You don’t always need an all-conference quarterback to have a successful season in college football, or even compete for a national championship. Just ask Nick Saban. Alabama’s dynasty took hold largely without star QBs in the early part of the decade, with Saban’s quarterbacks ranging from solid (Greg McElroy and Jalen Hurts) to simply passable (Blake Simms and Jake Coker). Circumstance can dictate success for a number of quarterbacks, with scheme and skill players sometimes leading the charge offensively. Hurts, now with Oklahoma, won’t need to be Superman for the Sooners to win the Big 12. A strong year from Shea Patterson will likely be thanks to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Quarterback struggles can be overcome at the collegiate level.
Yet there are still a number of programs across the country where the QB1 will swing the season one way or another. The Crimson Tide are now more quarterback dependent than ever this decade with Tua Tagovailoa, and Dabo Swinney’s two titles were driven by a pair of superstar QBs. Perhaps a surprise Heisman candidacy will propel a sleeper to the College Football Playoff.
With that in mind, we at Sports Illustrated targeted the top five make-or-break QBs of the 2019 season, ranging from quarterbacks with national title aspirations to those simply looking to keep their coach’s job.
Sam Ehlinger, Texas
Texas had been a dormant program before the Austin Westlake product arrived on campus in 2018, with the Longhorns failing to hit 10 wins in eight-straight years from 2010–17. Mack Brown never found a quality replacement for Colt McCoy, and Charlie Strong was doomed in part due to his scuffling quarterback carousel. Tom Herman’s answer at quarterback is clear.
Ehlinger sprung Texas back into the national conversation in 2018 with one of the most efficient QB seasons of the century. He was one of just four quarterbacks in 2018 to throw 25-plus touchdowns with five or fewer interceptions, and he is the second quarterback since 2000 to ever tally 25 passing touchdowns, 15 rushing touchdowns and just five interceptions in a single season. A dominant Sugar Bowl performance set the Heisman hype train in motion, and the Longhorns enter 2019 at No. 5 in SI’s preseason poll.
Ehlinger is the unquestioned engine of the Longhorns’ attack. His physicality as a runner sets the tone for Herman’s smashmouth offense, and his touch as a passer keeps defenses out of eight-man boxes. Ehlinger marries the run game and passing attack beautifully. He is light years ahead of the one-dimensional quarterbacks (Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard) of the Charlie Strong era. Ehlinger is the real deal, and the central reason Texas could win both the Red River Showdown and Big 12 title in 2019.
JT Daniels, USC
A strong season is needed from Ehlinger for the Longhorns to reach the College Football Playoff. Clay Helton needs a good year from JT Daniels just to save his job. USC’s head coach was nearly on the way out after the 2018 season, and a poor 2019 would all-but-guarantee his termination after five years leading the program. The Pac-12 South appears wide open. Helton and Co. have enough talent to compete for the division crown.
Daniels didn’t exactly help his coach’s job security in 2018 with just 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 11 games as a true freshman. The Trojans sputtered to the NCAA’s No. 91 scoring offense, failing to score 20 points in two of their final three games. Yet there remains the potential for a major leap in 2019. Former North Texas offensive coordinator—and 2000s Texas Tech gunslinger—Graham Harrell will bring some serious spread and tempo to the Trojans, and early reports suggest the scheme change will benefit Daniels. The No. 2 QB recruit from the Class of 2018 won’t ever catch up to Trevor Lawrence, but an All-Pac-12 nod could be in his future. Otherwise, Helton may be out of a job after 2019.
Joe Burrow, LSU
The other quarterbacks on our list will have to shine throughout the year for their teams to have successful seasons in 2019, but Burrow’s season may come down to one game: Alabama. The Ohio State transfer ranged from serviceable to solid throughout 2018, tossing just five interceptions as the Tigers’ rode their stout defense to an 11–3 campaign. But the Crimson Tide slashed any playoff hopes in November, holding LSU to 18 for 35 for 184 yards and an interception. The Tigers barely crossed midfield in the 29–0 loss
The Tigers’ defense should finish in the top five in points allowed in 2019, led by Thorpe Award favorite Grant Delpit. But even an elite defense may not be enough to dethrone the Tide and win the SEC. Burrow may have to play the best game of his career on Nov. 9 for LSU to reach the College Football Playoff.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
While the hype train is rolling steady for Ehlinger, it’s charging at breakneck speed for Adrian Martinez. Nebraska’s signal caller may be the program’s most impactful QB since Eric Crouch, and he may be its best passer this century. Martinez posted 7.5 yards per attempt and 17 passing touchdowns in 11 games as a freshman last season, adding eight TDs on the ground. His sophomore production could mirror Ehlinger’s albeit with a higher interception rate. Scott Frost won’t have to worry about landing a major quarterback for at least two seasons.
The Cornhuskers could return to relevance in 2019 with Frost leading the program for a second-straight year. His RPO-heavy scheme mixes well with Martinez, and a weak Big Ten West could inflate Martinez’s statistical profile as he guns for a spot at the Heisman ceremony in New York. The Cornhuskers lose a 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher from last year’s team. They’ll only go as far as Martinez takes them in 2019.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
Iowa State is never close to the Big 12 favorite, but 2019 might be the Cyclones’ best chance in program history. Iowa State has never won the conference title, nor appeared in any of the 17 Big 12 championship games. Iowa State has finished over .500 just seven times in the Big 12’s 24-year history. Winning in Ames isn’t easy. Sustaining success is nearly impossible.
Matt Campbell may be the first Cyclones’ coach to create lasting success in Ames if he doesn’t matriculate up to the NFL, and quarterback Brock Purdy could play a large role in growing a winner. The sophomore quarterback shined in 10 games as a freshman in 2018, completing 66.4% of passes and tossing 16 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Purdy stands strong in the pocket but isn’t a statue, and his arm on the run is a serious weapon. He’ll be in Ames for at least two more seasons and a third if his NFL prospects look slim. Purdy and Campbell can rip off four-straight winning seasons together through 2021. In 2019, the duo could sneak into the Big 12 title game with an unforeseen loss or two by Texas or Oklahoma.