Observer Roundtable 2020 college football preview: Top 10 quarterbacks
Earlier this week, The Observer Roundtable previewed the top-25 teams for this unusual college football season. Today, we are bringing you our picks for the top-10 college football quarterbacks for the 2020 season, with contributions from six Observer staffers.
Observer Roundtable: Top 10 college quarterbacks
- Trevor Lawrence
- Justin Fields
- Sam Ehlinger
- Sam Howell
- Kedon Slovis
- Tanner Morgan
- Kyle Trask
- Ian Book
- Spencer Rattler
- Brock Purdy
Also receiving votes: Jayden Daniels, Jamie Newman, D’Eriq King, Brady White, Layne Hatcher, Kellen Mond and Jack Coan
Besides the order of 1-2, there should be no debate regarding the top two quarterbacks entering the 2020 season. Lawrence and Fields are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country at the position, and both should be top-5 draft picks come the 2021 draft. After that, there’s plenty of room for argument. I firmly believe that Tanner Morgan is the next best quarterback in college football, and even without Rashod Bateman, I believe Morgan is capable of huge numbers. The way I look at it –– Ohio State and Clemson are great teams with great quarterbacks. Minnesota is a great (or at least very good) team because of Tanner Morgan. He’s underrated at No.6.
To bump him up, I would slide both Ehlinger and Howell down. I think both are overvalued here, and Ehlinger’s ranking seems to be consistent with the traditional overhyping of any and all things related to Texas. I think he’s a fringe top-10 signal-caller, but certainly not No. 3. And while I do like Howell –– I had him ranked fifth in my personal rankings, I would definitely slide him down a slot to make room for Slovis. As much as it pains the Irish fan in me to say, I think USC is a really good team this year, and Slovis may be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, ending last season on a ridiculous hot streak.
Beyond that top six, my complaints are minimal. I like Trask and Book to slot in at the back end of the top 10, so seventh or eighth seems about right for those gunslingers. I am definitely not a fan of ranking Spencer Rattler at No. 9. The guy has not taken an important college snap yet, and he’s ranked in the top 10. I don’t care if Lincoln Riley is the QB whisperer –– you’re not a top 10 quarterback until you’ve made a big throw. I also wouldn’t put Purdy in the list, but I’m far more inclined to include him than Rattler.
Just off the top 10, I was pleased to see Jayden Daniels almost make it. The Arizona State quarterback is one of the rising stars in college football, and he was partially responsible for ending Oregon’s playoff hopes when the Sun Devils stunned the Ducks last season. I think being close, but not quite cracking, the top 10 is about right for both Daniels and Jamie Newman. I’m not particularly high on Newman, but he did have a very good season at Wake Forest. There’s a lot of questions to be answered – namely regarding his switch to the SEC –– so placing him higher would seem too forward.
My biggest complaint in the “Also Receiving Votes” section may be Brady White, because I believe the Memphis quarterback is a special talent. He led a Memphis offense to 39 points against Penn State’s elite defense last season in the Cotton Bowl. The Nittany Lions gave up no more than 28 points in any other game, and those 28 points came at the hands of Justin Fields and Ohio State. How did Brady White not get more votes? I don’t know, but he should most definitely be on everyone’s radar in 2020.
The Big Ten can go kick rocks. Are they really going to deprive us of a top-10 quarterbacks list that does NOT include Justin Fields? Absolutely, positively not! And, in fact, I have him as my No. 1 quarterback heading into this season.
Say what you will about Trevor Lawrence, and he does have Fields beat in terms of championship experience and pure numbers, but one thing I will give the Big Ten credit for is being much deeper than the ACC. Forty-one touchdowns to three interceptions is an incredibly impressive stat line, especially when two of those three picks came against Clemson. Two interceptions apiece for Lawrence against Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Louisville does not look nearly as good. That said, he’s still Trevor Lawrence, and as far as I’m concerned, you can give him the Heisman for the way he’s fought to play football this fall.
I only hear good things about Sam Howell, and considering North Carolina didn’t lose by more than a touchdown in any game last season I have to think his development under Mack Brown would mean stealing a few more of those close games. I’m sure we’re overhyping Ehlinger; that said I had him at No. 4, which is still probably too high. It feels like he’s been at Texas as long as Aaron Craft was at Ohio State and Perry Ellis was at Kansas, but let’s keep the basketball talk to a minimum, shall we?
I like Kedon Slovis at No. 5 after seeing what he did as a first year starter for USC last season and beating J.T. Daniels out for the first-string job. I suppose it’s kind of strange that Daniels didn’t get a single vote from us, but that’s probably recency bias –– the same recency bias that kept D’Eriq King out of the top 10. Sure, King didn’t play against the toughest competition at Houston, and his situation leaving the Cougars was bizarre, but his dual threat capability is something to see. But I digress.
I’m not inherently opposed to Tanner Morgan being as high as he is seeing the way he played in big games last season, especially the first half against Penn State. I think that showtime moment probably means he deserves to beat out Ian Book, but Kyle Trask is grossly overhyped here. He was King’s backup in high school and last season started his first football game period since his freshman year of high school. He’s good, don’t get me wrong, but his passes float and the rest of Florida’s team helped carry that team to last year’s success.
As for Book, we can go on all day about the Irish signal caller. Looking at the potential options, I have to say that I think he’s better than everyone in the “also receiving votes” except for King, but I can see King still needing to prove it. Similarly J.T. Daniels probably should be ahead of Book, but again, we haven’t seen much from him except a 5-7 freshman campaign and the start of his first game last year before a season-ending injury.
Brock Purdy is probably more talented slinging the ball than Book is, but I think it’s a toss up between the two, given Book’s better scrambling ability and the fact that Purdy’s stats are inflated throwing against Big 12 defenses. I also think Rattler is unproven, so I’d give Book a top-10 spot, but he needs to solidify himself there because it is by no means secure.
As for those “also receiving votes,” Newman and Daniels are fringe top-10 QBs in my mind and with a little more coaching and talent around them (specifically in Newman’s case with his recent move to Athens, Ga.) you could see what those guys are really capable of. I don’t think there’s a way of viewing Jack Coan as a top-10 quarterback, and I could listen to an argument for Kellen Mond, but he’s been mediocre at best in all his years at Texas A&M. Brady White, like King, just doesn’t seem to have faced stiff enough competition in the AAC to validate a top-10 spot yet. And Layne Hatcher is just Aiden getting frisky with his picks.
Much like everyone else, I wholeheartedly agree with Lawrence and Fields at the top. They are just so dynamic in ways we haven’t seen in a long time. However, they are far from the only talented signal callers, and if there’s no college football this year, we’ll have lost what could have been the most entertaining Heisman race in years. Sam Howell is the real deal, and only figures to get better, as Mack Brown is a quarterbacks coach. Thirty-eight touchdowns against just seven interceptions as a true freshman? Sheesh. If he becomes a slightly more accurate passer he’ll certainly be a top three pick in two years. Kedon Slovis was another true freshman who looked outstanding last year, completing over 70% of his passes, and he wasn’t merely a cautious passer, either –– he averaged nearly nine yards per attempt.
Sam Ehlinger clearly has a lot of talent, but he didn’t improve as much as analysts thought he would, likely a key reason why he returned to Texas for his senior year. I left him out of my top five, as he is a lot like the Longhorn program as a whole. A lot of devoted fans claim he is a Heisman contender every year, and he fails to meet those lofty expectations. He’s clearly a top-10 quarterback, but it’s a stretch to put him in the top five.
Tanner Morgan had a standout year last year as a redshirt sophomore, leading the Golden Gophers to a surprising 11-2 record. His stats were outstanding last year, but he played in the relatively weak Big Ten West. I would like to see another season of solid numbers before I anoint him in my top five. It is just tough to put a lot of stock into someone who has bloomed relatively late, but then again, look at Joe Burrow. Kyle Trask is in a similar boat, as he didn’t have quite as many attempts as other quarterbacks on the list after being thrust into the role last year. He was exceptional at times, leading Florida to close finishes against big-time opponents. Another good year from him and it will certainly earn him as a top draft pick.
It is tough for me to rank Spencer Rattler in the top 10 with 11 career attempts when there are so many other fantastic signal callers who were left outside the list. Among others, it is absolutely criminal that Kellon Mond is not in the top 10. He has steadily improved over his time at Texas A&M, despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in the SEC West, and he looks poised to take the jump to elite this year. D’Eriq King is another player who I had in my top 10, as he just has so much raw talent as a dual-threat quarterback.
While Irish fans were thrilled when Ian Book announced his return, he needs to improve this year, and that may be difficult with the loss of a number of key weapons. He didn’t exactly regress in his second full year as a starter, but he didn’t improve as much as many around Notre Dame had hoped. Brock Purdy looked very good at times last year, and against good opponents, too, but his numbers were clearly inflated by playing in the Big 12. It was a tough decision, but I left him outside my top 10 to make room for Mond and King.
I don’t think anyone can argue that Lawrence and Fields are not the top two quarterbacks in the game right now. Both of them are proven winners and have performed on the highest stage. I agree with Lawrence being at the number one spot because I think he is a better passer overall than Fields and he does have a national championship to his name. I think Fields might be the better player when he is at his absolute best, but Lawrence will be more consistent throughout the season.
One player who I think is too high on the list is Sam Ehlinger. While he has shown moments of greatness in his career so far, the inconsistencies have plagued his reputation. Against TCU and Iowa State last year, Ehlinger hovered around completing only 50% of his passes. His poor performance ultimately led to a Longhorns loss in both of these games. Ehlinger has a great arm but when you have games with four interceptions and only 22 out of 48 completed passes (against TCU last year), you don’t deserve to be a top five college quarterback.
I agreed with the most part for the fourth through the seventh slots. Sam Howell is definitely primed for a breakout season at North Carolina this year. In his freshman season, Howell proved that he can be consistent and limit mistakes. I think this poise will result in a stellar sophomore season for him. As far as Kedon Slovis goes, I think he can be the best player in the game in two years. His stellar, consistent performance all year showed me that the Trojans are going to have a solid player at the helm in the upcoming years, which is scary as an Irish fan.
I’ll talk about Morgan and Trask together, but I think both of them proved last year that they are worthy of being top-10 quarterbacks. Morgan led the Gophers to arguably their best season since the 1960s, and his performance in the Outback Bowl against Auburn showed why he is one of the best in the sport right now. Trask also played well in the Orange Bowl to lead the Gators to victory. Even more impressive was Trask’s performance against a solid Georgia defense earlier in the year, even though the Gators did lose.
I completely agree with Ian Book in the eighth spot too. Despite all the heat he has to take from Irish fans, Book has been a very consistent option at quarterback for the Irish. If he wants to prove his top ten ranking in 2020, though, he has to perform better in big games. His performances against Michigan this past year and Clemson in the playoff two years ago were less than stellar.
I also agree with the placement of Spencer Rattler. He’s an Oklahoma quarterback, so he has to be in the top 10, right? While Oklahoma always has plenty of talent at quarterback, I firmly believe that Lincoln Riley is one of the reasons for the success of these quarterbacks. The offense he runs is just so explosive and he is able to get the most out of his players.
With the Big Ten and Pac-12 sitting out in the fall, we will unfortunately not be able to see some of the nation’s most exciting quarterbacks. Justin Fields may have been gearing up for a Heisman-winning season, as he likely would have improved upon his hyper-efficient 41:3 passing touchdown to interception ratio from 2019. Kedon Slovis might be an even more exciting NFL prospect than former Trojan Sam Darnold, and a duel between him and Ian Book in the Colosseum would have been one of the most memorable moments in a year without COVID. During his injury-riddled freshman season, Slovis still managed to accumulate the ninth-highest single season passing yards in USC history while his 515 yard game against UCLA broke the school’s single-game passing record. An easier Pac-12 schedule would also have bolstered his stats, and I would not have been surprised if Slovis challenged Lawrence and Fields for the Heisman.
Focusing on the talents who could still play this fall, Trevor Lawrence is clearly the best quarterback of the bunch. While he was already considered one of the best passers in the game, Lawrence truly became a dual threat in 2019 as he accumulated 563 yards on the ground with nine rushing touchdowns. I think he will be eager to avenge his poor performance against LSU in the national title game and should easily torch most of the mediocre ACC defenses on the schedule.
In the next tier, I agree with the placement of Sam Ehlinger and Sam Howell at the third and fourth ranking. Howell arguably had a better season than Ehlinger in 2019; however, Ehlinger proved that he can perform well against the best defenses in football during the LSU game. He threw for over 400 yards and racked up four touchdowns while almost defeating the eventual national champions, and I believe that he has the ability to tap back into this greatness in 2020. Howell may have looked impressive against top teams like Clemson but never was quite as electrifying as Ehlinger. In addition, the overall talent level of the Longhorns is also greater than UNC, which should favor Ehlinger’s numbers.
My only other qualm with the list is Spencer Rattler’s inclusion above Brock Purdy. I was initially pretty high on Rattler due to Oklahoma’s knack for developing Heisman winners. However, I have not seen enough of him to warrant such a high placement. On the other hand, Purdy has become one of the greatest quarterbacks in Cyclone history as he ranked fifth among all NCAA signal-callers with 3982 passing yards in 2019. Rattler will need more time to develop while Purdy is already comfortable leading Iowa State and should display another solid performance this year.
I will finish with a bold prediction. If there is fall football, D’Eriq King will be considered the second-best ACC quarterback by the end of the season. King was a dominant presence for Houston in 2018 as he boasted a stat line of 36 passing touchdowns along with 14 rushing touchdowns, which made him one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks that year. His new situation in Miami might not be the easiest environment for success, but, if King can stay healthy, his explosiveness could catapult the Hurricanes into contention for a berth in the ACC title game.
To adopt the “we are living in a simulation” conspiracy theory for a few moments, imagine a world with Big 10 conference football for the 2020 season. Within weeks of opening kickoff, Justin Fields would establish himself as the most overpowering quarterback in the country, slicing his way through the most competitive conference in the NCAA. Say what you will about the raw athleticism and “freak” intensity of Lawrence, Fields deserves recognition for an already storied tenure in Columbus. Well-groomed –– much like the locks of Lawrence –– and seasoned for NFL play, the 1-2 slots in our staff rankings have skyrocketed far beyond the rest.
Speaking of the frustratingly prudent Big Ten, Tanner Morgan enters our list at sixth. With a healthy and fully committed Rashod Bateman to compliment him at wideout, I would anticipate a top-three quarterback performance from the Golden Gophers captain. Coach P.J. Fleck’s creative, dynamic play mix fooled celebrated Big 10 defenses on a weekly basis last season, and most of that success revolved around Morgan’s deceptive execution of the option. Without Bateman, of course, the receiving core certainly invites a lot of questions surrounding his status among the elite … but I digress. My hometown guy deserves better.
Now, on to my near-daily roast of Texas football. Sam Ehlinger, while talented, refuses to keep pace in the quarterback development pipeline of the Power Five. Is Texas football “back”? Is Vince Young available for another year of eligibility? Does Ehlinger have the discipline and command to generate a Heisman-caliber season with abysmal depth behind him? Absolutely not. Elite quarterbacks salvage ways to win, and simply “good” quarterbacks stumble into new ways to lose. In light of his performances against low-grade Big 12 offenses last season (enter TCU), my intuition compels me to reserve a top-10 spot for his efforts, but not much more.
Now, a word to Ian Book. Ian, thank you for staying with us. That “80 yards and a dream” stunt that you pulled in the last few minutes against Virginia Tech really left me impressed. As you leave this place, your accolades and legacy as a fearless Notre Dame leader depends on your ability to control the pace of big games. Granted, racking up ACC wins tends to look like light work for you, but the Tigers are coming, and they’re hungry. I’ll save you a six-spot in my rankings, but I look forward to you proving me wrong this season.
Also, did I mention that I’m not a Texas fan?