Who has the best combination of head coach and QB in college football this year?
Winning games in college football is about the players. If your favorite team has the best players, more times than not, your favorite team is going to win the game. And the most important player on any gridiron is the quarterback. This isn’t really up for debate.
That said, the head coach (obviously) is the most influential non-player piece to any college football program. So it stands to reason that, when combined, the team with the best quarterback-head coach combination has the best chance to win a division, league or national title.
Of course, predicting wins and losses in college football isn’t nearly this simple. The other 84 scholarship players do, in fact, count for something. As do the other eight members of the coaching staff. Scheduling, home-field advantage, off the field behavior and more can change the course of a season forever as well, and all play a huge role in Athlon Sports' preseason Top 25.
But possessing a great signal-caller mentored by a great head coach is the best way to start when building a championship foundation.
Which team will boast the best head coach-quarterback combination in college football in 2014?
1. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher-Jameis Winston
It’s hard to argue that the defending national champs don’t brag the best combination of quarterback and head coach in the nation. Winston proved a year ago that he is the best college football player in the country by winning the Heisman Trophy. Fisher, who ranks as the seventh-best coach in Athlon Sports ’14 preseason coaching ranks, has rebuilt a once-dormant powerhouse into a two-time ACC champ and will enter this season as the reigning champs. Fisher and Winston are 14-0 together on the field and, should the latter stay out of trouble off of the field, the duo could easily find themselves in a position to repeat.
2. Ohio State: Urban Meyer-Braxton Miller
Aside from Waco, Texas, there might not be a more perfect marriage of system and skill set than Meyer’s spread offense and Miller’s dual-threat talents. The duo has produced over 6,000 yards of total offense and a perfect 24-0 record in the regular season over the last two years since Meyer got to Columbus. Miller has improved his completion percentage (54.1 to 58.3 to 63.5) and passer rating (138.37 to 140.48 to 158.08) in each of his first three years and his career TD:INT ratio is a sterling 52:17. He’s also posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and was one win away from playing for a national title a year ago. The second-best coach in the land could feature a Heisman Trophy candidate under center this year for a team eyeing a playoff berth.
3. Baylor: Art Briles-Bryce Petty
Few coaches and quarterbacks meshed on the field better last year than the Baylor tandem. Briles excelled with both Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence but Petty’s numbers were the best of the bunch in his first season under center. As in, 4,409 total yards of offense, 46 total touchdowns and just three (3!) interceptions for a team that won its first Big 12 championship ever. Briles has proven to be one of the best in the land (fifth in Athlon Sports’ rankings) and Petty has already accomplished things in Waco no quarterback has ever achieved. A repeat performance this year with less talent to work with and this duo could prove to be the best in the nation.
4. Penn State: James Franklin-Christian Hackenberg
Hackenberg set 11 school records as a true freshman passer a year ago as the all-world recruit clearly lived up to the hype by throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs in his first season. He also led Penn State to a winning record despite heavy sanctions and capped the year with a remarkable road performance against Wisconsin (339 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT). Hack is a No. 1 overall type of talent and, now, he has cult-of-personality James Franklin running the show in Happy Valley. Franklin is unproven in the Big Ten but his SEC resume speaks for itself, as he led the Commodores to unprecedented heights in Nashville. Huge things are in store for this duo, especially considering the easy schedule and the potential removal of the bowl ban in ’14.
5. Auburn: Gus Malzahn-Nick Marshall
Malzahn is a top 10 coach nationally after leading Auburn from worst to first in his first season in charge. Much of that was on the legs and shoulder of another first-year Tiger in quarterback Nick Marshall. The dual-threat signal-caller mastered the Malzahn spread in short order and turned in 3,044 yards of total offense, 26 total touchdowns and one SEC championship. With an even better grasp of the playbook and some development as a passer, Marshall is poised for a first-team All-SEC season on The Plains. How many teams boast a top 10 coach and a top 10 Heisman candidate?
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6. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio-Connor Cook
It seems odd that a tandem that won 13 games, a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl title would be underrated but that is how things go in East Lansing. Mark Dantonio is consistently overlooked when it comes to the nation’s best coaches and Cook wasn’t even the starter going into last season. Cook’s growth over the second half of the season was obvious as the Spartans' QB set career highs in passing yards in back-to-back wins over Ohio State (304 yds) in the B1G title game and Stanford (332 yds) in the Rose Bowl. Now, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder enters 2014 with massive expectations.
7. UCLA: Jim Mora-Brett Hundley
Mora was ranked by Athlon Sports as the No. 31 head coach in the nation. There is no doubting he has gotten more out of this Bruins team than the previous regimes, however, he is still a bit of an unknown commodity on the coaching circuit. His quarterback is not an unknown at all, though. In fact, Hundley is one of the best players in the nation regardless of position. The UCLA head coach-quarterback combination has won 19 games over the last two seasons and a Pac-12 crown in 2014 would vault them into Fisher-Winston range nationally. Hundley has 7,914 yards of total offense and 73 total touchdowns in two seasons in Westwood.
8. Arizona State: Todd Graham-Taylor Kelly
All this duo did was post the best record in the Pac-12 (8-1) a year ago while winning the division and coming one game away from a Rose Bowl berth. Kelly has topped 3,000 yards passing in each of his two seasons as the starter and has carried the ball 306 times for over 1,100 yards on the ground as well. Graham, despite his strange resume, is a proven winner and turned ASU into a Pac-12 contender in just two seasons at the helm. Look for this established tandem to produce big offensive numbers once again in the desert this fall.
9. Oregon: Mark Helfrich-Marcus Mariota
Much like the tandem at UCLA, the Ducks boast one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks and one of the game’s most unproven head coaches. Mariota is brilliant in all facets of the game and could be the only player in the nation capable of competing with Winston for No. 1 overall honors in next year’s NFL Draft. Helfrich had two chances to lock up the Pac-12 title in his first season and couldn’t do it last year. He currently ranks 58th in Athlon Sports’ coaching rankings but could make a huge jump should Oregon win the conference title in ’14.
10. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops-Trevor Knight
Knight was magnificent against Alabama but needs to prove his talents over the course of a full season. Staying healthy is atop this list after throwing just five regular season touchdown passes a year ago. Stoops’ resume speaks for itself — eight Big 12 titles, nine BCS bowls and four trips to the national title game. If Knight develops the way many think he can, this duo could lead the Sooners to a playoff berth and could enter next season as the best QB-head coach combo in the nation.
11. Brian Kelly-Everett Golson, Notre Dame
Kelly is among the nation’s best minds and he will have his guy under center once again when he welcomes Golson back to South Bend. Golson developed into a playmaker during his first year. How many tandems in the nation have been to a national title game together?
12. Gary Pinkel-Maty Mauk, Missouri
Longevity counts for something and Pinkel has that in spades. Along with a great QB resume that includes Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin. Mauk is the next great Mizzou passer.
13. Hugh Freeze-Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Wallace isn’t an overly special player but he’s one of the SEC’s best passers. Freeze has proven in short order to be a winner. This tandem needs to take the next step in ’14.
14. Bronco Mendenhall-Taysom Hill, BYU
Hill has special dual-threat playmaking talents and could find himself in the Heisman mix should BYU win enough games. Mendenhall has five 10-win seasons at BYU and has never posted a losing record.
15. Mike Leach-Connor Halliday, Washington State
The Wazzu combo broke some NCAA records last year, and, with a large contingent of receivers returning, the Mad Scientist could have one of his best statistical seasons in years.
16. David Shaw-Kevin Hogan, Stanford
17. Steve Spurrier-Dylan Thompson, South Carolina
18. Bill Snyder-Jake Waters, Kansas State
19. Dan Mullen-Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
20. Mike Riley-Sean Mannion, Oregon State
5 we don’t know about yet:
Nick Saban-Jacob Coker, Alabama
Mark Richt-Hutson Mason, Georgia
Chris Petersen-Cyler Miles, Washington
Bobby Petrino-Will Gardner, Louisville
Kevin Sumlin-Kyle Allen, Texas A&M