Who will fill the void left by Trevor Lawrence in 2021?
Lawrence, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, was No. 1 on Sporting News’ list of top 25 quarterbacks each of the last two seasons. He was part of a class that sent five quarterbacks to the first round of last year’s draft, a class that included Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Mac Jones.
MORE: SN’s Preseason Top 25
The three dominant powers in college football have new quarterbacks this season, and all three made our top 25. The No. 1 choice, however, is an open debate between Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell. That will spill over into the 2022 NFL Draft, too.
With that in mind, Sporting News looks at the top 25 college football quarterbacks for 2021:
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA
Thompson-Robinson enters his third season as a starter paired with Chip Kelly in what is a show-me year for the Bruins. DTR showed signs of progress last year with increases in completion percentage, yards per attempt and rushing yards, and he has the potential to be Kelly’s next prolific college quarterback. Can he put it all together for UCLA in 2021?
Nix plateaued last season from a statistical perspective, and he’s 15-9 as a starter heading into his junior season. He averages 14 TD passes and seven rushing TDs per season, and it will be interesting to see what first-year coach Bryan Harsin brings to Nix’s game. Opinions vary on the third-year starter, but the play-making ability is there.
Jarret Doege, West Virginia
Doege ranked 16th in the FBS with 2,587 yards, and the Bowling Green transfer returns for one more year in Troy Brown’s offense with the Mountaineers. Doege has maintained a consistent completion percentage at both stops, and he has one last chance to lead a run in the Big 12.
Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Morgan struggled last season, but that was part of a season that was broken up by COVID-19 interruptions. The potential for a bounce-back to the 2019 form, in which Morgan threw for 3,253 yards and 30 TDs is possible. Morgan must prove himselfwithout Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who have both moved on to the NFL since ’19.
It’s finally Jones’ turn at Florida after a three-year wait, and he showed glimpses of success in a niche role with Dan Mullen. Jones completed 64 percent of his passes and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in that limited role, and he has the potential to be the SEC’s breakout performer for 2021.
Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
Sanders was injured in last season’s opener at Tulsa, and he had an up-and-down sophomore season with the Cowboys. Sanders re-emerged as a threat in the running game in the final four games, and his Cheez-It Bowl performance — which included 350 total yards of offense and four TDs — is a reminder of what he can produce in Oklahoma State’s offense.
Malik Cunningham, Louisville
Cunningham is an experienced three-year starter that returns for Scott Satterfield’s third season with the Cardinals. Cunningham’s accuracy improved in 2020, but he threw more interceptions in the process. Cunningham played well in losses to Virginia Tech and Miami, and he had two 100-yard rushing games.
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
This is a presumptive placement knowing Stroud still hasn’t won the starting job in a three-way battle with Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III. That said, Stroud had the lead in the spring and whoever starts for the Buckeyes will have the nation’s deepest group of wide receivers to work with. Stroud can work with that in Ryan Day’s offense, and that could vault him into the top five on this list by the end of the season.
Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
Jurkovec, a Notre Dame transfer, turned out to be an excellent fit with Jeff Hafley at Boston College. He had four 300-yard games and led the Eagles to a 6-4 record. Jurkovec needs to be more of a threat in the running game to take the next step, and he struggled with accuracy in big games against Clemson and Notre Dame last season.
Malik Willis, Liberty
Willis has the most rushing yards of any QB on this list after piling up 944 yards and 14 TDs in 2020. He also passed for 2,250 yards, 20 TDs and six interceptions. That two-way production is getting the attention of NFL scouts, and he will continue to evolve with another year in Huge Freeze’s offense at Liberty against a fairly tame slate in 2021.
Carson Strong, Nevada
Get to know Strong now, because he has a chance to be that first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft you’ll be learning about later. He completed 70.1 percent of his passes with 27 TDs and four interceptions last season. The Wolf Pack was 5-0 when he passed for 300 yards or more in 2020. Strong has high-end potential and should continue to deliver in the Mountain West Conference.
Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
Daniels played in four games last season, which made it difficult to see how much he improved as a sophomore. He’s an efficient passer who has 22 TDs and three interceptions with the Sun Devils, and he averaged 6.8 yards per carry on the ground. The dual-threat talent is there, and he’s capable of leading Arizona State to the Pac-12 championship game.
Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Penix’s thrilling dash to the goal line against Penn State was the signature play in a break-through season for the Hoosiers. He finished with 1,645 passing yards, 14 TDs and four interceptions before suffering a torn ACL. Penix is the top returning quarterback in the Big Ten, and he will need to improve his completion percentage in 2021.
Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
McCall put Coastal Carolina on the college football map with a breakout redshirt freshman season. He finished with 2,488 passing yards, 26 TDs and three interceptions. He also added 569 rushing yards and seven TDs. McCall had five games with at least four total TDs, and the Chanticleers were 4-1 in those games. What will he do for a sophomore encore?
Young has a tough act to follow after Mac Jones led Alabama to a national championship in 2020. Young played mostly in mop-up duty last season, and he averaged 7.1 yards per passing attempt with a 59.1 completion percentage. Improvements will need to be made, but new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and the same-old loaded supporting cast should lead to big numbers for Young.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
Purdy was ranked No. 8 on this list in 2020. He opted to stay at Iowa State for his senior season, and the expectations in Ames are higher than ever. Purdy’s numbers have been consistent, and the Cyclones are 6-3 the last two seasons when he passes for 300 yards or more. Purdy emerged as a more effective runner last season, and the chance to lead a Big 12 championship run is on the table.
Georgia’s offense meshed once Daniels took over the starting job in 2020. He averaged 10.3 yards per attempt, and his 178.5 quarterback rating would have ranked in the top 10 with more attempts. Daniels shook off the interceptions that hampered him at USC as a freshman, and he should be more comfortable with a full offseason at Georgia.
King emerged as the answer at quarterback for Miami last season. He meshed well with new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, especially early in the season. King finished with 2,686 passing yards, 538 rushing yards and 27 total TDs. That success was tempered by an untimely ACL injury in the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. King is expected to make a full recovery before the opener against Alabama.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Ridder returns to lead to Cincinnati, which is the premier College Football Playoff buster heading into 2021. Ridder is 30-5 as a starter, and he has passed for 57 TDs and 20 interceptions. He also averages 6.0 yards per carry. That dual-threat production elevated the program, and Ridder will get to showcase those skills in a pair of challenging non-conference games at Indiana and Notre Dame.
Slovis should follow in the footsteps of Sam Darnold, Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart as USC’s next first-round quarterback. The 6-2, 200-pounder is a third-year starter, and he’s completed 70 percent of his passes with 47 TDs and 16 interceptions. Slovis is 1-3 against Top 25 teams as a starter, and he is tasked with leading the Trojans back to the Pac-12 championship game.
Gabriel is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the FBS. He’s averaged 3,611 passing yards and 31 TDs the past two seasons, and that comes with just 11 total interceptions. He needs to improve his completion percentage and become a little more active in the running game, but that will happen with the arrival of first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
Who would have guessed Lane Kiffin has the top returning quarterback in the SEC? Corral led all quarterbacks on this list with 3,843 yards of total offense last season. He finished with 29 TDs and 13 interceptions, and he rushed for 506 yards. The Rebels averaged 39.2 points per game and should be even more entertaining in Kiffin’s second season. Corral’s play-making skills make him an intriguing Heisman sleeper.
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Uiagalelei followsTrevor Lawrence at Clemson, and fans got a peek at the five-star talent in two high-profile starts against Boston College and Notre Dame. Uiagalelei showed up with 914 passing yards, 5 TDs and no interceptions as a freshman, and the 6-4, 250-pound quarterback is a red-zone running option who scored four TDs. That experience should lead to another big year for the Tigers, and Uiagalelei is Clemson’s next first-round star at the position.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Howell averages 10.3 yards per passing attempt the last two seasons, and he piled up 7,224 yards, 68 TDs and 14 interceptions in that stretch. He’s been the centerpiece of a quick rebuild under Mack Brown in Chapel Hill, and the third-year starter should be even better as a junior. Five ACC quarterbacks have been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft the last five seasons, a list that includes Deshaun Watson (2017), Mitchell Trubisky (2017), Lamar Jackson (2018), Daniel Jones (2019) and Trevor Lawrence (2021). Howell is next in line.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Rattler is the Heisman Trophy favorite, and that’s a sound bet given Lincoln Riley has worked with two winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. He struggled with early-season turnovers, but in Oklahoma’s last eight games — all wins — he averaged 255.8 passing yards with 18 TDs and two interceptions. Rattler does not run much, but he still scored six rushing TDs in 2020. Another year with Riley should produce even more, especially with the loaded supporting cast at the skill positions at Oklahoma.