Ranking the Best Returning Quarterbacks in College Football

We’re closing out on a really productive decade for college quarterbacks — just think, eight of the nine Heisman Trophy winners since 2010 were quarterbacks — and the 2019 season should be especially loaded at the position.

The quarterbacks of the teams that competed for last season’s College Football Playoff national championship — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa — are the preseason frontrunners to win the Heisman in December.

Plus, there are other high-level signal-callers who are entering their first season playing for a blue blood program after transferring in the offseason (Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts), those who will look to build on promising freshman seasons (Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and USC’s JT Daniels to name a few) and really productive quarterbacks who play outside of the Power Five (Houston’s D’Eriq King, Utah State’s Jordan Love and North Texas’ Mason Fine).

As we project ahead to the 2019 season, here’s how we rank the top 15 returning quarterbacks in college football.

[RELATED: College Football’s Toughest Scheduling Spots for Bettors in September]

Others considered: JT Daniels (USC), Jake Bentley (South Carolina), Steven Montez (Colorado), Nate Stanley (Iowa), Kelly Bryant (Missouri), Joe Burrow (LSU), Khalil Tate (Arizona), Jordan Ta’amu (Ole Miss), Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), Alan Bowman (Texas Tech), Jacob Eason (Washington)

15. Shea Patterson, Michigan

No, that alleged tweet from “Shea Patterson” about how he’s going to be the best quarterback in the Big Ten and that he would’ve won the Heisman last season if he called his own plays wasn’t actually sent by Patterson. So you can resume your standard offseason business.

But he did have a productive first season in Ann Arbor, even if his performance against Florida may have left a sour taste in the mouths of some Michigan fans.

Patterson’s passing efficiency rating ranked 22nd nationally as he threw for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

Now the question is how the addition of Michigan Offensive Coordinator Josh Gattis can open up the Wolverines’ offense. Patterson’s 25 passing attempts per game last season ranked 75th nationally.

14. Brock Purdy, Iowa State

While his team and individual profile aren’t on the level of Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, Brock Purdy could benefit from a similar trajectory in terms of when each player took over as his team’s starting quarterback as a true freshman and the progress they could make between their freshman and sophomore seasons.

Purdy took over as Iowa State’s starter on Oct. 6 against Oklahoma State, and he was 18-for-23 with 318 passing yards, four touchdowns and one interception in his debut — a 48-42 win in a shootout on the road. The Cyclones went 7-2 with Purdy as a starter with the only losses coming to a pair of teams that finished in the top 10: at Texas and against Washington State in the Alamo Bowl.

He’ll need to cut down on his interceptions — he threw seven in nine games — but his 66.4 completion percentage and 169 passing efficiency rating ranked in the top 15 nationally.

13. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

Martinez was tied for the third-best odds to win the Heisman Trophy this season, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. That speaks to the ability and potential of the rising sophomore quarterback even though his team went just 4-8 last season.

He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 629 yards and eight scores.

12. Ian Book, Notre Dame

Book had one of the highest completion percentages in the country last season at 68.2 percent, and his yards per attempt (8.4) was tied for 15th in the country. But since he played just 10 games after taking over for Brandon Wimbush, his overall yardage and touchdown numbers, which weren’t bad — 2,628 and 19 — might look a bit low compared to some other quarterbacks on this list.

His performance against Clemson was his worst game of the season (which is to be expected against the Tigers’ defensive line), and he threw an interception in six of his final seven games, but he consistently completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 270 to 350 yards and multiple touchdowns per game.

11. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Fields is largely an unknown at the college level after attempting just 39 passes and 42 rushes as a true freshman at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State. If he lives up to his billing as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, there may not be any, or at least a significant, drop-off from the Urban Meyer era to Ryan Day’s tenure.

His 69 percent completion percentage, 8.4 yards per attempt and 173 passing efficiency rating as Jake Fromm’s backup were promising, but we need to see those numbers over the course of an entire season as the Buckeyes’ starter in order to buy into him as one of the best quarterbacks in the sport.

10. Mason Fine, North Texas

In case you didn’t watch North Texas play last season, we’ll fill you in on Fine. He averaged nearly 300 passing yards per game while completing nearly 65 percent of his attempts.

His 3,793 passing yards ranked 10th nationally, and he had a 27-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

9. K.J. Costello, Stanford

Costello’s production took a big jump from his sophomore to junior season as he threw for nearly 2,000 more yards, completed more than six percent of his passes, more than doubled his passing touchdowns and improved his passing efficiency rating by 15 points.

He ranked in the top 20 nationally in most major passing statistics.

8. Jordan Love, Utah State

Love may be outside the consciousness of many fans nationally because he plays in the Mountain West, but a repeat, or improvement, of his 2018 season should quickly change that. He completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

Love’s 158 passing efficiency rating ranked 10th in the country and both his yards per game and yards per attempt ranked in the top 15.

7. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

For a player with two years as a starter in the SEC and a third as a prominent backup, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts’ status and stature in the sport is something of an unknown — or at the very least, it has a significant level of potential variance — after he transferred to join the Sooners in the offseason.

His predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor each won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in Lincoln Riley’s first two seasons as the head man. Kyler Murray was certainly more of a runner than Baker Mayfield, and Hurts is more of a power runner than Murray, so the two main questions about Hurts’ fit in Norman are how can Riley adjust his system to cater to Hurts’ running ability and how much has Hurts improved as a passer since he last started in 2017?

If Riley can seamlessly transition his offense to yet another transfer quarterback and if Hurts can take advantage of a really talented receiver corps, then there’s a chance his position on this list improves by season’s end.

6. D’Eriq King, Houston

Houston’s D’Eriq King is tied for second nationally among returning quarterbacks in passing touchdowns last season with 36. That was in 11 games, too, rather than the 13, 14 or 15 games in which other top signal-callers competed. His 167 passing efficiency rating ranked seventh in the country and his 271 passing yards per game ranked in the top 20.

King is also a prolific rusher, taking 111 attempts for 674 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, so he averaged roughly 330 yards per game combined through the air and on the ground.

New Houston Coach Dana Holgorsen is lucky King has a year of eligibility left, especially with a non-conference schedule that includes a road opener at Oklahoma and a game against Washington State in NRG Stadium. With injuries to UCF’s McKenzie Milton and Darriel Mack Jr., King and Houston could be the quarterback to watch and team to beat, respectively, in the AAC.

5. Justin Herbert, Oregon

Herbert’s name is featured prominently in many 2020 NFL mock drafts and his return to Eugene for his senior season is a major reason why some prognosticators suggest the Ducks could be a sleeper team to make the College Football Playoff. But that doesn’t mean Herbert doesn’t have room to improve.

Twelve of his 29 passing touchdowns last season came during non-conference play against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State, as did four of his eight interceptions. He averaged just 1.7 passing touchdowns per game in Pac-12 play and his completion percentage was below 60 percent in nine of Oregon’s 13 games last season, including two non-conference games in which he completed less than half of his attempts.

He has the “measurables” at 6-6, 234 pounds and the NFL Draft hype, but when you look at his national rankings last season — 65th in completion percentage, 27th in passing yards, 36th in yards/attempt, 37th in passing efficiency rating, 94th in interceptions — his play at the college level still leaves more to be desired at times.

4. Sam Ehlinger, Texas

On Tuesday, Ehlinger was named the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns, and running for 16 more touchdowns last season. His play this fall could determine whether Texas makes a serious push for the College Football Playoff or if it’s merely a Big 12 contender.

He ranked among the top 30 nationally in completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns, and in the top 40 in yards per attempt, passing efficiency rating and passing yards per game. While he wasn’t necessarily productive on a per-carry basis as a runner (2.9 YPC), he was a serious running threat in the red zone with his team-high 16 rushing touchdowns.

Ehlinger lost his leading receiver, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, from last season, but Collin Johnson is back in Austin.

3. Jake Fromm, Georgia

Fromm didn’t just hold off 5-star freshman Justin Fields from taking over Georgia’s starting quarterback job (eventually leading to Fields’ transfer to Ohio State), but he made tangible improvements from his freshman season. His completion percentage rose by more than five percent and his touchdown-to-interception ratio climbed from roughly 3.5-to-1 to 5-to-1.

This season will be a big test for Fromm, as well as Georgia’s recruiting and player development prowess, as the Bulldogs look to replace their top five receivers from last season.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Tagovailoa was arguably the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy before his 10-for-25 passing performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship, when he exited the game with an injury after throwing for 164 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

With a healthy ankle and knee, plus whatever vengeance Alabama and Coach Nick Saban are fueled by after suffering the worst loss of the Saban era against Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship, Tagovailoa may very well prove to be the best quarterback in the country.

But after his showings against Georgia (10-for-25, 164 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) and Clemson (22-for-34, 295 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), we gave a slight edge to Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Lawrence and Tagovailoa deserve to be 1 and 1a in some order, and there may not even be a “right” order.

There’s some level of projection in these rankings, too. Lawrence had the benefit of a full offseason as the Tigers’ unquestioned starter. Don’t forget that he backed up Kelly Bryant for Clemson’s first four games last season, then he was knocked out of his first game as a starter against Syracuse.

In his next 10 games, he had a 21-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and threw for at least 300 yards in half of them. Lawrence’s passer rating against Power Five opponents and FBS opponents with a winning record was roughly the same as his season-long rating, so his high-level play continued even as he faced stronger competition.

MORE: A Closer Look at Some of College Football’s Top Returning Wide Receivers