Back by popular demand (or at least an absence of protest), we continue the presentation of the annual Most Intriguing lists for college football. Here are the 25 Most Intriguing Quarterbacks in college football in 2014:
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Seamlessly took over for Johnny Manziel as both the most captivating and most controversial player in college football. Winston not only has the Heisman Trophy but a national title, and his team will start this season as the favorite to repeat. Winston was confident as ever at ACC media days in July and has handled an enormous amount of attention (not all of it positive) with outward ease. Until proven otherwise, he is this season’s leading man. Feel free to cheer for or root against with gusto.
2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Prior to injuring a knee in November, he was every bit the Heisman contender that Winston was. Mariota didn’t throw an interception until the 11th game of the season, was a dangerous runner most of the year and was fully in command of the Ducks’ up-tempo offense. His arm, size (6-foot-4, 215) and athleticism are among the reasons why NFL scouts will be watching to see whether he should be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, or at the very least the first quarterback selected.
3. Brett Hundley, UCLA. Most thought he would have been a first-round pick last April had he entered the draft. Instead, Hundley returned for his third season as a starter for the Bruins, making them a legit national title contender for the first time in ages. In addition to 3,071 passing yards and 24 touchdown throws, the underrated runner also led UCLA in rushing with 748 yards and 11 TDs. Coach Jim Mora would probably like to see Hundley run less this year.
4. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. A significant part of the optimism attached to the Sooners this season emanates from Knight’s revelatory Sugar Bowl performance: 32 of 44 passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama. It was a departure from the disappointing form he showed during the regular season, when Knight was named the starter before the year and failed to keep the job. If the Sugar show was who Knight is going to be in 2014, the Sooners are going to be hard to stop. If it was an aberration, Oklahoma could be massively overrated.
5. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. Missed the entire season last year after getting into trouble academically, and the Fighting Irish offense was pedestrian without him. Now Notre Dame’s lone shining light from the 2013 BCS Championship Game debacle is back, with much expected of him. If Golson picks up where he left off in the latter half of the ’12 season, the Irish will have a chance at a double-digit victory total.
6. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Deluxe athlete with a deft touch running the read option wasn’t elusive enough to avoid a June citation for marijuana possession. That will keep him from starting the season opener against Arkansas, but shouldn’t lessen his importance to the defending Southeastern Conference champions. If quarterback guru Gus Malzahn has improved Marshall’s passing since last season, he will be a nightmare for opposing defenses to deal with.
7. Braxton Miller, Ohio State. He can pass (more than 5,000 career yards and 52 touchdowns). He can run (more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns). Can he lead? That’s the last remaining question with Miller, whose introverted personality may not mesh well with taking over this team. The Buckeyes are replacing their leading rusher, receiver and top three tacklers, so even more will fall on Miller’s shoulders as a senior.
8. Bryce Petty, Baylor. They may have been slow to catch on at the Dairy Queen in Salem, Ore., but the rest of Chinstrap Nation knows Petty pretty well after 2013. In his first year as a college starter, Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just three interceptions as the Bears won their first Big 12 title. With Art Briles’ orgiastic offense at his fingertips, the senior should be a Heisman contender again this year.
9. Devin Gardner, Michigan. He has played hard. He has played hurt. But he hasn’t always played smart, as his 17 turnovers last year showed. Michigan’s porous offensive line did Gardner few favors, but he was plenty capable of creating trouble for himself as well as the Wolverines staggered to a disappointing 7-6 season. Now the senior has a new coordinator in Doug Nussmeier and new competition for playing time in Shane Morris. Gardner remains Michigan’s best option at quarterback – but is he good enough to win big?
10. Jeff Driskel, Florida. Like Gardner, Driskel is a touted veteran quarterback whose career hasn’t quite played out as well as scripted. Like Gardner, he is seeking a new level of success with a new coordinator. And, like Gardner, his performance this year likely will have a direct impact on his coach’s job security. Coming off a broken leg last September, Driskel has a three-game acclimation period against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky before the schedule gets (very) serious.
11. Jacob Coker, Alabama. Big guy (6-5, 230 pounds) with a big arm and a big burden replacing multi-national titlist AJ McCarron. After playing very little in two years at Florida State, the curiosity factor is immense surrounding Coker. But before he can start leading the Crimson Tide to glory, he has to first hold off senior Blake Sims for the starting job. Then the ‘Bama QB will spend a lot of time handing off to the Tide’s ridiculous stable of running backs.
12. Connor Cook, Michigan State. A year ago, nobody was talking about the Ohio native who went unrecruited by the Buckeyes and was a backup in East Lansing. But Cook eventually took over the job and progressed to the point that, by season’s end, he was making big-time plays to help the Spartans upset Ohio State for the Big Ten title and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Like Michigan State’s team as a whole, Cook enters this season with an entirely new level of visibility and credibility. How does he handle it?
13. David Ash, Texas. There has been plenty wrong with the Longhorns in the past three seasons, but the quarterback drop-off after Colt McCoy and Vince Young is probably the most glaring issue. Ash has been part of that problem, although he was lost for the season in September last year due to concussions. Still a junior, Ash is in the Gardner-Driskel mode of trying to make up for lost time and lost games in a new offense.
14. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati. Remember him? Kiel was a breathlessly hyped high school prospect who committed to Indiana, signed with LSU, wound up at Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincinnati – all before playing a down of college football. Kiel comes from Southern Indiana, which is not exactly Florida in terms of a prospect breeding ground, so there are skeptics still waiting to see if he’s the real deal. That wait will extend until at least Sept. 12, since the Bearcats have open dates the first two Saturdays of the season. (The American Athletic Conference at work, ladies and gentlemen.)
15. Kevin Hogan, Stanford. He’s started 20 games for the Cardinal, but only once has he attempted 30 passes in a contest – and that was the third start of his career, in 2012. With holes to fill on the offensive line and at running back, and a veteran receiving corps, arch-conservative coach David Shaw may let Hogan wing it around more. And it should work out fine. Hogan also is Stanford’s leading returning rusher, with more than 600 career yards on the ground.
16. Rakeem Cato, Marshall. With just an ordinary season, Cato will finish his career in the Division I all-time top 10 in passing yards. With an exceptional season, he could crack the top five. With the pillow-soft schedule the Thundering Herd will face, the biggest challenge may be getting to play in the fourth quarter of several games. But Marshall also could wind up undefeated, and Cato will be the face of a program that could command more national attention than at any time since Randy Moss and Chad Pennington were there.
17. Cody Kessler, USC. One of Lane Kiffin’s biggest problems at USC was failing to select and develop a quarterback after Matt Barkley graduated – but once Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season, Kessler began to blossom. He had 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the Trojans’ last nine games, and USC went 7-2 in that span. This year the job is his alone, and the Trojans are optimistic that he will be a seamless fit with Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo offense.
18. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State. Seemingly been at Utah State since the Merlin Olsen days. Houston product has played – and played with great aplomb – since the minute he set foot in Logan, helping the Aggies raise their program far beyond its historically modest standing. Keeton blew out a knee midway through last season, which is the only thing keeping him from already being the school’s all-time leader in total offense. As it is, he’s a darkhorse Heisman candidate – but the offensive supporting cast is frightfully inexperienced.
19. Whoever Starts, Texas A&M. Just because Johnny Football has taken the party to the pros doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue in College Station. Of all the fascinating quarterback battles in college football, this one may be the most significant. Plug in the right guy and the Aggies should continue to roll up points and yards in the post-Manziel Era. But if the QB struggles, does the rest of the offense struggle with him? Most of the curiosity centers on true freshman Kyle Allen, rated by Rivals as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in the class of 2014 – and he was enrolled for the spring semester. But he has to beat out sophomore Kenny Hill first.
20. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina. Steve Spurrier finally stopped playing quarterback roulette last year and gave the job unequivocally to Connor Shaw – who threw one interception in 284 attempts and led the Gamecocks to a third straight 11-2 season. Now, after swapping reps with Shaw in 2012, it’s Thompson’s turn to be The Guy. South Carolina’s offense is well-equipped with playmakers and a veteran line and should be productive – if Thompson plays well. If not, the Head Ball Coach will have someone else in there without hesitation.
21. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. A lot of people thought the five-star recruit was crazy for signing on with the heavily sanctioned Nittany Lions, even though he stepped in and played impressively as a true freshman. The second-guessing intensified when expert quarterback tutor Bill O’Brien left State College for the NFL after last season. Now he’s playing for a new coach, with four new starters on the offensive line, and on a unit that may only start one senior. Tighten that chinstrap, son. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
22. Sean Mannion, Oregon State. Mannion is to Mariota what the Beavers are to the Ducks in general – overshadowed at all times. But the big (6-5, 220), strong-armed senior is considered a potential first-round draft pick after throwing for gobs of yards (4,662) and touchdowns (37) a year ago. Mannion has to find a new main target after the departure of the ridiculously productive Brandin Cooks (128 catches), but there are options available. In a league overflowing with talented QBs, don’t overlook this guy.
23. Keenan Reynolds, Navy. Get to know the NCAA single-season record setter for rushing touchdowns by a QB – he had a staggering 31 of them last year. The junior also has led five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter since becoming the starter midway through his freshman season. The schedule is intriguing, too: 10 seemingly winnable games, and the two big dogs (Ohio State and Notre Dame) come to Maryland to play. If Navy turns this into a memorable season, Reynolds will be the face of it.
24. Hutson Mason, Georgia. In an era where backup quarterbacks commonly transfer in search of starting jobs, Mason patiently paid his dues behind Aaron Murray – who left Athens as the SEC’s career passing leader. Mason got a chance to show his worth when Murray got hurt late last year, and his performance inspired confidence that he can keep a high-powered offense clicking. The fifth-year senior has a chance to write a great ending to a persevering career.
25. Will Gardner, Louisville. He’s not Teddy Bridgewater, but people around the Cardinals program are quietly giddy about Gardner’s potential. Especially with Bobby Petrino designing the offense and tutoring the quarterback, and a flush receiving corps. If Petrino could turn average-armed, undersized Stefan LeFors into the nation’s most efficient QB in 2004, what can he do with a 6-5 specimen like Gardner?
Just missed the list: Deshaun Watson, Clemson; Taylor Kelly, Arizona State; Matt Joeckel, TCU; Shane Carden, East Carolina; Bo Wallace, Mississippi; Dak Prescott, Mississippi State; J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State; Wes Lunt, Illinois; Marquise Williams, North Carolina; Maty Mauk, Missouri; Taysom Hill, BYU; Connor Halliday, Washington State; Jake Waters, Kansas State; John O’Korn, Houston; Pete Thomas, Louisiana-Monroe.