The SDS Top 25: Ranking the nation's best quarterbacks for 2019
Editor’s note: SDS Top 25 Week continues with a look at the nation’s best quarterbacks. Coming Wednesday: Top 25 offensive play-callers and Top 25 defensive play-callers in the country.
It feels like you can say this every year, but I really think the quarterback position in college football is in a good place. That’s partially why we’ve seen so many signal-callers transfer.
In fact, a nice little chunk of the quarterbacks on this list are former transfers themselves. Had they not left their respective schools, I can all but guarantee that they wouldn’t be on this list.
Speaking of this list, I base quarterback rankings off a simple premise. If I have to turn the ball over to a quarterback to win my a game tomorrow, who am I picking? If you’ve won some big-time games, that certainly helps your case, especially if you were the reason your team won some big-time games.
So yes, even though stats are important when it comes to quarterbacks, they aren’t everything. A guy like Joe Burrow ranks high with me because of how many times it felt like he was going to do whatever it took for LSU to win last year. Did that result in gaudy numbers? Usually, no. But I’d go ask the LSU locker room how confident they are in their returning starter.
That’s my way of saying, this ranking of the Top 25 quarterbacks in college football is totally subjective, and I look forward to you disagreeing with it.
25. Cole McDonald, Hawaii
This list is loaded when we’re starting with a guy who accounted for 40 touchdowns and over 4,200 scrimmage yards last year. After some early Heisman buzz, McDonald’s production trailed off a bit (52% accuracy, 7-7 TD-INT ratio in final 5 games). The Colt Brennan comparisons will fly in if McDonald can regain his early 2018 form, before he suffered what was an undisclosed injury. The good news is that McDonald will have plenty of experience around him this year with 79% of last year’s production back.
24. Brady White, Memphis
It took me until now to realize that from 2016-17, White, Bryce Perkins (I’ll get to him later) and former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett were on the Arizona State roster either in 2016 or 2017. None remain there, but all are starting elsewhere for the second consecutive season for bowl teams. Weird, right? The former U.S. Army All-American did well with his first opportunity to be a college starter in his reunion with Mike Norvell. White threw for 3,296 yards and 26 touchdown passes for the nation’s No. 7 offense. Had he performed better against the likes of Mizzou and his 2 matchups against UCF, he’d be even higher on this list.
23. Kelvin Hopkins Jr., Army
How did Army just produce its best Associated Press Top 25 finish since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration? It had a quarterback who actually allowed the Black Knights to run all 3 facets of the Triple Option. Hopkins ran and threw for more than 1,000 yards — he was the first player in program history to do that — and he finished with 23 combined touchdowns. Hopkins was the main decision-maker for a team that won 11 games, and nearly stunned Oklahoma in Norman. Even better, Army returns 80% of its offensive production. Hopkins and the Black Knights aren’t going anywhere.
22. Feleipe Franks, Florida
The single best season from a Florida QB since Tim Tebow belongs to … Franks? Yep. Dan Mullen deserves a lot of credit for that because of his ability to scheme receivers open. Franks still needs to work on his accuracy — only a 58% passer last year — but I tend to think he’ll never be a guy who completes 65% of his passes at this level. That’s OK. If he makes reads as a runner like he did against Michigan, the Gators will be back in the hunt in 2019.
The Gators head into halftime with the lead thanks to this TD from Feleipe Franks. pic.twitter.com/T6ZZatIyMN
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2018
21. Kelly Bryant, Mizzou
This is a tough spot for someone who obviously won a ton of games in 2017. It wasn’t long ago that Bryant was the quarterback for the No. 1 team in America heading into the Playoff. But his game had a ceiling that Trevor Lawrence’s didn’t. I still like Bryant’s chances of succeeding in Derek Dooley’s offense, which will allow him plenty of chances to make intermediate throws. Drew Lock’s replacement will be put in plenty of positions to succeed.
20. Joe Burrow, LSU
As I referenced already, it’s not the numbers that sold me on Burrow (but he was the first LSU quarterback since JaMarcus Russell to net over 3,000 yards from scrimmage in a season). It’s the leadership and the ability to recognize situations. Watching him try to carry the Tigers in that 7 overtime marathon at Texas A&M and watching the way be bounced back after getting demolished on that early pick-6 against UCF was Burrow at his finest. I expect to see plenty more of that with more running opportunities and a better offensive line.
19. Bryce Perkins, Virginia
Virginia just completed its best season in a decade, and the Arizona State transfer was a major part of that. He had 34 total touchdowns and over 3,500 yards from scrimmage for an 8-win team. And here’s something to chew on — he and Kyler Murray were the only players in FBS with 2,600 passing yards and 900 rushing yards last year. By many metrics, Perkins had the best single-season at the quarterback position in program history. Give him a clean pocket and he’s exceptional:
Bryce Perkins JUST edged out Trevor Lawrence in clean passer rating. Perkins had a 19/5 TD-to-INT ratio and an adjusted completion percentage of 80.3% on 279 clean dropbacks last season. pic.twitter.com/ZYHllaQRo4
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 1, 2019
Perkins will climb this list if he improves his consistency in the passing game and if he can put it together against an elite defense.
18. Nate Stanley, Iowa
In terms of guys you’d feel comfortable giving the ball to, a third-year starter with 52 career touchdown passes would be a solid option. Stanley has a tendency to get a little too amped up and throw it through a wall, but his accuracy did improve in 2018. The tools are there. The consistency is what’s separating him from being in the top 10 on this list. In fact, if Stanley could replicate the Ohio State performance just a handful of times, he’d be talked about as one of the nation’s best.
17. Brock Purdy, Iowa State
More and more second-year quarterbacks are going to make this preseason quarterback lists in the future. Purdy, in his true freshman season working with Matt Campbell, was solid. He, Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa were the only quarterbacks to average 10 yards per attempt, which Purdy did while completing 66% of his passes. Not bad. Granted, the sample size was still small (220 attempts). It’d be nice to see him improve the interceptions (1 every 31 attempts), and I have questions how he’ll handle the loss of David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler, but there’s a lot to like with a freshman who posted the No. 6 quarterback rating in all of college football.
16. Mason Fine, North Texas
Few quarterbacks in America enter 2019 with the production that Fine has. The senior has 64 touchdown passes and he’ll likely surpass 10,000 career passing yards before September closes out. He’s seeking his third consecutive Conference USA Player of the Year award. He might not have the size that’s going to make him an elite next-level prospect, but Fine made major strides in 2018 by cutting down his interceptions working with former Texas Tech legend Graham Harrell. Unfortunately for Fine, Harrell took the USC offensive coordinator job after Kliff Kingsbury’s brief stay in SoCal. But with Seth Littrell still around, I wouldn’t bank on Fine’s production falling off.
15. K.J. Costello, Stanford
Some might argue that I’m too low on Costello after what he did with Bryce Love banged up throughout 2018. They’d argue he deserves to be top 10 based on his finish to the season, which included a 4-game winning streak with a 10-2 TD-INT ratio. He graded higher than Justin Herbert, according to Pro Football Focus. But Costello is still a bit too mistake-prone (11 interceptions last year) and with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin gone, Stanford doesn’t return a single receiver who caught 20 passes or averaged 20 receiving yards per game (but the Cardinal does bring back what could be a 2018 Iowa version of a multi-dimensional tight end attack).
14. Justin Fields, Ohio State
Here’s the thing. Even though I think Fields is my favorite preseason Heisman bet, we’re still talking about someone without a career start. He’s the only one on this list who can say that. And while we’ve seen the talent in flashes, it’s hard to rank Fields in the top 10 after the way he was used at Georgia last year. Will he rise on this list? I’d be stunned if he didn’t. But for now, let’s see how the 5-star signal-caller handles blitzes and reads coverages like a college quarterback.
13. Jacob Eason, Washington
I’m higher on Eason than a lot of people because I think he would have had a lot of success in 2017 had he not gotten hurt. Staying with Jake Fromm was the smart move, but that doesn’t mean Eason can’t reemerge under Chris Petersen at Washington.
Like Franks, the accuracy is still going to be an issue. But he’s in a vastly different situation than he was as a freshman in 2016 when Georgia was a liability at receiver and on the offensive line. That won’t be the case at Washington. Don’t be surprised when Eason is leading the Huskies to another Pac-12 championship.
12. Shea Patterson, Michigan
The bookends were bad, no doubt. The preseason buzz was squashed at Notre Dame, and the way Patterson finished 2018 might have fueled his decision to return for his senior year. Or perhaps the move that Jim Harbaugh made to turn the offense over to Josh Gattis did just that. Patterson is the perfect fit to run a more RPO-based system. It’s just amazing that it took so long. The former Ole Miss quarterback has put together a good career so far, even if it wasn’t quite the 5-star, Johnny Manziel-like start that many imagined.
11. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
I loved what we saw from Mond in 2018. He was a completely different player under Jimbo Fisher than he was as a true freshman with Kevin Sumlin. Mond does everything you need a 21st century quarterback to do. He can make reads, he can stretch the field vertically and he can use his legs to run when plays break down. Would he be better off taking fewer hits? Absolutely, but I totally get why Fisher went with Mond to start 2018 and never looked back. The talent is certainly there.
10. Jordan Love, Utah State
I’ve got plenty of Love for the Utah State quarterback. Excuse that awful cliché pun that’s definitely been used throughout his career. Love exploded onto the scene last year with 32 touchdown passes running that elite Utah State offense, which finished the season only behind Oklahoma in points per game (47.5). There’s already talk that Love could be a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He recognizes pressure well and, at 6-4, 225, he has the size and arm that’ll impress scouts.
The only reason I don’t have Love even higher is because he’ll be working with Gary Andersen’s staff instead of Matt Wells’. That’s a daunting thought for Love’s 2019 outlook.
9. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
If I’m building around a quarterback for the next 2-3 years, I’m not sure how many guys I’d take ahead of Martinez. I’d say it’s probably fewer than 5. Why? Well even during Nebraska’s 4-win season, we saw some exceptional skills from Martinez. The true freshman makes big-time throws and seems to have the bigger-picture understanding needed to play that position at a high level at a place like Nebraska.
He has to cut down on the costly mistakes, but with more reps, that could take care of itself. He keeps his eyes downfield extremely well, and already looks comfortable going through his progressions. He doesn’t have any limitations, which is why Nebraska fans are so fired up about his future:
8. D’Eriq King, Houston
Wait a minute. Why didn’t the guy who accounted for 50 touchdowns last year get a higher spot on this list? After all, King’s dominance was the only reason that things didn’t completely fall apart for the Cougars last year. And to be clear, the skill set is perfect for this era of college football. He stretches the field, he gashes defenses when plays break down with his arm and his legs and he can take over at a moment’s notice.
So why not more love? Well, in King’s first and only season as a starter, he didn’t face a single top 60 defense. That’s right. Not one. Houston only faced one, and that was against Army, which beat Houston 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl with King sidelined with a knee injury. I’m looking forward to what King does in Dana Holgorsen’s offense, but let’s see what he does against some legit competition before we move him up.
7. Justin Herbert, Oregon
If this list were based on who I’d draft for my NFL team, Herbert is in the top 3. The size, the arm, the next-level throws are there, no doubt. But in terms of being that guy who’s going to lead a last-minute drive and win a ballgame, Herbert still has some questions to answer. It was a bit concerning to see the numbers take a hit last year (he went from 68% accuracy to 59% and his yards per attempt dropped from 9.6 to 7.8). But in Year 2 in Mario Cristobal’s system, I this could be the year that everything comes together for Herbert, who’s had a revolving door of offensive-minded coaches.
6. Sam Ehlinger, Texas
Certain guys just seem like they have a nose for the end zone. It isn’t that they’re the biggest, fastest or strongest, but they’re smart in how the maneuver themselves to get there. Another former Tom Herman quarterback, J.T. Barrett, was like that. Ehlinger fits that mold well. He plays the game with a confidence that you need when you aren’t that freakish physical specimen.
The thing I like about Ehlinger is that he can beat you in multiple ways. He can dice up a weak secondary and let his arm do the work. Or he can call his own number and will his team to a win like he did in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia. The Ehlingers of the world won’t get the draft buzz of guys like Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence, but they’re extremely reliable college quarterbacks.
5. Ian Book, Notre Dame
I was late to the Book party. Let me rephrase that. I was late to the “Book is elite” party. I, like everyone, thought he deserved to be starting over Brandon Wimbush. I didn’t, however, realize just how good the Irish would be once Book took over, nor did I realize how efficient he was until I looked back at 2018. The cumulative numbers aren’t there yet because he only started 9 games, but look at what he did in the 8 games leading up to Clemson:
- Beat 3 ranked teams by at least 21 points
- Completed 62% of his passes all but once
- Had multiple TD passes in every game
- Led Irish to 8-0 record w/ avg. margin of victory of 22.3 points
Is he as talented as others on this list? No, but he was super effective, and the Irish wouldn’t have made it to the Playoff without him. You could do a whole lot worse than returning a starting quarterback of Book’s caliber.
4. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Again, the point of this exercise is to take the quarterback who I’d feel most comfortable asking to go out and win me a game. Last time I checked, Hurts is pretty good at that. We got a reminder when Tagovailoa went down in the SEC Championship and Hurts put together a Hollywood ending to rally Alabama past Georgia. But I truly believe the difference for him in his final year of college is going to be the work he put in with Dan Enos. Hurts’ maturation as a passer and not just a one-read-and-run guy will pay dividends in Lincoln Riley’s offense.
3. Jake Fromm, Georgia
Trivia question. How many returning starters have accomplished the following things?
- Started in consecutive conference title games
- Started in a national championship
- Finished in the top 10 nationally in quarterback rating twice
- Averaged 9 yards per attempt twice
- Beat 7 ranked teams
Fromm’s résumé is good. And say what you want about him not being elite because he doesn’t throw the ball 40 times per game, but he averaged 21.9 attempts compared to 23.7 for Tagovailoa. I’ve been banging the drum for Fromm for what feels like the past 5 years, so none of this is new. Nobody throws the back-shoulder ball like he does, and nobody commands the locker room quite like him. With new play-caller James Coley on board, I expect big things from Fromm once again, despite the fact that his receivers are extremely inexperienced.
2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
If you had asked me this question up until halftime of the national championship, Tagovailoa would have been No. 1. But seeing what happened the second half against Clemson was telling. And yes, that’s nit-picking. We’re talking about a quarterback who put together one of the greatest regular seasons we’ve ever seen. To not throw an interception until November is insane. Much of what Tagovailoa did in 2018 was unprecedented dominance.
If we see that pre-November player again, he’ll again carve up the SEC and get Alabama its sixth consecutive Playoff berth.
1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
It’s not just that Lawrence tore up the Alabama defense. After all, we’ve seen the likes of Chad Kelly and Cardale Jones do that. It’s how Lawrence handled an extremely pressure-packed situation — Dabo Swinney put all his marbles in Lawrence’s basket after Kelly Bryant transferred — and dominated. We’re talking about a true freshman who completed 65% of his passes and threw an interception once every 99 pass attempts (Kyler Murray was at 54 and Tagovailoa was 59). He makes next-level throws and reads look incredibly easy, he moves will in and out of the pocket and he was brilliant in the Playoff (66% passer, 6-0 TD-INT ratio, 9.5 yards per attempt). I expect teams to be better prepared for Lawrence in 2019 and like Tagovailoa at the end of 2018, it’ll be interesting to see how he makes adjustments.
Still, though. What more could you want out of a quarterback?