December 2, 2022

College Football’s 20 best quarterbacks of 2021

College Football's 20 best quarterbacks of 2021

Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) throws a touchdown pass to Indiana Hoosiers wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (3), not in photo, against Ohio State Buckeyes during the third quarter in their NCAA Division I football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Kyle Robertson/ Pool via Ohio State Athletics)

Signal-callers are the face of the program.

They endure the most success for wins and receive the most blame for losses. There’s no denying great quarterbacks make others around them better. Having a killer instinct, short-term memory and coming up huge in the clutch is vital.

Whether they’re making throws from the pocket or extending plays with their mobility, all 20 of these quarterbacks have displayed what it takes to be successful at this level. Now we’ll see what they can add to their amazing legacies in 2021.

20. Levi Lewis, Louisiana: Last season he scored 24 total touchdowns and led the Ragin Cajuns to a 10-1 campaign, which included a top-15 finish. Lewis threw for 19 touchdowns, which tied for 20th nationally. He shocked the College football world after Louisiana upset Iowa State on the road. The Baton Rouge native had 332 passing yards and scored three total touchdowns against Texas State. Lewis lit up Louisiana-Monroe for five total touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 184-pounder threw for at least two scores in five different games. He threw three touchdowns apiece in back-to-back games towards the end of November. With Lewis back behind center, Louisiana will have a chance to win every game.

19. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh: The New Jersey native will be one of the most experienced signal-callers in the ACC this fall. Pickett has a strong arm, with just enough mobility to escape the pocket and extend plays. He averaged 267 passing yards per game, which ranked third in the ACC. Pickett scored at least two touchdowns in eight of Pittsburgh’s nine games. The former three-star prospect threw for a season-high, 411 yards and scored three touchdowns against NC State. He also had 404 passing yards to go along with three scores against Virginia Tech. Pickett led the Panthers to a 3-1 finish down the stretch. His experience, production and leadership brings instant credibility to Pittsburgh in 2021.

18. Brennan Armstrong, Virginia: He’s one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the Power Five. Armstrong scored 23 touchdowns in nine games last season. He started off on fire, with three total touchdowns against Duke. Armstrong threw for 372 yards and three scores against Clemson. The Ohio native got benched against NC State and didn’t play at Wake Forest. However, Armstrong played better down the stretch and led Virginia to a 4-1 finish. He had a season-high, 383 passing yards and four scores against Abilene Christian. Armstrong found the endzone four times in the upset win over North Carolina, and rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns against Boston College.

17. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State: The Sun Devils played only four games last season due to pandemic complications, but the six-foot-three, 185-pounder still dazzled. Daniels threw a touchdown in every contest as a true sophomore. The California native rushed for 111 yards in the season-opener against USC. He also scored at least two touchdowns in three of Arizona State’s four games. Daniels had three touchdowns apiece in road wins over Arizona and Oregon State. He finished 2020 with 701 yards through the air and 223 on the ground. Daniels’ numbers should flourish this fall with a full schedule and the Sun Devils could potentially be a sleeper team in the Pac-12 South.

16. Malik Cunningham, Louisville: The Alabama native finished fifth in the ACC and 15th in the FBS with 2,617 passing yards last season. Cunningham threw for 20 touchdowns, which ranked fourth in the league and 16th in the nation. The six-foot-one, 200-pounder rumbled for 609 yards and seven rushing scores. Cunningham went over 300 yards passing against Western Kentucky, Miami and Virginia Tech. He scored four touchdowns apiece in two different games. The former four-star prospect also went over 100 yards rushing against Virginia and Boston College. It’ll be interesting to see if Cunningham can duplicate last season’s numbers with no Tutu Atwell or Dez Fitzpatrick to throw to this fall.

15. Malik Willis, Liberty: The former three-star prospect led the Flames to a 10-1 record and a top-20 finish last season. Willis threw for 2,260 yards, to go along with 944 on the ground, and is arguably one of the best players from the Group of Five. His 14 rushing touchdowns were the most by any quarterback in the FBS and ranked seventh overall. The Atlanta native steamrolled for 168 yards and three rushing scores in the opener against Western Kentucky. Willis carved up Coastal Carolina’s defense for 137 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He racked up 403 total yards and scored five touchdowns against Western Carolina. Not to mention Willis stockpiled seven total scores against Southern Miss.

14. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina: As a true sophomore he led the Chanticleers to their first-ever, 11-win season and a top-15 finish in 2020. McCall threw for 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns, which tied for 10th-best in the FBS. The North Carolina native also rumbled for 569 yards and seven rushing scores. McCall scored five touchdowns in the opener against Kansas. The six-foot-three, 200-pounder also had five scores at Georgia State, and four touchdown passes against Arkansas State. He threw for 300-plus yards in three different games, including the bowl loss to Liberty. McCall is a dark horse for the Heisman and a big reason why the Chanticleers will be a top-15 team entering the fall.

13. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati: He scored 31 total touchdowns in 10 games and led the Bearcats to a top-10 finish last season. Ridder’s 12 touchdowns on the ground were the second-most in the FBS by a quarterback. The six-foot-four, 215-pounder scored five times against Memphis. He also rushed for 179 yards and scored four touchdowns at SMU. Ridder added 103 rushing yards to go along with four scores against Houston. The former three-star prospect had at least two touchdown passes in seven games, including the New Year’s Six Bowl. The Louisville native had 338 yards through the air at UCF and three scores against East Carolina. With Ridder at the helms Cincinnati is a top-10 team.

12. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA: In just five games last season he threw for 1,120 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. Thompson-Robinson had 303 yards through the air, 109 on the ground and scored five times in the opener at Colorado. The Las Vegas native threw three touchdowns in the win over California. He passed for 364 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions against rival USC. Thompson-Robinson averaged 224 passing yards per game and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. With Coach Chip Kelly entering his fourth season on the job, expect the six-foot-one, 200-pounder to have his best statistical season yet, and to lead the Bruins to a bowl for the first time since 2017.

11. Carson Strong, Nevada: Last season he finished ninth in the FBS with 27 touchdown tosses and led his team to a 5-0 start. Strong passed for 2,858 yards in nine games, which ranked 11th in the nation. The California native averaged 317.5 passing yards per contest, which was seventh-best in the FBS. Strong had 420 through the air and four touchdowns in the opener against Wyoming. He also had another 400-yard performance and three scores in the win over Utah State. The former three-star prospect scored five touchdowns against Fresno State, plus he threw for over 300 yards in five different games. Strong finished with an additional five touchdown passes in the bowl win over Tulane.

10. Dillon Gabriel, UCF: As a true sophomore last season, the Hawaii native averaged 357 passing yards per game, which ranked first in the FBS. Gabriel finished with 32 touchdown passes in ten games, which ranked fourth in the nation. He also passed for 3,570 yards, which was fifth-best in the FBS. The former three-star prospect passed for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Georgia Tech and East Carolina. Gabriel had a jaw-dropping, 601 passing yards and five scores against Memphis. He followed that up with 422 passing yards and five touchdowns against Tulane. With Gus Malzahn on the job, it’ll be interesting to see if Gabriel can duplicate last year’s video game numbers.

9. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana: He’s flat-out dynamic and scored 16 touchdowns in six games last season. Penix led the Hoosiers to a 4-0 start in 2020. He caught the nation’s attention after he scored the game-winning touchdown in the opener against Penn State. The Florida native followed that up with five scores against Rutgers and three touchdown passes in the win over Michigan. The former four-star prospect averaged 274.1 passing yards per game, which ranked first in the Big Ten and 18th in the FBS. Penix had an unforgettable performance at Ohio State, when he passed 491 yards and scored five touchdowns. He tore his ACL against Maryland, but still earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

8. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson: Last season as a true freshman, the former five-star prospect showed promise when he started two games after Trevor Lawrence caught the virus. Uiagalelei put together phenomenal performances against Boston College and Notre Dame. He threw for 342 yards and scored three touchdowns in the win over the Eagles. In the first meeting against the Fighting Irish on the road, Uiagalelei passed for a career-high, 439 yards, to go along with three scores in the shootout overtime loss. The six-foot-four, 250-pounder has great upsize and just enough mobility to extend plays. There’s no denying the California native has some big shoes to fill replacing Lawrence, but he looks up to par.

7. Brock, Purdy, Iowa State: He’s one of the most experienced signal-callers in the nation and is entering his fourth year as the Cyclones’ starter. Purdy finished second in the Big 12 and 13th in the FBS, with 2,750 passing yards last season. The Arizona native also had 19 touchdown tosses, which ranked third in the league, plus five rushing scores. The former three-star prospect was the second-leading rusher on the team and his 365 pass attempts led the conference for a second-straight year. He threw for 300-plus yards against Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship. Purdy had three touchdown passes apiece in three league games and earned first-team All-Big 12.

6. Matt Corral, Ole Miss: The former four-star prospect blossomed in Lane Kiffin’s scheme last season and shredded SEC defenses. Corral averaged 333.7 passing yards per game, which ranked third in the conference and fifth in the FBS. His 506 yards on the ground were the most by an SEC quarterback in 2020. The California native had four touchdown passes apiece in wins over Kentucky and South Carolina. Not to mention he had a season-high, 513 yards through the air and scored five total touchdowns against the Gamecocks. Corral raised eyebrows when he had six scores in the win over Vanderbilt. It’ll be interesting to see if he can duplicate his number this fall without Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah.

5. JT Daniels, Georgia: Last season the former USC Trojan snatched Stetson Bennett’s spot and started the final four games for the Bulldogs. Daniels led Georgia to a 4-0 record during that span and will be riding that wave of momentum into spring ball. The California native threw for four touchdowns against Mississippi State. He also passed for 299 yards and three scores on the road at Missouri. The former five-star prospect had 392 yards through the air in the New Year’s Six Bowl win over Cincinnati. Now he’s approaching the 2021 season as arguably the best quarterback in the SEC and has a boatload of weapons to operate with. It’ll be a shocker if the Bulldogs aren’t SEC East champs this fall.

4. D’Eriq King, Miami: He single-handedly improved the Hurricanes’ offense tremendously last season. King has had a phenomenal collegiate career thus far, with 63 passing touchdowns over a five-year span. In 2020, the 5-foot-11, 202-pounder finished third in the ACC with 2,686 passing yards and 23 touchdown tosses. King also rumbled for 538 yards. He passed for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Louisville. The former three-star prospect had four touchdown passes against Pittsburgh. King racked up 430 yards through the air, 105 on the ground and five touchdown passes in the win over NC State. He’s now recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in the bowl against Oklahoma State.

3. Kedon Slovis, USC: The former three-star prospect has blossomed into the best signal-caller in the Pac-12. As a true sophomore last season, Slovis averaged 320.1 passing yards per game, which ranked first in the Pac-12 and sixth in the FBS. Not to mention he orchestrated a couple of USC’s fourth quarter comeback victories. The Arizona native threw for 300-plus yards against Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. Slovis also raised some eyebrows when he threw for five scores apiece in wins over Washington State and UCLA. The six-foot-three, 215-pounder finished 2020 with 17 touchdown passes in six games and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

2. Sam Howell, North Carolina: Last season as a true sophomore he shredded opposing defenses for 298.8 passing yards per game and earned second-team All-ACC. Howell finished first in the conference with 3,586 passing yards and 30 touchdown tosses. The former four-star prospect passed for 443 yards and four touchdowns against Virginia. He had a phenomenal performance in the shootout win over Wake Forest, when Howell threw for 550 yards and scored six touchdowns. The North Carolina native finished with 2,183 passing yards and scored 11 touchdowns over the Tar Heels’ final seven games. Howell has a jaw-dropping, 68 career passing touchdowns over the past two seasons.

1. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma: As a redshirt freshman last season, he persevered through the Sooners’ 1-2 start and led them to their sixth-straight Big 12 Title. Oklahoma finished 2020 on an eight-game winning streak. The former five-star prospect scored 13 touchdowns over the final four games, and the Sooners outscored their opponents 150-68 during that span. He averaged 275.5 yards through the air, which ranked first in the Big 12 and 17th in the FBS. Rattler also finished with a league-best, 3,031 passing yards and 28 touchdown tosses. The Phoenix native went over 300 yards passing in four games and had four touchdowns apiece against Missouri State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

Honorable Mention

Adrian Martinez, Nebraska: He’s entering his fourth season as the Huskers’ starter. With better accuracy, offensive line play and less turnovers, Martinez has an opportunity to deliver on all the hype he arrived in Lincoln with this fall.

Bo Nix, Auburn: He scored 20 total touchdowns last season, which included three in the opener against Kentucky and four in the win over LSU. Nix also threw for 292 yards and a touchdown in Auburn’s bowl game against Northwestern.

Connor Bazelak, Missouri: Last season he showed promise and led the Tigers to a 3-2 record over their final five games. Bazelak also earned Freshman All-SEC honors. He’s expected to blossom in year two in Eliah Drinkwitz’ system.

Hendon Hooker, Tennessee: The former four-star prospect finished with 620 rushing yards, which were the most by an ACC quarterback last season. He left Virginia Tech and transferred to Tennessee during the offseason.

Jack Coan, Notre Dame: He threw for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019 with the Wisconsin. Now Coan is enrolled at Notre Dame and will compete for the starting job with replacing four-year starter Ian Book.

Nick Starkel, San Jose State: The former Texas A&M recruit led the Spartans to a 7-1 record and top-25 finish last season. Starkel averaged 271.7 passing yards per game, which ranked 19th in the FBS.

Sam Noyer, Colorado: Last year the Oregon native led the Buffaloes to their first winning season since 2016 and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. Noyer had offseason surgery and will miss the spring, but should be ready by the fall.

Sean Clifford, Penn State: He regressed last season with the Nittany Lions, but still finished with 19 total touchdowns. A light bulb came on late for Clifford and he led Penn State to four-straight victories to end 2020.

Skylar Thompson, Kansas State: The former four-star prospect will be one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Power Five this fall. Thompson led his team to an upset victory over Oklahoma before suffering a season-ending injury.

Tyler Shough, Texas Tech: He was last year’s starter for Oregon and led the team to a Pac-12 Championship. Shough transferred to Texas Tech last month and pretty much has the quarterback position on lock with Alan Bowman gone.