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Who’s the best college QB ever? Here are 9 different ways to answer

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There’s no agreed-upon definition. Here are different lenses for that argument, along with an answer (or two) for each.

Joe Burrow Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

College football’s never had one definition of “best ever,” for teams or QBs or anything else. And even if it did, greatness is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve broken the QB debate into nine categories and tried to find a GOAT for each. Thanks in advance for agreeing completely. All additions and counters are welcome in the comments.

1. The best QBs based on how well their numbers stood the test of time: Ty Detmer or Danny Wuerffel

Look through passing record lists, and you’ll see a pattern. It’s a bunch of guys from the 2000s.

But mixed in with 21st-century guys on all kinds of lists are Detmer and Wuerffel. You’ll see them high up on career and single season yards-per-attempt and rating lists, joined almost solely by players who came well after them.

Both were well ahead of their time, and it’s dizzying to think what they’d have done later. What if Detmer had played in a modern air raid instead of BYU’s proto-raid? What if we added 10 throws per game to Wuerffel’s 30-ish at Florida (a high number for the time but average these days)?

Both averaged between nine and 10 yards per throw, something that didn’t happen regularly until well into the next century.

2. The best QB based on how much he exceeded his direct peers: Steve McNair

McNair’s career at FCS Alcorn State was an anomaly. He finished third in 1994 Heisman voting, despite the near impossibility of an FCS player getting serious consideration.

His 527 passing yards per game in 1994 are the most ever in any level of football above high school, by a lot. He put up 47 touchdown passes and 6,281 yards of total offense. He owns dozens of FCS records and a few across Division I, despite the NCAA not counting his prolific playoff stats.

Imagine the entire country planning to watch a Wake Forest player. Drop to the non-powers, and imagine Western Kentucky getting Heisman hype on the SI cover. Drop again and imagine a player on an average FCS team getting that. Now you’re in the bottom third of Division I. Imagine a player at, like, Wofford captivating the country. That was McNair.

Here is a large post about McNair’s 1994. You’ll find a guy who coached Bo Jackson calling McNair “the best football player I’ve ever seen” and Warren Sapp laughing about the numbers McNair would’ve put up at Miami.

3. The best QB for a ground-based offense: Tommie Frazier

This post has to recognize QBs who were central to unstoppable rushing offenses. Nobody fits better than Frazier in Tom Osborne’s I-option, particularly in his fourth year, when he came back to lead an unbeaten title team.

His last game produced the best run in college history:

Frazier was perfect at making the right read to keep the Huskers on schedule, then running through people to stay ahead of it. Scroll through Osborne’s million-page playbook to sense how much Frazier had to master.

If Eric Crouch won a Heisman, Frazier definitely should’ve.

One who doesn’t get enough credit: Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, who has the FBS rushing record for a QB (4,559 yards on 977 runs) and the season and career touchdown records (31 and 88, respectively). His teams didn’t win anything huge beyond owning Army (a big deal on its own), but he put up wild numbers.

4. The QB who helped win the most stuff: Joe Burrow or Tim Tebow

These Heisman-winners led undefeated champs: Davey O’Brien, John Lujack, Charlie Ward, Matt Leinart, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Burrow. Let’s also throw in Tebow, who won a Heisman and played a big part in two national championships.

With these criteria, I favor Burrow or Tebow.

  • Burrow had to win 15 games in a title season. It’s not the other guys’ fault college football didn’t have a playoff system and/or conference championship games, but you get the world you get. You could also make the case (though there’s a chicken-or-the egg debate) that Burrow helped put awards on the shelves of his receivers (a Biletnikoff for Ja’Marr Chase), whole offensive line (the Joe Moore), head coach (various honors for Ed Orgeron), and passing game coordinator (the Broyles for Joe Brady). Burrow was the focus of the best college football season a team ever had.
  • Tebow did it for longer. He was important for a national champ in 2006, then won the 2007 Heisman. He was amazing again in 2008, when he probably would’ve won the Heisman if they awarded it after bowl season. Tebow never played for an unbeaten team like Burrow, but he had a larger number of amazing years.

If you reach into that bag of names, that’s fine too. Leinart had lesser numbers than Tebow’s, but went 37-2 and won 1.5 national titles. And if all those individual awards existed when Lujack played at Notre Dame in the ‘40s, would his team have won more of them?

Or maybe you’d keep it simple: Kellen Moore went 50-3 at a loaded Boise State.

But what about the opposite of a guy who won with a stacked program?

5. The one-man championship: Cam Newton

The 2010 Auburn offense was shockingly barren. Running back Michael Dyer is only famous for being down (though he wasn’t). Newton’s receivers and tight ends combined for zero NFL receptions. A couple of linemen had cups of coffee in the league. But Newton was there, so Auburn finished a runaway #1 in Offensive SP+.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s defense was 44th, one of the worst defenses to ever win a title. Other than Newton, Auburn had average power-conference talent.

The two years before, the Tigers lost 12 games. Because Newton chose to play on the Plains, Auburn won 2010. Then he left, and Auburn lost 14 games the next two years.

6. The Big Game Guy: Vince Young or Deshaun Watson

Here, I’m looking at QBs since 1998, when college football added definitive championships, the biggest games the sport’s ever had. Outside those, throughout the long history of regular season Games of the Century, no individual QB shows up repeatedly. They’re spaced too far apart for one guy to participate in lots of championship-level games.

(But if you’d like to add an older one in the comments, please do.)

VY’s stats were great, but he’s nowhere near the top of leaderboards, and other QBs have more or less equaled him on the ground.

But a lot of people remember him as the best ever. That’s because he had one of the best performances in one of the best showdowns: 2005’s BCS Championship. Against a burgeoning dynasty, Young went 30-of-40 for 267 yards and, just as importantly, ran 19 times for 200 more and three TDs. The last was on fourth-and-five in the last minute:

In 2016’s title game, Watson put together a 36-for-56 night for a blazing 420 yards and three touchdowns, plus a rush TD. His last TD came at the buzzer, capping a nine-play, 68-yard drive:

A big-game QB lives up to that label again and again. Watson and Young had prior bona fides, too.

Watson carved up Bama in the previous title game, but lost because Clemson’s special teams messed up. Young engineered a comeback over Michigan in the previous Rose Bowl, after entering the fourth quarter down 10.

7. The highest level of QB play ever achieved, unadjusted for era, quality of teammates, scheme, or anything else: Joe Burrow

Burrow’s 2019 is the best statistical season at any level above high school. His 202 passer rating put him 2.6 points clear of any other, almost exactly the difference between #2 and #5 on the all-time list.)

His 60 TD passes are a Division I record, one short of DIII’s Brett Elliott in 2004. His 10.8 yards per throw put him eighth all-time in a single FBS season. A 60-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio is more than enough to compensate for those mild shortcomings.

It’s worth noting his consistency against an SEC West schedule, plus a Playoff slate, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Against that, Burrow never had a bad game. (He had one average-ish game: a 7.6-yards-per-throw outing against Auburn.)

He’s eighth in FBS history in single-season yards per attempt and 0.4 points behind Colt McCoy for the completion percentage record. Nobody else is even in the top 15 of both.

Other notables:

  • Tua Tagovailoa played two seasons at a level not far behind Burrow’s big one.
  • Kyler Murray had Burrow-ish passing numbers in 2018, paired with excellent rushing. A case against: Burrow destroyed Alabama, while the Tide made Murray mortal.
  • Lamar Jackson playing in Murray’s offense, or with any of these guys’ teammates, is a horrifying thought.

8. The Old Guy rep: Davey O’Brien

Old QBs don’t excite me much. College football wasn’t integrated until the back half of the 20th century, so most played in a watered-down environment. QB play from before World War II is extra hard to quantify, because a) there’s not a repository with all their stats, and b) so much of a QB’s job was to do other things. Many were also runners, kickers, punters, and defenders.

I don’t want to ignore those decades. There could be any number of viable picks in the comments. But here, I’ll recognize one of the only old dudes who put up modern-ish numbers: TCU’s O’Brien, who won the Heisman in 1938 and was so good they named a whole different QB award after him.

O’Brien threw for nine yards per attempt, 19 TDs, and just four picks. His 164 efficiency rating would make him roughly the 10th best QB in FBS today. O’Brien was the first QB to win the Heisman, and nobody won it with more passing yards until 24 years later.

It’s impossible to figure out how the best old QBs would’ve done later, let alone in the current game. But O’Brien, Sammy Baugh, and later QBs like Roger Staubach, Pat Sullivan, and Jim Plunkett were great.

9. The best QB ever, period, who’s not on this list, and because he’s not, you cannot take this post seriously

Let me know.