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5 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win College Football's National Title


When predicting college football’s national champion, 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? Four of the last six 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 in 2011. Notre Dame’s Everett Golson took the Fighting Irish to the BCS title last season but lost to Alabama and quarterback AJ McCarron.

Since the BCS was created in 1998, nine 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
2011: AJ McCarron, Alabama – W
2012: Everett Golson, Notre Dame – L

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, Newton and McCarron show different options can lift a team to the title. Newton carried Auburn, while McElroy and McCarron were steady for Alabama team’s that boasted one of the nation’s best rushing attacks and defenses. Golson improved as the year progressed for Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish were simply overwhelmed by a better Alabama team last January.

Although it’s too early to make any long-term predictions about this recent trend, there is a reasonable possibility a first-year starter at quarterback will make it to the national title game in 2013. Which teams are the most likely to have a first-year starter at quarterback and play for the national championship?

Top Five Contenders to Win the National Title with a First-Year Starter at Quarterback

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

1. Stanford (Kevin Hogan)
Hogan just qualified for this list, as he had five starts for the Cardinal last season. The Virginia native took over for Josh Nunes against Colorado in early November and held onto the No. 1 spot the rest of the way. His best performance came against Oregon State, throwing for 254 yards and three scores. Although Hogan failed to top more than 160 yards in three consecutive contests to end 2012, he completed 71.7 percent of his throws and added 263 yards and two scores on the ground. Hogan’s efficiency is a huge plus for a team that leans heavily on its defense and rushing attack to win games. Stanford needs to get Hogan more help at receiver and tight end this year, but the sophomore represents the best chance for a first-year quarterback to get to a national championship in 2013. 

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2. Michigan (Devin Gardner)
Much like Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, Gardner barely makes this list since he made five starts last year. After taking over for an injured Denard Robinson, Gardner finished the season on a tear. Over the final five contests, he accumulated 18 total touchdowns and threw for 314 yards in a 42-17 win over Iowa. Gardner had a good showing in Michigan’s bowl loss to South Carolina, throwing for 214 yards and three touchdowns on 18 completions. The Wolverines need to give Gardner more help at receiver, and running back is still a question mark with Fitzgerald Toussaint healing from a broken leg. However, incoming freshman Derrick Green could give the offense a spark on the ground. Assuming Gardner picks up where he left off, the Wolverines should be a top 10-15 team in 2013. The schedule does have some challenges, including a brutal November stretch that features games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State. Considering the underclassmen on Michigan’s two-deep, the Wolverines might be a year away from winning the Big Ten title. However, Gardner has the ability to elevate Michigan into national championship contention.

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3. Florida State (Jameis Winston)
Could Winston follow in the same footsteps as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel? The Aggies’ signal-caller went from being an unproven quarterback to winning the Heisman Trophy in December. While it’s unrealistic to place those expectations on Winston, the Alabama native has the talent to break onto the scene in a big way. In Florida State’s spring game, Winston impressed by throwing for 205 yards and two scores. With Clint Trickett’s decision to transfer to West Virginia, the redshirt freshman has secured the starting spot. And with one of the ACC’s top backfields, receiving corps and offensive lines at his disposal, Winston has enough help lead Florida State to an ACC title. Road games against Clemson and Florida could decide just how high the Seminoles can climb in the BCS standings.

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4. Oklahoma State (Clint Chelf)
Chelf began 2012 as the odd man out in Oklahoma State’s quarterback battle, as Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh were listed at the top of the depth chart for the season opener against Savannah State. However, injuries sidelined Lunt and Walsh, forcing Chelf to move from No. 3 to No. 1. The Enid, Okla. native played well in relief against Kansas State (233 yards) and started the last five games of the season. Against West Virginia, Chelf threw for 292 yards and four touchdowns and recorded 316 total yards and one score against Oklahoma. In the bowl victory against Purdue, Chelf gashed the Boilermakers’ secondary for 197 yards and three touchdowns on just 17 completions. Despite the departure of coordinator Todd Monken, Oklahoma State’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat. The Cowboys have one of the nation’s top receiving corps, and running back Jeremy Smith is due for a breakout year. With very little clarity at the top, the Big 12 is one of the toughest conferences to predict for 2013. Oklahoma State is Athlon’s pick to win the Big 12, but the Cowboys are projected to finish No. 16 nationally. If Oklahoma State can win 11 regular season games, then Mike Gundy’s team will have a chance to easily exceed our preseason prediction and could work their way into national title consideration with an unbeaten season.

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5. Oklahoma (Blake Bell)
With Landry Jones moving into the NFL, it’s time for Oklahoma to transition the Belldozer offense from a part-time look into a full-time attack. Bell was rated as one of the top 150 players in the nation by in 2010 and redshirted in his first year on campus. In 2011 and 2012, Bell threw only 20 passes, but he emerged as Oklahoma’s best scoring threat around the goal-line and in short-yardage situations. On 102 rushing attempts, Bell finished with 361 yards and a whopping 24 touchdowns. Due to his limited pass attempts in his career, Bell is still a work in progress as a passer. However, there’s no question his athletic ability will be tough for opposing Big 12 defenses to stop. With no clear frontrunner in the Big 12 this year, Oklahoma could easily surprise and finish in the top five nationally – assuming Bell lives up to the hype at quarterback, and the Sooners’ defense finds replacements for the losses in the front seven.

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Four Teams to Watch

Wisconsin (Joel Stave)
Badgers have a favorable crossover schedule with the Legends Division, but Ohio State should be the team to beat in the Big Ten this year.

USC (Cody Kessler/Max Wittek)
Can the Trojans rebound after a disappointing 2012 campaign? Plenty of talent returns to Los Angeles, but there’s still a question mark under center after spring practice.

Kansas State (Daniel Sims/Jake Waters)
As long as coach Bill Snyder roams the sidelines in Manhattan, don’t count out Kansas State in the Big 12 title picture. If the Wildcats fill the voids on both sides of the ball, this could be one of the top surprise teams in the nation.

Baylor (Bryce Petty)
New signal-caller in Waco? That should be no problem for coach Art Briles and Baylor, as Nick Florence threw for 4,309 yards and 33 scores when replacing Robert Griffin III last year.

BYU (Taysom Hill)
The Cougars are a longshot to make a BCS bowl, but Robert Anae has returned to coordinate the offense, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy turned down the NFL for one more year in Provo. Hill showed promise in limited action last year and has full control of the starting job with Riley Nelson out of eligibility.

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