Not long ago, it was possible to win national championships without elite college football quarterbacks. Nick Saban’s Alabama teams did it three times between 2009 and 2012. Each time they relied on dominant defenses, punishing running games, and QBs who mainly had to make sure they didn’t throw too many interceptions.
But the sport has changed. Spread offenses that rely on high-volume, high-difficulty passing have put a premium on QBs who can chuck the ball around more accurately than their predecessors. It’s no longer possible to win it all without one of the best QBs in the country.
2021 is shaping up to be an interesting season. A big handful of potential title contenders, plus a few peripheral contenders who made their own runs last season, are replacing their QBs. Trying to figure out which teenaged QBs will dominate is tricky at best, but one way of sorting out their chances of success is to look at the teams they’ll be taking over.
Here are eight teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks this fall, ranked (from best to worst) by how favorable of a situation the young signal-caller will walk into.
D.J. Uiagalelei keeps it himself to make it a one score game! pic.twitter.com/g0FayQc3p7
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 31, 2020
It’s hard to imagine a more ideal environment for new QB D.J. Uiagalelei. The former five-star prospect joined Clemson in 2020 and acquitted himself well in nine appearances. He also played admirably in his two starts while eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence recovered from COVID-19.
Uiagalelei will stand behind a dominant offensive line, and his receivers are the most appealing targets a QB could ask for. Chief among them: The 6’4” Justyn Ross will return this year after a spinal condition cost him his 2020 season, and he should give Uiagalelei a premier deep threat.
2. Ohio State
Former five-star C.J. Stroud is poised to replace Chicago Bears draftee Justin Fields under center for the Buckeyes. The only reason Clemson’s situation ranks above Ohio State is that Uiagalelei has already had the chance to work in Clemson’s offense, while Stroud will see his first game action this fall. With Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Stroud has the best wide receiver duo in college football at his disposal. He’ll also work behind the Big Ten’s best offensive line and under the tutelage of head coach Ryan Day, one of the sport’s best QB developers.
Bryce Young was the top QB recruit in the country last year.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 21, 2020
There is a case to be made that new signal-caller Bryce Young—yet another former five-star recruit on this list—is walking into a worse situation than recent Alabama QBs. But that is a highly relative statement. Young had a year to sit around and learn Bama’s offense as a true freshman in 2020, and while that offense will change somewhat now that Bill O’Brien has replaced Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator, it likely won’t be a total overhaul.
Young will have boatloads of talent around him, and Bama’s stingy defense will ensure he rarely has to play from behind. The Crimson Tide lost a couple of brilliant receivers, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, but returning wideout John Metchie III will soften the blow.
4. Texas A&M
It’s not entirely clear who will replace Kellen Mond as the quarterback for the Aggies. In fact, the position might be A&M’s biggest weakness in what could be a College Football Playoff year. But whether Haynes King or Zach Calzada earns the job, the eventual QB will have quite a supporting cast around him.
The Aggies’ pass-catchers are arguably the best in the SEC. Tight end Jalen Wydermeyer is one of the sport’s best over-the-middle threats, and Ainias Smith can put his game-breaking agility to use in numerous ways. The biggest problem facing A&M’s eventual QB might just be the pressure he’s under to keep a potentially historic season on track.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) July 29, 2021
The Longhorns have a QB battle on their hands between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. Whoever wins and keeps the starting job will benefit from new coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense, which propelled Alabama’s undefeated run to the national championship last year. Texas should have decent units at running back, wide receiver, and offensive line, but it’s not likely that the Longhorns will be great at any one thing. Thompson or Card will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to improve UT’s standing in the Big 12, and that’s a tall order for either player.
New QB Emory Jones is a strong breakout candidate. A big, bulky player with strong running ability and a rocket arm, his athletic profile is kind of like a Tim Tebow with better throwing ability. But he’s entering a potentially difficult situation, with Florida’s two best receivers from 2020 (tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney) now in the NFL. Last year’s Gators relied a great deal on those two, as any team would have—they were two of the most devastating players in America.
Other than running back Malik Davis, UF will not retain a single player who received more than 20 pass targets in 2020. Combine that with a possibly weak offensive line and regular competition against high-end SEC defenses, and Jones will have a lot on his plate.
7. Notre Dame
Three-year starter Ian Book is gone, and Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is in. Coan will have a difficult time getting Notre Dame back to the Playoff, which Book reached twice. The Irish don’t have a single wide receiver who appears to have game-breaking talent (though one could emerge), and the team’s offensive line just lost four players to the NFL. Coan has never shown much ability as a deep downfield passer, and he’ll likely have a hard time finding any targets this fall.
The Cougars are dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of returning production. They didn’t just lose QB Zach Wilson to the NFL; they also saw their three best offensive linemen depart. And maybe just as critically, highly regarded offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, the architect of the offense Wilson led so beautifully in 2020, left to take the same job at Baylor. New QB Jaren Hall might be good—he showed some flashes in his last game action in 2019—but he’s walking into a meat grinder.