagram in December that he'd return. He will look to build upon last season's success under new head coach Rhett Lashlee, who was SMU's offensive coordinator from 2018 to '19 before spending the last two seasons at Miami.
ACC: Virginia's Brennan Armstrong
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong had one of the best seasons in the ACC in 2021. The only reason you may not have heard about it was the Cavaliers finished 6-6 and fourth in the ACC Coastal. Armstrong finished with a conference-leading 4,449 passing yards—more than Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett—along with 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Armstrong broke or tied numerous school records during his 2021 season too. Let's run through some of them, shall we?
Single-game passing record: 554 yards vs. UNC
Season passing record of 4,449 yards
Single-game total offense: 538 yards vs. UNC
Season passing TDs (31)
300-yard career passing games: 11 from 2018 to '21
Season completions: 326
On Jan. 13, Armstrong—who has an extra year of eligibility because of the 2020 COVID-19 rules—announced on social media that he would be coming back next season.
That's great news for Tony Elliott, who will take over as the Cavs' new head coach from Bronco Mendenhall after spending the last 11 seasons on Clemson's staff. Elliott has coached the likes of Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, so don't be surprised if Armstrong has an even bigger season in 2022.
Big 12: Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders
Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders seems to be improving each and every season. A three-year starter for the Cowboys, Sanders had his best season as a redshirt junior in 2021. He threw for 2,839 yards and 20 touchdowns, the third-most in the Big 12.
He also helped put Oklahoma State in the College Football Playoff conversation. Heading into the Big 12 Championship Game against Baylor, the Cowboys had the No. 5 ranking, and a win over the Bears likely would have given them a playoff spot.
Although Sanders threw a season-high four interceptions in that game, he rebounded nicely in a thrilling Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, going 34-of-51 for 371 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He was also named the game's MVP.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Sanders was sixth all-time in career passing yards (6,283) and career passing touchdowns (46) among OK State quarterbacks.
Big Ten: Ohio State's C.J. Stroud
If C.J. Stroud's redshirt freshman season is any indication of how the rest of his Ohio State career will go, the Buckeyes are in for a special time. Stroud finished the year as Ohio State's starter with 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Although the Buckeyes missed out on a playoff bid by losing to Michigan at the end of the regular season, it was still a successful year for the Buckeyes.
Stroud helped Ohio State finish first in the nation in total offense (561.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (45.7 points per game). Stroud's efforts helped put the Buckeyes third nationally in passing offense (380.9 yards per game), as well.
Individually, the Buckeyes QB finished inside the top five in the nation in passer efficiency rating (2nd, 186.6), touchdown passes (3rd, 44), completion percentage (4th, 71.9), yards per game (3rd, 369.6) and yards per attempt (2nd, 10.1). His efficiency rating, completion percentage and yards per game mark were both Ohio State single-season school records, as well.
Stroud was invited to New York as a Heisman finalist, joining the last two Buckeye quarterbacks in Justin Fields and Dwayne Haskins to be invited to the ceremony. Although Stroud finished fourth in the voting, he ended the 2021 season on a high note.
Ohio State earned a thrilling 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Stroud threw for a school-record 573 yards in the win and tied a school record of six touchdowns. If his freshman season is anything to go by, Stroud will have one heck of a career in Columbus.
Conference-USA: UTEP's Gavin Hardison
Although WKU QB Bailey Zappe and Marshall's Grant Wells had bigger seasons in 2021 than Gavin Hardison, Zappe is out of eligibility, and Wells announced he's transferring to Virginia Tech in the ACC.
Rising junior Hardison had a breakout season for the Miners in 2021, throwing for 3,218 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season. The season prior, he threw for 1,419 yards and five touchdowns in UTEP's COVID-19-affected season.
Although the Miners lost the New Mexico Bowl 31-24 to Fresno State, Hardison led his team to seven wins for just the seventh time in 53 years and the 19th time in 104 years, per the Albuquerque Journal's Steve Virgen.
Hardison started his collegiate career at New Mexico Military Institute before landing at UTEP. The QB said in December that beginning his career there gave him good experience.
"At NMMI, you have to be really disciplined with the military environment there," Hardison told Virgen. "Playing there elevated my football career. I was able to play against some great competition. Playing against tough competition elevated my game."
MAC: Miami (OH)'s Brett Gabbert
Thanks to MAC leading passers like Kent State's Dustin Crum and Eastern Michigan's Ben Bryant no longer having eligibility and Western Michigan's Kaleb Eleby declaring for the NFL draft, Brett Gabbert is the MAC's best returning quarterback in 2022.
Gabbert finished the 2022 season having thrown for 2,646 yards and 26 touchdowns with six interceptions. He led the Miami Redhawks to a 7-6 record, capped off by a 27-14 win over North Texas in the Frisco Football Classic. Gabbert completed 70.9 percent of his passes and threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Gabbert's last name may sound familiar to you—Brent is the younger brother of former first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert and former Missouri and UCF quarterback Tyler Gabbert. Blaine has been in the league since 2011, and is currently on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' active roster behind Tom Brady and Kyle Trask. Brett has spoken in the past about how his brothers helped shape his career.
"When I was a little kid I always played a ton of sports, football, baseball, basketball soccer," Brett told KMOV4. "Once I saw them play college football at Mizzou and when Tyler went to UCF, I just always thought it was super cool as a kid and I thought one day I would like to do that. Just having my two older brothers play, they've helped me so much."
Can Brett follow in Blaine's footsteps and have his name called in the NFL draft? He'll need an even bigger 2022 season with Miami (OH) to have a shot at it.
Mountain West: Fresno State QB Jake Haener
For a brief time, it looked like Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener was going to transfer out of the Mountain West. Haener briefly entered the transfer portal after Bulldogs head coach Kalen DeBoer accepted the University of Washington head coaching job, but he decided to stay put ultimately.
It was great news for the bulldogs, because Haener is such an exciting player to watch. During the 2021 season, he threw for 33 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. His 4,096 passing yards also marked the fourth time in Fresno State school history a quarterback threw for over 4,000 yards, joining Derek and David Carr.
His 329 completions and 490 attempts were each the fourth-most in a single season in program history, as well as his 67.1 percent passing completion percentage and 33 touchdown passes.
New Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford getting Haener back in 2022 is a huge win for the new Bulldogs' head coach. Tedford, who was actually the Bulldogs' head coach from 2017 to 2019 but resigned due to health reasons, has a successful track record when it comes to QBs. As a former Fresno State quarterbacks coach and Cal head coach, six of his former quarterbacks, including Aaron Rodgers and David Carr, were taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
Now that Haener is officially returning, he just might be Tedford's next first-round draft pick. If he has an even bigger year in 2022, it wouldn't be all too surprising.
Pac-12: Utah's Cameron Rising
Utah Utes starting quarterback Cameron Rising's career has taken a while to get going, but he made the most of getting his first true season as a starter in 2021. Rising's career started at Texas in 2018, where he took a redshirt his freshman season. He then transferred to Utah and had to sit out the 2019 season because of NCAA transfer rules. In 2020, he made his first start for the Utes in the season opener against USC but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury after completing just three passes.
After rehabbing his shoulder, he entered the Utes' quarterback competition with Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer. Rising was named Utah's starter by mid-September and started the rest of the season. On the year, Rising finished with 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions. Utah finished the regular season 10-4 with two huge wins over Oregon to secure the Utes' first-ever Pac-12 championship in school history.
Rising had a scary moment to close out his season, however. In the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, Rising appeared to suffer a head injury after taking a big hit that required him to be carted off the field and ultimately exit the game. Prior to leaving the game, he had thrown for 214 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 92 yards and a touchdown. A couple days after the game, Rising tweeted that he was doing well and at home with his family.
Rising returning in 2022 will be a big reason why the Utes will likely be favored to win the Pac-12 again next season.
SEC: Alabama's Bryce Young
It's not all that surprising that the Tide signal-caller is included in this list, right? The reigning Heisman Trophy winner from 2021 will be back in 2022 for his junior season.
Young came into last year with big shoes to fill, replacing first-round draft pick Mac Jones. But not only did Young perform well, he had an incredible season as his first full year as the Tide's starting QB. He finished with 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns—both of which were Alabama single-season school records—with just seven interceptions.
Aside from leading the Tide to the national championship game against Georgia, Young had a couple of impressive performances vs. SEC opponents. During a 42-35 win over Arkansas in late November, Young threw for 559 yards and five touchdowns. His 559 yards were enough to break the Tide school record for passing yards in a game, one that stood for 52 years.
In the SEC Championship Game against Georgia in Atlanta, Young absolutely shredded the Dawgs' defense for 421 passing yards. He torched the best defense in the country and made it look easy. That's likely a big reason why Young took home the Heisman Trophy with 684 first-place votes a week later.
Unfortunately Young didn't have a similar performance against Georgia in the national championship, including a pick-six in the fourth quarter that ultimately sealed the win for the Dawgs. Still, 2021 was a breakout season for Young, and he could have an even bigger season next year if Alabama is able to replace draft-eligible weapons such as Jameson Williams and John Metchie III.
Sun Belt: Grayson McCall
Look, I promise I am not putting Coastal Carolina quarterback Garyson McCall on this list solely because of his incredible hairstyle (he rocks an incredible mullet), but it certainly helps. Haircuts aside, McCall had a great season for the Chanticleers in 2021, throwing for 2,873 yards and 27 touchdowns with just three interceptions. The Coastal QB also impressively led the nation in passing efficiency rating (207.6) and was second in pass completion percentage (73.0).
McCall, a redshirt sophomore, won the Sun Belt Player of the Year Award for 2021 after leading the Chanticleers to an 11-2 record. He won that same award the year prior as a redshirt freshman, having thrown for 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns on the season. McCall's 2021 season was capped off on a high note with a 47-41 Cure Bowl win over Northern Illinois. McCall was also named the bowl game's MVP for his 315 yards and four touchdowns, which were a Cure Bowl record.
Although the school announced in January that McCall would miss spring ball in 2022, the rising junior is expected to be ready for the 2022 season. Coastal Carolina, which joined the FBS in 2017, has gone a combined 22-3 with McCall starting under center.