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10 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win College Football's National Title in 2016

Cooper Bateman

Cooper Bateman

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. After all, the quarterback position is the most important job on the field, and the success (or lack thereof) factors prominently into the win-loss record and playoff hopes of every team.

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However, just how important is quarterback experience? Eight of the last 10 teams to play in the title game had a first-year starter at quarterback. Could overall quarterback experience be overrated when making preseason predictions?

Since the BCS era, 16 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 - L

2009: Greg McElroy, Alabama - W

2010: Cam Newton, Auburn - W; Darron Thomas, Oregon - L

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; Cardale Jones, Ohio State - W

2015: Deshaun Watson, Clemson - L; Jake Coker, Alabama - W

Will the trend of successful first-year starters continue in 2016? Here are 10 teams (and quarterbacks) that fit the mold this year:

10 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win the National Title in 2016

(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 at their current school.)

10. Dakota Prukop/Travis Jonsen, Oregon

Even though Marcus Mariota was missed last season, the Ducks still led the Pac-12 in scoring offense (43 ppg) and yards per play (7.1). Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams was a big reason for that success, and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is hoping for a similar impact by another FCS transfer – Dakota Prukop. In three seasons at Montana State, Prukop accounted for over 7,000 yards of total offense and earned first-team All-America honors by the Associated Press in 2015. Prukop is a better runner than Adams but also completed 63.8 percent of his throws with the Bobcats. While Prukop has the edge in overall experience and certainly wasn’t brought in to sit on the sidelines, he is being pushed for time by redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the offense is going to lean heavily on running back Royce Freeman, and there’s hope for improvement on defense with the addition of new play-caller Brady Hoke. 

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Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

9. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina

The Tar Heels are a longshot to win the national title in 2016, but the path is certainly there for coach Larry Fedora’s team. The first step would be a win over Georgia in the opener, along with a victory at Florida State on Oct. 1. If North Carolina crosses both of those obstacles and wins the Coastal Division, a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship could have playoff implications. The Tar Heels took a step forward on defense last fall, but this unit still has to stop the run better. Even if the defense struggles to improve on last year’s totals, the offense is capable of carrying North Carolina to the Coastal Division title. Quarterback Marquise Williams departs, but there’s little concern in Chapel Hill. Trubisky has shined in limited action, completing 82 of 125 throws for 1,014 yards and 11 scores. Additionally, Trubisky has rushed for 131 yards and three scores on just 27 attempts. Trubisky may not provide the same punch on the ground as Williams did, but the junior is a better passer and should push for All-ACC honors in his first year as the starter.

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8. Jacob Eason, Georgia

It’s no secret Eason represents the future for new coach Kirby Smart. However, the future isn’t going to wait until 2017 or 2018 for the Bulldogs. Eason may not start the opener against North Carolina, but the guess here is the true freshman unseats Greyson Lambert for the starting nod early in the 2016 campaign. Eason was regarded as a five-star prospect and the No. 2 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Eason’s right arm would provide a spark for a Georgia offense that ranked 10th in the SEC in passing last year. However, the question marks for the Bulldogs aren’t limited just to quarterback development. The offensive line needs to find the right mix, and there’s an overhauled front seven on defense. There’s a lot of pressure on Eason’s shoulders, but all of the tools are there to be one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks by the end of 2016.

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7. Kenny Hill/Foster Sawyer, TCU

Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the Big 12 for 2016, but TCU has all of the necessary components to challenge the Sooners for the top spot. The Horned Frogs will lean heavily on their defense until the right pieces fall into place for an offense that returns only one starter. While the low number (one) of returning starters is concerning for any team, that total isn’t as bad as it appears. TCU is loaded with talented skill players, and some of the new starters up front gained valuable experience in 2016. But the biggest question mark for coach Gary Patterson remains the starting quarterback. Will it be the Texas A&M transfer – Kenny Hill – or sophomore Foster Sawyer? Hill threw 2,649 yards and 23 scores as Texas A&M’s starter in 2014 but lost his job to Kyle Allen just after the midpoint of the season. Sawyer completed 11 of 27 passes for 155 yards and two scores in six appearances last year. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, play-caller Doug Meacham should find the right mix to keep this offense among the best in the Big 12. 

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Podcast: Official 2016 Big 12 Preview

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Related: Ranking All 128 College Football Coaches for 2016

6. Keller Chryst, Stanford

Even though David Shaw’s team returns only nine starters, don’t count out the Cardinal from making another run at the College Football Playoff. Stanford has won at least 11 games in four out of the last five seasons, and the rebuilding effort will start with one of the nation’s top Heisman contenders in running back Christian McCaffrey. The junior will have to carry the Stanford offense early on, as the line needs to be retooled with just two starters, and there’s uncertainty at quarterback with Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns battling to replace Kevin Hogan. Chryst is the frontrunner after completing 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and one score as Hogan’s backup in 2015. The California native was a four-star prospect out of high school and ranked as the No. 51 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite. Assuming he wins the job, Chryst won’t have much time to get acclimated. Stanford opens with Kansas State, followed by conference matchups against USC, UCLA and Washington in the first month of the season.

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5. Tyler O’Connor/Damien Terry, Michigan State

Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five out of the last six seasons and repeating as the Big Ten champion isn’t too far out of reach in 2016. To win the East Division and make a trip to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year, the Spartans have some key losses to replace on both sides of the ball, including at quarterback where Connor Cook departs after a 34-5 career mark in East Lansing. Coach Mark Dantonio got an early glimpse of his quarterback situation for 2016 when Cook was forced to miss the Ohio State contest due to injury. O’Connor and Damien Terry guided the Spartans to a 17-14 upset win in Columbus and are fighting for the starting nod this fall. O’Connor has an edge over Terry, as the senior has 14 career appearances under his belt and completed 34 of 54 passes for 374 yards and four scores in limited action. O’Connor is also an effective runner (48 yards on 14 attempts last year), but Terry is considered the better athlete. The Spartans should be strong on defense once again and return one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in LJ Scott. However, the development of this position will be critical to a repeat bid to the College Football Playoff.

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4. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame

Zaire was poised for a breakout season as Notre Dame’s starter last fall, but a leg injury suffered against Virginia in Week 2 ended his 2015 campaign. Prior to the injury, Zaire completed 26 of 40 passes for 428 yards and four touchdowns and added 103 yards on 19 carries. Zaire is back at full strength and participated in the spring game, completing 6 of 15 throws for 120 yards. Zaire brings more playmaking ability on the ground than Kizer but isn’t guaranteed to regain the starting spot. Kizer finished spring with a slight edge for the No. 1 job.

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Related: College Football 2016 All-America Team

3. John O’Korn/Wilton Speight, Michigan

The quarterback battle between Speight, O’Korn and Shane Morris will extend into fall camp after little clarity emerged in spring practice. While it’s a three-man race, O’Korn and Speight seem to have an edge over Morris for the No. 1 spot. O’Korn started 11 games as a true freshman at Houston in 2013 and earned the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors. During that season, O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 scores but lost his job to Greg Ward in 2014. While O’Korn struggled at Houston in 2015, all of the tools are there for a rebound year as Michigan’s starter in 2016. Speight redshirted in 2015 and received his first game action last year, completing 9 of 25 passes for 73 yards and one score in seven appearances. Both quarterbacks have plenty to prove, but Michigan doesn’t necessarily need an all-conference player under center. The Wolverines have an elite defense, an improving offensive line and plenty of good skill players in place. The quarterback simply needs to manage the offense and not make the big mistake.

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2. Deondre Francois, Florida State

With Sean Maguire sidelined in spring ball due to an ankle injury suffered in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Francois got an early start on unseating the senior and staking his claim for the starting job. The Orlando native ranked as the No. 64 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class and redshirted in his first year on campus. While it’s tough to read too much into the spring game, Francois had a solid showing, completing 20 of 33 passes for 246 yards and two scores and adding 37 rushing yards. Francois is far from a finished product, but he brings more playmaking ability and overall upside in the passing game than Everett Golson or Maguire provided in 2015. Maguire is set to return to 100 percent in time for fall practice. However, Francois is Florida State’s best option under center and is more than capable of guiding coach Jimbo Fisher’s team to a berth in the College Football Playoff.

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1. Cooper Bateman/Blake Barnett/David Cornwell, Alabama

For the third year in a row, there’s a familiar theme surrounding Alabama’s offense entering fall practice. The Crimson Tide have uncertainty at quarterback once again, with four inexperienced options – Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts – battling for the starting nod. While Hurts enrolled early and competed in spring ball, Bateman, Barnett and Cornwell are considered the favorites to take the first snap. While this position has been a question mark at the start of the last two seasons, coordinator Lane Kiffin has pushed all of the right buttons. Blake Sims threw for 3,487 yards and 28 scores and led the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff in 2014. Jake Coker threw for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns last season and guided Alabama to a national championship over Clemson. Bateman has the most overall experience out of this trio (one start) and completed 37 of 52 passes for 291 yards last year. The guess here is Bateman starts the season, but the upside of Cornwell or Barnett may eventually unseat the junior. 

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