College News & Analysis

Ranking the top 10 returning college QBs

The 2020 college college football season was the year of the quarterback. As expected, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields produced at an elite level, with each grading above 90.0. There were also a couple of unexpected elite performers who rattled the country in Zach Wilson of BYU and Mac Jones of Alabama. The latter pair broke the PFF College records for highest PFF grade by a non-Power 5 quarterback (Wilson at 95.4) and Power 5 QB (Jones at 95.8). 

All four are off to the NFL, but the good news is that there is no shortage of premier quarterbacks returning to college football. Today we'll take a look at the 10 best QBs heading back to campus next fall. 

The following are PFF’s top 10 quarterbacks returning in 2021 based on a bevy of factors including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers.

1. SPENCER RATTLER, OKLAHOMA

It was apparent from Day 1 that Rattler is a special quarterback and bound to be a star. He made the first start of his career against Missouri State in 2020, and the former five-star recruit absolutely obliterated the FCS defense for a 93.7 PFF grade. The level of competition clearly wasn’t impressive, but the arm talent mixed with his beautiful release certainly was.

Rattler went on to perform at an elite level throughout his first year starting and finished the season with a 92.5 passing grade. That tied for the third-best in the FBS.

There were some issues with his reads in the pocket, which we saw on game-sealing interceptions against Kansas State and Iowa State, but that shouldn't cloud anyone's judgment of the redshirt freshman. Rattler made throws out of the pocket on the run that very few can make. In fact, his 92.1 passing grade outside the pocket was nearly six grading points higher than any other college quarterback. And let’s not forget that his receiving unit didn’t help matters — Rattler had seven big-time throws that were dropped this season, the most any college quarterback has had to endure in a season since 2014.

Rattler is the real deal. He should be the overwhelming early favorite to take home the 2021 Heisman and just might be the guy to end the winless College Football Playoff record for the Sooners next year.

2. SAM HOWELL, NORTH CAROLINA

When Howell is given the green-light to launch it deep, UNC’s offense cooks. His deep ball is arguably the best in all of college football. Over the last two seasons, Howell ranks first in the Power 5 in 20-plus yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654), touchdowns (32) and big-time throws (59 — 15 more than the next QB). A lot of this production stemmed from play-action shots, but it's impressive nonetheless. 

The big area we wanted to see Howell improve on during his sophomore was the true dropback game (i.e. no play-action, rollout, screen, RPO), and he certainly did that. He raised his true dropback passing grade by nearly 10 grading points from 76.9 to 86.2. There was also a drastically lower rate of bad decisions when under pressure (though he is still taking too many sacks). That was Howell's Achilles heel as a true freshman in 2019 when he recorded a 38.2 passing grade when under pressure. In 2020, he improved that mark to 74.7 while maintaining a top-10 clean pocket passing grade. That led Howell to the sixth-best PFF grade of the 2020 season at 92.3.

3. D’ERIQ KING, MIAMI (FL.)

King was everything The U hoped for in 2020: an elite dual-threat. He made tons of plays both through the air and on the ground in his first season with the Hurricanes, resulting in a 90.6 PFF grade for the season (10th in the FBS). And now they get him for another year.

On 111 runs (85 designed, 26 scrambles), King totaled 26 rushes of 10 or more yards. He produced more than 10 yards after contact on 13 of those, the most at the position. As a passer, King hardly put the ball in harm’s way. He consistently made the right decision and came in at No. 3 in the FBS in turnover-worthy play rate (1.7%).

Miami is going to be a dangerous team in 2021, assuming King recovers fully from his torn ACL suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl and is ready to rock Week 1 like expected.

4. DILLON GABRIEL, UCF

The backbone of Gabriel’s success in the collegiate ranks has been his downfield touch in a UCF offense chock full of go balls. He racked up the second-most passing yards on throws of 20 or more yards downfield in the FBS this past year with 1,338. Gabriel ranked fourth in the metric the previous year with 1,316 as a true freshman. He was a top-notch decision-maker in 2019 and did the same in 2020, finishing at No. 9 in the FBS in turnover-worthy play rate.

Gabriel took a big step forward in Year 2, raising his PFF grade from 81.4 to 90.9. It will be interesting to see how Gabriel fares in 2021 after Josh Heupel, the Knights head coach since 2018, took the Tennessee head coaching gig last week. His offense was full of simplistic reads for the quarterback with a hefty dosage of one-on-one vertical shots down the sideline, screens, RPOs and play-action. Regardless of who takes over, we believe Gabriel will thrive and remain an elite college passer.

5. MICHAEL PENIX JR., INDIANA

Despite playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football in 2020, Penix managed to post an 82.9 PFF grade in six starts before tearing his ACL in Week 13. Only four other FBS quarterbacks spent a higher rate of their dropbacks under pressure than Penix at 41%, yet the Hoosier overcame that to put together quality play. He was calm in collapsing pockets with monsters along opposing defensive lines hurling their bodies at him, converting pressure to sacks at an astronomically low rate of 7.4% (best in the FBS).

None of this is surprising after what we saw from Penix back in 2019 when he posted an 84.0 PFF grade in six starts. One thing that was different in 2020, however, was the bouts of inaccuracy, but he still managed to produce plus results in that area by ranking 19th in the FBS in percentage of accurate passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield.

Penix ended up leading all Power 5 quarterbacks in big-time throw rate this past season and was establishing himself as one of the top passers in the country before the injury. As long as he can stay healthy, the Hoosiers can be a top-10 team again in 2021.

6. MATT CORRAL, OLE MISS

Corral is in a favorable offense with Lane Kiffin leading the charge, but he has led it to near perfection with just one hiccup in the 2020 season. He had one of the worst games of the year in Week 7 against Arkansas, racking up six interceptions and a 30.8 passing grade. Despite that, Corral still earned a 90.5 PFF grade for the season. He was that good the rest of the year.

In Kiffin’s offense, Corral racked up the fifth-most deep passing yards (1,265). On throws of 10-plus yards downfield, the Ole Miss quarterback ranked fifth in percentage of accurate passes thrown. Even with that six-interception performance, he still managed to rank in the top 20 in the FBS when it came to negatively graded throw rate. He paired that with the 11th-best positively graded throw rate, making him one of six Power 5 quarterbacks to rank in the top 20 in both categories (Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell and Kyle Trask).

Not all of Corral’s production is courtesy of the ecosystem in which he operates. There were several instances when he got creative and manipulated defenders with his eyes and shoulders. Take these plays against Mississippi State for example, courtesy of PFF’s Seth Galina:

I wouldn’t expect another outing like Corral had against Arkansas in Year 2 of Kiffin’s offense in 2021.

7. GRAYSON MCCALL, COASTAL CAROLINA

Coastal Carolina was college football’s Cinderella story this past season, and Grayson McCall was the key reason why. He certainly did damage on the ground, but unlike most triple-option QBs he also showed the ability to carve defenses up through the air with pinpoint accuracy.

McCall finished the season with the seventh-best big-time throw rate and fifth-lowest uncatchable-pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage. That led to a 92.5 passing grade on the year, trailing only Zach Wilson for the best by a non-Power 5 quarterback in the PFF College era.

This deadly option attack isn’t going away in 2021 with McCall at the helm.

8. D.J. UIAGALELEI, CLEMSON

Uiagalelei was one of Dabo Swinney’s prized recruits of the 2020 class — a five-star who ranked 10th nationally, according to 247Sports. When Trevor Lawrence was out with covid for a couple of games, Uiagalelei impressed in spot starts as a true freshman. He earned an 83.6 passing grade with five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays in those two games against Boston College and Notre Dame. And Uiagalelei showed that he has an absolute rocket-launcher for an arm:

We saw a few inaccurate throws in those games that stemmed from mechanical issues, but that is nothing major to worry about. Uiagalelei displayed all the requisite tools to be an elite college quarterback and didn’t look like a true freshman out there being protected by easy throws.

9. MYLES BRENNAN, LSU

Brennan far exceeded expectations in his three starts before going down with a season-ending injury. He took a combined 145 dropbacks against Mississippi State, Vandy and Mizzou and came away with an 88.3 passing grade, 10 big-time throws and just one turnover-worthy play. The downfield passing was nothing short of exceptional in those three games. He trailed only Mac Jones in the SEC for highest passing grade on throws of 10 or more yards downfield over that span and jumped to first on deep passes alone.

The LSU quarterback displayed quality arm talent and showed a lot of growth with the way he handled pressure. He was fearless under pressure in his last game against Mizzou, going 11-of-16 for 248 yards and a couple of scores on such plays. With Brennan back and healthy, LSU ought to rebound after a disappointing 2020. 

10. KEDON SLOVIS, USC

Slovis is skating on thin ice here but holds onto the No. 10 spot in our book. He shattered expectations as a true freshman in 2019 with an 80.8 passing grade and displayed precise accuracy that was on the level of Joe Burrow (second to only Burrow in accurate pass rate that year). But Slovis at times looked like a first-year player with one or two head-scratching, forced throws per game. He also struggled to hold onto the ball in collapsing pockets. 

Instead of taking that next step forward like we had hoped in 2020, Slovis was the same exact player. He earned an 80.1 passing grade in six starts that featured 13 turnover-worthy plays but top-notch accuracy underneath (fourth in the Power 5 in accurate pass rate less than 9 yards downfield).

He may be No. 10, but he isn’t in the elite tier yet. That being said, Slovis has the skill set to make the jump to elite status in 2021. 

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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