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Back by popular demand (or a lack of alternative content), we have the college football Most Intriguing Lists of 2015. That’s not necessarily the best, not necessarily the most popular – it’s the most intriguing. Last week: Most Intriguing Coaches. This week: Most Intriguing Quarterbacks.
1. Whoever Starts at Ohio State. He will have prevailed in one of the most fascinating QB duels in college history – a competition fierce enough to have sent a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year packing to wide receiver. And he will still have a backup who is plenty capable breathing down his neck. Gut feel says the starter will be J.T. Barrett, whose nose-to-the-grindstone, alpha-male approach fits Urban Meyer best. But just wait until Ohio State’s first three-and-out...
2. The Backup at Ohio State. If Barrett does indeed start, that would leave Cardale Jones in this position – and the last time we saw Jones play, he was leading the Buckeyes to the national title by winning his only three college starts: the Big Ten championship game, College Football Playoff semifinal and CFP title game. Can you really bench that guy? Well, if the other guy was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, yes you can. But the QB controversy potential is alive and well in Columbus.
3. Trevone Boykin, TCU. Boykin was fourth in the 2014 Heisman voting, highest of any returning player. If he can reprise last year’s breakout season – more than 4,600 yards of total offense and 41 touchdowns accounted for – the Horned Frogs could be playing for their first national title since 1938. The fact that Boykin was at one point a wide receiver at TCU who had his quarterbacking skills questioned now seems like fiction.
4. Everett Golson, Florida State. In order to lessen the circus at quarterback this year, the Seminoles merely brought in a guy who started in the BCS Championship Game as a freshman at Notre Dame, was kicked out of school as a sophomore, was either wildly successful or horrifically turnover-prone as a junior and ultimately found himself fighting for his job in South Bend in the spring. Thus Golson relocated to Tallahassee in May, and appears to have the inside track on replacing Jameis Winston. It won’t be dull.
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5. Vernon Adams, Oregon. The controls of the fast and furious Ducks offense are likely to be handed to the graduate transfer from Eastern Washington. That’s a huge step up in class for Adams, if not in scheme. Nobody expects him to be Marcus Mariota II, but he did throw for more than 10,000 yards in three seasons at the FCS level. Now the question is how quickly Adams can assimilate his new surroundings – he will miss (at least) the first three days of August camp while completing a math class to finish up his degree work at EWU. If Adams doesn’t take over the position, it would fall to junior backup Jeff Lockie.
6. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. Heart and soul of one of the surprise teams in the nation last year. Prescott led the Bulldogs to 10 wins and an extended stay at No. 1 in the polls before the team faltered late in the season. His decision to return for his senior year gives Mississippi State a fighting chance to remain in contention in the murderous SEC West, and he could once again finish in the top 10 of the Heisman voting.
7. DeShaun Watson, Clemson. Was starting to deliver on his huge recruiting hype last year as a true freshman before tearing an ACL in October. Now he’s back and healthy and leading the ACC favorites in search of what would be Clemson’s second league title since 1991. He’ll have plenty of marquee opportunities to make a name. The three biggest: at Louisville on a Thursday night in September; Notre Dame in early October; Florida State in early November.
8. Cody Kessler, USC. Quick thinker and accurate thrower morphed into a star in his first year under Steve Sarkisian, passing for more than 3,800 yards and 39 touchdowns with just five interceptions. This year the question will be whether he can eliminate the bad games (three TD passes and two interceptions in four losses; 36 TDs and three picks in nine wins). If Kessler does that, the Trojans could win the Pac-12 South and be in College Football Playoff contention.
9. Jacob Coker, Alabama. It finally appears to be Coker Time in Tuscaloosa. The Florida State transfer was supposed to take over the starting job last year, but was beaten out by surprisingly productive career backup Blake Sims. This year, Coker still hasn’t been named the starter – but if he doesn’t win the job in August it will be a surprise. Again. Big guy with a strong arm needs to prove he’s accurate enough and a good leader. Fortunately for him, there’s little need to be a savior on a team built around the running game and defense.
10. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame. The guy whose ascendance helped send Golson to Tallahassee. Zaire was good in the Fighting Irish’s Music City Bowl upset of LSU, throwing for 96 yards and rushing for 96 – and most importantly in comparison to Golson, not turning the ball over. That was his first college start, and now Texas will be his second. Notre Dame has a lot of talent and experience to wrap around the sophomore lefty, but Brian Kelly always demands a lot of his quarterbacks. Is Zaire up to the challenge?
11. Josh Rosen, UCLA. True freshman has not been named the starter for the Bruins, but many observers believe that’s the way Jim Mora will go leading into the opener against Virginia. Replacing Brett Hundley is a big job – especially for a freshman – but Rosen comes in with towering credentials. And he has a very solid surrounding cast, most notably an offensive line that should protect him better than it did Hundley for much of last year. Bruins are a darkhorse breakthrough team if Rosen can handle the job.
12. Jeremy Johnson, Auburn. The belief on The Plains is that Gus Malzahn could win with a pop-toaster playing quarterback – and Johnson is no toaster. He’s out of the Cam Newton mold: 6-5, 240, possessing a live arm and good feet. Johnson is a yes-sir, no-sir guy who will be asked to lead as a first-year starter – in part because there are a lot of other first-year starters on the Auburn offense. If Johnson lives up to his hype, the Tigers will be a threat to win the SEC West and make the Playoff.
13. Yet To Be Named Starter at Oklahoma. Poor quarterback play helped lead to a staff shakeup, and now hotshot young coordinator Lincoln Riley has arrived to juice up the attack and improve the QB position. Sooners fans probably saw enough of Travis Knight last year to be hoping Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield wins the job, but reports circulated in early July that Mayfield has “arm fatigue.” That’s an inauspicious start. Whoever gets the job gets a lot of pressure, too.
14. Yet To Be Named Starter at Michigan. Speaking of a coaching staff doomed by bad quarterbacking – Brady Hoke was sunk by the endless succession of turnovers committed by multi-year starter Devin Gardner. Now Jim Harbaugh arrives to find Andrew Luck is not walking through that door. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and holdover Shane Morris are the primary candidates, and at this point Harbaugh would gladly take Alex Smith-level production from one or both of them if he can’t get the second coming of Luck.
15. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee. Most intriguing thing about him is his major: aerospace engineering. Not a lot of football players in those classes with Dobbs. But he’s more than just a smart guy – he can play, too. The junior went 4-1 as the Volunteers’ starter to end the season, running roughshod over South Carolina (467 yards total offense) and revealing himself as a dangerous dual-threat QB. If Tennessee is going to make the leap back to respectability that is widely predicted this season, the aerospace engineer will have to lead them.
16. Connor Cook, Michigan State. He followed a very good sophomore year with an even better junior year, with one nagging problem – Cook wasn’t quite as good as Marcus Mariota in September or J.T. Barrett in November. No great shame in that, but those were the only two losses for the Spartans last season. With Cook back for his senior year, can he get revenge against the Ducks and Buckeyes and lead Michigan State to another special season?
17. Kevin Hogan, Stanford. After leading a memorable road upset of Oregon as a freshman, he was conferred Rising Star Status. Now a senior, Hogan has been more of a game manager in David Shaw’s conservative offense. He’s never thrown 40 passes in a game or for more than 350 yards in a game – last year he didn’t even throw for 300 once. Maybe he’s not gunslinger material, but the Cardinal may have to cut Hogan loose a little more in an effort to return punch to the offense.
18. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Speaking of QBs who were conferred Rising Star Status as freshmen – that was Hackenberg during his one season with Bill O’Brien, when he compiled a 134 passer rating. Then came a sophomore slump as Hackenberg and new coach James Franklin failed to find a mutual comfort zone (passer rating: 109). But Hackenberg seemed to find something in bowl practices, producing a four-touchdown, zero-interception, 371-yard strafing of Boston College. With an improved offensive line in front of him, expect junior Hackenberg to be much closer to the freshman phenom than the scatter-armed sophomore.
19. Joel Stave, Wisconsin. The strange case of the yips that gripped Stave last season became a melodrama in its own right. It was poorly explained by the Badgers' coaches, and left everyone wondering what happened to a guy who had been a serviceable QB his first two seasons. After sitting the first four games behind a converted safety, Stave wound up with career lows in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. If Stave can bounce back in the new/old system of coach Paul Chryst, it would be one of the better senior success stories out there.
20. Taysom Hill, BYU. Plays the position like it’s a bar fight – taking on all comers, readily accepting contact rather than avoiding it. Hill’s fearless running style and manic pocket presence always make you wonder what will happen next. Unfortunatley for him, what happened most memorably in 2014 was a blown knee in the fifth game of the year, precipitating a four-game Cougars losing streak. When healthy, he’s 4,000 yards of total offense. And BYU needs him healthy to survive a murderous early schedule.
21. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech. Maybe the greatest option wizard Paul Johnson has had – deft with his reads and dazzling with his feet. But more importantly, he’s almost assuredly the best passer Johnson has had, which can open up Tech’s famously thin playbook. Thomas tortured Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and perplexed Florida State in the ACC championship game; if those performances carry over, Tech may well win the ACC Coastal again.
22. Yet To Be Named Starter at Florida. The battle apparently boils down to sophmore Treon Harris (who started some last year) and redshirt freshman Will Grier. It also boils down to this: neither may be good enough to make a huge difference playing behind a frighteningly young line and with unspectacular receivers. Jim McElwain can only do so much with the hand he was initially dealt at Florida, so the starting QB might not matter all that much.
23. Seth Russell, Baylor. Art Briles’ latest plug-and-play guy. Guaranteed to put up huge numbers and lead the Bears to a lot of points – but where does the system end and the player begin? That’s always the question with Baylor quarterbacks.
24. Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky. The sixth-year senior led the nation in passing yards (4,830) and passing touchdowns (49) a year ago. And despite chucking it 552 times, only 10 of those passes were picked off. Doughty should put up obscene numbers again this season. He’s worth the effort to find the Hilltoppers on TV a time or two.
25. Chad Kelly, Mississippi. Booted from Clemson in April 2014 and busted for disorderly conduct in Buffalo last December, Kelly brings considerable baggage to Oxford. He also brings a famous last name – he’s the nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly – and the chance to be the starting QB on a loaded Ole Miss offense. If he wins the job, keeps his nose clean and plays well enough to make folks forget the off-field issues, Kelly could be one of the surprise performers nationally.
Just missed the list: Jared Goff, California; Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati; Anu Solomon, Arizona; Brad Kaaya, Miami; Keenan Reynolds, Navy; Tyrone Swoopes, Texas; Brandon Harris, LSU; Texas A&M starter; Maty Mauk, Missouri; Patrick Towles, Kentucky; Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska; Nate Sudfeld, Indiana; Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State; Marquise Williams, North Carolina; Zach Terrell, Western Michigan.