History Shows Reaching the CFP Title Game with a First-Year Starting Quarterback is Well Within Ohio State's Reach

By Chris Lauderback on June 17, 2021 at 11:05 am
C.J. Stroud, Kyle McCord and Jack Miller

Quarterback is easily the most important position in football and arguably in all of sport. 

In the college game, the team with the better quarterback wins what feels like at least 80% of the time. 

Back in the day however, having an experienced signal-caller heading into a season with high expectations or a single game with big time stakes was considered a huge advantage. 

Now, with the evolution of collegiate offenses, super-talented quarterbacks with limited or zero game experience have proven more than capable of leading a team to the national title game. Yes, it takes more than the quarterback for a team to reach the College Football Playoff championship game but if you don't have legit production from behind center, your favorite team is likely screwed when it matters most. 

Since the CFP's inception in 2014, no less than seven quarterbacks have reached the title game as a first-year starter and three of them were true freshmen. Four of the seven led their teams to the national championship. 

Against that backdrop, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud appears to be ahead of teammates Kyle McCord and Jack Miller in the race to be Ryan Day's signal-caller for the 2021 Buckeyes. And with the program's recent run of success in reaching the playoffs, there's a solid chance Stroud – or any of them – can join this illustrious group of first-year starters to lead their teams into the CFP title game. 

2020: Mac Jones, Alabama

Before assuming starting duties in 2020, Jones appeared in 17 games across two prior seasons in Tuscaloosa, logging 154 pass attempts including 141 in a 2019 campaign that also saw him toss 14 touchdowns against three picks in spot relief of Tua Tagovailoa. Basically, as a first-year starter, he was far from raw. 

Jones made the most of his wait, blowing up in 2020 to finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting while amassing 41 touchdowns against only four interceptions with a 77% completion rate. 

On a stacked offense featuring DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, John Metchie and Jaylen Waddle, among others, Jones did his part as the distributor as Alabama coasted to a 13-0 record and another national title. 

In the CFP final, Jones torched Ohio State with 464 yards and five touchdowns. 

2018: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Maybe the most impressive season on this list based on his true freshman status and results, Trevor Lawrence stole the starting quarterback gig from incumbent Kelly Bryant by week four and led Clemson to a 15-0 record and the national title.

Like Jones, Lawrence stepped into a ridiculous supporting cast, on both sides of the ball, with receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, running back Travis Etienne and a devastating defensive line giving Lawrence margin for error. 

Despite playing in high school the fall prior, Lawrence didn't really need collegiate experience as he completed 65% of this throws for 30 touchdowns against four interceptions. 

Lawrence capped the championship season with 674 yards and six touchdown tosses across back-to-back blowouts of Notre Dame (30-3) and Alabama (44-16) in the playoffs. 

2018: Tua Tagovailoa

After appearing in eight games in 2017, logging 77 pass attempts, including a 14-of-24 for 166 yards performance featuring the game-winning touchdown toss in relief of an ineffective Jalen Hurts to win the title, Tagovailoa was a shoe-in to become Alabama's first-year starter in 2018. 

Considering his 2017 experience and proven effectiveness, Tua wasn't the wildcard a first-year starting quarterback came sometimes be. That said, he backed up his 2017 effort by finishing second in the 2018 Heisman Trophy race, completing 69% of his throws for 43 touchdowns and six picks. 

A loaded receiving corps with names like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle helped Tagovailoa and company reach the CFP title game where they were smoked by Lawrence's Tigers. 

2017: Jake Fromm, Georgia

Every Ohio State fan's favorite Georgia Bulldog, Jake Fromm stepped in for injured starter Jacob Eason in the season-opener against Appalachian State and never looked back helping guide his team all the way to a national title tilt with the help of a running game featuring Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. 

Fromm earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors despite completing less than 10 passes in six of 15 games. He did throw 24 touchdowns against seven picks as the Bulldogs went 13-2 with a No. 2 finish in the polls. 

Georgia fell to Alabama in overtime, 26-23, in the CFP championship as Fromm completed 50% of his throws with a touchdown and two interceptions. 

2016: Jalen Hurts, Alabama

Another true freshman, Hurts replaced 2015 starter Jake Coker and promptly helped led the Crimson Tide all the way to the national title game. 

A dual-threat, Hurts threw for 2,780 yards and ran for 954 more with 36 total touchdowns (23 pass, 13 rush) against nine interceptions. 

His inexperience, particularly as a passer, did hamper Alabama down the stretch as he completed only 48% of his throws against Bama's final three opponents including the SEC title win over Florida, a CFP semifinal win over Washington and finally a 35-31 loss to Clemson in the title game matchup. The fact Saban's squad was built on names like Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Calvin Ridley, Ardarius Stewart and O.J. Howard helped offset Hurts' bouts of inconsistency. 

2015: Jake Coker, Alabama

The year before Hurts' arrival, Jake Coker stepped into Alabama's offense as a first-year starter replacing Blake Sims following two seasons at Florida State and one in Tuscaloosa. Over that span, Coker appeared in 15 games featuring 100 pass attempts, meaning he was an unproven but not totally inexperienced veteran heading into the 2015 season. 

Unheralded but effective, Coker helped Alabama to a 14-1 record and a national title win over Clemson. 

Coker led the SEC completing 67% of his passes, throwing for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Of course, throwing lanes were prominent with teams trying but failing to stop Derrick Henry who piled up an incredible 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. 

Filling his role, Coker threw for six touchdowns and no interceptions, completing 73% of his tosses, in Alabama's SEC title win over Florida and CFP victories over Michigan State (lol) and Clemson. 

2014: J.T. Barrett & Cardale Jones, Ohio State

Finally, Buckeye fans are familiar with how a pair of first-year starters combined to help lead Ohio State to the 2014 CFP national championship. 

J.T. Barrett came into the 2014 season with zero collegiate snaps as a redshirt freshman but was pressed into starting duty when Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp. In 12 games, Barrett looked the part completing 65% of this passes with 34 touchdowns (10 INT) with another 11 scores on the ground. A season-ending ankle injury in the regular season finale against Michigan seemed to put Ohio State in a precarious position entering the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. 

Enter Cardale Jones. With 19 collegiate pass attempts across almost two full seasons to that point, Jones burnt the Badgers for 257 yards and three scores in a 59-0 route to help secure a CFP bid. 

From there, Jones augmented Ezekiel Elliott's own legendary three-game stretch with 485 total passing yards and three total touchdowns in CFP wins over Alabama and Oregon as Ohio State captured an improbable national title. 

Now the 2021 Buckeyes most likely turn the offense over to Stroud as Day looks to enable his ability to find elite targets in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson while a possible running back by committee approach seeks to thrive behind what should be a top-notch offensive line. 

If the defense can find footing after a dismal 2020, whether Stroud can lean into the role will go a long way in determining whether or not the 2021 Buckeyes can reach the pinnacle. 

View 37 Comments