Ranking college football quarterback tiers: From Heisman contenders to grad transfers

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Earlier in May, I took a different approach to ranking college football's coaches by assigning them to tiers based on common traits. With spring practices in the rear view mirror, I took a similar approach to ranking the game's quarterbacks. While it's easier to rank these players 1-50 than it would be to rank their coaches, the notion that they can be grouped differently still applies. 

For example, college football has two major stars this season: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence. They are unquestionably the two best players at their position heading into the season and will surely be Heisman Trophy favorites. However, as history has shown us, there are always another handful of quarterbacks ready to have breakout seasons. And then there are transfers looking for a second chance. There are various starting points, hence the tiers. 

While there is a vague order to the tiers, this is more of an exercise in grouping. Before going any further, allow me to expand on the methodology ... 

  • Not every quarterback is ranked. Others may choose this fruitless exercise and, hey, it's a free country. But there's a law of diminishing returns when you start sweating over the 15th or 20th best quarterback in every tier. There has to be a cutoff line somewhere and not every tier has the same number of players. 
  • Not every two-deep is going to be settled post-spring, but as a general rule I omitted quarterbacks involved in heated offseason battles. If the picture is that unclear, it's tough to rank them. I also didn't rank any player who has yet to take at least one snap in a college game. 
  • Experience matters more than potential. Piggybacking off of the last point, I'm going to rank players more on what they've done vs. what they could do. This seems obvious, but it's worth pointing out specifically when it comes to transfers like Justin Fields and Tate Martell. 
  • Players could realistically be slotted in more than one tier. I chose the ones that felt like the best fit. On that note: There's obviously an order to the madness -- you would take a Tier I quarterback over one from Tier III every time -- but largely, this is about fit. And remember, the order is a snapshot of the moment. It can, has and will change from year to year. 
  • Numbers reflect last season unless noted otherwise. Rushing numbers that are deemed negligible are marked with two dashes. 
  • Tier I

    These quarterbacks have All-American and award season aspirations, which include the Heisman Trophy

    Player (School)Passing YardsTDs/INTsRatingRushing YardsRushing TDs

    1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)

    3,966

    43

    199.44

    190

    5

    2. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson)

    3,280

    30/4

    157.56

    177

    1

    3. Jake Fromm (Georgia)

    2,749

    30/6

    171.22

    --

    --

    4. Sam Ehlinger (Texas)

    3,296

    25/5

    146.91

    482

    16

    5. Justin Herbert (Oregon)

    3,151

    29/8

    144.66

    166

    2

    • People will choose their favorite flavor when it comes to the Tagovailoa-Lawrence debate. Tua was the presumed Heisman winner for a good stretch of last season and bested eventual winner Kyler Murray in efficiency by the slimmest of margins (.24 in QB rating) -- which, may I remind you, was the best season ever recorded. Still, Lawrence was playing better than any quarterback during Clemson's national title run. Seeing him in person against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, I can confirm he was a rare breed for a freshman with size, arm talent and pocket feel/mobility. Feet to the fire, Tagovailoa gets the edge because he's such an explosive playmaker with excellent deep ball placement, but both of these guys are legit Heisman candidates and NFL prospects with high character. They're the whole package. 
    • Just guessing here, but Fromm is probably more destined to make a number of All-America/All-SEC second teams simply because Tagovailoa plays in the same conference. Don't let that be a deterrent. Fromm does exactly what Georgia asks him to do and he does it exceptionally. If he can increase his efficiency again with a reloaded crop of receivers in 2019, there's no reason why Fromm shouldn't be considered one of college football's premier quarterbacks. 
    • Ehlinger should get some serious Heisman buzz if for no other reason than the fact that he's a touchdown machine (at Texas) and, to date, the best short-yardage back the Longhorns have. He finished second in rushing touchdowns quarterback behind Kelvin Hopkins Jr. of Army in 2018. Texas will probably try to distribute the rock more in 2019 to keep Ehlinger healthy. He's a quality passer, too, having gone 10 straight games without a pick last year. 

    Tier II

    These players include some all-conference selections and a few fringe Heisman contenders

    Player (School)Passing YardsTDs/INTsRatingRushing YardsRushing TDs

    1. D'Eriq King (Houston)

    2,982

    36/6

    167.04

    674

    14

    2. Mason Fine (North Texas)

    3,793

    27/5

    149.41

    --

    2

    3. Adrian Martinez (Nebraska)

    2,617

    17/8

    139.46

    629

    8

    4. Ian Book (Notre Dame)

    2,628

    19/7

    153.96

    280

    4

    5. Jordan Love (Utah State)

    3,567

    32/6

    158.32

    63

    7

    6. Kellen Mond (Texas A&M)

    3,107

    24/9

    134.98

    474

    7

    7. K.J. Costello (Stanford)

    3,540

    29/11

    154.97

    --

    --

    8. Cole McDonald (Hawaii)

    3,875

    36/10

    146.55

    359

    4

    9. Nathan Rourke (Ohio)

    2,434

    23/8

    156.33

    860

    15

    10. Brady White (Memphis)

    3,296

    26/9

    150.69

    --

    1

    • A quick note: You may have noticed that UCF quarterback McKenzie isn't listed in Tier I or Tier II. That's because of his ghastly leg injury from last November. Otherwise, he'd be in Tier I or, at worst, at the top of Tier II. His health remains of the utmost importance here. Everything else is secondary. But he was one of the best when he was healthy. 
    • When you rank anything, you're going to be wrong more than right, but I didn't have King on any tier last season. Granted, his career to that point was uneven due to injuries and position changes, but that was a snub on my end. He balled out last year and led the nation with 50 touchdowns before suffering yet another setback with a knee injury. Still, he stated his case. He's one of the most electric players anywhere with the ball in his hands. 
    • On that note, more than half of this tier is made up of quarterbacks from Group of Five programs. This speaks to the idea that these players are putting up big numbers, even if against lesser competition, and will probably be first or second-team all-conference selections. They may even flirt with some Heisman chatter along the way. Plus, this is just a spectacular year for Group of Five signal-callers. 

    Tier III

    The largest tier includes established starters across the entire FBS

    Player (School)Passing YardsTDs/INTsRatingRushing YardsRushing TDs

    1. Shea Patterson (Michigan)

    2,600

    22/7

    149.86

    273

    2

    2. Charlie Brewer (Baylor)

    3,029

    19/9

    138.02

    375

    7

    3. Brock Purdy (Iowa State)    

    2,250

    16/7

    169.91

    308

    5

    4. Bryce Perkins (Virginia)

    2,680

    25/9

    147.45

    923

    9

    5. Nate Stanley (Iowa)

    2,852

    26/10

    136.46

    --

    1

    6. Jake Bentley (South Carolina)

    3,171

    27/14

    146.25

    --

    2

    7. Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (Army)

    1,026

    6/3

    162.35

    1,017

    17

    8. Feleipe Franks (Florida)

    2,457  

    24/7  

    143.34  

    350  

    7

    9. Joe Burrow (LSU)

    2,894

    16/5

    133.21

    399

    7

    10. Ryan Willis (Virginia Tech) 

    2,716    

    24/9  

    138.01   

    354   

    4  

    11. Steven Montez (Colorado)  

    2,849

    19/9

    135.84

    238

    4

    12. Zac Thomas (Appalachian State)

    2,039

    21/6

    152.60

    504

    10

    13. James Blackman (Florida State)

    2,230 (2017)

      19/11 (2017)

     135.02 (2017)

     --

    --

    14. James Morgan (FIU)

    2,727

    26/7

    157.64

    --

    1

    15. Caleb Evans (ULM)  

    2,869

    16/12

    133.91  

    632

    10

    • Patterson already has a solid resume as a starter for both Michigan and Ole Miss, but the second part of last season gave a glimpse into what he could be as well. He was far more effective when the Wolverines' offense allowed him to use his legs to make plays and there should be more of that in 2019. Even if Justin Fields becomes the Big Ten's top quarterback, Patterson is one of the two or three best in the conference. 
    • Two quarterbacks from Iowa -- Nate Stanley and Brock Purdy -- are interesting names. Neither is probably going to make so much as first-team all-conference, but they were solid players a season ago. Purdy went 6-2 as a starter and injected life into Iowa State's offense. He returns as one of the more exciting quarterbacks in the Big 12. And while Stanley may not get the publicity of Patterson or Fields, he'll be a three-year starter in 2019. 
    • The Sun Belt low-key has some fun players behind center. Evans and Thomas are likely to put up big numbers yet again and Georgia Southern's Shai Werts, who just missed the cut, could get 1,000 yards rushing and passing. 

    Tier IV

    You may knows some names in this tier, and others you may not, but you should keep an eye on all of them as they're primed for breakout seasons 

    Player (School)Passing YardsTDs/INTsRatingRushing YardsRushing TDs

    1. Khalil Tate (Arizona)

    2,530  

    26/8  

    149.77  

    224

    2

    2. Alan Bowman (Texas Tech) 

    2,638

    17/7

    150.06

    --

    1

    3. Keytaon Thompson (Mississippi State) 

      458

    6/1  

      190.44

    226

    4

    4. Malcolm Perry (Navy)

    222

    2/1

    128.99

    1,087

    7

    5. Anthony Russo (Temple)2,563
    14/14125.06--3

    6. Tommy DeVito (Syracuse)

    525  

    4/3  

    109.54  

    --

    1

    7. Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA)

    1,311

    7/4

    122.29

    --

    --

    8. Elijah Sindelar (Purdue)

    283  

    2/3  

    114.48  

    --

    --

    9. Armani Rogers (UNLV)

    601

    10-4

    108.96

    565

    8

    10. Tyler Johnston III (UAB)

    1,323

    11/9

    149.59

    359

    4

    • It feels odd to type out Tate's name as a potential "breakout" star, but everyone's been waiting a minute for the Arizona speedster to replicate that magical six-week stretch in '17 when he averaged 360 yards per game (and 200 yards rushing per game) with 18 total touchdowns. An ankle injury prevented him from going full Tate in 2018, but maybe he'll find that spark this season. At his best, he was pure entertainment. 
    • Similarly, Perry is primed for his second breakout. He's a big play waiting to happen in Navy's triple option offense, but he was moved to slotback last season. Now he's back at quarterback. If the passing game can at least be respectable enough to honor it, he'll kill defenses with his legs. 
    • Rogers missed a large chunk of last season with a toe injury, but he was must-see late-night viewing when he was healthy. UNLV is boom-or-bust depending on Rogers' availability. 

    Tier V

    The transfer quarterbacks in this tier are looking to make the most of their second opportunity

    Player (School)Passing YardsTDs/INTsRatingRushing YardsRushing TDs

    1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma)

    2,081 (2017)

    17/1 (2017)

    150.75 (2017)

    855 (2017)

    8 (2017)

    2. Kelly Bryant (Missouri)

    2,802 (2017)

    13/8 (2017)

    131.73 (2017)

    665 (2017)

    11 (2017)

    3. Jacob Eason (Washington)

    2,430 (2016)

    16/8 (2016)

    120.26 (2016)

    --

    1

    4. Brandon Wimbush (UCF)

    1,870 (2017)

    16/6 (2017)

    121.42 (2017)

    803 (2017)

    14 (2017)

    5. Josh Jackson (Maryland)

    2,991 (2017)

    20/9 (2017)

    13.517 (2017)

    324 (2017)

    6 (2017)

    6. Ben Hicks (Arkansas)

    2,582 

    19/7

    127.31

    --

    --

    7. Shane Buechele (SMU)

    2,958 (2016)

    21/11 (2016)

    136.00 (2016)

    151 (2016)

    2 (2016)

    8. Justin Fields (Ohio State)

    328

    4/0

    173.71

    266

    4

    9. Tate Martell (Miami)

    269

    1/0

    174.62

    128

    2

    10. Hunter Johnson (Northwestern)

    234 (2017)

    2/1 (2017)

    167.61 (2017)

    --

    --

    • Let's put aside the potential Hurts has at Oklahoma under coach Lincoln Riley. After coaching up two Heisman winners and No. 1 overall picks in consecutive years, it'll be fun to see what Riley can do with Hurts' athleticism. However, Hurts' credentials speak for themselves. He led the Crimson Tide to consecutive College Football Playoff Championship Game appearances and was the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman. He deserves to be No. 1 in this tier. 
    • Clemson's switch from Bryant to Lawrence last season worked out well for everyone. The Tigers went all-in on Lawrence and won a national title while Bryant preserved his redshirt year and got a fresh start at a place that needs him. Bryant is probably at or near his ceiling as a player, but he has experience and was part of a playoff team just two years ago. 
    • Ohio State fans shouldn't get too riled up over Fields' ranking; think of it more as a placeholder. Fields could be one of college football's top quarterbacks in 2019 if he shines in Ryan Day's offense. The skill set is certainly there and he's probably better than many of the guys listed above him. In that case, he'd easily move up the tiers, perhaps as high as Tier I. Until that happens, though, he's more potential than anything. Thems the rules. 
    CBS Sports Writer

    Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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