Ranking the Top 25 quarterbacks in college football for 2021
It’s not easy.
Ranking quarterbacks, that is. How much of it should be based on past performance vs. future projections? How much of it should be based on the system they play in? How much should we take from what conference they play in?
Or better yet, how much should 2020 really be factored into this?
There are quarterbacks listed here who have played in 0 games, and there are quarterbacks here who have appeared in 40-plus games. This isn’t strictly the ranking of the most accomplished quarterbacks. If we wanted to do that, we’d just focus all on cumulative stats. That’s part of this, but not all of it.
I base these rankings on who I’d want leading my team to play in a game tomorrow. This is not a prediction of how I think the numbers will shake out by season’s end. Even though I think Bryce Young should have a monster year, I can’t say he is a top-5 quarterback without seeing it at the college level. But is he still on this list? Well, you’ll have to scroll down to find that out.
Let’s dig into the top 25 quarterbacks in college football, with what I like most about each one:
25. Connor Bazelak, Mizzou
What I like most — The SEC Freshman of the Year was accurate, especially from 11-20 yards. He completed 67% of his passes, which was good for No. 12 among qualified Power 5 quarterbacks. He also only took 12 sacks compared to 324 pass attempts, which is a solid number for a first-time starter. He’s got a solid foundation to elevate from those “game manager” associations. Without having to rehab his knee AND learn a new system, he’s in a good spot to do that.
24. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
What I like most — When he was good in those 2 games, he looked virtually unstoppable. That was against Minnesota and Penn State, both of whom were expected to have much better defenses than what they wound up with. Tagovailoa’s ability to scramble and find receivers downfield is special. The Alabama transfer is being slept on a bit in the preseason, but if we’re giving credit for 2-game heroics, he at least deserves a mention here.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 7, 2020
23. CJ Stroud, Ohio State
What I like most — Admittedly? The fact that he’s a decorated quarterback who has a full year under his belt of working with Ryan Day. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who has as many FBS pass attempts as you, me and your uncle Kevin. We’re going based on the spring game, high school highlight clips and reports out of Columbus. But Stroud is on here because those expectations are indeed sky-high, and if this is about stepping onto a field tomorrow, who would bet against an Ohio State starting quarterback?
22. Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
What I like most — I like when transfers get a second life. Jurkovec left Notre Dame and got just that at Boston College. I liked some of the moments we saw from him in losses to Clemson and Notre Dame, too. The mobility is more than passable, and for all the chances he takes, the guy only threw 5 interceptions all year. He had 61% accuracy facing pressure (@CFBFilmRoom), and he’s never gonna be scared to make a throw. He’s a sneaky candidate to rise on a bunch of draft boards.
21. Carson Strong, Nevada
What I like most — A quarterback rating of 160.6 with 70% completion percentage and only 4 interceptions? Sign me up. A breakout season in a high-volume passing offense that didn’t include anybody but Mountain West opponents and Tulane? Eh, let’s see it a bit more before we move him up this list. Oh, whoops. This is “what I like most.”
20. Dustin Crum, Kent State
What I like most — I sort of think Crum is Group of 5 Matt Corral. He loves uncorking the deep ball, he can and does call his own number on the RPOs and he’s still exceptionally accurate. I love a quarterback who can take over a game in a variety of ways, and Crum is that guy. Crum, Corral, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Brennan Armstrong and Jason Bean were the only FBS quarterbacks with PFF grades higher than 76.0 in both passing and rushing. Kent State has an intriguing option for the title of “top Group of 5 quarterback in America.”
19. Emory Jones, Florida
What I like most — Three years with Dan Mullen’s system should do him wonders. I truly believe that. Does Jones have to show that he can become more accurate without the benefit of proven pass-catchers? Yep. That’s the case for Jones even though he does have 86 career pass attempts with a solid quarterback rating of 148.4. It’s hard to judge Jones’ accuracy when he is still waiting for his first starting opportunity. But the opportunity is there, and Jones has all sorts of breakout potential.
There is big news coming to the upcoming 2022-23 Big Ten football season (and NFL season). Ohio online sports betting will be officially launching on January 1, 2023. Ohio will join other Big Ten states where sports betting has become legalized such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and more.
18. Max Johnson, LSU
What I like most — When he finally did get his starting opportunity, he didn’t waste it. At all. He fueled 2 dramatic victories and looked every bit like a star in the process. Would we be talking about differently if Myles Brennan had stayed healthy last year? Sure. We’d also be talking about Johnson in a different way had Marco Wilson not thrown a shoe AND if Ole Miss had learned the art of tackling, but hey, Johnson seized the moment. If last year’s finish was any indication, the southpaw will be fun to watch in Baton Rouge.
— Blake Ruffino (@BlakeJRuffino) August 4, 2021
17. Brennan Armstrong, Virginia
What I like most — The ACC had an excellent crop of quarterbacks last year (and this year), and while Armstrong wasn’t in the class of Trevor Lawrence, Sam Howell, Ian Book and D’Eriq King, he was plenty good in his own right (he actually graded out better than Book). He’s got a bit of a lefty Trace McSorley vibe with the way he carries himself and the style he plays. Dabo Swinney compared him to Steve Young. I won’t go that far, but Armstrong does have a certain ability to improvise and make teams pay in a variety of ways.
16. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
What I like most — The versatility. In a limited sample size, Daniels took his rushing to the next level in 2020 (6.8 yards per carry on 33 rushes). That’s why he had PFF’s No. 5 rushing grade among Power 5 quarterbacks. He can execute the designed runs and the scrambles when plays break down. He really blossomed as a true freshman, though he had some talented skill players around him. A full season will show if he’s ready to become that top-end NFL Draft prospect that some predicted after 2019.
15. Bryce Young, Alabama
What I like most — This is about as high as you can put someone with 22 career pass attempts. But based on the limited sample size of last year combined with the spring game, yeah, there’s a lot to like with the former 5-star recruit (and millionaire?). He’s not going to have the pocket presence of a Mac Jones, but Young is going to make highlight reel plays galore in Bill O’Brien’s offense. Will anyone be surprised if he ends up as a Heisman Trophy candidate at season’s end? Nope. If he can stay healthy, there’s potential for a 50-touchdown season.
14. Brock Purdy, Iowa State
What I like most — The surroundings. Is that bad? I don’t care. Having a big 3 as experienced as Purdy, Breece Hall and Charlie Kolar is rare. Also having an elite coach like Matt Campbell stick around Iowa State is pretty rare, too. That’s why the Cyclones have some early Playoff buzz following last year’s Fiesta Bowl victory. Better yet, maybe the experience combined with the surroundings will be key for Purdy, who surpassed 1,000 career passes last year and is going to be the 2021 version of Ian Book.
13. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
What I like most — If we’re being honest, the thing I like most about Morgan is his 2019 season. Yeah, it’s a different offensive coordinator now and he no longer has Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson like he did 2 years ago. Still, though. The guy averaged north of 10 yards per attempt and threw for 30 touchdown passes en route to Minnesota’s best AP Top 25 finish in 57 years. He might not have the next-level skills that some of the others on this list have, but in a full, normal offseason, I’m not selling my Morgan stock just yet.
12. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
What I like most — Um, “The Reach.” Obviously. That touchdown against Penn State was the peak of Penix’s 2020 season, which came to an end when he tore his ACL against Maryland. It still showed a playmaking ability — and a presence for the moment — that’s been hard to come by in Bloomington. The guy was a touchdown away against Ohio State from leading a 6-0 start at Indiana. He’s probably never going to be a 70% passer, but he’s never afraid to take a chance downfield or put his body on the line. Indiana needs Penix healthy to live up to its most hyped season in half a century.
11. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
What I like most — The fact that he committed to Cincinnati when it was in the dumpster, and now he’s trying to finish off his career as a 4-year starter with a Playoff berth. Regardless of what Ridder’s numbers say — he accounted for just shy of 3,000 yards with 31 total touchdowns in 10 games — that’s what’ll make him an especially easy guy to rally around. He’s the face of the program, and if he continues to improve his deep-ball placement, Ridder is in for quite the last hurrah.
10. Kedon Slovis, USC
What I like most — He always looks perfectly in control. That’s not to say the guy can’t scramble. He absolutely can, and he can do so while keeping his eyes downfield. But there’s a reason why USC went 5-1 even though it trailed in the 4th quarter in 4 of those games. Slovis has that Cali cool to him (he grew up in Arizona). We’re talking about someone who took the USC starting job from JT Daniels after stepping in as a true freshman and becoming a star. You don’t do that without some serious confidence and ability to seize the moment.
9. Dillon Gabriel, UCF
What I like most — I think it’d be fun to have an arm like Gabriel’s for a day. Or a lifetime. Whatever the case, the dude has an absolute cannon for a left arm. Usually, that’s on display with quick reads. He stretched the field a ton in Josh Heupel’s offense. Will he have more running responsibilities in Gus Malzahn’s offense? That we don’t know. My guess is that a guy with 61 touchdown passes in 23 games should have plenty of opportunities to let it fly, even if his surroundings are a bit different now.
8. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
What I like most — Jamey Chadwell runs a unique system. Let’s call it mid-century modern. McCall, as we saw last year, is the perfect person to execute said system. The guy is a 69% passer who averaged 10 yards per attempt and was only picked off 3 times on 250 attempts. You can’t just load the box and assume the triple-option aspect of the Chants’ offense will be run-first. McCall improved Coastal’s offense by a full touchdown a game, and he was the driving force behind a magical season. With 89% of last year’s production returning, there’s no reason why McCall can’t run it back.
7. Malik Willis, Liberty
What I like most — That he made me look not so dumb for saying he should’ve been Auburn’s 2019 starter instead of Bo Nix. Willis is Auburn’s “one that got away” because of just how dynamic he is not only as the runaway leader in rushing yards among quarterbacks, but also his ability to use his legs to extend plays and deliver dimes downfield.
I was talking with an NFL team yesterday who has a first round grade on Liberty QB Malik Willis! That is big! Willis has athletic ability and makes some insane throws like this one pic.twitter.com/Bqinc50Ed7
— NFL Draft Diamonds (@DraftDiamonds) May 9, 2021
Yep. That translates to the next level. That’s why Willis is getting preseason Round 1 buzz. It’s not often (or ever?) that we see a Liberty quarterback get that kind of love. Willis has some accuracy issues to improve, but he checks all the boxes of a modern quarterback in today’s NFL.
6. JT Daniels, Georgia
What I like most — It’s hard to not love his fit in this system after what we saw at the end of 2020. Daniels showed he could stretch the field, he can make next-level throws and he’s exceptional against the blitz (no FBS quarterback had a better PFF grade against the blitz than Daniels). Was the sample size small? Sure, but in addition to those 4 games of dominance, we also saw flashes of that brilliance during his true freshman season at USC. Without a midseason arrival and an injury to rehab, Daniels is set up well to become the season-long star many thought he’d be when he earned Gatorade National Player of the Year honors as a high school junior.
5. DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson
What I like most — The fact that he’s got a Bojangles deal, obviously. There’s a theme on this list. It’s guys who showed a lot in a limited 2020 sample size and looked the part. Against a top-15 defense on the road, I thought Uiagalelei was brilliant. You’re not supposed to be able to make throws like this on that stage as a true freshman:
The number 1 breakout candidate of 2021
DJ Uiagalelei 🎯
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 8, 2021
It’s wild to think that against 2 elite defensive minds, the Clemson true freshman averaged nearly 400 yards with just shy of 70% passing and 1.5 sacks taken. Uiagalelei is capable of doing anything on the field. He’s got a bit more power in the running game than his predecessors, too. We’ll see if his Heisman Trophy candidacy packs even more much than those guys.
4. D’Eriq King, Miami
What I like most — The fact that we get a Year 6 of King should be music to college football fans’ ears. Well, unless your team is facing the Hurricanes, who had King lead their first top-30 offense in 16 years. Rhett Lashlee had a lot to do with that, and so did King, who I’d argue had his best season yet until he got hurt in the bowl game. If King does indeed get a shot to play the full season, he could absolutely be a 40-touchdown guy.
3. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
What I like most — You will never convince Corral that he isn’t about to make a game-changing play. It doesn’t matter if he’s thrown 5 interceptions; the next one is going for 6. He has total confidence in Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby, and with good reason. Corral averaged 10.2 yards per attempt, he completed 71% of his passes and he had more rushing yards than all but 7 Power 5 quarterbacks. Do people think Corral can’t throw the deep ball? Ha.
Ole Miss’ Matt Corral has the launch codes 🚀
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 28, 2021
What about his floor? Yeah, the guy struggled reading drop-8 coverage. He admitted that. That was the only thing Corral really struggled with during his breakout season, and with how honest he’s been about those issues, I wouldn’t expect that trend to repeat in 2021.
2. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
What I like most — Remember when Rattler got benched in the second quarter against Texas in game No. 4 as a starter for a team with a 1-2 record? I do. I also remember when Rattler shed his turnover woes and became a game-changing quarterback who looked invincible in the next 7.5 games. When you’re tasked with living up to the absurd standard set by Oklahoma quarterbacks under Lincoln Riley, perhaps it’s a bit challenging at times. Rattler got through that, and now he’s better for it. He’s the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, and understandably so. He was the first Oklahoma quarterback to finish outside the top 4 in the Heisman since 2014. Nobody would be surprised if Rattler started a new streak this season.
1. Sam Howell, UNC
What I like most — His beard, his never-ending Baker Mayfield comps, his deep ball, his ability to scramble and keep his eyes downfield, etc. What’s not to like? Like, besides the intermediate passing game issue that surfaces from time to time? I’d give Howell a slight edge over Rattler just because I think mentally, Howell showed he’s a bit tougher. His floor is higher, and his upside is still there. The guy has 14 career games with 3-plus touchdown passes, and 11 of them came vs. Power 5 competition. I made the joke that if it were the 1980s and Howell put up the numbers he did as a true freshman, they would’ve built him a statue. They still might build him one if he can lift UNC to an ACC title and a first Playoff berth. Don’t rule that out.