Quarterbacks win championships in modern-day college football. A quality signal-caller can turn a program into a national title contender overnight.
Ohio State is the exception to the rule this year because it has three proven starters plus a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back to go along with a stacked defense. As the football season approaches, let's take a look at five quarterbacks who could swing the title hopes of a program in 2015.
Trevone Boykin – TCU
The reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year returns for his senior season poised to lead the Horned Frogs over the hump and into the College Football Playoff after being jumped in the rankings by Ohio State in the final week of the 2014 regular season. Boykin, who struggled with consistency in the old TCU offense, flourished as head coach Gary Patterson allowed new coordinators to open up the offense. He rewrote the TCU record book, breaking single-season records for touchdown passes, passing yards and total offense.
His ability to hurt defenses with his legs has always been on display, but he averaged over 300 yards passing per game as a junior and showed more consistency with his arm than many thought possible. TCU is known for its defense, but it will be the offense that needs to lead the Horned Frogs this season.
Jeremy Johnson – Auburn
The SEC West is once again loaded. The Tigers lost Nick Marshall to graduation, but it could be addition by subtraction if Jeremy Johnson lives up to his potential. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior fits in a different mold than many of Gus Malzahn’s offenses, but Malzahn has proved to be successful with a pass-first quarterback before. Johnson should be an upgrade as a passer, opening up defenses with his cannon of an arm. He went 12-of-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Arkansas when he started in place of the suspended Marshall.
The Tigers have some weapons to replace on offense, and Will Muschamp is on campus to fix the defense. This puts a lot of pressure on Johnson, who needs to grow up quickly to keep Auburn’s chances of winning the SEC alive.
Cody Kessler – USC
The Trojans are back. Steve Sarkisian’s team has found a leader in senior quarterback Cody Kessler. If the offensive line, which returns all five starters from last year’s bowl game, can keep him upright long enough to find explosive targets on the outside, Kessler is an underdog candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.
Unlike a lot of modern-day quarterbacks, Kessler isn’t going to wow anyone with his athleticism, but Sarkisian’s offense isn’t built around that. Accuracy is what Sarkisian craves in a quarterback, and Kessler excels in that regard, even if he doesn’t have the prototypical size or arm strength to be much more than a very good college quarterback. Kessler completed nearly 70 percent of his passes as a junior.
Connor Cook – Michigan State
Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big 10, but Michigan State always seems to field a team that matches up well on the field. Cook has all the tools in the world, but has struggled with accuracy underneath and at times makes bad decisions. When he is at his best, Cook is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He is tremendous at pushing the ball down the field, and the run-first style at Michigan State allows for clean pockets and one-on-one situations on the outside.
What makes Cook so important is that Michigan State is rebuilding at running back and wide receiver. His senior presence, along with an experienced and talented offensive line, will need to lead the way early in the season as the newcomers get used to their roles and big-time college football.
Seth Russell – Baylor
Art Briles knows how to find quarterbacks. Even though Seth Russell will enter the season with relatively no experience at the college level, it is hard to imagine the Baylor offense not thriving. Russell will have plenty of weapons to choose from in Waco with the return of offensive stars like KD Cannon, Corey Coleman and Jay Lee at wide receiver. He’s also equipped with an offensive line that includes future first-round NFL draft pick Spencer Drago.
What makes Russell so important is how good Baylor could potentially be on defense. The Bears aren’t known for their defensive prowess, but this could be the best defense Art Briles has ever put together. Combine an improving defense, a solid offensive line and great weapons at the skill positions, and Russell only needs to keep the car from crashing for Baylor to reach its desired destination.
A former newspaper man, Mike Craven is the publisher of BirdsUp.com of the Rivals.com network. His work can also be found in Dave Campbell's Texas Football Magazine and in the Texas FNF Magazine.