With two weeks until the first weekend of the season, quarterback battles around college football need to be decided sooner rather than later. Three were publicly settled in quick succession on Monday afternoon, and their results, from surprising to predictable, all have an impact on the larger conference races their teams aspire to compete within.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said naming true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad his starting quarterback ahead of the Gophers' season opener against New Mexico State was the hardest decision he’s had to make as a head football coach. That’s all fine and good for now, because anything is better than what they had in 2017, when Minnesota was last in the Big Ten in completion percentage and 12th of 14 teams in passing efficiency and scoring offense. (The Gophers had only 14 plays of 30 or more yards.)
Annexstad, who turned down scholarship offers from Illinois, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, among others, is the first walk-on freshman to start for an FBS team since Baker Mayfield pulled off the trick while at Texas Tech—and we all know how his career ended up.
Not saying Annexstad is anything close to Mayfield, but should he slip up, back up QB Tanner Morgan—who also has never started a game—still might not be called into action, as Fleck said he doesn’t anticipate putting a short leash on Annexstad. The decision to turn the reigns over to him isn’t all that shocking, as Minnesota entered camp with no quarterbacks with playing experience. So by default, someone had to win the job.
While Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten West, the risks of putting an inexperienced quarterback into the fire shouldn’t alarm Minnesota fans. This team is capable of winning six or seven games and should with its schedule.
The search for the Longhorns’ next great quarterback has been a futile one since Colt McCoy left campus almost a decade ago. That is also the last time this team won 10 or more games. No matter how talented a quarterback is, he can’t do much without a serviceable offensive line. That’s an area where Texas has been lacking as well despite the abundance of recruiting talent in the Lone Star State.
Sam Ehlinger will get the nod to start the season after splitting time with Shane Buechele in 2017. The old adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you have none might apply here, and the two battled all spring to start the season against Maryland. While both Ehlinger and Buechele came to Austin as highly touted recruits, Tom Herman settling on one signal caller instead of playing quarterback musical chairs might get the Longhorns back in the national conversation.
Ehlinger threw for 1,915 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 385 yards on the ground in 2017, but missed time while dealing with a concussion. The good thing for Herman is that if Ehlinger gets injured again he has a backup with experience that can keep the team afloat, and maybe even hold on to the job if he plays well enough. The development of a quarterback is about the only thing keeping Texas from unseating Oklahoma’s place on the throne of the Big 12.
From the time the NCAA said that Shea Patterson was eligible to play this season after transferring from Ole Miss and landing at Michigan, anyone in college football circles with a dose of common sense knew what was going to happen next.
While Jim Harbaugh didn’t exactly gift wrap the starting the job to Patterson, it’s safe to assume that Patterson wouldn’t have made the move to Ann Arbor if he didn’t think he had a leg up on the competition. Indeed, Patterson, who threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns in just seven games for the Rebels last season, showed enough skill to beat out Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton.
Michigan has had three seasons of unprecedented hype under Harbaugh, but it has only turned those expectations into 28 wins in 40 games, without an appearance in the Big Ten championship game. The Wolverines enter the 2018 season ranked 15th in SI.com's preseason top 25.
Harbaugh, who has been known to toy with the media regardless of depth chart decisions, did his team a favor by making the choice now, because Notre Dame was likely preparing for Patterson or Peters for the season opener anyway.