Ranking the Top 25 College Football Playoff quarterback performances to date
Somehow, we made it this far.
In just a few weeks, the 2020 college football season — with all its starts, stops, fits and fragments — will conclude with the College Football Championship in Miami. That’s assuming all goes as planned, or at least something close to it.
You know what COVID-19 can’t do, though? Negate the import of quarterback play in a team’s title hopes.
Just look at this season. Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones, Ian Book, Justin Fields — even Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask — you simply didn’t have a team in the running without superb play under center and/or out of the shotgun.
If you count the man simply known as Tua and his off-the-bench national championship performance in 2017, there have been 25 meaningful quarterback performances through the playoff’s 6-year history. As the 2020-21 Playoff picture rounds into form, we looked back and ranked every single one.
A caveat: this list encompasses Playoff performance only. Anything that happened before, or after, wasn’t considered.
25. Connor Cook, Michigan State, 2015
Remember when the Spartans were a Playoff team and coach Mark Dantonio’s job seemed like one of the nation’s most secure? Cook didn’t have his best day in a 38-0 Cotton Bowl loss to eventual champion Alabama: 19-of-39 passing, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Yikes.
24. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State, 2016
The Big Ten’s credibility took a further hit a year later when Clemson topped the Buckeyes 31-donut. Barrett went 19-for-33 with no touchdowns and 2 picks.
23. Jake Browning, Washington, 2016
In somewhat of an exercise in offensive futility, Browning came up on the short end. His 150 passing yards ensured Washington wouldn’t so much as sniff an upset in the 2016 Peach Bowl.
22. Kelly Bryant, Clemson, 2017
Bryant knows how Browning felt. His 2 picks and just 50% passing were nowhere near capable of topping the 2017 Crimson Tide. With Bryant at the helm, Clemson fell 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl that season.
21. Ian Book, Notre Dame, 2018
Ouch. In the Fighting Irish’s 30-3 Cotton Bowl loss to eventual champ Clemson, Book completed just 17-of-34 throws for 160 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Think he enjoyed beating the Tigers earlier this year and wouldn’t mind yet another crack at ’em with all the marbles on the line?
20. Blake Sims, Alabama, 2014
Sims’ 2 touchdowns and 3 picks against the Buckeyes were a big part of the Tide’s demise in the first College Football Playoff. Ohio State went on to claim the title following its 42-35 Sugar Bowl victory against the Tide.
19. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma, 2019
You have to feel for Hurts, who made the Playoff 3 times with 2 teams yet never fully realized his potential on the big stage. A 15-for-31, 217-yard showing against LSU in a 63-28 semifinal loss was Hurts’ worst of the 3 outings.
18. Jalen Hurts, Alabama, 2016
As a true freshman, Hurts attempted just 14 passes in the semifinal win against Washington, completing 7. In a 35-31 championship game loss to Clemson, he completed 13-of-31 for 131 yards — just 42%. However, he did briefly put Alabama ahead with a 30-yard TD run with 2 minutes left. If Bama’s defense had held, that play would be remembered as one of the most clutch in program history.
17. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, 2017
Those who weren’t fans of Mayfield’s abrasive attitude got the last laugh when he went 23-of-35 for 287 yards with 2 TDs and an interception in a zany double-overtime, Rose Bowl loss to Georgia.
16. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, 2015
Just a sophomore, Mayfield threw for 311 yards in the 2015 Orange Bowl. But 2 interceptions proved costly in Clemson’s 37-17 victory.
15. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma, 2018
We promise we’re not trying to pile it on Boomer Sooner; the rankings just worked out this way. In the 2019 semifinals, Murray went 19-for-37 for over 300 yards — but that wasn’t nearly enough against Bama.
14. Jake Fromm, Georgia, 2017
Fromm’s CFP performance epitomized his ability to both dazzle and infuriate: 210 yards on 20-of-29 passing in the Dawgs’ double-overtime win against Oklahoma, then just a 50% showing with a pair of picks in the championship game loss to Bama.
13. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, 2019
Some wondered why Lawrence, the ultimate competitor, even bothered with this season. Maybe look at his outings from a disappointing 2020 CFP: He was merely fine in a controversial win against Ohio State, then completed fewer than half his throws as LSU rolled in the title game.
12. Jalen Hurts, Alabama, 2017
Call us sappy. Hurts is this high because of his attitude as much as his performance. You need both from your QB, and after getting revenge against Clemson in the 2017 semifinals, Hurts was famously gracious as he was benched at halftime of the title game, cheering Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide to victory.
11. Cardale Jones, Ohio State, 2014
It’s easy to forget that while the Buckeyes won it all, Jones wasn’t that spectacular in the Sugar Bowl — 243 yards on 18-of-35 passing, 1 TD and a pick, though he did run for 43 yards. In the championship game, he had the same touchdown-interception ratio as Ohio State’s ground game and defense carried the day in 2014.
10. Jameis Winston, Florida State, 2014
In a year overshadowed by Winston’s immature off-the-field behavior, he was outdueled by Marcus Mariota in the Rose Bowl. Winston threw for 438 yards in Oregon’s 59-20 route.
9. Justin Fields, Ohio State, 2019
Fields played pretty dang well in a loss Buckeyes fans will always blame on the officiating: 30-of-46 for 320 yards and a touchdown. The referees didn’t have their best night, Fields’ 2 interceptions were just as agonizing.
8. Jake Coker, Alabama, 2015
Steady. That was Coker. He threw just 5 incompletions and no interceptions in the 38-0 semifinal win over Michigan State, then had 335 yards and 2 touchdowns and was cool under pressure as Bama held off Clemson for a 45-40 championship-game victory.
7. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama, 2018
Tua went off against OU for 318 yards on 24-of-27 passing and 4 touchdowns in the Orange Bowl. The championship game, though, was a different story vs. a staunch Clemson defense — 22-of-34 for 295 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 picks. AKA not nearly enough in a 44-16 defeat.
6. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama, 2017
This is a weird one to rank given he played only a half of football in the 2017 Playoff. But had Tagovailoa not come in at halftime and thrown 166 yards and 3 touchdowns, Bama may not have secured its most recent national title. The 2nd-and-26 walkoff TD throw to DeVonta Smith is the greatest play in Playoff history.
5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon, 2014
You can make an argument this is too high for a QB whose team was blown out in the championship. But go watch some of Mariota’s highlights; he was brilliant in that Rose Bowl win against Winston and FSU — a 163.9 passer rating, 338 yards, 26-for-36 through the air. His championship-game line shows how hard it was to keep up with Ohio State’s ground attack that season: 24 of 37 for 333 yards with 2 touchdowns and an INT.
4. Deshaun Watson, Clemson, 2015
Watson did it with his legs in the Orange Bowl, carrying 24 times for 145 yards in the Tigers’ 37-17 victory over Oklahoma. Then he mixed in his arm in a scintillating championship loss against Alabama: 405 yards and 4 TDs through the air, and 73 more on the ground.
3. Deshaun Watson, Clemson, 2016
By Watson’s lofty standards, he was just OK in Clemson’s shutout semifinal win over Ohio State. But his MVP title game performance — 420 yards on 36-of-56 passing and 3 touchdowns, plus another rushing TD — vaulted the Tigers to revenge against Alabama. After Hurts’ run gave Bama a 31-28 lead with 2:07 left, Watson drove the Tigers 68 yards for the win, hitting Hunter Renfrow for the championship-clinching TD with 1 second remaining.
2. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, 2018
Three touchdowns and 327 yards against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Three more and 347 yards in the air against Alabama in a 44-16 shellacking. As a true freshman. Remarkable.
1. Joe Burrow, LSU, 2019
Burrow and the Bayou Bengals’ 2019 campaign will probably only look more incredible as time goes on. The dude threw for 7 touchdowns and had an astronomical 239.8 passer rating in the 63-28 win vs. Oklahoma, then went 31-for-49 for 463 yards and 5 more scores vs. Clemson to complete the masterpiece.