The 2020 college football season marked the end of amateur careers for some of the most talented quarterbacks of the past decade. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence seems like the surefire No. 1 overall pick, and his college resume solidifies him as one of the most accomplished players in NCAA history.
Heading into the 2021 season, Clemson is not the only big program to lose a top-end college football quarterback. Ohio State lost Justin Fields, BYU and Florida seek replacements for Zach Wilson and Kyle Trask respectively.
The 2021 college football season will feature new faces on some big-time programs, but there are some returning starters who figure to shine, too.
Here are the top 10 college football quarterbacks heading into this next year.
10. Carson Strong, Nevada
- 2020 stats: 249-of-355, 2858 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, four interceptions
Edging out a dual-threat dynamo in Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall to sneak into the top 10 of college football quarterbacks, Strong is one of the most underrated passers in the collegiate game. He was dominant throughout the season and led the nation’s No. 12 passing offense.
He averaged over 300 yards in the air and most importantly led Nevada to a 7-2 record and a bowl victory. Strong threw for five touchdowns with only six incompletions in the 38-27 victory over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Strong might not get the attention he deserves due to playing in the Mountain West, but he might be able to get wider national exposure if he pulls off road upsets over the likes of California and Kansas State in 2021.
9. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
- 2020 stats: 186-of-281, 2,296 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, six interceptions; 592 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns
At the start of every college football season, USC is usually projected to be the leader of the Pac-12 and a legitimate national championship contender. However, it seems like the hype fades as the season progresses, and that’s why Kedon Slovis is out of these rankings upon our latest update, and Desmond Ridder is in.
While some of this list is projection and based on smaller sample sizes, Ridder has earned his spot with excellent ability as a runner and continued strides made as a thrower. Plus, the rising senior now has enough of a track record to be considered among the best signal-callers in the NCAA without question.
Ridder has now guided the Bearcats to three straight double-digit win seasons, and nearly helped Cincinnati pull an upset over Georgia in the Peach Bowl, only to fall short by a score of 24-21.
But that’s not to detract from anything Ridder has accomplished to date. With all the experience he has and how stout the Bearcats’ defense is, there’s reason to believe the hype is real with this program.
8. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
- 2020 stats: 78-of-117, 914 passing yards, nine total touchdowns (five passing, four rushing), zero interceptions
The true freshman was thrust into the spotlight after Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19. In just two starts, he threw for over 700 yards with four touchdowns. He went toe to toe with one of the best defenses in the nation in Notre Dame. Despite the overtime loss to the Fighting Irish, Uiagalelei showed everyone why he will be ready to fill Lawrence’s shoes.
Uiagalelei will not get the luxury of starting the season off with some easy opponents. He’ll have a huge test Week 1 versus Georgia, who consistently produces some of the best defenses under Kirby Smart. There are a lot of players who will garner preseason hype without playing many, if any, meaningful snaps. Uiagalelei has shown he can play against the best and deserves a place on this list despite his limited action to date.
7. Brock Purdy, Iowa State
- 2020 stats: 243-of-365, 2,750 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions
Purdy has solidified himself as the best quarterback in Iowa State history. He did struggle with turnovers in throwing nine interceptions, yet nevertheless led Iowa State to the Big 12 regular-season title before losing to Oklahoma in the conference championship game.
After throwing three picks versus the Sooners, though, Purdy redeemed himself to a degree with a win in the Fiesta Bowl versus Oregon.
If Purdy wants to be one of the best quarterbacks in 2021, he will need to improve his record and decision-making against ranked teams. There’s not a lot of flash to his game due to marginal arm talent and decent but not special athleticism. With a strong offseason of preparation, perhaps Purdy will save his best for last in leading the Cyclones to the College Football Playoff.
6. JT Daniels, Georgia
- 2020 stats: 80-of-119, 1,231 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions
No other quarterback on this list has had as unique of a journey as Daniels. He is also among the most hyped-up QBs going into the 2021 season.
Daniels played only four games and he absolutely shined. In fact, it’s fascinating to wonder what might have been had Daniels been able to be the starter when the Bulldogs lost to Alabama and Florida last season. Perhaps he could’ve done enough to pull out victories in one of those two contests.
Daniels did all this while transferring from USC a pandemic and rehabbing from a torn ACL. With the addition of Daniels, Georgia’s offense might be one of the best in the country. If the Bulldogs’ defense remains elite and Daniels maintains his level of play or improves, a national championship might be on the horizon.
5. Dillon Gabriel, UCF
- 2020 stats: 248-of-413, 3570 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, four interceptions
Due to the prolific nature of UCF’s system, many take for granted the greatness of Dillon Gabriel. He threw for over 3,500 yards with 32 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Those numbers are worthy of a Heisman Trophy, yet, he was not really in the discussion because, well, he plays for the Knights.
Gabriel will continue to catalyze an electric UCF passing attack, and if the team can improve on last year’s 6-4 record, then Gabriel will get the recognition he deserves. UCF will have a difficult schedule in 2021, which will put Gabriel to the test to see if he can rise to the occasion against superior competition.
All this said, it is fair to wonder how Gabriel will fare under a more run-oriented offensive mind in Gus Malzahn as his new head coach.
4. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
- 2020 college football stats: 231-of-326, 3337 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 14 interceptions; 506 yards rushing, four touchdowns
Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin absolutely let Corral loose in 2020, sometimes to the detriment of the team as a whole, but more often than not, that strategy produced fantastic results. Look no further than his bonkers outing against Alabama, where in a 63-48 loss, he threw for 365 yards and two scores on 21-of-28 passing.
There were times when Corral definitely pressed too much, but his high interception count is a little deceiving. Eleven of his 14 picks happened in two games against Arkansas and LSU. Take those away, and his 2020 campaign was pretty darn spectacular, as Corral completed over 70% of his throws and flashed plenty of running ability, too.
That’s what makes Corral such a compelling case. Is he really so much of a roller coaster that he can never be fully trusted as a top-flight college football quarterback? Or is his immense upside something he can achieve on a more consistent basis, which could result in him being even better this year?
3. D’Eriq King, Miami
- 2020 college football stats: 211-of-329, 2686 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions; 538 yards rushing, four touchdowns
There is arguably no other quarterback on this list who was as vital to their team’s success as D’Eriq King was to the Miami Hurricanes. King was one of the most electrifying players in the country and completely carried Miami throughout the season. He suffered a knee injury in the Cheez-It Bowl but will return for another season.
Before the knee injury, King accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense, proving his game could translate to a higher level of competition after his decision to transfer from Houston. He put up these numbers while playing behind a porous offensive line and throwing to a weak receiving corps, too.
King will be in the 2021 Heisman Trophy conversation all year, and he will continue to be one of the best players in the country as long as he comes back healthy enough.
2. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
2020 college football stats: 214-of-317, 3031 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, seven interceptions
Heading into the 2020 season, Rattler faced immense expectations. There was no question he possessed the talent to be the next great QB coached by Lincoln Riley, but following in the footsteps of Heisman winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, and serving as the successor to Jalen Hurts, proved an immense challenge.
Now, Rattler is the front-runner to win the Heisman in 2021. His 2020 season started off rough after Oklahoma fell to 1-2. However, the team rallied behind the redshirt freshman and won eight straight games, won the Big 12 title, and demolished Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
He accounted for 34 total touchdowns and threw for over 3,000 yards. The nation will be watching Rattler this coming year even more closely, and the pressure will be on. However, he will be more at ease now that he’s officially established himself as the man at the controls of Riley’s offense.
1. Sam Howell, North Carolina
2020 college football stats: 236-of-348, 3586 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions
Some already predict Howell will be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Thus, the heat is on for the North Carolina star. Howell makes playing quarterback look easy. However, heading in the 2021 season, he’ll be without all of his top targets, with wideouts Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome entering the draft, and tailbacks Javonte Williams and Michael Carter doing the same.
Howell is the type of quarterback who makes others around him better, though, and overcoming all those losses with a strong season is only going to cast him in a more favorable light among NFL talent evaluators. If Howell mimics or even beats out his 2020 numbers, he’ll be considered a surefire franchise quarterback at the professional level.