College football quarterback battles that will shape the 2017 national title chase

Quarterback competitions are among the most popular topics throughout spring football. Fans flock to practice reports for tidbits on who is running with the first string and how that former blue chip recruit is looking now that it’s his time to seize the spotlight. Everyone is undefeated in spring practice and hope springs eternal, but no fan is comfortable with their team’s outlook until the coach has settled on a QB1. 

We have a way-too-early Top 25 for the 2017 season , but with so many top teams undecided on a starting quarterback, it’s an incomplete picture of the college football landscape. Below, we get an update on some of the quarterback races that will inform our projections for the fall.

Auburn Tigers

2016 starters: Sean White , Jeremy Johnson
2017 contenders: Jarrett Stidham , Sean White 

Outlook: The quarterback position at Auburn seems to be as much a reflection of the coaching staff as the players involved in the competition, though its hard for Tigers fans not to get excited about what Stidham, the former Baylor Bears quarterback, can bring to the mix. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey was hired because of Gus Malzahn’s belief in his ability to develop quarterbacks, an area where Malzahn himself has been questioned during his time with the Tigers. There’s not going to be too much certainty for this race until fall camp because White is still limited with a forearm injury, but he’s throwing again in practice now and shouldn’t be ruled out. When Auburn was rolling in the middle of 2016, White was efficient and effective. He won’t be bounced until he’s healthy and ready to compete. 

Clemson Tigers  

2016 starter: Deshaun Watson
2017 contenders: Kelly Bryant , Zerrick Cooper , Hunter Johnson

Outlook: At the moment, Bryant, a junior and Watson’s backup, is in the lead to be Clemson’s starter when the season starts.  “[Bryant] should be out in front,” Dabo Swinney told reporters earlier this month. “He knows more. He has had more experience and it should show, and it has. I’m very pleased with that. Now we just have to grow and have to go and continue to do it.”

This race is particularly interesting because Johnson, a five-star prospect, enrolled early and is participating in spring practice. Johnson was the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class and, though gifted, still has a long way to go in the learning process for Clemson’s offense. 

Clemson’s coaches have stressed throughout this process that its much of its offense will run the same no matter who is under center. It’s the same refrain they used when former offensive coordinator Chad Morris left to become a head coach at SMU. “It’s not the Chad Morris offense, it’s the Clemson offense,” Swinney, a former wide receivers coach, said at the time. Having Watson has helped Clemson’s offense remain dominant in the last couple seasons, making his replacement the biggest test of the “Clemson offense” being able to sustain dominance through change. 

Florida Gators  

2016 starter: Luke Del Rio , Austin Appleby
2017 contenders: Feleipe Franks , Kyle Trask, Luke Del Rio, Kadarius Toney 

Outlook: Since Del Rio will be sitting out the entire spring recovering from shoulder surgeries, Franks and Trask will get a chance to show they can bring a level of success to the quarterback position that hasn’t been seen since Tim Tebow . Franks was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and has a great deep ball, but Jim McElwain has hesitated from giving him an edge over Trask in the competition. One wild card to watch is Toney, a speedy true freshman who will have a chance to make the most of spring practice reps. 

Miami 

2016 starter: Brad Kaaya
2017 contenders: Malik Rosier , Jack Allison , Evan Shirreffs , Cade Weldon, N’Kosi Perry 

Outlook: When Miami starts its second spring practice under Mark Richt next week, all eyes will be on the quarterback position. Kaaya was a three-year starter and the Hurricanes have a loaded room of potential options to take his place. Rosier is only contender with a start to his name (2015, vs. Duke Blue Devils ), and Allison suited up last year and has a big arm that could keep him in the competition, but Canes fans are going to hold out hope that one of two true freshman could be the next future-pro in Coral Gables. Perry, a four-star dual-threat signal caller, won’t be on campus until after spring drills, and Weldon, a three-star early enrollee, will also get a chance to push for the starting job. 

North Carolina 

2016 starter: Mitch Trubisky 
2017 contenders: Nathan Elliott , Chazz Surratt , TBD transfer 

Outlook: While the NFL types have spent much of the spring discussing Trubisky’s pro merits, the North Carolina Tar Heels coaching staff is hard at work finding a signal-caller to take over the Tar Heels’ prolific offense. Redshirt sophomore Elliott and redshirt freshman Surratt are going to get the early looks this spring, but North Carolina has also been named as a potential landing spot for a graduate transfer quarterback like Brandon Harris (from LSU) or Malik Zaire (from Notre Dame Fighting Irish ). 

Tennessee Volunteers  

2016 starter: Josh Dobbs
2017 contenders: Quinten Dormady , Jarrett Guarantano 

Outlook: Dobbs carried so much of the offensive responsibility during his 2015 and 2016 seasons that it’s hard not to imagine his exit as the end of an era for the Vols on offense. While Dormady, a junior, has far more experience than his competition with 10 games of action as Dobbs’ backup, redshirt freshman Guarantano is a player to watch in this battle. Guarantano was a top-100 prospect in 2016 and rated as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in his class. He’s got a big arm and good running ability, making him seem like a good fit for Dobbs’ old spot. 

Texas Longhorns  

2016 starter: Shane Buechele , Tyrone Swoopes 
2017 contenders: Shane Buechele, Sam Ehlinger 

Outlook: Buechele took the starting position by the horns in 2016, winning over the locker room and stepping into new, wide-open offense with solid, but not dominant, results (2,958 yards passing, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions). The arrival of Tom Herman seemed like it would be great news for Buechele’s development given his dual-threat skill set and Herman’s recent success with Greg Ward Jr. at Houston Cougars , but then Herman recruited right over Buechele and brought in another blue chip Texas quarterback in four-star Austin native Ehlinger. Herman said he won’t name a starter until the fall, meaning Buchele will have to spend the next six months reclaiming the starting job he won a year ago. 

Alabama Crimson Tide

2016 starter: Jalen Hurts 
2017 contenders: Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa 

Outlook: What if Hurts loses the starting job in Tuscaloosa? I hadn’t even thought of the possibility that Hurts would not be the starter until recently, even suggesting that he would be one of the early Heisman Trophy candidates to watch in 2017.

Hurts’ slow burn to superstardom was powered mostly by his legs, which also helped him keep Alabama’s offense rolling against Clemson in the title game after Bo Scarbrough was knocked out by an injury. The dual-threat dominance is a new thing for Nick Saban’s Alabama offenses, but so is starting a true freshman under center. 

This brings us to Tagovailoa. The five-star quarterback is on campus this spring, like Hurts was a year ago, and has a chance, like Hurts did, to push for starter’s snaps. Alabama fans are hoping that the competition will make Hurts, a proven winner, even better, but given Saban’s recent history we should expect to see multiple quarterbacks in the game when the Tide open the season in 2017 against Florida State Seminoles in Atlanta. 

CBS Sports Writer

Chip Patterson has spent his young career covering college sports from the Old North State. He's been writing and talking about football and basketball for CBS Sports since 2010. You may have heard him... Full Bio

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