NC State's Ryan Finley will have several opportunities to show why he's the ACC's top quarterback
If you want to win big in college football, it’s no secret that you’re going to need some quality play out of the most important position on the field — quarterback. If there’s any doubt about it, just look up recent Heisman Trophy winners and note how tilted the list is toward the position.
Just ask the ACC, which has benefited tremendously from having stars like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson churning out highlights every week. Neither of those two is behind center anymore but there’s still a deep crop of returning signal-callers around the conference and several high-profile position battles that could shakeout early in the season.
As a result, few conferences boast such an intriguing set of names that are littered with upside quite like those in the ACC. With that in mind, here are the top 10 matchups involving the league’s quarterbacks.
1. Ryan Finley (NC State) vs. Will Grier (West Virginia) — Sept. 15 (Raleigh, N.C.)
This game could give the winner an early lead in a wide-open Heisman race this season as well as a potential leg up to be the first quarterback taken in next year’s draft. Finley is gunning for a third straight season 3,000-yard passing season with the Wolfpack while Grier is hoping to return to his home state to put on a big show after tossing 34 touchdowns in just 11 games last year for the Mountaineers.
2. Jawon Pass (Louisville) vs. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) — Sept. 1 (Orlando, Fla.)
This might not be the best matchup in terms of talent but the intrigue over the position for this game is off the charts. Pass is the heir apparent to Lamar Jackson for Bobby Petrino and all he has to do is face off against that Alabama defense in his first game replacing the best player in school history. The hype over Tagovailoa has run wild even before his incredible second half won the team the national title and will have everybody fascinated to see what he can do for an encore.
3. Ryan Finley (NC State) vs. Kelly Bryant (Clemson) — Oct. 20 (Clemson, S.C.)
There may be some question as to whether Bryant (above, right) will still be the starter for the Tigers with the talented Trevor Lawrence and Hunter Johnson pushing him for playing time but this game could be key in the ACC Atlantic Division race for the senior who was solid for the team in his first season as a starter. Finley will have one last crack at upsetting the Tigers and will hope to make up for heart-breaking losses to the conference champs the past two years.
4. Daniel Jones (Duke) vs. Clayton Thorson (Northwestern) — Sept. 8 (Evanston, Ill.)
This is quite the interesting non-conference game for both quarterbacks who have NFL size and are hoping to lead their teams to some big years between the lines. Jones (right) gives you an added dimension with his ability to scramble but it’s the passing numbers he’s hoping will tick up significantly after another offseason’s worth of work with QB guru David Cutcliffe. Thorson will need to prove he’s healthy after a knee injury in the bowl game but is being talked about as a potential first-rounder next spring.
5. Malik Rosier (Miami) vs. Josh Jackson (Virginia Tech) — Nov. 17 (Blacksburg, Va.)
Both of these signal-callers were thrust into the spotlight a little earlier than expected but had extremely solid debut seasons as starters in 2017 with both winning at least nine games and accounting for more than 25 touchdowns. It still seems like both are scratching the surface and if they up the completion percentage and limit the turnovers, could be in store for big jumps behind center — making this late-season game that will likely be for the division title even more interesting.
6. Kelly Bryant (Clemson) vs. Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) — Sept. 8 (College Station, Texas)
One of the big-name, non-conference games of the year will pit old rivals Dabo Swinney against Jimbo Fisher but the QB battle between the Tigers and Aggies is worth tuning in for alone. Bryant led his team to the College Football Playoff in his first year as a starter, yet will be pushed by two former five-star prospects for the job all year long. The same is true of Starkel, who was solid in limited action last year but will have to hold off the more mobile Kellen Mond.
7. Ryan Finley (NC State) vs. Eric Dungey (Syracuse) — Oct. 27 (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Dungey has proven to be a perfect fit for Dino Babers’ system and he’s piled up the stats as a result and turned into one of the ACC’s underrated stars. While he’s helped re-write the school record book, getting the Orange to a bowl game is priority No. 1 in 2018 and beating teams like the Wolfpack will go a long way towards that goal. Standing on the other sideline will be a veteran in Finley who will be looking to put a stop to all that talk in late October.
8. TaQuon Marshall (Georgia Tech) vs. Jake Fromm (Georgia) — Nov. 24 (Athens, Ga.)
Marshall (right) isn’t the passer that some of his ACC peers are but he more than makes up for that as the triggerman for the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option attack after running for 17 touchdowns and throwing for 10 more. If he progresses as a passer, he’ll have a chance to knock off the in-state rival Bulldogs and their sophomore QB who is coming off a national title game appearance.
9. Kelly Bryant (Clemson) vs. Jake Bentley (South Carolina) — Nov. 24 (Clemson, S.C.)
Bryant has been a part of some big wins over the Gamecocks and will be looking to keep his sterling record intact in the regular season finale with a few more touchdowns against the team’s big in-state rival. Bentley is one of the best signal-callers in the SEC and will be hoping to make a big jump in his third season as a starter after throwing for nearly 2,800 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2017.
10. Deondre Francois (Florida State) vs. Ryan Finley (NC State) — Nov. 11 (Raleigh, N.C.)
Francois’ last outing against the Wolfpack saw him throw a late touchdown to secure a win on the road in yet another close game between the programs. Finley played a big role in securing the program’s first road win over a ranked team in nearly a decade last season when he topped the then-No. 12 Seminoles by throwing for two scores. The pair will meet again in a crucial November game that may well determine if 2018 is an above-average type of season.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.