Oklahoma, Alabama and the quarterback competitions to watch this spring
No program in the Bowl Subdivision has bigger shoes to fill at quarterback than LSU, which must replace Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow after one of the great seasons in college football history. But the Tigers have a clear picture of who's next in junior Myles Brennan, who has spent three years in a reserve role as he's worked to add weight to what was once a lanky frame.
Others may need to dig a little deeper to supplant a departed starter. For many programs, spring marks the start of a months-long competition between two or even three contenders for the starting job. An unfortunate few may see this competition bleed into September.
Let's evaluate some of the biggest and most crucial quarterback fights across the FBS as the spring gets underway, beginning with LSU's fiercest rival for the SEC West, outright SEC championship and potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
Top contenders: Mac Jones (Jr.), Bryce Young (Fr.)
Six or seven years ago, the idea that Nick Saban would start a true freshman over a semi-established junior would've seemed ridiculous — but then Alabama's longtime coach gave the nod to Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, so all bets are off. While Jones did a commendable job as Tagovailoa's replacement last November, Young brings the credibility of being the nation's top-ranked quarterback and one of the top prospects overall.
Top contenders: JT Daniels (So.), Kedon Slovis (So.)
Daniels was the quarterback of the future after enrolling early in 2018, starting as a true freshman and then holding onto the starting job heading into the start of last season. After injuring his knee in the opener, however, Daniels saw Slovis step into the lineup and thrive in coordinator Graham Harrell's scheme. Slovis ended up completing 71.9% of his throws and 30 touchdowns in making a very strong case to remain the starter. (Not bad for a quarterback who had barely a tenth of Daniels' recruiting hype.) Since Daniels lost the job due to injury, it seems fair that Harrell and Clay Helton would give each sophomore a chance to make his case this offseason.
Top contenders: Tanner Mordecai (So.), Spencer Rattler (Fr.)
While Mordecai was the backup to Hurts last season, that was primarily to preserve Rattler's redshirt and provide some space between the Sooners' two returning passers. It's very likely that Rattler is eventually named the starter, though Mordecai could throw a wrench in those plans with a superb offseason. While neither comes close to matching Hurts' running ability, both would do a better job opening up Oklahoma's downfield passing game.
Top contenders: Dylan McCaffrey (Jr.), Joe Milton (So.)
After playing in 13 games across his first two seasons as the primary backup to former starter Shea Patterson, McCaffrey has a clear edge in experience. He also seems to be the better runner, making the junior a good fit for the Wolverines' scheme. But McCaffrey must show he can remain healthy after suffering injuries in each of the past two years. Milton has a powerful arm and could throw his way to the front of the competition.
Top contenders: Harrison Bailey (Fr.), Jarrett Guarantano (Sr.)
It's not so much a matter of whether Guarantano will draw the starting nod in September — that's almost a certainty given his experience and steadier play during Tennessee's six-game winning streak to close last season — but whether he can keep it. In Bailey, the Volunteers have a college-ready passer capable of breathing down Guarantano's neck for most of 2020, especially if the senior struggles.
Top contenders: Kyle Trask (Sr.), Emory Jones (So.)
Trask would seem hard to unseat after bursting onto the national scene with 25 touchdowns as an early-season replacement for Feleipe Franks, who has since transferred to Arkansas. But the Gators are extremely high on Jones, who looked the part of a future starter while holding a backup role in 2019.
Top contenders: Jack Coan (Sr.), Graham Mertz (Fr.)
Coan is the odds-on favorite to remain the starter after completing nearly 70% of his attempts as a junior and leading Wisconsin to a division title and Rose Bowl berth. Mertz could still complicate things for Paul Chryst and the Badgers' coaching staff. While more prone than most FBS programs to tab an upperclassman over a youngster, Wisconsin could eventually come to the belief that Mertz brings a higher upside to this offense — even if that decision doesn't come until after the starter of the regular season, if it comes at all.
Top contenders: Henry Colombi (Jr.), Andrew Peasley (So.)
Colombi and Peasley are the leading options to replace Jordan Love, who failed to meet sky-high expectations in 2019 but should be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the NFL draft. Colombi has made 69 attempts across the past two seasons as the Aggies' backup, with that experience and an accurate arm giving him a leg up heading into spring drills. With his speed and running ability, Peasley could give Utah State a different look under center. There's also a chance that redshirt freshmen Josh Calvin and Cooper Legas could play their way contention for snaps with a solid spring and fall camp.
Top contenders: Austin Aune (So.), Jason Bean (So.), Will Kuehne (Fr.)
Seth Littrell and the Mean Green take on the intimidating task of replacing one of the most productive players in school history in Mason Fine, who threw for 12,505 yards and 93 touchdowns as a multiple-year starter. That level of production will be impossible to replace. The options are Bean, who made 35 attempts as the primary backup in 2019; Aune, who was a solid prospect in the 2012 recruiting cycle before spending six years in the New York Yankees' system; and Kuehne, who chose North Texas over offers from Arkansas State and several Ivy League schools.
Top contenders: Jake Bentley (Sr.), Cameron Rising (So.)
Bentley made 33 starts and threw for more than 7,500 yards in four seasons at South Carolina, with the last cut short due to a foot injury. (The new four-game redshirt rule allowed Bentley to maintain a year of eligibility and spend his final season with the Utes.) Bentley is a battle-tested starter who could bring stability to the position after Tyler Huntley's terrific senior year in 2019. That Rising presents more upside could make this a difficult decision for Kyle Whittingham. If the gap between the two isn't too wide, would Utah opt for Rising as a way to build toward 2021 and beyond?