Who is the starting quarterback?
That’s generally the first question for most college football teams, and with fall camps in full swing there are a handful of notable Power 5 programs that haven’t made a decision.
Ohio State has the most-notable quarterback battle in the FBS with three (and maybe four) blue-chip recruits looking to replace Justin Fields. It’s one of the leading storylines of the upcoming season.
The Buckeyes aren’t alone, however. Michigan and Notre Dame have quarterback intrigue, even if the Week 1 starter looks like a solid bet. Soon-to-be SEC conference mates Texas and Texas A&M have close-to-call races at quarterback. Then, there is Tennessee, which has a four-way race under first-year coach Josh Heupel.
Sporting News takes a closer look at 10 quarterback battles heading into the 2021 season:
QB battle: Jordan Travis vs. McKenzie Milton
Travis played in eight games and finished with 1,056 yards, six TDs and six interceptions. Milton, a UCF transfer, has not played since suffering a gruesome leg injury in the regular-season finale in 2018. The quarterbacks split reps in the spring, and the reps have been even at fall camp so far. FSU coach Mike Norvell is not close to naming a starter.
We won’t be surprised if the QBs split time in the Labor Day opener against Notre Dame, with Travis taking the first snap.
QB battle: Joey Gatewood vs. Will Levis
It’s a battle of transfer quarterbacks at Kentucky. Gatewood, an Auburn transfer, played sparingly in 2020. Levis was a backup quarterback at Penn State the last two seasons. Both quarterbacks have solid mobility and there is a legit competition. When asked about a two-QB system, Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen said via Sea of Blue: “I haven’t really thought about that one, to be honest. I’d prefer not to.”
Gatewood was at spring practice, and he has that experience advantage on Levis. Gatewood likely will be the starter in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe.
QB battle: Cade McNamara vs. Alan Bowman vs. J.J. McCarthy
McNamara is the only returning quarterback of the three. He had 425 passing yards with five TDs and no interceptions in 2020. Bowman is a Texas Tech transfer, and McCarthy is a five-star freshman from IMG Academy.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh raved about McNamara at Big Ten Media Days, and he will be the starter in the season opener against Western Michigan. McNamara played better than Joe Milton last season, who was the Week 1 starter. The fascination around McCarthy will continue, especially if the Wolverines struggle against a tough schedule.
QB battle: Hunter Johnson vs. Ryan Hilinski vs. Andrew Marty
There is a three-way race to replace Peyton Ramsey at Northwestern. Former Clemson five-star recruit Hunter Johnson is in the mix along with South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and senior Andrew Marty. Hilinski played in 13 games the last two seasons. This is Johnson’s third shot at winning the job.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has not divulged much, other than the quarterbacks are developing a rapport with offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Our guess is Hilinski wins the job. Fitzgerald has not been shy about using transfer quarterbacks in the past, and that experience should pay off early in the season.
QB battle: Jack Coan vs. Drew Pyne vs. Tyler Buchner
Coan is a Wisconsin transfer with the most experience on the field. He started for the Badgers in 2019 and finished with 2,727 yards and 18 TDs. He missed last season with a foot injury. Pyne, a sophomore, made three passing attempts this season. Buchner is a four-star freshman who played at Helix High School in La Jolla, Calif.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wants to make a decision soon. “This won’t be a long, drawn out camp,” Kelly said via ND Insider. “We’ll make a decision after the first scrimmage as to who the starter is.” Given Coan had the edge in the spring, it is reasonable to believe he will be the starter for the Labor Day opener against Florida State.
QB battle: CJ Stroud vs. Jack Miller III vs. Kyle McCord vs. Quinn Ewers
We detailed this quarterback battle on Monday, and the Buckeyes have one of the most-star studded quarterback rooms in the country in the battle to replace Justin Fields. Stroud is the only quarterback who saw game action last season, but he has competition in Miller, a redshirt freshman, and McCord, a five-star recruit in the 2021 class. The late reclassification of Ewers, a five-star with a recruiting rating comparable to Trevor Lawrence, could add intrigue by midseason.
Ohio State is no stranger to high-stakes quarterback drama, and Stroud likely will take the first snap in the opener against Minnesota on Sept. 2. He is not a proven starter, however, so third-year coach Ryan Day has options down the line. Given the offensive talent in Columbus, Rivals and Yahoo! Sports recruiting director Adam Gorney told SN that Stroud should be successful early. “He’s going to be surrounded by more talent than he’s ever seen in his life, and making things difficult won’t be necessary,” Gorney said.
QB battle: Joe Milton vs. Harrison Bailey vs. Hendon Hooker vs. Brian Maurer
Is that all? Josh Heupel’s first year with the Vols comes with a wide-open quarterback battle from all angles. Milton, a Michigan transfer, is getting the most hype. He had a strong debut with the Wolverines last season but was inconsistent and lost the starting job. Bailey and Mauer saw time last year in a messy situation, and Hendon Hooker is a redshirt senior who has the most experience from his time at Virginia Tech.
Milton is the betting favorite, but the competition is unpredictable at this point. Milton has a rocket arm, but he struggled with accuracy last season. Still, he is 6-5 and 243 pounds, and that skill-set could translate well with Heupel. He remains the best bet heading into the Sept. 2 opener against Bowling Green.
QB battle: Hudson Card vs. Casey Thompson
First-year coach Steve Sarkisian has a tough decision in Austin. Thompson threw four TD passes in the Alamo Bowl victory against Colorado, but Card has stood out in fall camp. This is why Sarkisian has called this the “toughest decision” he has had to make as a head coach.
Thompson’s bowl-game performance is note-worthy, but that was with the previous staff. Card is a home-town favorite from Lake Travis High School in Austin, and his skill-set could pair well with SN Preseason All-American running back Bijan Robinson. The Longhorns have a tricky opener against Louisiana, so it’s possible both quarterbacks could see time in that game. We will stick with Card as the starter.
QB battle: Haynes King vs. Zach Calzada
The Aggies must replace Kellen Mond, and it’s a two-way competition between King and Calzada. King, a four-star recruit from Longview, Texas, threw four passes last season. Calzada is a redshirt freshman with a big arm. It’s one of the more-interesting competitions given the Aggies are expected to contend for the SEC championship.
According to 247Sports.com, Eli Stowers, a dual-threat quarterback in the 2021 class, is working out at tight end in fall camp.
Calzada has an extra year in the system, but King is the favorite to win the starting job. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher did not tip the hand at SEC Media Days, but he complimented King’s style of play.
“The guy should have played in the 70s and 80s,” Fisher said. “What I mean by that is his competitiveness, his toughness. He’s relentless. He’s a throwback.
QB battle: Cam Rising vs. Charlie Brewer
A pair of Big 12 transfers are fighting for the job. Rising, a Texas transfer, won the job last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener. Brewer is a four-year starter at Baylor taking advantage of the Super Senior rule. Rising has had more time with Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, and that’s what makes this a tight battle.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is looking for more efficiency in the passing game. “We’re not going to drop back and throw it 60 times, but we need to be more productive and be more efficient in the throw game,” Whittingham said via the Deseret News.
This feels like a battle that could come right down to the Sept. 4 opener against Weber State. We think Brewer gets the nod.