This year’s NFL draft conversation was dominated by quarterbacks. Was Sam Darnold the best pro prospect? Josh Rosen? Lamar Jackson? Or did anyone compare to Josh Allen’s massive arm? Baker Mayfield went no. 1 overall, and now the great quarterback debate begins anew. Who is the best QB in college football this fall? Here are our staff picks.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Ben Glicksman: On September 23, 2017, Alabama played Vanderbilt in a regular-season SEC matchup. For much of the afternoon, it went how Bama and Vanderbilt matchups tend to go: Nick Saban’s team of future NFL stars pulverized the helpless Commodores, racing to a 31-0 halftime lead.
Then, midway through the third quarter, backup Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa entered the game to spell starter Jalen Hurts. On the true freshman’s eighth passing attempt of the day, he did this:
And that, my friends, is how I found salvation in an SEC on CBS broadcast.
Tagovailoa, as you are surely aware, supplanted Hurts in the second half of January’s national championship game to carry Bama to a thrilling 26-23 triumph over Georgia. He threw the title-clinching 41-yard touchdown after looking off a safety; he has since emerged as the Las Vegas favorite to take home this year’s Heisman Trophy. He has technically not been named the Bama starter for the 2018 season, but that is merely a technicality, and not a sign that the greatest college football coach of all time has lost his mind.
Tua has thrown only 77 college passes, so it’s probably wise to temper expectations. As such, I’ll keep my endorsement to the following: He is what happens when you combine Russell Wilson’s escapability with Matthew Stafford’s arm strength, Tom Brady’s precision, John Legend’s singing voice, and Aaron Rodgers’s field awareness. Tagovailoa is quarterbacking Darwinism. He is the future.
Khalil Tate, Arizona
Paolo Uggetti: Dear college football defenses: Whatever you do this season, don’t give Khalil Tate the edge. Don’t give him space in the pocket, don’t give him room to run free, and don’t give him time to pass. In fact, if it’s possible, just don’t let him touch the ball at all. He’ll make you pay.
Where were you when Khalil Tate introduced himself to the college football world?— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) August 10, 2018
Tate finished the Colorado game with 327 rushing yards, a FBS record for a quarterback. #TBT pic.twitter.com/una3I1HyAc
It’s not that Tate is unstoppable—when he faced Oregon and Arizona State last season, he was held under 200 total yards—it’s that he can beat you in myriad ways. When he runs, he has a slipperiness to elude defenders. And his arm is strong, too: He threw 14 touchdowns last season and averaged better than 8 yards per attempt. Just look at the highlights above and it becomes clear that Tate is no one-dimensional running QB. He’s projected as a Heisman contender in 2018 (with 12-1 odds), yet given the rest of Arizona’s roster, he’ll likely have to reach another level of statistical transcendence to have a shot. It’s going to be a blast to watch him try.
Trace McSorley, Penn State
Shaker Samman: Forget debating who is the best quarterback in the country—Trace McSorley might be the best player, period. Last year, as a junior, the man they call Marbles (short for “All the Marbles,” so named because he loves to go long) built on his impressive sophomore season by completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,570 yards with 28 touchdowns. That marked the second season in a row in which McSorley ranked among the best deep-ball passers in college football, and he did so while tying for the sixth-best completion percentage in the land. Simply put: McSorley loves the long ball and is as accurate as can be.
Trace McSorley, whose nickname is indisputably "All The Marbles," steps up and hits DAT2 Electric Boogaloo for a 51-yard completion. pic.twitter.com/n9r398c8wi— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) October 1, 2016
Yes, this season he’ll be without star running back Saquon Barkley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead for the first time in his college career. But Miles Sanders showed potential as Barkley’s understudy last fall, and new coordinator Ricky Rahne is using the same system Moorhead ran to lift McSorley to great success. Adding to the fun is Penn State’s offensive line, which should be the most talented group up front the Nittany Lions have had in years. Last fall, McSorley had help carrying Penn State to the upper echelon of the sport. This season, the burden falls on his arm. History tells us he’s up for the challenge:
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Michael Baumann: Auburn’s junior quarterback cut his teeth in Baylor’s Air Raid system before fleeing Waco faster than the Gaines family fled HGTV. Last year, in his first full season under Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Stidham handed the ball off to SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson a lot, but he also passed for 3,158 yards with 18 touchdowns and only six interceptions—despite playing in an offense that didn’t place an emphasis on protecting the quarterback. Auburn passed just 38.8 percent of the time last fall, 105th in the country. The team’s offensive line allowed 2.6 sacks per game, 30th most in the country and fifth most in the SEC.
Stidham’s best game came in the Iron Bowl, when he went 21-of-28 passing against Bama’s Carthaginian elephant cavalry of a defensive line. But even there, he didn’t look all that explosive—certainly not as explosive through the air as McSorley or as explosive on the ground as Tate.
But here’s what I love about Stidham. Last year he faced teams that finished in the top six in the AP Poll five times: Clemson, Alabama, UCF, and Georgia twice. That’s three of the four College Football Playoff teams and both national champions. And protected by nothing but some super-deep dropbacks, hurried ball fakes, a porous offensive line, and his own wits, Stidham stared down the storm and passed over, around, and through it. Quarterbacks don’t have to be as big as Cardale Jones or as speedy as Tate to be elusive; you can get by with being just quick enough to round the first defender, or thick enough to bounce off him and fall forward. Those little 4- and 5-yard gains add up, as Stidham learned against Alabama.
I love an explosive passer as much as the next guy, but there’s something romantic about an SEC West quarterback who knows how to just grind it out. Stidham’s game looks like a freshly-hewn cord of lumber smells. Call me old-fashioned, but I still have a soft spot for guys like that.
Jake Browning, Washington
Zach Kram: At its core, college football is about raw, unencumbered domination. The same small group of schools competes for the national championship every year; one of the sport’s most famous games ended with a final score of 222-0; and in the modern game, teams at the highest tier literally pay inferiors for the express purpose of unleashing an updated version of that domination.
Jake Browning might not be the most talented QB in college football, but there’s no better option in a blowout—and therefore no clearer embodiment of the very spirit of the sport. In 14 career games against either FCS teams or opponents rated 85th or worse nationally in the S&P+ passing defense statistic, Browning has completed 71.3 percent of his passes at a rate of 10 yards per attempt, while tossing 47 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. That translates to an NFL passer rating of 134.9, or Aaron Rodgers’s record-setting 2011 season plus an extra 10 percent more efficiency.
In 25 games against less feeble opposition, Browning has fared worse: 60.9 percent completions, 7.4 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, and 17 picks. That’s an 88.3 rating, which would have sandwiched him between Tyrod Taylor and Andy Dalton on last year’s NFL leaderboard.
But that sample isn’t relevant here, because it doesn’t matter that placing an even slightly immovable force in front of the Huskies quarterback leads to relatively cratered production. What matters is that if one embraces the hyper-stratification inspired by the very sport of college football and gives Browning an FCS secondary to disembowel, he will look, unquestionably, like the best quarterback in the world.
Will Grier, West Virginia
Ryan O’Hanlon: I found out about Will Grier yesterday. He’s 23 years old. I’m 30. He’s been my favorite quarterback since the day I was born.
Ever since Rich Rodriguez accepted the West Virginia job back in 2000, the Mountaineers quarterback position has taken on a mythical quality for people who watch college football without the shackles of allegiance and instead are just searching for perverse excitement. He was the doomed king of a country of couch-arsonists. Flawless prospects don’t end up at West Virginia. Guys like Pat White, who was definitely not 6 feet tall despite what the historical record maintains, go to West Virginia. Geno Smith, whose intangibles led to his jaw being shattered by a teammate, goes to West Virginia. Clint Trickett, whose lack of stock car-racing credentials are the death knell for the concept of nominative determinism, goes to West Virginia. Once these guys are there, they blow up as many scoreboards as they can before the weather gets too cold and it all peters out into an inevitable seven- or eight-win season.
The highest compliment I can give to Will Grier is that he looks like his name is Clint Trickett. He committed to Florida in 2012, redshirted, started six games the next year, and threw more touchdowns than any other Gators quarterback since 2012. Then he tested positive for PEDs, transferred to West Virginia, sat out another year, and threw for 3,490 yards with 34 touchdowns. This year he’s a preseason first-team All-American, and he throws a football with the wild precision of someone launching a flaming arrow through a mortal enemy’s front door.
I’ve been told that Grier’s siblings are Vine stars. But I also know that Vine got shut down in 2016. Supposedly they’ve maintained their influence by transferring their followers to Instagram and various other social media platforms. They’re more famous than their brother, who’s potentially the best college quarterback in the country and is a likely first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft. I don’t get it. Have I mentioned that I’m 30?
Drew Lock, Missouri
Megan Schuster: Last season, Drew Lock left his statistical mark on the college football landscape. He finished the year in the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game (304.9); in the top five in passing efficiency rating (165.7); and ranked first overall in touchdown passes thrown (44), ahead of even eventual Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. Those 44 touchdowns also set a new SEC single-season record, bypassing names like Andre Woodson, Tim Couch, and Johnny Manziel on the list.
So, the kid is talented. And this season, he’ll work closely with new Mizzou offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Derek Dooley, who is focused on creating a pro-style system for the Tigers’ offense—largely with Lock’s input. Sure, Dooley will be Lock’s third offensive coordinator in his time at Mizzou. And sure, the Tigers as a whole aren’t exactly major contenders in the SEC. But Lock’s floor is so incredibly high that putting his Heisman odds at +4,500 seems foolish. His form hasn’t changed, and his arm hasn’t shrunk. If Lock can improve on his standout performance from last year, I genuinely believe he can become the best quarterback in the country.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
Kjerstin Johnson: When Jacob Eason went down in the first quarter of Georgia’s 2017 season opener with a sprained knee, then-19-year-old Jake Fromm, who had zero college experience to that point, got off the bench to replace him. Fromm piloted four touchdown drives, helped the Bulldogs beat Appalachian State 31-10, and never looked back, lifting the Dawgs up higher than they ever imagined.
Georgia was 12-1 by the time it took on Oklahoma in a dramatic Rose Bowl, when the true freshman Fromm helped the Dawgs win an instant classic. (Look closely and you can see him, no. 11, holding off a defender on Sony Michel’s game-winning touchdown in double overtime.) Electrified from that victory, Fromm stepped up in the national championship matchup against Alabama, converting crucial third-down plays, including one on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman. (Fromm ranked no. 3 nationally in third-down passing and no. 1 in the SEC.)
At halftime of the title game, Georgia was up 13-0. But in a twist worthy of a fantasy epic, Nick Saban put in second-string QB Tua Tagovailoa—the very recruit who took Fromm’s spot in Bama’s class when the Georgia native chose red and black instead—who turned the tide of the game, ultimately defeating the Dawgs.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
Molly McHugh: I think Oregon fans will understand when I say I’m incredibly reluctant to talk about Justin Herbert. I just don’t want to jinx it. It’s no secret that since 2014, the Ducks have not only struggled to fill the Marcus Mariota–sized hole in their offense, they’ve also had to deal with other notable losses. No matter how you feel about the Ducks’ coaching decisions through the years, the program’s rate of turnover in the past few seasons is depressing. So the early Heisman whispers around Herbert are somewhat exciting, but also especially nerve-racking. The team’s 6-2 record with Herbert last year was encouraging, but the 1-4 run without him was devastating, and the Ducks will once again need Herbert to stay healthy in order to win games. There isn’t a Plan B.
That said, I’m optimistic. Herbert is older, bigger, and will work with a more experienced offensive line. But because of all the heartbreak Ducks fans have endured, I’ll reserve some skepticism about the team’s overall chances under new coach Mario Cristobal.
As a non sequitur, I like Herbert’s long hair and his anti-Twitter stance.
Manny Wilkins, Arizona State
Zach Schwartz: Years ago, when I was still a student at Arizona State, I heard about a dual-threat, four-star quarterback named Manny Wilkins. As legend has it, Wilkins was already so invested in the program that he was calling other recruits and pitching them on Todd Graham’s vision. Five years later, Graham is gone, but Wilkins remains. And he looks like the heir apparent to the Pac 12’s passing throne.
In a conference that last year featured the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Luke Falk, Wilkins nonetheless managed to rank in the top five of every meaningful passing statistic. And this year, with Falk, Darnold, and Rosen all in the NFL, Wilkins has the opportunity to rule the conference. Plus, no other quarterback on this list can say he’ll be throwing the ball to the best pass catcher in all of college football. N’Keal Harry’s contribution alone will push Wilkins to the top of the conference—and maybe higher.