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College Football's Top 15 Quarterback Battles for 2021

Kickoff for the 2021 college football season is less than 20 days away, and quarterback battles are in full swing across preseason practices for all 130 teams. While some battles were settled in spring practices and due to injuries or a transfer, plenty of high-profile competitions remain. Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and Texas A&M are just a few of the battles that will be decided in the fall.

Which battles are the ones to watch this fall in preseason practice? Athlon Sports examines 15 to watch: 

College Football's Top 15 Quarterback Battles for 2021

Boise State
Boise State’s average of 5.4 yards per play in 2020 was the program’s lowest mark since joining the Mountain West. First-year head coach Andy Avalos indicated that the quarterback spot would be an open battle between Hank Bachmeier and Jack Sears. Bachmeier had a promising debut cut short in ’19, and injuries prevented him from playing the full slate in ’20. Sears — a transfer from USC — impressed in limited action, connecting on 23-of-27 throws for 332 yards and three scores last year. The offensive scheme may look a little different under new play-caller Tim Plough, but the Broncos should rebound on this side of the ball in ’21.
Projected Winner: Bachmeier

Zach Wilson is off to the NFL after a monster junior year, but BYU is still in good shape under center. Baylor Romney — a former walk-on — started two games in 2019 and has passed for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 appearances the last two years. Jaren Hall also started two contests in ’19 and impressed by throwing for 420 yards and adding 139 more on the ground. The Cougars also have promising redshirt freshman Jacob Conover in the mix. Conover – a four-star recruit in the 2019 signing class – likely has the most long-term upside of this trio. Romney has the edge in experience and is the safer pick right now. However, the guess here is Hall edges him for the starting nod.
Projected Winner: Hall

Florida State
Despite using four different starting QBs last season, the Seminoles never found a consistent option and enter 2021 with uncertainty under center. Jordan Travis accounted for 1,615 total yards last year and was the starter for two of Florida State’s three wins. However, he will be pushed by UCF transfer McKenzie Milton. The senior is back after a miraculous recovery from a significant knee injury suffered at the end of the ’18 season. Prior to that injury, Milton was among the top quarterbacks in college football. In three years with the Knights, he passed for 8,683 yards and 72 TDs and ran for 1,078 yards and 20 scores. Second-year coach Mike Norvell has options here, and either Travis or Milton should be able to lead this offense to better things in ’21. The guess here is Milton is the starter, but both quarterbacks are likely to play.
Projected Winner: Milton

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

Kentucky looks to jump-start an offense that finished last in the SEC in passing yardage for three consecutive years. Liam Coen — a Sean McVay disciple and former FCS offensive coordinator at Maine — takes over the play-calling duties after spending the last three years with the Los Angeles Rams. The Wildcats have to get better under center, and three players are vying for the job this offseason. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood and sophomore Beau Allen combined for 42 pass attempts in 2020. Penn State transfer Will Levis didn’t join the team until this summer and has some ground to make up on Allen and Gatewood. However, his skill set is the best all-around fit.
Projected Winner: Levis

Better quarterback play is a must if the Wolverines want to return to the Top 25 in 2021. Joe Milton opted to transfer to Tennessee, leaving Cade McNamara as the team’s most experienced option. McNamara started one game in ’20 and finished the year with 425 passing yards and five scores — with the bulk of the production coming versus Rutgers. His experience in the system should give him a head start, but Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman and five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy will push for the job. Coach Jim Harbaugh indicated earlier this offseason McNamara leads the race to start. But the pressure will be on McNamara to perform, as it will be tough to keep McCarthy on the bench all year.
Projected Winner: McNamara

Michigan State
Improving an offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring starts at quarterback for second-year coach Mel Tucker. The Spartans reeled in several transfers this offseason, including former Temple signal-caller Anthony Russo. During his three years of playing time with the Owls, Russo threw for 6,292 yards and 44 touchdowns. However, he also tossed 32 picks and averaged only seven yards per pass attempt. While Russo has the edge in experience, Payton Thorne will push him for the job this fall. The Illinois native played in four contests (with one start) last season and threw for 582 yards and three touchdowns. Thorne’s best outing came in the finale versus Penn State, as he connected on 22 throws for 325 yards.
Projected Winner: Russo

Related: Ranking the Big Ten QBs for 2021

Northwestern is reaching back into the portal for help under center after leaning on a graduate transfer (Peyton Ramsey) at the position last fall. Ryan Hilinski arrives in Evanston after two years at South Carolina to compete with another Palmetto State transfer in Hunter Johnson (Clemson) and Andrew Marty. Johnson and Hilinski rated as two of the top quarterback recruits in their respective classes, but neither has played up to that potential so far. Hilinski took over the starting job with the Gamecocks after a season-ending injury to Jake Bentley in 2019 and threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns. Marty was an unheralded three-star prospect but ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a ‘19 start versus Illinois.
Projected Winner: Hilinski

Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish dipped into the transfer portal for help in replacing the steady play and leadership of Ian Book. Former Wisconsin starter Jack Coan arrives in South Bend favored to take the first snap after starting all 14 games for the Badgers in 2019 and throwing for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also led all Big Ten quarterbacks that year with a 69.6 completion percentage. His biggest competition is expected to come from Drew Pyne, as Brendon Clark had offseason knee surgery, and touted freshman Tyler Buchner needs time to develop.
Projected Winner: Coan

Ohio State
Justin Fields will be missed, but the Buckeyes have four talented options vying for the starting job. C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller — four-star prospects in the 2020 signing class — worked as backups to Fields last season. Neither player attempted a pass, but both scored a rushing touchdown. Five-star prospect Kyle McCord enrolled in time for spring practice, and the extra snaps should put him squarely in the mix this fall. This battle received an extra contender in August, as ’22 recruit Quinn Ewers reclassified and plans to enroll this fall. Ewers is an elite prospect and has all of the tools to be a superstar quarterback in Columbus. However, he faces a steep learning curve to be ready by the opener to push Stroud for the starting nod. While all four quarterbacks have zero career pass attempts in a Buckeye uniform, it’s hard to doubt this position with head coach Ryan Day’s track record and the wealth of offensive weapons.
Projected Winner: Stroud

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The Ducks entered the offseason with uncertainty at quarterback for the second year in a row. Tyler Shough won the battle to replace Justin Herbert last season and started all seven games. However, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown received more snaps as the year progressed. Shough decided to transfer to Texas Tech this spring, leaving Brown, redshirt freshmen Robby Ashford and Jay Butterfield, and ’21 recruit Ty Thompson to battle for the job. Brown has the most experience but struggled to stay healthy while at Boston College. He may start, but it won’t be a surprise if Thompson ends the year atop the depth chart.
Projected Winner: Brown

Shane Buechele’s departure opens the door for either Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai or true freshman Preston Stone to take the reins of one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. After averaging 41.8 points per game in 2019, SMU posted 38.6 per contest in 2020. Mordecai played in 12 games with the Sooners over the last three years, completing 50 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns. The Oklahoma transfer has the edge in experience, but Stone — a Dallas native and the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 signing class — is ready to push for the job.
Projected Winner: Mordecai

UCF averaged at least 40 points per game in all three of Josh Heupel’s seasons at the helm. Heupel isn’t likely to replicate that success in his first season on Rocky Top, but Tennessee’s offense is going to play with more tempo and take more shots downfield than it did under the previous staff. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and sophomore Harrison Bailey would seem to be the best fits out of a four-man battle. However, Brian Maurer is still in the mix, and the coaching staff added former Michigan signal-caller Joe Milton in late April. Milton doesn’t lack talent but struggled with the Wolverines after a strong 2020 debut at Minnesota. This battle isn’t likely to be decided until deep into preseason practice.
Projected Winner: Bailey

Related: College Football's Top 50 Impact QB Transfers for 2021

It’s a good news/bad news situation for new head coach Steve Sarkisian. The bad: Sam Ehlinger departs Austin after a prolific four-year career. The good: Casey Thompson and Hudson Card are talented and have the skill set to run Sarkisian’s offense. Thompson had an impressive showing in the Alamo Bowl, completing eight passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns. Card played in two contests as the No. 3 signal-caller but was more touted coming out of high school. This battle is wide open and should stretch deep into the fall. The guess here is Thompson starts the year, but Card likely finishes as the No. 1 quarterback.
Projected Winner: Thompson

Texas A&M
The Aggies are on the rise under head coach Jimbo Fisher, but challenging Alabama will hinge on how well this position performs. Zach Calzada worked as Kellen Mond’s backup in 2019 and connected on 12-of-24 passes for 133 yards. Haynes King — the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 247Sports Composite — was the No. 2 option last year and played sparingly in two contests. True freshman Eli Stowers will spend time at tight end this fall, so it’s a two-man battle between King and Calzada.
Projected Winner: King

Cameron Rising — a Texas transfer — started the opener in 2020 but was lost for the year due to a shoulder injury. Another Longhorn (Ja’Quinden Jackson) was added to the roster this offseason, but both players are facing an uphill battle trying to unseat Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer. After starting the last four years, Brewer has the best combination of skill and experience to lead a veteran offense. True freshman Peter Costelli is also in the mix, but Utah won’t have to rush him into the lineup with Brewer in Salt Lake City.
Projected Winner: Brewer

Other Power 5 Battles to Watch

Arizona: Will Plummer vs. Gunner Cruz vs. Jordan McCloud
Baylor: Gerry Bohanon vs. Jacob Zeno vs. Kyron Drones vs. Blake Shapen
Colorado: Brendon Lewis vs. JT Shrout
Kansas: Jason Bean vs. Jalon Daniels vs. Miles Kendrick
Oregon State: Tristan Gebbia vs. Chance Nolan vs. Sam Noyer
Purdue: Aidan O’Connell vs. Jack Plummer vs. Austin Burton
Stanford: Jack West vs. Tanner McKee
Syracuse: Tommy DeVito vs. Garrett Shrader
Washington State: Cammon Cooper vs. Jayden de Laura vs. Jarrett Guarantano

Other Group of 5 Battles to Watch

Appalachian State: Chase Brice vs. Jacob Huesman
FAU: Michael Johnson Jr. vs. N’Kosi Perry vs. Nick Tronti
Louisiana Tech: Austin Kendall vs. Luke Anthony vs. Aaron Allen
Memphis: Grant Gunnell vs. Peter Parrish vs. Keilon Brown
Navy: Xavier Arline vs. Tai Lavatai
Rice: JoVoni Johnson vs. Jake Constantine vs. Luke McCaffrey vs. Wiley Green
San Diego State: Lucas Johnson vs. Jalen Mayden vs. Jordon Brookshire vs. Will Haskell
Toledo: Carter Bradley vs. Dequan Finn vs. Tucker Gleason
Troy: Taylor Powell vs. Gunnar Watson
USF: Cade Fortin vs. Jarren Williams

Podcast: CFB Expansion and Realignment Talk + QB Battles to Watch in Fall Practice