The college football season turns for many reasons, but at the top of the list is the level of play by the quarterbacks for the best teams. Which ones will stumble when the pressure is greatest, and which ones will be able to handle both the outside scrutiny and the internal expectations that go with being a team leader on offense? Many of the quarterbacks on this list will be Heisman Trophy contenders.
Sam Darnold, USC (Pac-12)
This is the Heisman Trophy favorite, the golden-boy quarterback at one of college football’s glamour programs. USC rose to a familiar position last year as Rose Bowl champion, beating Penn State in a 52-49 shootout. The architect of that shootout was Darnold, a freshman who came in after USC had already lost multiple games and immediately changed the nature of the USC offense. Darnold went 9-1 as a starter, and in the one game he lost, USC’s offense scored 27 points.
Darnold might have to scramble a little more this season than he did last season, because some changes on the offensive line might make the Trojans slightly weaker in that area, but Darnold has great pocket presence. He knows how to feel pressure and he knows when to throw the ball away. He should be fine, and if he’s fine, he’ll make a run at the Heisman and collect glowing statistical milestones.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (SEC)
Many will vote for Jalen Hurts of Alabama as the best quarterback in the SEC, and one or two folks might vote for Jacob Eason in a loaded offense at Georgia. Nick Fitzgerald of Mississippi State is very talented, and so is Austin Allen of Arkansas. However, Stidham – who presided over the hugely potent offense at Baylor before transferring to Auburn – is in the best position to succeed. Gus Malzahn, an experienced offensive innovator, is his head coach, and Chip Lindsey, who did very well with Arizona State’s offense last year despite numerous injuries to quarterbacks on the roster, will be Stidham’s offensive coordinator. It’s a season which should be very fruitful for Auburn. If everything comes together, Stidham will be the quarterback SEC fans remember more than any other this year.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (Big 12)
Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State is a decorated veteran quarterback who is also returning for one more go-round, and Will Grier of West Virginia is highly talented, as is Shane Buechele of Texas, but Mayfield is the obvious choice. He is surrounded by the best offensive talent. Lincoln Riley, a gifted offensive mind, is his head coach. Mayfield has been a serious Heisman contender in each of the last two seasons, and he now gets yet another crack at the Oklahoma offense. He should be very comfortable this season in Norman.
Lamar Jackson, Louisville (ACC)
No Deshaun Watson at Clemson makes it even easier to stick with Jackson as the best quarterback in the ACC. All he did last year was win the Heisman Trophy while tearing up a number of rushing records. He might not repeat as the winner this year, but he should still run and pass for a very large pile of yards and make Louisville’s offense very hard to deal with. There’s no need to overthink this choice.
Trace McSorley, Penn State (Big Ten)
J.T. Barrett of Ohio State is the main competitor to McSorley, but he struggled down the stretch last season against Michigan State, Michigan, and then in the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson. McSorley helped Penn State put up 49 points in the Rose Bowl against USC. The Nittany Lions lost because their defense was taken apart, but McSorley more than did his part.
He really emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the country even though nobody expected that going into the season. This time around, everything has changed as there are big expectations for Penn State and McSorley. He is the most productive passer in the Big Ten, Barrett is a better runner, but no pocket passer in the conference can match McSorley.
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