USC's Sam Darnold is just one of several signal-callers to keep a close eye on this fall
It goes without saying that you need a good quarterback in order to be a successful college football team. While it may not wholly determine a team’s success each season if they have a quality signal-caller behind center, one doesn’t become a consistent winner without a quarterback making all the throws and executing the right decisions on offense.
That’s why the position is so important across college football and a big reason why each quarterback matchup is highlighted on the schedule each week of the season. Heading into 2017, a strong group of returning starters and a handful of big-time transfers across the country make for some extremely enticing meetings that are worth circling on the calendar. We made life a little easy on you and did just that for most major conferences so you know just what to watch for when teams hit the field this year.
But which position battles are really the best of the best in 2017? Here are the top 25 quarterback matchups involving college football’s best signal-callers:
1. Sam Darnold (USC) vs. Josh Rosen (UCLA) – Nov. 18 (Los Angeles)
The best quarterback matchup in the country is one many scouts view as a potential battle to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen was injured for last season’s meeting between the two crosstown rivals so this likely one-and-done matchup will be all the more interesting when things kickoff at the venerable Coliseum.
2. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) – Sept. 9 (Columbus, Ohio)
It goes without saying that this rematch from last year will be one of the early games of the season and will likely come up prominently when discussing which teams are in the conversation for the College Football Playoff come November. Barrett got the better of the matchup when he threw for four touchdowns and ran for 74 yards in 2016, but don’t discount Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield stealing the show in Columbus for this year’s meeting.
3. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) vs. Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) – Nov. 4 (Stillwater, Okla.)
The Big 12 has gone back to having a championship game but for several seasons it wasn’t an issue for the conference as Bedlam acted as a de facto one at the end of the regular season. That won’t be the case once again in 2017 but the thrilling annual rivalry contest between the Oklahoma powers will still bring the goods when it comes to a top-tier quarterback matchup between the flashy Mayfield and the strong-armed Rudolph.
4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville) vs. Deondre Francois (Florida State) – Oct. 21 (Tallahassee, Fla.)
You don’t have to look too hard to find the early candidate for game of the year in the ACC, as Louisville’s trip to Florida State could very well determine which Atlantic Division team winds up in Charlotte later in the season. This matchup was one that contributed heavily to Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy last year and he’ll need an equally impressive outing if he wants to make history and defend that trophy in 2017. Francois had a really impressive debut in taking over for a Heisman winner himself and could re-insert himself into the award’s conversation if he can come up with a big performance in this one.
5. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) – Oct. 28 (Columbus, Ohio)
McSorley came out of nowhere last season to lead the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title and is no doubt set on keeping the team on the top of the conference standings in 2017. While last year’s meeting between the two teams was thrilling, it wasn’t exactly a showcase for either signal-caller. With all eyes on the pair this time around, something says that kind of repeat performance won’t be the case when two of the Big Ten’s best battle it out at the Horseshoe.
6. Josh Allen (Wyoming) vs. Brett Rypien (Boise State) – Oct. 21 (Boise, Idaho)
Allen is considered by some to be a potential No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft if he puts together a good season for the Cowboys and all eyes will be on him when he takes on Boise State for a game that likely decides the Mountain West Mountain Division. He’ll be taking on a QB with NFL bloodlines himself in Rypien, who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns each of the past two seasons.
7. Luke Falk (Washington State) vs. Jake Browning (Washington) – Nov. 25 (Seattle)
The Apple Cup is always one of the better rivalry games out there and it’s sure to be on everybody’s bucket list this season given the two signal-callers involved. Falk has been terrific on the Palouse in piling up numbers for the Cougars and will be looking to get the win over the Pac-12’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year in Browning.
8. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Deondre Francois (Florida State) – Sept. 2 (Atlanta)
The non-conference game of the year pits two top-five teams against each other in a fantastic opener at the future home of this season’s national title game. While all the attention will likely be on the two head coaches, this also will be a fascinating meeting between two rising young signal-callers. Given the caliber of defenses involved, the winner between Hurts and Francois could emerge as the favorite to eventually wind up with the Heisman.
9. Josh Rosen (UCLA) vs. Jake Browning (Washington) – Oct. 28 (Seattle)
A Jim Mora trip back to Seattle may draw a lot of the attention in this one but the real stars of the show when the Bruins travel to play the Huskies in late October will be the guys under center. Both Rosen and Browning had terrific debut campaigns as freshmen and will be hoping that their game takes the next step in 2017.
10. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) – Nov. 25 (Auburn, Ala.)
The Iron Bowl might be the SEC’s fiercest rivalry and the quarterback battle in this one could be the best in some time thanks to the arrival of Stidham, who has buoyed the hopes of those on the Plains quite a bit. The talented Baylor transfer would certainly make a mark in Auburn history if he’s able to end Alabama’s dominance in the series in 2017 and top Hurts for a victory.
11. Sam Darnold (USC) vs. Luke Falk (Washington State) – Sept. 29 (Pullman, Wash.)
Size? Check. Rocket arms? Check. Tough as nails? Check and check. Yes, when the Trojans travel to face off against Wazzu, the quarterbacks involved will tick off just about every box you’re looking for at the position in a game that probably won’t be any fun for the defensive backs involved.
12. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Oct. 21 (University Park, Pa.)
The offensive systems of Michigan and Penn State are an interesting study in contrasts but both need a good quarterback who can make all the throws in order to operate effectively. In McSorley and Speight, each team has a signal-caller who can do just that, which makes this a fascinating matchup in one of the Big Ten’s best games on the conference slate.
13. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) – Nov. 11 (Starkville, Miss.)
If you’re in the mood to catch two of the SEC’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, feel free to tune in for this meeting of SEC West rivals. Hurts and Fitzgerald each were solid last year but are looking to take their all-around games to the next level this season and this will be a big test in proving they can threaten teams equally with their arms as much as their legs.
14. Josh Rosen (UCLA) vs. Riley Ferguson (Memphis) – Sept. 16 (Memphis, Tenn.)
Ferguson reignited his career last season and put up some big numbers (32:10 TD-to-INT ratio) in Mike Norvell’s pass-happy system for the Tigers. He’ll be able to showcase those skills when the Bruins make the trip east in what is an enticing matchup against one of the best the Pac-12 has to offer and a potential top pick in next year’s draft with Rosen.
15. Kyle Allen (Houston) vs. Quinton Flowers (South Florida) – Nov. 4 (Tampa, Fla.)
It doesn’t get better than this in the American Athletic Conference for a quarterback battle that may very well decide the conference title and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. Flowers is a budding Heisman candidate after posting eye-popping numbers through the air and on the ground for the Bulls while Allen takes over the Cougars after transferring in from Texas A&M. Don’t miss the subplot of former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite taking on former Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong in this one either.
16. Tanner Mangum (BYU) vs. Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) – Oct. 14 (Starkville, Miss.)
Fitzgerald pushed a tough BYU defense to double overtime out in Provo and will be looking for a bit of revenge this time around at home. Standing in his way will be one of the more electrifying quarterbacks from west of the Mississippi in Mangum, who has saved some of his most thrilling moments for meetings with schools from big-time conferences.
17. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Nov. 25 (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
The annual rivalry game between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes is always a must-watch no matter what part of the country you’re from and last year’s double-overtime thriller certainly showcased why. That hard-fought battle between two great defenses didn’t leave a ton of room for these two quarterbacks to show what they can do but this season’s edition could very well be a major exhibit for the two veterans in yet another must-see affair.
18. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) vs. Shane Buechele (Texas) – Oct. 14 (Dallas)
The Red River Showdown is annually a bucket list game on the Big 12 slate and more often than not comes with some serious national expectations. That will likely be the case once again this year with the addition of Tom Herman to spice things up on the Longhorns side but don’t overlook the fun battle under center between Austin native Baker Mayfield and his opposite number in burnt orange who had an impressive freshman year in 2016.
19. Brett Rypien (Boise State) vs. Luke Falk (Washington State) – Sept. 9 (Pullman, Wash.)
These two regional rivals staged an entertaining game last season and round two should be just as fun given they’re two of the best in their respective conferences. While the receiving corps will be a bit different in 2017, expect both of these strong-armed, tough quarterbacks to put on a show through the air.
20. Austin Allen (Arkansas) vs. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) – Oct. 14 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Allen was one of the big surprises in the SEC last season and really put the team on his back with strong performances through the air with the Razorbacks. He was one of only a handful of QBs to put up big numbers on Alabama’s secondary (400 yards, three TDs as well as three INTs) during their meeting in 2016 and will be hoping for more of the same when he faces off against Hurts again in Tuscaloosa.
21. Brett Rypien (Boise State) vs. Tanner Mangum (BYU) – Oct. 6 (Provo, Utah)
The Broncos and Cougars have staged some absolute classics in recent memory and the latest edition has the chance to keep that streak going given who’s behind center for each side. Rypien played a big role in helping the Broncos sneak by the Cougars last season with an impressive 442 passing yards while Mangum, an Idaho native, has an intimate history with Boise State after throwing a Hail Mary to secure the victory two years ago.
22. Shane Buechele (Texas) vs. Sam Darnold (USC) – Sept. 16 (Los Angeles)
You would have to search far and wide to find a college football fan who doesn’t have fond memories of the epic national title game that Texas and USC staged over a decade ago and their rematch in 2017 will no doubt be one of the highlights of the non-conference slate. Darnold is considered by many to be a future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft after a stellar debut for the Trojans a year ago that was capped off with a thrilling Rose Bowl comeback. Buechele is no slouch in this meeting though having thrown for more than 3,000 yards as a freshman himself.
23. Jacob Eason (Georgia) vs. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) – Nov. 11 (Auburn, Ala.)
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry might be a quarterback showcase in this season’s edition as both sides are hoping for big strides being made behind center after last year’s offensive debacle. In beating the Tigers as a freshman, Eason delivered his signature SEC victory but will find things much tougher this time around in trying to out-duel the equally talented Stidham.
24. Justin Herbert (Oregon) vs. Josh Rosen (UCLA) – Oct. 21 (Pasadena. Calif.)
The Pac-12 has a history of young quarterbacks bursting onto the scene and these two teams are acutely aware with this pair adding to the legacy in recent years. Each side will be sporting a new-look offense for this year’s contest, adding to this top-tier matchup of quality passers.
25. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) vs. Kelly Bryant (Clemson) – Sept. 9 (Clemson, S.C.)
The defenses ran the show during last year’s meeting between these two but something says that the offenses might have the last laugh this September. At Auburn, that optimism is buoyed by the arrival of Stidham, the highly touted transfer from Baylor. He’ll be watched closely as he gets to run Gus Malzahn’s offense and might be the most talented passer on the Plains since Cam Newton. Bryant figures to be the guy to replace departed star Deshaun Watson and will be tested right away in this one.
— 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.