Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have accounted for 16 of 28 postseason appearances and all but one national championship in the College Football Playoff era.
Yet this marks the first time in the CFP era that all three schools will have a different starting quarterback than the end of the previous season. Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, Heisman finalists through the previous two seasons, all were selected with first-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The three projected starters in their place share something in common: All three were five-star recruits from California in the 2020 class according to Rivals.com. Alabama’s Bryce Young (Mater Dei, Santa Ana, Calif.) was the top-ranked dual threat quarterback in that class. Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei (St. John Bosco, Bellflower, Calif.) was the top-ranked pro-style quarterback, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (Rancho Cucamonga) was No. 3 in the pro-style rankings.
The new quarterbacks are faced with that national championship-or-bust standard. Who are those new starters? Sporting News breaks down the QB situations at all three schools:
Projected starter: Bryce Young
The Orange County Register reported that Young was the first African American starting quarterback in school history at powerhouse Mater Dei in California. Young passed for 4,528 yards and 58 TDs as a senior, and he added 10 rushing TDs.
Young and Uiagalelei played against each other in a dramatic California Division I state championship game in 2019. Young finished with 405 yards and five TDs, but St. John Bosco scored 34 unanswered points to rally for a 39-34 victory.
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Young was the top dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class. Early in the recruiting process, Young committed to USC first before decommitting. Adam Gorney, National recruiting director for Rivals and Yahoo Sports, remembers.
“When he started to become a national recruit and Alabama got very, very involved and he took a visit out there, I remember thinking the writing was sort of on the wall,” Gorney told SN. “At that time, there were questions about Clay Helton’s future there9at USC), and whether he would be there after the season and what the offense would look like.“
Mac Jones led Alabama to a 13-0 record and a national championship in 2020 with 4,500 yards, 41 TDs and four interceptions. Young finished 13 of 22 for 156 yards and a TD as a backup last season.
Redshirt sophomore Paul Tyson, the great grandson of Bear Bryant; and four-star freshman Jalen Milroe also are on the roster. Young is expected to start when Alabama faces Miami on Sept. 4.
What to expect
Young is working with a new supporting cast. Running back Brian Robinson, receiver John Metchie III and Slade Bolden are expected to take on more pronounced roles, and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien should add a new spin to the offensive scheme. Alabama quarterbacks have combined for 143 TDs and 18 interceptions the last three seasons. It’s on Young to be as efficient as Tagovailoa and Jones were in that role.
“Either by design or mop-up time, (Young) did not get to show what he can do,” Gorney said. “He is a dynamic playmaker and incredible decision maker. He will run on the field and you will say ‘Wow, that kid is small’ and he will go dominate.'”
Alabama brings in O’Brien, who was the offensive coordinator in New England before head-coaching stints with Penn State and the Houston Texans.
“We want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at SEC Media Days.
That relationship between Young and O’Brien will be scrutinized, especially early in the season.
Projected starter: D.J. Uiagalelei
D.J. Uiagalelei was on the winning side of the thriller against Mater Dei. Uiagalelei put together a prolific career where he passed for 10,496 yards and 127 TDs with 11 interceptions.
Uiagalelei chose Clemson over Oregon and Georgia in the recruiting process.
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“DJ early in his career had all the arm strength and none of the control,” Gorney said. “That has completely changed over the last few years. He’s become a phenomenal passer but kept that zip on his passes as we saw against Notre Dame last year.”
Clemson finished 10-2 last season in Lawrence’s third year and lost in the CFP semifinals to Ohio State. Lawrence led the Tigers to the national title as a freshman and the CFP championship game as a sophomore; a year in which he finished second in the Heisman voting. Uiagalelei made two starts as a freshman when Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19.
Redshirt sophomore Taisun Phommachanh and redshirt freshman walk-on Hunter Helms are the backups on the roster, but Uigalelei will start in the opener against Georgia.
What to expect
The 6-4, 250-pound quarterback played well in those starts against Boston College and Notre Dame. He finished the season with 914 passing yards, five TDs and no interceptions and added four rushing TDs. Uiagalelei has the arm talent, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants the quarterback to stay active in the running game. The best part for Clemson is that a limited sample last season showed Uiagalelei should make what Swinney hopes is a “peaceful transition” as the starter.
“When Trevor got here, you know, he had to go win the job. We had a lot of competition there,” Swinney said via SI.com. “The cool thing about DJ is, he’s already played … he’s already started.”
Clemson brought back Tajh Boyd, the first record-setting quarterback under Swinney, as an assistant coach this season. Uiagalelei brings the same first-round pedigree as DeShaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. He took advantage of an early NIL opportunity with Bojangles, and a year as a backup allowed him the chance to watch how Lawrence commanded the position.
“The way Trevor handled different things off the field, how he dealt with (the) media, how he dealt with going around town,” Uiagalelei said at ACC Media Days. “He couldn’t be like himself. He had to uphold (the standard of) a Clemson quarterback where he maybe couldn’t do the regular things that a college athlete or college student couldn’t do.”
Gorney, however, is not ready to make comparisons from there.
“I’m not going to go there because Trevor Lawrence might be sort of a transcendent quarterback and there might be one of him that we’ll ever see, but that Clemson is not going to miss a beat,” Gorney said. “He’s going to be surrounded by talented players, and Justyn Ross coming back is huge.”
Projected starter: C.J. Stroud
Stroud broke out in his senior season with Rancho Cucamonga. He passed for 3,878 yards, 47 TDs and nine interceptions. He also rushed our four TDs. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, now with Penn State, recruited Stroud, who choose the Buckeyes over Georgia and Kansas State.
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“He was a kid even through his high-school career that was a bit of an unknown,” Gorney said. “He emerged late, and when he did late in his junior year and into his senior year it became obvious he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He’s tall, smooth and a great decision-maker who can throw on the run. All of the things you saw from Justin Fields, but he’s not as filled out.”
Fields led the Buckeyes to the CFP championship game as part of a two-year run where he passed for 5,373 yards, 63 TDs and nine interceptions. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 2019 and seventh last season. That leaves the first wide-open competition since Ryan Day took over as head coach.
Day said the quarterback battle was “pretty even” at Big Ten Media Days. Stroud, a redshirt freshman, had a 48-yard touchdown run against Michigan State but has yet to throw a pass at the college level.
Redshirt freshman Jack Miller III and five-star freshman Kyle McCord also are on the roster, and the late addition of Quinn Ewers, the top-rated QB in the class of 2022 who opted to reclassify, gives the Buckeyes one of the deepest QB rooms in the nation.
What to expect
Stroud likely will take the first snap against Minnesota in the Thursday opener on Sept. 2.
“We all came to the conclusion that I had a pretty good spring (in terms of) footwork and timing,” Stroud said on Aug. 3. “I really think I grasped the offense even more during the spring. That was my strong suit. Being more vocal and just things off the field being myself. I have natural leadership abilities. Just really honing that and showing everybody why I should be the leader of the team.”
That said, the competition is far from over. Whoever starts will be blessed with one of the best groups of wide receivers in the FBS in the nation. Future first-round picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave lead that group, and the quarterback should be able to produce at a Heisman Trophy level.
“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. “He’s going to be able to run that offense smoothly.”
Ewers has a recruiting ranking on par with Lawrence, and the talent is there. He is the first QB to take what could be up to seven figures in NIL deals instead of playing his senior year in high school.
Ewers is not at fall camp yet, and it might be a stretch that he would play this season. But at this point, why rule anything out? Stroud believes he’s a good addition to that room.
“We’ll accept him in the room with open arms, just like we did Kyle (McCord),” Stroud said. “At the end of the day, it’s all a brotherhood. I don’t believe in having beef with my teammates or anything like that. Me and Quinn are really cool anyway.”
Ohio State is no stranger to three-armed quarterback battles. Urban Meyer had this with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller in 2015 and Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell in 2018.
This has the potential to be a four-way battle at some point.