The Big Ten is officially back and Ohio State's Justin Fields promptly planted his flag as the best quarterback in college football with an eye-popping performance in his debut. He was joined by another standout effort from BYU's Zach Wilson and Alabama's Mac Jones, while Iowa State's Brock Purdy and Minnesota's Tanner Morgan would probably like do-overs.
And look at that! For the first time all season, we didn't mention Trevor Lawrence off the top. The Clemson quarterback and inevitable first-overall pick actually looked like a mortal against Syracuse ... in a game the Tigers still won by 26 points.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Let's just say it was worth the wait. Fields, who came into this disjointed college football season as one of the best draft-eligible players, somehow looked better than advertised in Ohio State's opener against Nebraska. There was so much to like during the 2019 season, Fields' first year in Columbus, but he spent the offseason refining his diet and working on his game and it showed.
Fields' arm strength is the first thing that jumps out at you; his ability to throw field-side out routes is something we could watch all day -- the pace, the timing, the anticipation, the accuracy -- all things NFL teams covet and one more box QB-needy NFL teams can check. We can't undersell the accuracy either; Fields completed 67 percent of his throws in 2019 and began 2020 by finding Ohio State players 11 straight times -- and it would have been 12 if Chris Olave had been able to hold onto a ball in the end zone after absorbing a big hit.
When it was over, Fields was 20 of 21 for 276 yards and two touchdowns and he rushed for another 54 more yards -- including an insanely athletic score:
That run made it 31-14 early in the third quarter, and the Buckeyes were on their way to an easy 52-17 win. But Fields' first touchdown pass came late in the first quarter with the game tied, 7-7. As soon as the safety was distracted by the tight end running the seam route Fields knew he had Garrett Wilson on the deep post; he launched a perfectly thrown pass that looked more like a 42-yard handoff.
Fields' ability to make it look so easy is what's so amazing about this play. And yes, he had all day to throw in the pocket on that play but don't be confused; Fields' athleticism doesn't just allow him to escape the pocket and run for first downs. He can buy time behind the line of scrimmage then use his arm -- whether to throw a laser or feather a ball into the back of the end zone -- to make plays. Here's his second touchdown:
Really good throw but it's obviously overshadowed by a ridiculous catch and one-toe-tap-just-inside-the-field-of-play by freshman wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba. My word, man.
Fields' debut couldn't have gone better. He looked to be a better version of his 2019 self and there wasn't a lot of room for improvement. Arm strength, accuracy, ability to make throws on the run and on time, keeping his eyes downfield as he works through his progressions -- Fields looked like he was midway through his 2020 campaign instead of just beginning it. He still needs to work on getting rid of the ball quicker -- he took 31 sacks a year ago and was sacked three times against the Cornhuskers -- but there is so much to like, which is great news for NFL teams who can't keep pace with the Jets in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. In fact, those teams can take solace in knowing that on Saturday Justin Fields was the best quarterback on this list.
Zach Wilson, BYU
Zach Wilson hasn't exactly come out of nowhere but over the summer we certainly weren't mentioning him in the same breaths as Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Well, we are now. The BYU standout entered the weekend leading the nation in completion percentage and all he did was improve on that. He's now connecting on 78.3 percent of his throws and we're not talking about shovel passes and dump offs. Wilson can sling it and we don't mean it in the 'anything can happen!' way either. The kid has a hose, for sure, but he's thrown exactly one interception in 161 attempts and that came in the season opener back on Sept. 7 against Navy.
On Saturday night, Wilson went 19 of 25 for 287 yards and four touchdowns (he now has eight passing TDs in his last two games). He also rushed for 15 yards and had 16 yards receiving on a trick play. So yeah, the arm strength is what gets your attention but Wilson is a great athlete who has a firm grasp of not only BYU's offense but what defenses are trying to do to stop him. He's rarely confused about where to go with the ball and it almost always comes out on time and right on the face of his intended target.
But Wilson isn't just throwing seeds, he also shows the required touch on back-corner-of-the-end-zone throws that allow his receiver to go up and get the ball. This was really nice:
If that was nice this was 'Oh my heavens what did I just witness!' amazing.
That's an off-balance rocket to the far side of the field that left the Texas St. defensive back wondering how Wilson defied the laws of physics to make that throw.
There is the question of BYU's competition, and that's fair, but if we're willing to say that North Dakota State's Trey Lance is a first-round talent and he's played just one showcase game this year and was part of a dominant run-heavy team last year, then there's no doubt in our minds that Wilson is one of the top quarterbacks in the country and deserves a long look by NFL teams.
Mac Jones, Alabama
Mac Jones ain't a system quarterback. He looks like one, sure. Right out of the Kirk Cousins School of Stereotypical Traditional Pocket Passers. And we get that. But Alabama's offense hasn't missed a beat since Tua Tagovailoa left, nor did it slow up when wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, one of the most exciting players in football, suffered a high-ankle sprain on the opening kickoff (according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, Waddle is done for the season).
Jones just keeps on keepin' on. He doesn't panic. He moves defenders with his eyes then throws in the spaces they vacate. He throws with uncanny anticipatory accuracy -- he lets it loose before his receivers are out of their breaks and invariably the ball hits them in the hands once they get their eyes around. He trusts his guys to make tough catches -- and they usually do -- and he's the best deep-ball thrower in college football.
Wilson started 11 of 11 against Tennessee (he was 18 of 18 going back to last week) before he missed DeVonta Smith midway through the second quarter. Jones finished 25 of 31 for 387 yards and while he didn't throw a touchdown for the first time all year, he did plenty to advance his cause as one of the most consistent players in college football through the first six weeks or so of the season.
This pass is only possible because Jones is ever-so-slightly able to hold the safety with the over route before hitting John Metchie on a perfectly thrown pass behind it.
Jones has been doing that all season.
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Trevor Lawrence looked human against Syracuse on Saturday and, to be honest, the entire Clemson team -- on both sides of the ball -- looked sluggish. We don't know if there's much to take away from this other than Lawrence, is in fact, human. (Conspiracy theory: Maybe this is Lawrence's not-so-subtle way to encourage the Jets not to draft him. This is sort of a joke.)
Lawrence still finished 27 of 43 for 289 with two touchdowns and an interception, and the Tigers still dominated to the point that Lawrence was out of the game midway through the final quarter. But the quarterback did throw the first pick-six of his career:
It wasn't a good throw, just behind Amari Rodgers. And there were two other passes that should've been picked too ... against a pretty woeful Syracuse defense. But again, Lawrence isn't going to be flawless every week and the Tigers still cruised to a 47-21 victory. And just so we're clear, Lawrence's 27 completions to his own teammates included some pretty remarkable throws:
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
We really liked what we saw from Brock Purdy last season and were hoping he'd continue to improve on his 2019 efforts. So far it hasn't happened on a consistent basis. Iowa State had just one loss coming into Saturday's matchup against Oklahoma State but in two of those four games Purdy completed 50 percent or fewer of his throws, and he managed just 56 percent against the Cowboys.
Purdy finished 19 of 34 for just 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception. And if those numbers don't make it clear, Purdy completed 56 percent of his passes attempting mostly short and intermediate looks. He didn't throw deep until early in the third quarter and this was the result: underthrown into double coverage and intercepted by Oklahoma State's Kolby Harvell-Peel:
Purdy has many of the tools you look for in a quarterback -- the arm strength, the mobility inside and outside the pocket, the ability to make plays off-platform, the toughness and the willingness to put the ball into tight windows -- but the lack of consistency can be infuriating at times. His accuracy hasn't been there for much of the season and he struggled to find it against a really good Oklahoma State defense. But guess what? The NFL is chocked full of good defenses.
Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Tanner Morgan looked like a quarterback who hadn't taken a meaningful snap in some 10 months. That he had to do it against a Don Brown defense that features two of the best defensive linemen in football in Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson likely didn't help either.
Here's what we wrote about Morgan this summer: "Morgan doesn't have a strong arm but he's one of the best anticipatory passers in the country. He also regularly makes the right read and delivers the ball on time and in a spot that allows his receivers to maximize yards after the catch."
Morgan's arm is still a liability but there were fewer of those anticipatory throws, mostly because he had very little time in the pocket. Morgan was pressured all game though that doesn't come close to describing what happened to him midway through the first quarter:
It's reasonable to think that Morgan had that play in the back of his mind for the rest of the evening, and understandably so. His subsequent dropbacks usually resulted in off-balance, inaccurate throws, less-than-stellar decision making (which is to be expected) and a lot of hits. Again, this was against a ferocious Wolverines defense and it didn't help that the Gophers were without their left tackle Daniel Faalele and had a ton of injuries, including to both their punter and kicker.
We considered Morgan a Day 3 pick entering the season and that hasn't changed, though mostly because of things out of his control on Saturday night.