College football lost a lot of star power at the quarterback position upon the conclusion of the 2020 season. Superstars such as Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and Trey Lance — all gone to the NFL. While the 2021 QB class is considered one of the most top-heavy in recent memory, such turnover provides a chance for a clean slate and affords new players the opportunity to stake their claim as the best in the sport.
With that in mind, it’s time to return to my annual quarterback tiers ranking.
Over the past few years, I’ve eschewed traditional quarterback rankings in favor of tiers. Putting quarterbacks in similar groups makes more sense because they can be better compared to their counterparts; not everyone has to be in a position to win the Heisman to be classified as a good player. I tiered just under 50 FBS quarterbacks for the upcoming season based on their performances from last year, though career numbers were taken into consideration as well in the event of injuries, redshirts, etc. The results are below with some methodology explained first.
Not every quarterback is ranked. This was hard! That would be harder! Established or projected starters get ranked. If a QB is in a heated offseason battle that will lead up to Week 1, it’s tough to rank him. Whoever wins the Ohio State quarterback battle, for example, could end up being be a star heading into 2022. But right now we don’t know that. There are a couple of exceptions in Tiers IV and V. Experience matters more than potential. I’m going to rank players based more on what they’ve done vs. what they could do — one-year experience minimum. This seems obvious, but it’s worth pointing out for guys like Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, a Tier IV member last year. I also didn’t rank any player who has yet to take at least one snap in a college game. Players could fit in more than one tier. There’s an order to the madness — you would take a Tier I quarterback over one from Tier III every time — but I ranked quarterbacks based on what felt like the best match. Keep in mind this is a snapshot of the moment. It can and will change from year to year. Efficiency is the primary focus. Seasons varied in length across the sport last year due to COVID-19, which complicated the process a bit. A quarterback that played 10+ games instead of four might get a tiebreaker, but I put even more emphasis on efficiency rather than raw numbers for this very reason. Still, context is important. I considered rushing stats, where applicable, along with supporting cast, how they played in big games, etc. The data is courtesy of TruMedia. The legend for the tables below are: – TD/INT: Touchdowns to interceptions rate.– TD%: Percentage of touchdowns thrown per attempt– INT%: Percentage of interceptions thrown per attempt– 1st/ATT: Percentage of first downs thrown per attempt– AY/ATT: Air yards per attempt– Rating: Passer rating Tier I
All-America and award season aspirations, including the Heisman Trophy
1. Sam Howell (North Carolina)
2. Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma)
3. Dillon Gabriel (UCF)
4. Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)8.6710.4%1.2%43.6%10.99184.3
5. JT Daniels (Georgia)
I wanted to highlight Rattler first because, well, he’s special, folks. His ball placement on the run and big-play knack is next-level. With an effortless release, he has a Mahomes-like ability to make plays that simply aren’t there. Howell, though, is coming off the best back-to-back seasons of any quarterback in major college football. If I’m sticking to my guns, Howell is No. 1, but they’re both the real deal. As are this year’s crop of Group of Five quarterbacks. Gabriel is the most exciting to me. Knights fans have some (merited) complaints about Josh Heupel’s tenure, but when his offenses were clicking … holy cow were they fun. Gabriel had three 400-yard games passing and one 600-yard game last year alone. Kid can sling it. I’m fascinated by what this combination with Gus Malzahn is going to produce. And McCall was one of the most efficient downfield throwers in the country in 2020. Daniels is slotted in the first tier since he at least has another year under his belt from USC in 2018, but there’s some potential mixed in with his rank, too. He was a clear upgrade for Georgia towards the end of last season. With a full, healthy offseason, Daniels’ stock is rising quickly. Tier II
Potential all-conference selections and a few fringe Heisman contenders
King, if fully recovered from his ACL injury, is as entertaining as any quarterback in the country. Uiagalelei will be the attraction and Howell will probably get some first-team preseason ACC love, but King is right there with them. He’s slippery when the ball is in his hand and is a scoring machine. I have to admit: I slept on Ridder last year. Considering the turnover in the receiving corps, I was hesitant about his potential, but he made tremendous strides as a passer. And we know he can give you 10 rushing attempts per game. He’s been a really good, well-rounded player for three years now. Slovis’ ranking relative to Daniels — both JT and Jayden — could cause a stir. Let the record show I am a fan. He’s slingin’ it in that offense to the tune of 320 yards a game, sixth-best nationally in 2020. He’s had his struggles against Oregon, though, and while it’s not the end of the world, his air yards are below his counterparts. Crum and Strong quietly had an excellent year, even though they played shortened seasons. I dock them a little for that, but not much. They’re first-team all-conference material and deserve spots in this tier after doing what they did given the circumstances. Tier III
Established starters across the entire FBS
Penix and Morgan are the best returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten and yet can bounce back after some setbacks in 2020. Penix is returning from an ACL injury after leading one of the Big Ten’s best passing offenses and Morgan is looking to reset after Minnesota was hit hard by the effects of COVID-19. Coan’s numbers were from 2019 while he was at Wisconsin. He sustained a season-ending foot injury last fall and transferred to Notre Dame in the offseason. I liked what he did with the Badgers, but after a year away with a new team can he pick up where he left off?Doege is fine. He’s not going to make a ton of big plays, but he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he had decent numbers last year despite some terrible drops and an average offensive line. Tier IV
Players to keep an eye on who are primed for breakout seasons
Here’s your “potential” tier, led by Uiagalelei and Young. They have a combined two starts yet possess the second-and-third-best Heisman odds at +700 and +900, respectively, at William Hill Sportsbook. Uiagalelei’s hype is more rooted in 800 total yards of offense and six touchdowns against Boston College and Notre Dame. If those appearances are any indication, Uiagalelei will be regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in college heading into his draft-eligible junior season. Young is less proven but still qualifies. I’m taking a flyer on Milton. He’s been absent from this piece over the past couple of years as he’s made his way back from a gruesome knee injury coming up on three years ago. He’s not yet been named the named starter in Tallahassee, but if he’s anywhere close to the player he was at UCF, Florida State got a good one. I’m going to bet on his ceiling. There are some interesting names towards the bottom of this rung, but the most curious one might be Zappe. A record-setting star at Houston Baptist last season, Zappe might end up being one of the most talked-about playmakers in the Group of Five. He threw for more than 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns to just one pick in four games. Another name to keep an eye on is Texas A&M’s Haynes King. He only appeared in a couple of games in 2020 with a 42-yard touchdown against South Carolina, but he was a coveted, top-20 recruit in Texas, per 247Sports Composite. He could come out of nowhere. Tier V
Some questions still need to be answered
This group is a mixture of some embattled starters and transfers hoping for a second — or third — chance. This isn’t meant to say the players in this tier are bad, but there may be some frustrating limitations, injury problems or consistency issues that are keeping them from breaking through. Putting Wells in this tier may be a little harsh. All in all, he’s coming off of a good season. But his last three games — all losses — were pretty rough and he wasn’t blowing anyone away in the Herd’s best win of the year vs. App State. He’s probably Conference USA’s best quarterback along with Tyler Johnston III at UAB. I’d just like to see him bounce back from those final three games. Some new destinations for Bentley, Hilinski, Perry and Brice could be just what they need to end their careers on high notes.