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Coming off a 2021 NFL draft that quarterbacks dominated early, and with college and NFL people believing early QB runs will be more the norm going forward, we thought we’d start mapping out the 2021 college football season from a viewing standpoint.
There are some terrific early matchups in the upcoming season from a team-vs.-team standpoint. But we focused on the quarterbacks — and especially for you NFL draft fans out there, we wanted to highlight the best head-to-head QB matchups that could end up being significant battles when we start weighing the 2022 NFL draft prospects.
Did we leave some 2022 QB prospects off this list? Yes, but mostly because we couldn't find a marquee, head-to-head battle worth picking.
1. Malik Willis vs. Matt Corral
Liberty at Ole Miss, Nov. 6 (Saturday)
Willis is this spring’s hottest draft name, in a similar way to where Trey Lance was a year ago. After a 13-attempt career at Auburn, Willis transferred to Liberty and lit it up in a terrific 2020 season for the Flames. He had a 20-6 TD-INT ratio, 8.5 yards per attempt and showed great rushing skill (941 yards, 14 TDs in 10 games).
Although Willis struggled in Liberty's one loss to North Carolina State, he was terrific in most of the other games. Just as likely to fire a 45-yard strike as he is to gut a defense with a read-option keeper, Willis is a true double threat. It’s hard to stop both, as Coastal Carolina found out in the Cure Bowl.
Willis and the Flames will roll into Oxford in early November for what could be a snapshot of two first-round QB picks. But both he and Corral have something to prove. Like Willis, Corral can put on a laser show with his arm and can dazzle as a runner, too. He also had a few poor games, including a six-INT clunker vs. Arkansas and a four-picker vs. LSU.
Both also have terrific talent and are the style of quarterback the NFL is now embracing. A generation ago, both would be implored to spend a few years in Canada honing their skills. In this era, their dual-threat skills will be highly sought — assuming both progress the way we think they can this season. This matchup could be a low-key banger by the time it rolls around.
2. Tyler Shough vs. Spencer Rattler
Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Oct. 30
Shough is a fascinating study. He transferred to Tech after beating out Anthony Brown for Oregon’s starting job last year because it became painfully obvious to many observers that the Ducks staff didn't trust him to operate the breadth of the offense. Once Shough’s confidence was shaken, followed by Brown replacing him in the bowl game, Shough was as good as gone.
Red Raiders head coach Matt Wells told Yahoo Sports he’s thrilled to have him.
“I love that dude,” Wells said. “Mature beyond his years. I mean, big arm. I am not oblivious to what some people have written about him. But I love the guy so far.”
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Shough did enough in seven starts (64.8% completions, 9.4 yards per attempt, 16-6 TD-INT ratio; 271 rush yards, two TDs) to land in Lubbock. Paired with a strong supporting cast, Shough should be allowed to have a longer leash this season.
Wells believes Shough could have a big 2021 season — and is preparing for the idea he could declare early after it.
“He might play two years here, he might play one,” Wells said. "If he plays one, Texas Tech had a really, really good year. I am good if he plays one and he’s done.
“He’s better in the building than I thought. He came fairly highly advertised, but he’s better in the building than I realized. Comes early, stays late. Football junkie. Three months he’s been here? He’s shown tremendous leadership. The dudes love him.”
Of course, Shough is not yet close to the prospect, buzz-wise, that Rattler is right now as one of the early favorites to be the first quarterback selected next spring, perhaps even No. 1 overall. He’s currently the favorite at +250 to be picked first overall by BetMGM in the 2022 draft.
We’re not quite there yet on Rattler. His splash plays are tremendous, but his consistency could use improvement. If we can use Baker Mayfield — the last Sooners QB to start back-to-back seasons — as a barometer, Rattler stands to level up this season. Mayfield took a huge jump from 2015 to 2016 (and another one from 2016 to 2017) under Lincoln Riley, and Rattler gets back one of the best WR corps in college football. The Sooners could average 50 points a game this season.
Shough vs. Rattler might not surpass the 2016 arms race set forth by Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, but we can see it being another phenomenal shootout.
3. Sam Howell vs. Kenny Pickett
UNC at Pitt, Nov. 11
Howell is second only to Rattler for early odds on next year’s top overall NFL draft pick at +350, per BetMGM. How Howell responds to losing his top two running backs and top two receivers will tell us a lot about how highly he’s regarded by season’s end.
Although Howell has a fairly strong arm and has been money in crunch time the past two seasons, he’s not all that physically impressive, has been operating in a friendly Air Raid system and must rely on new playmakers.
Facing off with him in this matchup is the plucky Pickett, who seemed to improve his arm strength and his consistency last season. We assumed he’d come out this past draft cycle, but a midseason ankle injury derailed Pickett. Can he stay healthy and deliver one complete season? Pickett will turn 24 next June, so he’s on the older side.
4. Kedon Slovis vs. Jayden Daniels
USC at Arizona State, Nov. 6
Slovis’ calling card is his accuracy, and he’s already got 17 starts under his belt as a soon-to-be 21-year old true junior. The Trojans lose Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns but have two game-changers in Drake London and Bru McCoy, plus underrated Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon. Slovis could be in line for a big statistical year — even if we question his NFL upside — assuming the offensive line pass-protects better.
Daniels is a player you should not sleep on. Last year's COVID-addled Sun Devils season made them a tricky evaluation, and Daniels was able to attempt only 84 passes in 2020. What we saw of him as a freshman gives us hope. Daniels has a live arm and great scrambling ability and could take a jump this year, despite losing WR Frank Darby to the NFL.
Daniels and the Sun Devils nearly pulled the upset in the opener last year against the Trojans but gave up touchdowns to London and McCoy in the final three minutes to see a 13-point lead evaporate. Both quarterbacks had their ups and downs in that one, but we are expecting a better showcase for each this time around.
5. Emory Jones vs. JT Daniels
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville), Oct. 30
If you’re looking to buy stock early in a QB prospect before the price jumps — whatever that means — then Jones might be your man. He has more rush attempts (92) than pass attempts (86) at this juncture but has all the upside to be a breakout player this season. He has first-round talent.
He has performed well in a reserve role the past two seasons behind Kyle Trask, throwing only one interception, completing 64% of his passes and averaging 5.6 yards per run. How Jones handled replacing Trask in the bowl game slaughtering by Oklahoma showed a lot about Jones’ character and toughness.
Daniels also looks to be a buy-low candidate now, even though his final four games last season jump-started his NFL stock heading into 2021. The USC transfer started 12 games for the Trojan before a knee injury knocked him out of the 2019 opener, and he took some time before earning the Bulldogs’ starting role.
When Daniels played, UGA looked like a different team. He’s an aggressive vertical thrower who can manipulate arm angles, play on the move and is surprisingly mobile. On the flip side, Daniels can clean up some of his decision-making and get rid of the ball quicker.
By the time Halloween weekend rolls around, Jones vs. Daniels could be must-see TV.
6. Desmond Ridder vs. Michael Penix Jr
Cincinnati at Indiana, Sept. 18
Ridder eschewed the draft and returned to the Bearcats, making him one of college football’s more experienced passers (34 starts). He’s also among the most improved at the position. After a dip in his 2019 play, Ridder helped guide Cincinnati to a 9-1 record and a top-10 ranking, throwing for 19 TDs and running for 12 more in his 10 starts.
Penix is a crafty lefty with a lanky build and good athleticism, but his accuracy must improve. He completed 60% or lower in four of his six starts before suffering a torn ACL, which will provide another hurdle this season.
Ridder is the more accomplished of the two, but Penix’s thrilling upside — on full display in his battle against Ohio State’s Justin Fields last season — cannot go overlooked.
7. Carson Strong vs. Chase Garbers
Nevada at Cal, Sept. 4
Strong was the Mountain West’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2020, and he gets back a slew of weapons in WRs Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks, and TE Cole Turner — all three of whom are on NFL radars. So is the 6-4, 215-pound Strong, who had a 27-4 TD-INT ratio and excelled on the deep ball in 2020.
Garbers took a step back last season, hurt by the post-COVID adjustment to new coordinator Bill Musgrove’s offense. He comes into 2021 with 23 starts (25 games) of experience, has shown toughness and fits a pro-style offense well. Can he repeat his 2019 performance (especially in wins over Stanford, UCLA and Illinois) this fall?
This Week 1 battle could put Strong on the national map and could help vault Garbers back into the discussion.
8. Phil Jurkovec vs. Malik Cunningham
Boston College at Louisville, Oct. 23
Jurkovec was a fine addition via Notre Dame, showing the kind of big-play ability that once made him a heralded Irish recruit. The 6-5, 226-pound QB has some Ben Roethlisberger-like skills and, despite losing favorite target Hunter Long, has an exceptional offensive line behind which to work and a deep threat in Zay Flowers. By season’s end we could be talking about Jurkovec as a possible first-rounder.
Cunningham is a tricky eval, with some eye-opening splash plays followed by some disappointing ones (especially amid pressure). But he profiles as an elite scrambler and runner, has shown decent ball placement and has enough arm to make strides and be considered a pro prospect if he improves. Cunningham loses his top two targets but still has some weaponry to work with.
9. Spencer Sanders vs. Brock Purdy
Oklahoma State at Iowa State, Oct. 23
Both quarterbacks in this matchup enter this game with intrigue but also incomplete dossiers. Sanders showed some development last season but needs to cut down on his turnover-worthy throws and will be working with a slew of new offensive weapons and a rebuilt offensive line this season, including new grad-transfer center Danny Godlevske.
Purdy laid an egg in the opener in the stunning home loss to Louisiana before cranking up his performance around midseason. He ended up having a solid year. He’s more NFL backup material and not the next Joe Burrow, despite Purdy’s moxie (translation: he often gets the job done, even if it’s seldom pretty.)
10. Myles Brennan vs. Dorian Thompson-Robinson
LSU at UCLA, Sept. 4
LSU opens the season at the Rose Bowl, and it will be a chance for Brennan to remind folks of how highly recruited he was out of high school and how he has the skills to be an NFL draft pick. Brennan might even be more toolsy than Joe Burrow was, featuring a big-league arm. He also improved with his pocket sense prior to suffering a season-ending abdomen injury.
Thompson-Robinson is entering Year 3 as Chip Kelly’s starter and had a few moments during an abbreviated 2020 season, just as DTR had in his first two seasons. Unfortunately, the results have been decidedly mixed. If he’s going to put himself forth as an NFL prospect, starting the season with a statement performance vs. the Tigers would be a good route to take.
11. Dustin Crum vs. Taulia Tagovailoa
Kent State at Maryland, Sept. 25
We weren’t going to get you out of here without a few semi-sleepers — even if one is the younger brother of an NFL starting quarterback.
First let’s talk Crum. He’s the MAC’s best chance at an NFL QB prospect. He also happens to be studying aerospace engineering, and supposedly plans to be a rocket scientist after his football days are over. (We can’t imagine that storyline taking off this season if he balls out or anything.) His toughness, accuracy and playmaking on the move give him a real NFL chance.
Tagovailoa almost certainly will get an NFL chance, likely by virtue of his surname. We saw some real flashes last season — turn on the Minnesota or Penn State games to see what we’re talking about — but also some real duds. He’s small and needs a lot of work, but Tua’s little bro has something worth keeping en eye on.
12. Grayson McCall vs. Layne Hatcher
Coastal Carolina vs. Arkansas State, Oct. 7
The Mullet Bowl is on a Thursday night, likely on one of the ESPN sister networks, and we expect Jonesboro will be rocking harder than it has since the last time Molly Hatchet blew through town.
McCall was terrific last season, whipping Kansas with five TDs (three throwing, two running) and beating Zach Wilson and BYU at home in a showcase game. McCall’s dual-threat ability can’t go overlooked, but we’ll be curious to see if Jamey Chadwell and the offensive coaches ask him to run a bit less and throw more after a 26-3 TD-INT ratio and a 68.8 completion percentage.
Hatcher was an Alabama transfer who had a solid 2020 season despite having to split time with starter Logan Bonner. But Bonner followed former head coach Blake Anderson to Utah State, and the new coach is Butch Jones. Hatcher is a fairly deep sleeper right now, but he has the chops to break out even more with the full-time job, despite losing some pieces from last year’s club.
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