Before they get a chance to become some of the NFL’s best passers, dozens of young quarterbacks across the country have to prove themselves on the college football field. We’ve gone back through college football history and picked out the quarterbacks who’ve separated themselves from the competition better than any others.
Career stats were a huge factor in compiling our list — with all of our numbers coming from the NCAA and Sports-Reference.com — and winning championships wasn’t everything, because even an incredible passer can’t take a team to the promised land by himself. Having incredible success in college doesn’t usually translate to the same level of success in the pros, as only two players on this list also appeared on our list of the best NFL quarterbacks in history.
Did your favorite QB make the cut or did they flunk out?
25. Johnny Lujack (Notre Dame, 1943; 1946-1947)
Notre Dame icon Johnny Lujack doesn’t have anywhere near the statistical prowess of the others on this list, but his career was so unique and outstanding that we couldn’t leave him out. Lujack played three seasons as the star quarterback for the Fighting Irish — leading them to a championship in all of them. The craziest thing about Lujack’s career was that it was split by World War II, which he left school to fight in from 1944 to 1945, and he didn’t miss a beat upon returning. He was a consensus All-American in both seasons he played after his service, winning the Heisman Trophy for his final season in 1947.
24. Geno Smith (West Virginia, 2009-2012)
Possibly underrated during his career at West Virginia, Geno Smith was nothing short of brilliant in his three-plus seasons leading the Mountaineers. His 11,662 career passing yards and 98 passing touchdowns put him ahead of legends like Ken Dorsey and Peyton Manning, while his 21 career interceptions are fewer than both of them had. In fact, Smith took better care of the ball than anyone in college football history, holding the lowest percentage of passes intercepted of any QB with at least 1,050 pass attempts, at just 1.43 percent.
Smith’s best moment came during a 2012 game versus Baylor when he set the NCAA’s all-time record for passing efficiency rating in a single game, at 248.0. Somehow, he was never a Heisman Trophy finalist.
23. Rakeem Cato (Marshall, 2011-2014)
Another player who was criminally overlooked for major awards during his career was Marshall’s Rakeem Cato. He was a statistical machine, finishing his career ranked in the all-time top 10 for passing yards (14,079) and in the top five for passing touchdowns (131). Cato led the Thundering Herd to a 3-0 record in bowl games in his four years there, and he was named MVP of two of those games. After a freshman season where he threw for just 2,000 yards, he threw for at least 3,900 yards in each of his final three seasons, proving he was a pure beast in the pocket.
22. Sammy Baugh (TCU, 1934-1936)
One of only two players to make this list and our list of the best NFL quarterbacks, there’s a reason one of the nation’s top awards for college QBs is named for “Slingin'” Sammy Baugh. The Texas Christian University legend was arguably college football’s first star quarterback and was definitely the first to put up huge passing stats — at least, that’s what they were considered in the 1930s. He never won a Heisman, but Baugh led the Horned Frogs to two bowl wins and reinvented the position, throwing for more than 1,000 yards per season and 39 total touchdowns in three seasons at a time when the game was all about running the ball.
21. Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010)
Cam Newton only spent a single season as a starting quarterback, but it was more than enough to land him on this list. In 2010, Newton put together one of the most mind-boggling seasons in college football history, earning him the Heisman Trophy. The Auburn stud finished the year with more than 4,000 total offensive yards under his belt and an incredible 50 touchdowns accounted for.
He was typically known as a running quarterback — that’s where 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns came from — but he had a careful arm that saw him only throw seven interceptions for a season-long passing efficiency rating of 182.0, which is one of the best ever. If Newton had spent more seasons as a starter, he could easily be at the top of this list.
20. Danny Wuerffel (Florida, 1993-1996)
Few quarterbacks in modern history have won as consistently as Florida icon Danny Wuerffel did in the mid-’90s. In four seasons leading the Gators, Wuerffel led them to four consecutive SEC titles, which is something not even Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide has ever done. In that time, he threw for 114 touchdowns to 42 interceptions and a career passing efficiency rating of 163.6. Wuerffel’s career passing yardage mark of 10,875 won’t put him among the all-timers, but the former Heisman winner knew how to lead a team to greatness unlike many others in the game.
19. Colin Kaepernick (Nevada, 2007-2010)
If you compare the career numbers of Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow, you’ll be amazed at how similar their college careers were. While at Nevada, Kaepernick put on an offensive clinic in all four seasons, finishing his career as the only player in college football history who had at least 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards. He’s also one of only two players ever to pass for at least 80 touchdowns and rush for at least 50 touchdowns — the other being Tebow.
Kaepernick loses a few points simply for playing in a smaller conference and for throwing a few more interceptions than others on this list, compared to his relatively low number of passing TDs. But he was a quarterback anyone would love to have leading their school’s offense.
18. Philip Rivers (North Carolina State, 2000-2003)
Philip Rivers is the other legendary passer to make this list and our ranking of the NFL’s all-time best QBs. The patterns of what would make Rivers a stud on Sundays were evident when he was playing on Saturdays. In his four seasons at North Carolina State, Rivers broke many ACC passing records, and he still stands as the conference’s all-time leader in passing yards and passes completed. Rivers has become known as possibly football’s ultimate iron man, and that started in college when he made an NCAA-record 51-consecutive starts at quarterback for the Wolfpack.
17. Ty Detmer (BYU, 1988-1991)
Arguably the greatest quarterback to ever come out of Brigham Young University — which puts him in some elite company — Ty Detmer once contributed at least 300 total yards to his team’s cause in 24 straight games, from September 1989 to December 1990, which is still a record. You’ll find this former Heisman Trophy winner near the top of many NCAA record books, including in the top 10 for career passing yards (15,031), touchdown passes (121) and yards per pass attempt (9.8).
Unfortunately, Detmer also ranks in the top 10 for interceptions thrown, but Cougar fans had little to complain about when he was leading their team.
16. Aaron Murray (Georgia, 2010-2013)
The SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns isn’t Peyton or Eli Manning, it’s former Georgia star Aaron Murray. In four seasons with the Bulldogs, Murray amassed 13,166 passing yards and 121 passing touchdowns, putting him among the elites of college football history for both categories. The picture of consistency, Murray contributed at least 3,000 passing yards in all four seasons he led the team. When you combine his passing total with his 16 rushing touchdowns, Murray stands at 11th in NCAA history for touchdowns for which he was responsible.
Despite all that, he was somehow never an All-American choice on the first or second teams.
15. Robert Griffin III (Baylor, 2008-2011)
A brilliant student at Baylor who started attending classes there when he was just 17 years old, Robert Griffin III was also a monster on the football field. The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner proved to be an untouchable dual-threat quarterback, racking up 10,366 passing yards to go along with 2,254 rushing yards in his career, making him one of only five players in history in the 10,000/2,000 club. He also contributed 111 total touchdowns for Baylor’s offensive with his arm and legs, compared to only 17 career interceptions.
“RG3” doesn’t get quite enough credit for his precision passing, which led him to rank in the top 25 in NCAA history for career completion percentage, at 67.1 percent.
14. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State, 2014-2017)
Former Buckeye J.T. Barrett is one of the most recent players to make our list, but his performance on the field was historically great. He makes an easy case as Ohio State’s greatest quarterback ever, and one of the best in Big Ten history, being named the legendary conference’s best passer in three of his four seasons as a starter. He helped the Buckeyes win a national title in 2015 and finished his career as one of only two players in history to pass for 100 touchdowns and rush for 40 touchdowns.
Barrett personally contributed 147 touchdowns for Ohio State’s offense, making him one of the game’s ultimate scoring machines. He currently ranks fourth all-time for touchdowns for which he was responsible.
13. Tommie Frazier (Nebraska, 1992-1995)
Nebraska icon Tommie Frazier is the ultimate example of stats not being everything when it comes to proving a player’s worth on the field. As the leader of that impossibly dominant Corn Huskers run in the early 1990s, Frazier became the only player in football history to be named the most outstanding player of three consecutive national championship games, two of which his team won in 1994 and 1995. Frazier only put up about 5,500 total yards and 79 total touchdowns in his three-plus seasons as Nebraska’s starter, but his team compiled a mind-blowing 35-3 record in that span.
12. Colt Brennan (Hawaii, 2005-2007)
In 2006, Colt Brennan broke the NCAA’s record for touchdown passes in a single season by throwing 58 of them in the span of 14 games. He still holds that record and several others for passing, including the best career completion percentage in history, at 70.4 percent. Brennan played in a small conference but was as good as anyone could possibly be while slinging at Hawaii, averaging 387.9 yards of total offense per game and being responsible for an average of 3.84 touchdowns per game, both of which are all-time records.
He finished his three-season career with more than 14,000 passing yards and 131 touchdowns, yet his best finish in Heisman voting came at third place in 2007.
11. Luke Falk (Washington State, 2014-2017)
Former Washington State stud Luke Falk proved himself to be arguably the best passer in Pac-12 history but he was never a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. In three-plus seasons, Falk set several conference records, holding the all-time Pac-12 marks for passing yards, passing touchdowns and several other top categories. He also ranks in the top 10 in college football history for passing yards (14,481), touchdown passes (119) and passes completed per game (32.7) — he’s the all-time leader in the latter.
If you tack on Falk’s 2,169 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns, you’ve got one hell of a quarterback. He only loses points because his team went 28-15 with him as starter and was 1-3 in bowl games.
10. Landry Jones (Oklahoma, 2009-2012)
When Landry Jones took over for the phenomenal Sam Bradford in 2009, there’s no way Sooners fans could’ve thought he’d be even better. What Jones pulled off in four seasons at Oklahoma is nothing short of remarkable, including never throwing for less than 3,000 yards in a season and surpassing 4,000 passing yards in each of his final three seasons. Jones threw more interceptions than anyone in our top 10, but it was easy to overlook when you consider that he threw 123 touchdowns (seventh-best all-time) and threw for 16,646 yards (third-best).
Jones also led the Sooners to a 3-1 record in bowl games during his tenure there. He’s another QB who somehow didn’t get any love from Heisman voters despite consistently historic production.
9. Graham Harrell (Texas Tech, 2005-2008)
Texas Tech star Graham Harrell’s numbers are very similar to those of Landry Jones, only he threw for more touchdowns and fewer interceptions. An extremely precise quarterback, Harrell passed for 15,793 yards, 134 touchdowns and just 34 interceptions in three-plus seasons, all while maintaining a 69.8 completion percentage. That last number is tied for the third-best mark in college football history.
He also ranks in the top five all-time for passing yards, touchdown passes and touchdowns for which he was responsible. A Heisman finalist in 2008, Harrell also contributed at least 400 yards in 20 different games, a tally no one has ever surpassed.
8. Deshaun Watson (Clemson, 2014-2016)
An absolute freak on the football field, Deshaun Watson is a big reason why Clemson has become recognized as arguably the nation’s top football powerhouse. In both of his seasons as the full-time starter for the Tigers, Watson was a top-three Heisman finalist, and he took the team to the title game both years, leading to its first national championship in more than 30 years in 2016. He amassed more than 12,000 all-purpose yards in that span and 116 total touchdowns for which he was responsible.
Watson proved almost impossible to defend, and if he’d played only a year longer, he could’ve possibly topped many of the ACC’s passing record books.
7. Marcus Mariota (Oregon, 2012-2014)
Few players have ever been as electric to watch as Marcus Mariota. The 2014 Heisman winner’s career total of 10,796 passing yards won’t blow your mind, but when you see the rest of his numbers you’ll know why he was the man. Mariota finished his career as one of only five players in history with at least 10,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards, and his career passing efficiency rating of 171.8 is the fourth-highest ever, proving he knew exactly when to throw.
Further proving that point, Mariota only threw 14 interceptions in three seasons as Oregon’s starter, compared to 105 passing touchdowns. He currently ranks 12th all-time in touchdowns for which he was responsible, tallying 136 of them, including 29 as a rusher and two as a receiver. He could simply do it all.
6. Kellen Moore (Boise State, 2008-2011)
If winning is how you measure a quarterback’s greatness, there was no one better than Kellen Moore. No other QB in history has won more games than he did in four years at Boise State, racking up a 50-3 career record as a starter — and those three losses were by a combined five points. That’s just one reason Moore finished in the top 10 for Heisman voting in each of his final three seasons despite playing for a small, remote school.
Moore’s 142 career touchdown passes rank him second all-time and his career completion percentage of 69.8 percent is tied for third-best, further proving his greatness. He never had a season in which he threw for less than 3,000 yards, while many quarterbacks would kill to hit that mark once.
5. Colt McCoy (Texas, 2006-2009)
Speaking of quarterbacks who did nothing but win constantly, Colt McCoy’s 45-8 career record as a starter is the best mark of anyone from a power five conference. In four seasons at Texas, McCoy was a top-three Heisman finalist twice and was also a two-time consensus All-American. He proved himself to be possibly the most accurate passer in college football history: His incredible completion percentage of 76.7 percent in 2008 is the highest for any QB in a single season and his career mark of 70.3 percent is the second-best ever. McCoy also ranks in the top 20 all-time for passing yards and passing touchdowns, showing he was capable of virtually anything in the pocket.
4. Matt Leinart (USC, 2003-2005)
While some of their records and a national championship have been vacated by the NCAA due to off-the-field rules violations, Matt Leinart and his University of Southern California Trojans ruled college football in the early 2000s. He took over for Heisman winner Carson Palmer and would prove to be even better, winning a Heisman of his own in 2004. His career statistics aren’t as breathtaking as others on this list, but he was consistently great and virtually never lost, going 37-2 as a starter in three seasons, including a Pac-12 title in every campaign.
He never threw for less than 3,300 yards in a season and finished with 99 touchdown passes to just 23 interceptions. Coming from a school that has produced no shortage of brilliant football players, Leinart stands as USC’s best QB ever and one of the all-time greats.
3. Case Keenum (Houston, 2007-2011)
If statistics are all you care about, Houston’s Case Keenum is hands down the best to ever play the game. In four seasons as a starter, he put together numbers that would make any football statistician blush, finishing his career atop many coveted categories for QBs. He’s the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards (19,217), touchdown passes (155) and passes completed (1,546) but was somehow never a top-five finisher in Heisman voting. He did, however, win the coveted Sammy Baugh Trophy twice, becoming the only two-time winner since the 1960s.
Keenum is the only player to ever throw for more than 5,000 yards in three different seasons, including his obscene senior season in which he threw for 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
2. Baker Mayfield (Texas Tech, Oklahoma, 2013-2017)
Some people didn’t like the way Baker Mayfield let his personality show when he was leading Texas Tech and Oklahoma to memorable seasons. But those people can read the stat sheets and get over it. Mayfield was arguably the best pure passer in college football history, putting up 14,607 passing yards and 131 touchdown passes, both of which put him in the top 10 ever. When you throw in his 21 rushing touchdowns, you’ve got the guy responsible for the second-most touchdowns in the history of the game.
Mayfield’s career completion percentage of 68.5 percent and passing efficiency rating of 175.4 also put him in the most elite company, proving why he was a Heisman finalist for three straight years, finally winning it in 2017.
1. Tim Tebow (Florida, 2006-2009)
There’s simply been no quarterback who has combined creative play, a unique skillset, consistent greatness and constant winning at college football’s highest level like Tim Tebow. The Florida Gators icon spent three full seasons as the team’s starter and made them the talk of the nation, helping them win two national championships, winning a Heisman trophy and finishing in the top five for voting all three seasons. Arguably the ultimate dual-threat QB, he’s one of only two players to ever pass for 80 touchdowns and rush for 50 touchdowns, and he tied the NCAA record for most career games in which he scored a touchdown, with 38.
His 9,285 career passing yards and 88 passing touchdowns might seem a little light to you, but when you consider he only threw 16 interceptions and chipped in nearly 3,000 rushing yards and 57 rushing touchdowns, you’ve got to be impressed. Tebow was as unstoppable as any player ever, once going a record 14 consecutive games in which he both threw a touchdown and ran one in himself, including every game during the 2007 season.