Life moves fast. And if you plan to keep pace, sometimes you’ve got to shave corners and find shortcuts when they’re available. So, if you want to appear well read about college football’s upcoming playoff chase, but don’t have the time consume all the fine print, bone up right now on which programs are home to the best combination of head coach and quarterback. It’s a painless two-minute drill that’ll serve you well this offseason.
Now, obviously, the evaluation process doesn’t end with two men. If you can’t make stops or protect that star passer, title hopes won’t last beyond Halloween. But there are no more important individuals to a program than the coach and the quarterback. If those two spots are in good hands, you’re going to win a lot of football games. And the following 15 schools will win plenty this season.
15. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson/Justin Thomas
Johnson is back on solid footing again, thanks in large to the rapid development of his young quarterback. Johnson is 58-35 in seven seasons, twice in appearing in the Orange Bowl. But he’d hit a four-year lull until Justin Thomas took the reins of the offense. Thomas was brilliant in his starting debut, delivering arguably the best season ever by one of Johnson’s quarterbacks. He led the Jackets in rushing, was dangerous through the air and guided the team to the Coastal crown, an upset of rival Georgia and a bowl rout of Mississippi State.
14. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly/Malik Zaire
The Irish are going all in with Zaire this season, precipitating Everett Golson’s transfer to Florida State. Zaire’s considerable ceiling and physical ability contrast his lack of experience. Think young Michael Vick, right down to the elite athleticism and strong left arm. And Kelly is the right coach to bring out the best in his young dual-threat. He’s won wherever he’s been, from the lower divisions to South Bend. Yeah, the Irish have plateaued since the 2012 National Championship appearance, but Kelly feels he now has the roster, including the young quarterback, to once again be nationally relevant.
13. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops/Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield
Sure, Stoops faces a degree of uncertainty behind center as he attempts to regain the swagger that led to eight Big 12 titles from 2000-2012. But despite unmet expectations the last two seasons, he remains one of the dozen or so best coaches in college football. And his quarterback situation will be better now that Knight is healthy, Mayfield is eligible and Air Raid aficionado Lincoln Riley is their offensive coordinator. The gunslinging Mayfield plus Riley is rife will all kinds of exciting possibilities, and a player with Knight’s experience would afford the Sooners ideal QB depth.
12. Arizona: Rich Rodriguez/Anu Solomon
It’s been well documented this offseason that Rodriguez finally has the same starting quarterback in consecutive years. And for good reason. The coach has masterfully handled his first-time starters, including journeymen Matt Scott and B.J. Denker. So imagine what he might accomplish with Solomon, who debuted in 2014 with 30 total touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards of total offense. RichRod has fully restored his post-Michigan reputation by turning the Wildcats into a perennial Pac-12 power. He’s won 26 games in three years, 10 last season, and he’s just getting started in Tucson.
11. Stanford: David Shaw/Kevin Hogan
Souring on Shaw because he’s coming off his worst of four seasons with the Cardinal would be a huge mistake. He’s one of the premier young coaches in the game, maintaining the high standard on the Farm originally set by Jim Harbaugh. Shaw is liable to be downgraded this season, much like his quarterback. Hogan is no doubt an enigma who can be maddeningly inconsistent. However, he’s also a fourth-year starter and Stanford’s unequivocal leader. If Hogan can build off last year’s torrid finish, it’ll unlock the potential of the offense, as well as his own NFL career.
10. Oregon: Mark Helfrich/Vernon Adams, Jeff Lockie
Helfrich took a large step outside of Chip Kelly’s shadow last season by guiding the Ducks to 13 wins and a spot in the national championship game. Of course, now he has to prove he can keep Oregon title-worthy without Marcus Mariota, which is where Adams and Lockie enter the discussion. Lockie played well in the spring, but Adams wasn’t lured from Eastern Washington to run the scout team. If Adams can assimilate at warp speed this summer, he possesses the athletic toolbox and the extensive starting experience to flourish as the new conductor of Helfrich’s attack.
9. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher/Everett Golson
Prior to Golson’s transfer from Notre Dame, Fisher was Nick Saban—an elite coach entering 2015 with too much uncertainty behind center. But Golson, despite his flaws and penchant for turnovers, gives the coach a much-needed veteran quarterback with a strong arm and two full seasons of starting experience. He immediately improves Fisher’s chances of keeping the Noles in the title hunt. The coach has deftly led Florida State out of the sinkhole that was Bobby Bowden’s final chapter, winning 58 games, three ACC crowns and a national championship in only five years.
8. Penn State: James Franklin/Christian Hackenberg
The coach and the quarterback are rising stars, even if the latter needs to put 2014 behind him as quickly as possible. Hackenberg endured a dreadful sophomore year, though miserable pass protection was an undeniable factor. He still has first round arm talent, which Happy Valley hopes to see this fall. Franklin is on the coaching profession fast track now that he’s at a program that can fully benefit from his energy, motivational skills and ability to stockpile talent. With a little more time and patience, he can turn Penn State into a national power again.
7. Clemson: Dabo Swinney/Deshaun Watson
Watson’s body of work is still small, but the expectations for him are enormous. So bright is the future for the budding mega-star that his former coordinator, Chad Morris, second-guessed a decision to take the SMU gig because of what he was leaving behind. Swinney is ecstatic to have access to Watson for at least the next two seasons. The coach has led Clemson to one of its strongest runs ever. The Tigers perennially recruit well, and they’ve won at least 10 games four years in a row. Now, they just need to narrow the gap on Florida State.
6. Baylor: Art Briles/Seth Russell
If one thing has become patently obvious about Art Briles, it’s that his quarterbacks are always going to succeed in his offense. The system and the coach are that good. The fact that Briles has turned perennial doormat Baylor into a national power is nothing short of remarkable. And his next pupil behind center will be much more than just a stats compiler. Sure, Russell lacks reps as he prepares to supplant Bryce Petty. But he’s entering his fourth season in the attack, and he has all of the physical tools needed to flourish right away as Briles’ new offensive orchestrator.
5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen/Dak Prescott
No one thrives in Starkville, a coaching graveyard for most. Yet, Mullen has now strung together five straight winning seasons, while spending a large chunk of the 2014 campaign at the top of the rankings. He’s been transformational for this program in every possible way, as has Prescott, who’ll begin his senior year as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Prescott took a quantum leap in his development as a true dual-threat last season, accounting for 41 touchdowns and finishing No. 14 nationally in passing efficiency.
4. Auburn: Gus Malzahn/Jeremy Johnson
Malzahn is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and his transition from the high school ranks of Arkansas a decade ago couldn’t have gone much smoother. He’s already holding his own in the nation’s deepest conference for coaches, coming within a whisker of winning a national championship two years ago. Like Art Briles at Baylor, quarterbacks will soar under Malzahn’s tutelage. And Johnson, an agile 6-5, 240-pounder with a live arm, has a chance to be special as the heir to Nick Marshall. Malzahn is around to make sure of it.
3. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio/Connor Cook
While it took a few years to get cranking in East Lansing, Dantonio now resides in college football’s coaching penthouse. The blue-collar Spartans, built in their leader’s image, have won at least 11 games in four of the past five years. They’ve captured four straight bowl games, and finished in the top 5 in 2013 and 2014. For Dantonio, Cook is his ideal quarterback. Yeah, he’s loaded with intangibles, and limits mistakes, but he also has an NFL arm. Dantonio plus a veteran quarterback of Cook’s caliber equals another season of double-digit wins that ends in January.
2. TCU: Gary Patterson/Trevone Boykin
Patterson is a terrific coach, and one of the game’s best defensive minds, but this ranking is a clear collaboration with his versatile quarterback. Before Boykin took flight in the Frogs’ new offense in 2014, accounting for 41 touchdowns and 4,608 yards, TCU was struggling to compete in the Big 12. But now that this program has an offense to complement its trademark D, league—and playoff—contention are assured in 2015. The sky’s the limit for Boykin now that he has a full season in the system and most of his supporting cast is still in Fort Worth.
1. Ohio State: Urban Meyer/ J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller
Just how dominant are the Buckeyes in this space? They could pair Meyer with whichever quarterback winds up third-string and still be ranked No. 1 overall. The quarterback depth is historically good; Jones led Ohio State to last year’s national championship. Barrett finished fifth in the 2014 Heisman voting. And Miller is a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. And the precocious trio gets to be paired with an offensive visionary who’s one of the two best head coaches in the game. Meyer wins everywhere, and he’s now won three national titles on two different campuses.