Thumb your way through any college football preview magazine each year and you’ll notice a common theme playing a gigantic role in determining how the teams are ranked: returning starters. Take it a step further, and teams that return their starting quarterbacks are given a sizable leg up when all the prognostication begins.
There’s a lot to be said for having an experienced veteran under center. By the very nature of college football, it’s seemingly critical to have the most important position on the field occupied by a player who’s been through the ringer and can lead a team that on average returns barely more than half its starters. Asking an 18 or 19-year-old kid to learn an entire offense in four weeks, and then execute it against high-level competition would appear daunting.
Just look at this year’s preseason top 25 that came out last week. Seven of the top 10 teams are trotting out quarterbacks who started at least half his teams’ games in 2013. Talk to any Alabama fan about this upcoming season and they’ll tell you their high hopes for this season begin and end with either Jacob Coker or Blake Sims.
However, if recent history tells us anything, the idea that teams with experienced quarterbacks have a leg up on the competition is nothing but a myth.
Four of the last five national champions started first-year signal callers. Three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners were in their first season atop the depth chart. The top three teams in last year’s final rankings have the same story.
You don’t see many teams get the benefit of the doubt in August when there’s uncertainty at quarterback, yet we continually see unknown commodities emerge as superstars each year.
So, why are these young gunners making such an impact so quickly?
Perhaps more than any other reason, they’re arriving on campus more equipped to run a Division I offense than ever before. Thanks to year-round training, 7-on-7 camps and the abundance of technology available to youth players today, the overall talent level of quarterbacks in America has never been higher. There are 10-year-olds running no-huddle offenses now. There are middle-schoolers across the country who spent time this summer getting hands-on training from actual NFL players.
The rise of dual-threat quarterbacks is also making a serious impact on this new trend. Johnny Manziel is a textbook example of a guy who overcame his lack of pocket-passing ability with a penchant to turn broken plays into home runs. Jameis Winston is the same way (although he’s a much more refined passer than Manziel). Coaches can feel a lot better throwing out a rookie QB when they know if a play goes haywire, all is not lost.
This all applies to the NFL as well. A rookie quarterback is about as likely to sit on the bench his first season nowadays as he is to break the all-time sack record. Pretty much any first-round draft pick in today’s era is a lock to take over the starting job by midseason at the latest.
Back to the college ranks…this is a trend that has only recently developed. Prior to 2009, just three of the first 11 BCS champions were led by first-year quarterbacks. If it continues in 2014, here are a few of the unfamiliar names who could find themselves at the forefront of the national championship and/or Heisman race this fall.
Jacob Coker (Alabama)
All signs point to Coker winning the starting job, no matter how strongly Nick Saban denies that it is his job to lose. There’s no sugarcoating it: whoever wins this job, whether it’s Coker or Blake Sims, will face more pressure than any other player in America this season. The Crimson Tide are beyond loaded at every other skill position, coupled with the disastrous end to 2013 -not to mention the controversial hiring of Lane Kiffin to run the offense-€“ and the fate of the country’s flagship program rests squarely on Coker’s shoulders.
Hutson Mason (Georgia)
The Mason Era started earlier than expected when Aaron Murray went down in the second-to-last game of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Mason finished off Kentucky in a blowout win and proceeded to lead Georgia to a comeback overtime win against Georgia Tech the following week. He also threw for 320 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the Capital One Bowl loss to Nebraska. Like Coker, Mason steps into a cushy situation with a loaded backfield and experience at receiver. If Mason can navigate a brutal opening slate against Clemson and South Carolina, the Bulldogs’ schedule sets up very nicely for Mason and Co. to make a national title run.
Brandon Harris/Anthony Jennings (LSU)
Les Miles has already stated that this position battle won’t be won during fall practice; he’d rather wait and see how these two candidates fare in the heat of battle before choosing a starter. The only problem with that plan is the Tigers have no time to waste with Wisconsin looming in week one from Houston. The Tigers are in the midst of a massive talent overhaul offensively, so this would appear to be a rebuilding year in Baton Rouge if it weren’t for two words: Leonard Fournette.
Kyle Allen/Kenny Hill (Texas A&M)
Texas A&M will without a doubt take a step back after losing Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, but Kevin Sumlin has a sterling track record at breaking in new signal-callers with ease. Allen, a true freshman, has more raw talent and likely has the inside track at winning this job. Could we see a third straight freshman QB win the Heisman? Doubt it. Even Manziel and Famous Jameis needed a redshirt year.
Trevor Knight (Oklahoma)
Lost in all the hype stemming from Knight’s virtuoso performance in the Sugar Bowl against ‘Bama is the fact that he only started five games last season. Furthermore, Knight was incredibly average before the bowl game. Prior to the ‘Bama Beatdown, Knight threw five touchdowns and four interceptions in 2013. Now, Knight no longer has to look over his shoulder at Blake Bell or anyone else â€“ the job is his. Expectations are back to normal in Norman, and by “normal” I mean it’s Championship or Bust for the Sooners. If you’re looking for the safest bet to put up big numbers in his first full year under center, Knight should be your guy.
Cole Stoudt (Clemson)
We’ve yet to see a Chad Morris offense directed by anyone not named Tajh Boyd, but Stoudt has the tools to fill in seamlessly for the three-year starter for the Tigers. He’s been in the program for four years, including all three years since Morris arrived. Dabo Swinney insists Stoudt is more mobile than Boyd, potentially giving the Tigers a dimension to their offense that they have not had in quite some time. Sammy Watkins is also gone, but keep an eye on Charone Peake and Mike Williams giving Stoudt some prolific weapons in his only year at the helm. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Clemson heading into this season, but as we’ve seen in the last few years, that just might be a good thing.