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10 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win College Football's National Title in 2015

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson

Projecting the outcome of a college football season, playoff teams and national champion is no easy task. Several factors go into predictions, including the schedule, coaching changes, returning starters, in-depth statistics, results from the previous year, breakout players and recruiting – just to name a few.

Experience and star power at quarterback is another factor that most would consider important for preseason predictions.

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

However, just how important is quarterback experience? Six of the last 10 teams to play in the title game had a first-year starter at quarterback.

Since the BCS era, 12 quarterbacks played for the national title or reached the playoffs 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

2011: AJ McCarron, Alabama – W

2012: Everett Golson, Notre Dame – L

2013: Jameis Winston, Florida State – W; Nick Marshall, Auburn – L

2014: Blake Sims, Alabama – L

Will the trend of successful first-year starters continue in 2015? Here are 10 teams that fit the mold this year:

Top 10 Contenders to Win National Title as a First-Year Starter at QB

(Note: To be considered a returning starter at quarterback, a player must have started seven overall games or the last six contests of last season)

1. Cardale Jones, Ohio State

It seems odd to list Jones here, but by the definition of a returning starter, the junior fits the criteria. The Ohio native opened 2014 as the third-string quarterback for coach Urban Meyer, but an injury to Braxton Miller in fall camp pushed Jones into the backup role. Jones attempted only 14 passes through the first 11 games but was pressed into the No. 1 spot after J.T. Barrett suffered a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and threw for 243 yards in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. And Jones was solid once again in the national championship, recording 280 total yards in the 42-20 win over the Ducks. Will Jones pickup where he left off? Or will the Buckeyes turn to Miller or Barrett under center? Let the quarterback battle begin in Columbus.

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Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

2. Jeremy Johnson, Auburn

All signs point to Johnson as one of college football’s breakout stars of 2015. The junior is the triggerman for a high-powered offense and started one game for Auburn last season. In seven appearances in 2014, Johnson threw for 436 yards and three scores. He also started one game in 2013, passing for 201 yards and four touchdowns against Western Carolina. The Montgomery native brings a different skill-set to the offense than former starter Nick Marshall, as Johnson – a 6-foot-5 quarterback – should add to the explosiveness of the Auburn passing attack and allow Duke Williams to make even more plays downfield this season.

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Related: College Football's Bowl Projections for 2015

3. Seth Russell, Baylor

Art Briles has developed one of college football’s top offenses at Baylor, and while Bryce Petty expired his eligibility and is taking snaps in the NFL, the Bears won’t miss a beat on offense. Russell is the next standout quarterback for Briles, and the junior already has a good chunk of snaps under his belt. Petty missed one start due to injury, allowing Russell to torch Northwestern State for 438 yards and five scores in 2014. While Russell still needs to show he can be successful in Big 12 games, the supporting cast and scheme is among the best in the nation. 

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Related: College Football's 2015 All-America Team

4. Jake Coker, Alabama

Alabama is projected to finish No. 2 in the final 2015 rankings by Athlon Sports, but Coker drops a few spots on this list due to the ongoing quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa. Coker was expected to win the job last season after transferring from Florida State. However, Blake Sims edged Coker and started all 14 games for the Crimson Tide. Coker finds himself in a similar spot this fall, as he enters practice as the favorite to take the first snap. However, redshirt freshman David Cornwell isn’t far behind. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect Alabama to lean heavily on its defense and rushing attack.

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Related: SEC Predictions for 2015

5. Deshaun Watson, Clemson

It’s a tossup between Florida State and Clemson for the No. 1 spot in the ACC Atlantic. However, a healthy year from Watson would boost the Tigers’ title chances as they hope to unseat the Seminoles in 2015. Injuries limited Watson to eight games last season and his 2014 campaign was cut short by a torn ACL suffered against Georgia Tech. Watson was one of the top recruits in last year’s signing class and threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns. Even though play-caller Chad Morris left to be the head coach at SMU, Clemson’s offense should be lethal with Watson under center.

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Related: ACC Predictions for 2015

6. Vernon Adams, Oregon

Adams hasn’t officially arrived on campus in Eugene as of July 22. However, all signs point to the Eastern Washington transfer participating in fall practice and pushing Jeff Lockie to be the new starter for the Ducks. Marcus Mariota leaves big shoes to fill, but Adams is a dynamic option to keep Oregon’s high-scoring offense on track. The senior accounted for 11,670 yards and 121 total scores in three years with the Eagles. How quickly will Adams adjust to the FBS level?

Related: Ranking College Football's Top Graduate QB Transfers for 2015

7. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame

Zaire’s path to the starting job was cleared after Everett Golson left South Bend for Florida State at the end of spring practice. After playing sparingly for the first 11 games in 2014, Zaire completed 9 of 20 passes against USC and was a key cog in Notre Dame’s bowl win over LSU. Zaire has dual-threat ability, but the Fighting Irish have to be careful about the wear and tear on their sophomore quarterback. Without an experienced backup, the Fighting Irish need a full (and healthy) year from Zaire to challenge for the College Football Playoff. 

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Related: Why Notre Dame Will or Won't Make the CFB Playoff in 2015

8. Mike Bercovici, Arizona State

Arizona State’s offense averaged 36.9 points a game in 2014 and won’t miss a beat despite the departure of quarterback Taylor Kelly. Bercovici started three games after Kelly was injured in 2014 and finished the year with 1,445 yards and 12 scores. Adding to the impressive stint for Bercovici was key performances against USC (510 yards in a 38-34 win) and a 245-yard effort in a 26-10 victory over Stanford. The senior will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, but the Sun Devils will be explosive on offense once again.

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Related: Why Arizona State Will or Won't Make the CFB Playoff in 2015

9. Brice Ramsey, Georgia

Ramsey and Faton Bauta concluded spring practice locked into a tight battle for the starting quarterback spot. However, the Bulldogs added competition to the quarterback battle with the addition of Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert. Ramsey completed 24 of 39 passes for 333 yards and two scores in a relief role last season. He’s the favorite to start, but Georgia will continue to lean on its defense and rushing attack until the passing game takes a step forward.

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10. Sean Maguire, Florida State

Maguire left spring with the edge to replace Jameis Winston. However, Everett Golson transferred to Tallahassee from Notre Dame and is expected to win the starting job in the fall. Maguire has one career start (Clemson, 2014) and completed 25 of 49 passes for 339 yards last season.

5 Others to Watch in 2015

Kyle Allen, Texas A&M

Emerging star in the SEC but also has to hold off talented freshman Kyler Murray. Aggies also need to significantly improve defense to challenge for a playoff spot.

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Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee

Tennessee is improving, but the Volunteers are likely a year away from winning the SEC East. Dobbs played well over the second half of 2014, including a huge effort (301 passing yards, two scores and 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns) against South Carolina.

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Brandon Harris, LSU

Talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Tigers. However, the passing attack remains the team’s biggest mystery going into fall practice. Can Harris pass Anthony Jennings this fall?

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Chad Kelly, Ole Miss

Kelly isn’t guaranteed to start, as the junior college product (and former Clemson signal-caller) has to hold off Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. Expect the defense to carry the Rebels in 2015.

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Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Mayfield left spring as the favorite to start this fall, but there’s still work to be done as Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas remain in the mix. The Texas Tech transfer passed for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Red Raiders in 2013.

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