Projecting the outcome of a college football season is no easy task. Several factors go into predictions, including the schedule, 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.
But is it time to rethink that theory?
Six of the last eight 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. The final BCS title game featured two first-year starters in Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Auburn’s Nick Marshall.
In the BCS era, 12 quarterbacks 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
2013: Jameis Winston, Florida State – W; Nick Marshall, Auburn – L
Is the emergence of first-year quarterbacks as national champs a new trend in college football? Considering the unpredictability of teams and coaching from year-to-year, it’s hard to say if this trend will continue. However, the success of Winston, Marshall 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 in 2012. Winston was clearly the best player in college football last season and was instrumental in leading Florida State’s second-half comeback against Auburn. Marshall developed as the season progressed in 2013, but the Tigers’ rushing attack was the reason why Gus Malzahn’s team won the SEC title.
Will this trend continue in 2014? There is a reasonable possibility a first-year starter at quarterback will make it to the national title game in 2014. Which teams are the most likely to have a first-year starter at quarterback and play for the national championship? Here are five teams that fit the mold in 2014.
Top Five Contenders to Win National Title with 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. Alabama – Jacob Coker
Much has been made about Alabama’s quarterback situation this offseason. Yes, the Crimson Tide struggled to execute the passing game in the spring, and this team needs to find an answer under center in the fall. But just how critical is quarterback play with a team that boasts the No. 1 backfield in the nation, a deep receiving corps and a defense that will rank among the best in college football once again? With the rest of the team in good shape, Alabama doesn’t need elite quarterback play to win the national title. After transferring in from Florida State this summer, Coker is the favorite to take the opening snap for the Crimson Tide against West Virginia. As a graduate transfer, Coker is eligible to play immediately. In two years with the Seminoles, he completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown. Coker is still largely unproven, but former coach Jimbo Fisher gave the Mobile native plenty of praise earlier this offseason. Fisher also has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks, as his last two starters at Florida State (EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder) were first-round draft picks, and Jameis Winston could be the No. 1 pick in 2015. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Coker has the physical traits coordinators want in a starting quarterback. And with key SEC games against Auburn and LSU late in the season, Coker will have plenty of time to learn on the job in the SEC.
2. Oklahoma – Trevor Knight
Knight enters 2014 as one of the nation’s most polarizing quarterbacks. Oklahoma won 11 games in 2013 – a year most would consider a rebuilding effort with just 11 returning starters heading into the opener. Knight and Blake Bell shared the quarterback duties for the Sooners last season, with Knight finishing the year on a high note by earning MVP honors against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It’s hard to put a ton of stock in bowl games due to the extended layoff and motivation questions for some teams. Nearly half of Knight’s passing yards (819 for the season) came in the Sugar Bowl (348) against the Crimson Tide. Additionally, Knight tossed four touchdowns against Alabama and finished the year with just nine. While it’s easy to suggest Knight was a one-game wonder, there’s also evidence to suggest that’s not the case. Against Kansas State, Knight completed 14 of 20 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown and added 82 yards and one score on the ground. While it’s fair to doubt if Knight’s performance in the Sugar Bowl can be repeated on a consistent basis, let’s also note Oklahoma doesn’t need 400 yards from their passing attack each week. The Sooners have one of the nation’s top defenses, a solid offensive line and a favorable schedule. If Knight takes a step forward as a passer, continues to attack opponents with his mobility and limits his mistakes, Oklahoma should be a playoff team in 2014.
Listen to Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Quarterback Breakdown for 2014
3. Georgia – Hutson Mason
Bad luck and injuries played a huge part in Georgia’s 8-5 record last season. With better luck on the injury side, along with a solid performance from Mason in his first year as the starter, the Bulldogs could push for the SEC title. After waiting his turn to start, Mason was called upon earlier than expected due to a torn ACL to Aaron Murray against Kentucky last year. Mason threw for 189 yards against the Wildcats and followed up that performance with 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 win over rival Georgia Tech. Despite awful weather conditions in the Gator Bowl, Mason threw for 320 yards on 21 completions in a 24-19 loss to Nebraska. The sample size is limited, but Mason’s early returns are positive. The senior is surrounded by a deep supporting cast, including running back Todd Gurley and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Georgia’s defense is also expected to improve under the direction of first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Mason’s late-season experience should be valuable with games against Clemson and South Carolina to open the year.
4. South Carolina – Dylan Thompson
The gap between Georgia and South Carolina for the No. 1 spot in Athlon’s projected East standings is very small. The Bulldogs have a slight edge over the Gamecocks, but South Carolina still ranks as a top-10 team for 2014. Connor Shaw capped a solid career in Columbia with 2,447 passing yards and 24 touchdowns last year. Thompson is no stranger to the starting lineup, as he made one start in relief of Shaw in 2013 and two in 2012. The South Carolina native is 3-0 as a starter and has tossed 14 touchdowns over the last two years. Although Thompson tossed nearly as many interceptions (three) as touchdowns (four) last year, his career average on completions is a healthy 15.3 yards. The Gamecocks have one of the SEC’s top offensive lines, along with an all-conference running back in Mike Davis. Thompson needs to be more efficient as a passer (55 career completion percentage), but all signs point to a big senior year under coach Steve Spurrier.
5. LSU – Brandon Harris
We list Harris as the starter here, but sophomore Anthony Jennings finished spring with an edge for the No. 1 job. Whether it’s Jennings or Harris taking the first snap against Wisconsin, LSU will have a first-year starter under center. Jennings led the Tigers’ comeback against Arkansas after Zach Mettenberger was injured, finishing 4 of 7 for 76 yards and one score. Jennings started the bowl victory over Iowa and completed just 7 of 19 throws for 82 yards and one pick. As we mentioned under Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, we have to be careful to put too much stock in bowl games, so it’s unfair to judge Jennings’ potential based on that performance. Harris ranked as the No. 75 prospect and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports 2014 Composite rankings. The Louisiana native enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns in the Purple vs. White game. LSU will have a strong rushing attack and offensive line once again, which should allow Les Miles and coordinator Cam Cameron to ease their young quarterbacks into the season. There’s always plenty of talent in Baton Rouge. How quickly can the Tigers develop and find stability at quarterback?
5 Longshot National Title Contenders with a First-Year Starter at QB
Clemson (Cole Stoudt)
Even though the Tigers lose quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, expect the offense to rank among the best in the ACC once again. If Stoudt continues to hold off touted freshman Deshaun Watson, he should push for all-conference honors. With road trips to Florida State and Georgia in 2014 and a home game against South Carolina, Clemson has three huge opportunities to earn marquee wins in 2014.
Missouri (Maty Mauk)
The defending SEC East Division champions return only eight starters, but in a wide-open division, don’t count the Tigers out for a repeat trip to Atlanta. Missouri has a strong track record of success at the quarterback spot under coach Gary Pinkel, and Mauk is the next standout passer. He threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns and started four games in relief of James Franklin in 2013.
Texas A&M (Kyle Allen)
After finishing 4-4 in the SEC with Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, the Aggies and coach Kevin Sumlin will have their hands full in 2014. The schedule isn’t kind in conference action, as trading Vanderbilt for South Carolina in crossover play is just another obstacle for a team in rebuild mode. Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill are battling to replace Manziel, and both quarterbacks should be capable options for Sumlin. Allen – the No. 10 player in the 247Sports Composite – is the projected starter. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for the Aggies. However, the defense is still a major concern, and the overall youth on the roster suggests Texas A&M’s year to contend will be 2015.
Washington (Cyler Miles)
Miles rated as a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and spent his first year on campus learning behind Keith Price. And after an injury sidelined Price for a short stint last year, Miles played well in his first extended work at Washington. He threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA and completed 15 of 24 throws for 162 yards and one touchdown against Oregon State. Miles was suspended for the spring, but new coach Chris Petersen reinstated the sophomore back onto the team this summer. Miles has to learn a new offense and missed valuable reps in the spring. However, the talent is certainly there, and if Miles is on the same page as new coordinator Jonathan Smith, Washington will be a sleeper to watch in the Pac-12 North.
Wisconsin (Tanner McEvoy?)
The Badgers were hit hard by personnel departures, but Gary Andersen’s team is Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten West Division in 2014. Making the jump from division winner to Big Ten/national title contender is a huge hurdle for Wisconsin, especially with a potential date against Michigan State or Ohio State in the conference title game. For the Badgers to take a step forward in 2014, the coaching staff wants more out of the passing game. Of course, Wisconsin doesn’t need 300 yards a week from Tanner McEvoy or returning starter Joel Stave to win, as Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement combine for one of the nation’s top one-two duos at running back. McEvoy played safety last year but shifted back to quarterback in the spring. With Stave recovering a shoulder injury, McEvoy will have a chance to close the gap in the fall.