Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Which quarterbacks entering their first season as the starter could play for the national title?
Which quarterbacks entering their first season as the starter could play for the national title?
-by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
When choosing a preseason favorite at No. 1, experience at quarterback is usually one of the most important factors to consider. However, is it time to reconsider how important experience is under center? Three of the last four teams to play in the title game had a first-year starter at quarterback. Alabama’s Greg McElroy took home the title in 2009, while Auburn’s Cam Newton won the Heisman and national championship last season.
Since the BCS was created in 1998, eight quarterbacks have played for the national title in their first season:
1998: Tee Martin, Tennessee - W
1999: Michael Vick, Virginia Tech - L
2002: Craig Krenzel, Ohio State - W
2007: Matt Flynn, LSU - W; Todd Boeckman, Ohio State
2009: Greg McElroy, Alabama - W
2010: Cam Newton, Auburn - W; Darron Thomas, Oregon
Is the emergence of first-year quarterbacks as national champs a new trend in college football? Considering the unpredictability from year-to-year, it’s probably too early to make any judgments. The success of McElroy and Newton show different options can lift a team to the title. Newton carried Auburn, while McElroy was more of a caretaker for a team that boasted one of the nation’s best rushing attacks and defenses.
Although it’s too early to make any long-term predictions about this recent trend, there is a good possibility a first-year starter at quarterback will make it to the national title game in 2011. Which teams are the most likely to have a first-year starter at quarterback and play for the national championship?
1. Alabama – A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are locked in a tight battle for the starting job, and a two-quarterback system hasn’t been ruled out in Tuscaloosa. Although Alabama needs to settle the quarterback spot, everything else is in place for a run at the national title. The Crimson Tide return arguably the nation’s best defense and dynamic running back Trent Richardson to go with a solid offensive line. Although Julio Jones must be replaced at receiver, Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze are back with a cast of talented freshmen waiting to work their way into the mix. The schedule sets up favorably, with Arkansas and LSU visiting Tuscaloosa. After a semi-disappointing 2010 season, the Crimson Tide should be one of the teams to beat in 2011.
2. Florida State – The first year of the Jimbo Fisher era proved to be quite successful for Florida State. The Seminoles handled rivals Miami and Florida, and capped the season with a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina. Christian Ponder has finished his eligibility, but the Seminoles are in good shape at quarterback with EJ Manuel. The junior has six starts over the last two seasons, including a bowl victory in 2010 over West Virginia. Manuel should be throwing to one of the top receiving corps in the ACC, while a deep group of running backs should take the pressure off of the junior in the early going. The Seminoles have two key losses along the offensive line in Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon, but Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders are solid blocks to build around. The defense made drastic improvement last season and should be one of the best in the ACC in 2011. If the Seminoles knock off Oklahoma in the third game of the year and survive a trip to Clemson the following week, an undefeated season is a strong possibility.
3. LSU – The Tigers rank No. 3 on this list, but the battle for the starting quarterback job could go back to Jordan Jefferson. The senior was inconsistent throughout 2010, but finished with three solid performances at the end of the year. Junior college recruit Zach Mettenberger was brought in to spark the LSU passing attack, but still has to knock off Jefferson to win the starting job. The Tigers don’t need an elite offense with the returning talent on defense, but an improved passing attack could be enough to topple Alabama in the SEC West. Even if Mettenberger doesn’t beat out Jefferson in time for the season opener, expect him to see significant playing time in 2011.
4. Virginia Tech – Tyrod Taylor closed out a solid Virginia Tech career by earning ACC Player of the Year honors last season. Although Taylor leaves big shoes to fill, the Hokies feel confident about the offense going into 2011. Sophomore Logan Thomas has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton for his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame and athletic ability. Thomas is still developing as a passer, but he should have plenty of time to get on track before ACC play starts. The Hokies play Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall before their first conference game – not exactly the toughest of non-conference slates. Virginia Tech also returns a dynamic running back in David Wilson and a solid group of receivers for Thomas to throw to. The road to the ACC title appears to be through Tallahassee, but don’t count out Virginia Tech in 2011.
5. Arkansas – Ryan Mallett is off to the NFL, but Arkansas should still possess one of the SEC’s best offenses. The Razorbacks have one of the deepest receiving corps in the nation – led by Greg Childs and Joe Adams – along with a rising star at running back in Knile Davis. New quarterback Tyler Wilson impressed in limited action last year, throwing for 332 yards and four scores against Auburn. Although the offense can put up points, the defense has to continue to improve if the Razorbacks want to have any shot at contending for the national title.
6. Wisconsin – The Badgers must replace two key offensive linemen, but return one of the top running back combinations in the nation. With Montee Ball and James White leading the way on the ground, new quarterback Jon Budmayr should be able to ease his way into the starting job. Wisconsin has a huge void on defense with end J.J. Watt’s decision to enter the NFL Draft, but the back seven should be solid. The Badgers have road games at Michigan State and Ohio State in October, which will likely make-or-break their Big Ten and slim national title hopes.
7. Auburn – The Tigers have arguably one of the biggest voids at quarterback in college football to fill this spring. Cam Newton carried the Auburn offense last year, but coordinator Gus Malzahn is one of the best in the nation and he should be able to squeeze production from his quarterbacks. Barrett Trotter won’t possess the rushing ability that Newton had, but is far from a statue in the pocket. True freshman Kiehl Frazier won’t arrive until the fall, but figures to get a long look from the coaching staff. Frazier has good mobility and even if he doesn’t win the job, figures to factor into the gameplan each week as a rushing option. The Tigers have a plethora of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, which makes a return trip to the national championship game unlikely.
8. Arizona State – With USC dealing with NCAA sanctions, Arizona State could be the favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2011. Although the Sun Devils appear to be in good shape across the board, the one issue is under center. Steven Threet was forced to retire due to concussions, leaving Brock Osweiler as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Osweiler has plenty of talent and threw for 797 yards and five touchdowns last season. However, Osweiler will be a question mark until he produces for an entire year. Arizona State should break back into the bowl scene, but contending for a national title would be a major surprise.
9. Missouri – Considering Missouri’s run of quarterbacks – Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert – there’s not a lot of concern over breaking in a new passer in 2011. The Tigers have two highly qualified candidates in sophomore James Franklin and redshirt freshman Tyler Gabbert, making this battle one that could last into the fall. The Tigers are in good shape on both sides of the ball, but how far they can rise will be determined on how successful Gabbert or Franklin is under center.
10. Clemson – New coordinator Chad Morris is a disciple of Gus Malzahn and should bring an exciting offense to Clemson. With Kyle Parker choosing baseball instead of another year in Death Valley, sophomore Tajh Boyd will get the nod under center. Although the Tigers have the talent to win the ACC, a runner-up finish to Florida State is more likely.
11. TCU – After an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl victory, repeating last year’s success won’t be easy for TCU. The Horned Frogs lose four starters on the offensive line and three All-Mountain West players in the secondary. Casey Pachall and Matt Brown are battling for the starting job, with Pachall holding an edge due to his experience last year. Going undefeated is unlikely, but TCU should finish 2011 among the top 25.
Wait and see
Notre Dame – Tommy Rees started the final four games of last season, but will likely move back to the No. 2 role with Dayne Crist returning from injury. If Rees, true freshman Everett Golson or redshirt freshman Andrew Hendrix win the job, move the Irish to No. 5 on the list of teams most likely to play for a national championship with a first-year starter at quarterback.
South Carolina – Is this the year everything finally clicks for Stephen Garcia? The senior threw for 3,059 yards and 20 scores last season, but tossed 14 interceptions, including five over the final two games. Garcia started spring practice in Steve Spurrier’s doghouse and will face competition from Connor Shaw for the starting job. Although Garcia seems to draw the ire of Spurrier every week, expect him to begin the 2011 season as the starter – with a short leash should he struggle.
Texas – Garrett Gilbert had an underwhelming 2010 season and faces competition from Connor Wood this spring. Gilbert didn’t have much help last year, as the offensive line, running backs and receivers all struggled to generate any production. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the Longhorns should be a much-improved team in 2011.
Exclude From Games: