NCAA Football

10 greatest college football quarterbacks of the 21st century

Lamar Jackson and Matt Leinart are among the names

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College football has been blessed with quite the collection of star quarterbacks since the turn of the 21st century.

Not all star college signal callers replicate that level of success in the NFL, of course, but their years before they turn pro are remembered forever.

Tim Tebow, for example, dominated the stat sheets with Florida as a dual-threat signal caller but never panned out in the next level.

Along with Tebow, which college football quarterbacks should be remembered as one of the greats? Let's look at 10 since the turn of the 21st century, in no particular order:

Lamar Jackson, Louisville (2015-2017)

Jackson's viral high school clips foreshadowed what'd he bring to the table once he reached college. The Louisville Cardinal delivered elite dual-threat play en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016, entering the Louisville Ring of Honor and having his No. 8 jersey retired by the program, among other accolades.

Jackson in three seasons threw for 9,043 yards on a 57% completion percentage, 69 touchdowns and 27 picks. He added 4,132 rushing yards on 655 attempts and 50 touchdowns. Defenses just couldn't bring him down.

Current status: Starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, one-time league MVP and potential 2023 winner.

Cam Newton, Auburn (2010)

Newton had a controversial exit from Florida after two seasons in 2007 and 2008. He transferred to Auburn ahead of the 2010 campaign and delivered one of the best seasons ever en route to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

In 2010, Newton threw for 2,854 yards on a 66.1% completion percentage, 30 touchdowns and seven picks while adding 1,473 rushing yards on 264 attempts and 20 touchdowns. He led the Tigers to a win in the national championship game and won the Heisman Trophy, among a bevy of additional individual accolades.

Current status: The former MVP last played for the Carolina Panthers in 2021.

Joe Burrow, LSU (2018-2019)

Burrow was an Ohio State Buckeye from 2015 to 2017 but never got consistent playing time until he transferred to LSU in 2018. From there, it was history. He posted solid numbers in his first season as a Tiger but exploded in 2019, throwing for 5,671 yards on a 76.3% completion percentage, 60 touchdowns and just six picks. He wasn't a running quarterback, adding just five scores on the ground.

But Burrow went on to win the national championship game, the Heisman Trophy and Lombardi Award, among several other individual accolades before being picked No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Current status: The highest-paid player in NFL history with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Tim Tebow, Florida (2006-2009)

Tebow broke out as a Gator in his sophomore season in 2007, where he threw for college-highs 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns (six picks). The lefty was an underrated dual-threat QB, recording a total of 9,285 passing yards, 88 touchdowns and 16 picks on a 66.4% completion rate to go with 2,947 rushing yards on 692 attempts and 57 scores.

Tebow won the national championship game in 2007 and 2008 and was named the Heisman winner in 2007, among other awards. He went on to be picked No. 25 overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2010 draft. He also was named to the Florida football Ring of Honor in 2018.

Current status: College football analyst on ESPN.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (2015-2017)

After leaving Texas Tech in 2013 and losing a season of eligibility in his attempt to transfer to Oklahoma in 2014, Mayfield finally put on a Sooner jersey in 2015. And once he did, Oklahoma wished he'd have done so sooner. Mayfield was an elite passer in his three years with the program, recording 12,292 yards, 119 touchdowns and 21 picks on a 69.8% completion rate. He also added 893 rushing yards with Oklahoma on 316 attempts and 18 touchdowns.

Mayfield didn't win any national championships, but was named the Heisman winner in 2017 after flirting with it in his two previous campaigns.

Current status: Starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008-2011)

Apart from an ACL tear in his sophomore year, Griffin III steadily improved each season as a Bear. The dual-threat star threw for 10,366 yards on a 67.1% completion rate, 78 touchdowns and 17 picks across four seasons, one of which was shortened due to the aforementioned injury. He also rushed for 2,254 yards on 528 tries for 33 touchdowns.

Griffin III won the Heisman in 2011 before becoming the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 by the now-Washington Commanders.

Current status: NFL analyst on ESPN.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon (2012-2014)

Like Griffin III, Mariota also steadily improved as a Duck, but his year-to-year growth was more evident in the passing game. He threw for 2,677 yards as a freshman, 3,665 as a sophomore and 4,454 as a junior when he left for the NFL, totaling 10,796 yards on a 66.8% completion rate, 105 touchdowns and 14 picks. He also ran for 2,237 yards on 337 tries for 29 touchdowns, with 15 of them coming as a junior.

Mariota won the Heisman in his final year before being picked No. 2 overall in 2015 by the Tennessee Titans.

Current status: Backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Vince Young, Texas (2003-2005)

Young was a prime example of a player not being accurately represented by statistics. That is, if one simply looked at his numbers and not any tape, one would be confused how he made this list. But college Young was sensational for Texas, throwing for 6,040 yards, 44 touchdowns and 28 picks on a 61.8% completion rate. He ran for 3,127 yards on 457 attempts and 37 touchdowns.

Young lost out on the Heisman to USC's Reggie Bush, but then led the Longhorns to a 41-38 victory over the Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl, widely considered one of the best ever college football games. Young made the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018 and the College Football Hall of Fame a year later.

Current status: Special assistant on Texas' staff.

Matt Leinart, USC (2003-2005)

Leinart was as accurate and consistent as it got for pocket passers in the college game. Across three seasons as a Trojan, the 6-foot-5 Leinhart threw for 10,693 yards, 99 touchdowns and 23 picks on a 64.8% completion rate.

Leinart won the national title game in 2004, the same year he won the Heisman after logging 3,322 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and six picks while completing 65.3% of his passes. He went on to be the No. 10 overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.

College status: College football analyst on FOX.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (2012-2013)

There was simply nothing like the "Johnny Football" experience in 2012 and 2013. The Texas A&M quarterback took the sports world by storm in his two years there, totaling 7,820 passing yards on a 68.9% completion mark, 63 touchdowns and 22 picks, while adding 2,169 rushing yards on 345 attempts and 30 touchdowns, 21 of which came in his first year.

Manziel won the Heisman in his first season and went on to be the No. 22 overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2014, but off-field issues plagued his career in both college and the NFL. He's in the Texas A&M Hall of Fame.

Current status: Owner of Johnny Manziel's Money Bar in College Station, Texas.

Honorable mentions

To name just 10 players feels a little disrespectful to other college stars who could've made the list, so here are a few more names worthy of a shoutout:

  • Deshaun Watson, Clemson (2014-2016): A rare elite pocket passer with one 1,000-yard rushing year under his belt, Watson led the Tigers to a national title in 2016 in which he won MVP. He's now with the Browns.
  • Andrew Luck, Stanford (2009-2011): A gunslinger who was never fazed, he became the No. 1 overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 after three robust years as a Cardinal. He made a shocking retirement announcement in 2019 and is pursuing his master's degree at Stanford.
  • Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (2007-2009): Another first-class gunslinger, Bradford won the Heisman in 2008 after a 50-passing-touchdown campaign and was the No. 1 overall pick by the now-Los Angeles Rams in 2010. He's in the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
  • Kellen Moore, Boise State (2008-2011): A real "streets will never forget" player, Moore dominated for the Broncos across four seasons but never received enough hype due to playing in the Western Athletic Conference. An undrafted left-handed prospect in 2012, he's now the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers.
  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2018-2020): A national title winner in 2018 along with taking home the MVP, Lawrence posted rich numbers across three seasons as a Tiger before being selected No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021.
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