Last season, more than most that I can recall, the stable of signal callers in college football lacked sure-fire studs. Only one quarterback went in the first round of the NFL draft (Florida State’s EJ Manuel).
This year, however, there’s a quiver full of quality quarterbacks who could be targeted for the first round. When was the last time we had this many lead horses in the race to be crowned the best quarterback in college football? It’s tough to make a case that one clearly stands above the rest, right?
Well, that’s what I’m going to do.
It’s darn near impossible to do this not only because of the sheer number of quality QB’s, but also because of the offensive evolution we’re currently witnessing. We’re seeing more up-tempo, read-option attacks in addition to the traditional pro-style attacks. It would be easier if we could separate the two styles of quarterbacks and compare pocket-passers to pocket-passers and dual-threat QB’s to dual-threat QB’s. But that’s not realistic, and I’ve never been one to take the easy way out.
So despite Jameis Winston’s burgeoning star and Johnny Manziel’s weekly brilliance, among many others, if we’re discussing the “best quarterback in college football,” it’s Oregon’s Marcus Mariota against the field.
There are three aspects I considered to determine who’s the best QB — big-play production, efficiency and pure excitement – and I believe Mariota separates himself in all three.
1. Big-play production
To appreciate Mariota’s big-play ability, let’s look at his peers.
Baylor is one of the hottest teams in college football, gaining a reputation for blazing turf with its furious offensive attack. With the Bears’ funky-fresh uniforms, some have even called them the Oregon of the Big 12. “I like to think Oregon is the Baylor of the Northwest,” Bears coach Art Briles recently affirmed.
Like the Ducks, the Bears are becoming well-known for their big plays behind QB Bryce Petty. In his first year as a starter, Petty has been dropping bombs to a couple of outstanding, NFL-ready wideouts in Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese. Petty is averaging 19.74 yards per completion and already has 32 completions of 20-plus yards.
Another first year starter carving up defenses is FSU’s “Famous Jameis” Winston. The redshirt freshman is averaging 16.83 yards per completion and has 34 completions of 20-plus yards. Florida State wideouts Rashad Green, Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and even tight end Nick O’Leary are all averaging more than 17 yards per grab. That’s insane.
As much as Petty and Winston have been roastin’ and toastin’ for their squads, ‘Super Mariota’ has been throwing fire for the Ducks, too. His 16.67 yards per completion is better than Texas A&M’s Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.
While Petty and Winston edge out Mariota in yards per completion, he beats both of them in pass completions of 20-plus yards with 35. But what separates Mariota from those two in this category is his ability to also gash defenses with big plays on the ground.
He has more rushing yards (493) and rushing touchdowns (9) than both Manziel (486, 6) and Miller (335, 0) — although Miller missed almost three full games to injury — and his rushing yards are more than UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Winston combined (424). Petty is like the other QBs mentioned above – they do the vast majority of their damage from the pocket – and therefore can’t compare to Mariota in this regard.
Mariota is the Candyman popping out big plays like a Pez dispenser. He can go toe-to-toe with the other top-flight quarterbacks when it comes to slinging the rock, and he can bring the second dimension that most of them can’t.
I would warn that Manziel is the most exciting player to watch in the same way a matador trying to slay a bull is. With every sudden movement and unpredictable twist, you hold your breath in anticipation, but there’s also a sense something really bad might happen at any moment. His unpredictability and wild style can do some damage, but it comes with a price. The current price is seven interceptions, eight total turnovers and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (the off-the-field issues are another story). The same unconventional and erratic play that makes Manziel seemingly invincible at times can also be his Achilles’ heel.
One indicator of efficiency in which good quarterbacks rate well is total QBR (quarterback rating), an advanced metric that gauges a QB’s true contribution to the offense and runs on a 0-100 scale, with 50 being “average.”
Even with the spontaneity that sometimes costs Manziel, he’s still efficient, ranking fourth in total QBR at 90.1. When fans think of efficient quarterbacks, perhaps they think of Georgia’s Aaron Murray or Winston, both of whom fit that description well. Murray has thrown six interceptions this season but ranks fifth in QBR at 88.8. Winston has thrown three interceptions and ranks third in total QBR at 92.5.
No other current quarterback, however, in college football is more efficient than Mariota. He’s No. 1 in QBR at 96.6 and hasn’t thrown a single interception this season. That’s worth reiterating: Mariota has zero interceptions. He holds the nation’s longest active streak of pass attempts without a pick at 265. Next closest is Nevada’s Cody Fajardo at 188. “Mr. game-manager” himself, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, is No. 10 on that list at 75 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, and he’s thrown three picks this season.
It took until Week 8 for Mariota to commit his first two turnovers of the season, both fumbles. He has fewer total turnovers than every other elite quarterback in the nation yet he still puts up Heisman-worthy statistics.
Mariota is a freak athlete and fun to watch, but what is equally impressive is that he’s almost flawless. He’s the calm and the storm, delivering efficient lightning-like dashes and flashes of pure inspiration.
3. The excitement factor
This is subjective, sure, but “excitement” comes into play every season when determing the best player in college football – the Heisman winner – so we’ll consider it here.
Johnny Football is almost unanimously considered the most exciting player in all of college football. He can drop pinpoint passes all over the field, but if no receivers are open he’ll take off running faster than a jackrabbit headed for a hot date. My teammate, Clay Travis, said it best: “Johnny Manziel is must-watch television … he’s the best reality series out there right now.” We can’t deny it, the lil’ fiery fella is fun to watch.
Anyone who has seen Oregon play, however, knows that Mariota is pretty exciting, too. He emasculates defenses, taking as many man-cards from defenders on the field as Manziel has. An “explosive” run is one that goes for more than 10 yards, and Mariota already has 20 this season to Manziel’s 18.
Earlier this week, UCLA coach Jim Mora, who faces Oregon on Saturday, had this to say about Mariota: “He’s 6-foot-3.5, has a rocket arm, incredible intelligence, great poise, runs a 4.4, has a fearless attitude. I had a couple NFL guys ask me if he can play at the next level and I told them, ‘Have you not watched him?’ He’s going to rip it up at the next level.”
If you haven’t watched him, get a good look:
Both Manziel and Mariota dazzle in their own ways, and since this is a subjective category, I’ll call it a tie in excitement.
What isn’t a tie, as you can see after evaluating the three categories above, is the debate for college football’s best quarterback. Without hesitancy, I can say it’s Mariota.
One other thing about him: It doesn’t change how I analyze his performance on the field, or the performance of his competitors, but how you carry yourself matters. So it’s worth nothing what Oregon SID Andy McNamara told me about Mariota’s character: “[He’s] down to earth and humble off the field, and truly does not seem to get caught up in any of the hype or attention surrounding him. He’s incredibly respectful to everyone he comes in contact with and is as quick to say hello and chat with one of our maintenance workers as he would with the AD.”
This is part of the reason Oregon fans are infatuated with their QB. Mariota makes big plays and smart plays with efficiency, consistency and humility.
The fact that they can look around the country and know nobody is better helps, too.