Jarrett Stidham made his debut as Baylor's starting quarterback on Thursday night at Kansas State, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. While Stidham has performed well off the bench this season, he stepped into the starting job as a true freshman, replacing injured Heisman candidate Seth Russell, just as No. 6 Baylor enters the difficult part of its schedule in the thick of a national championship race.
Stidham passed the test and then some, throwing for 419 yards as Baylor survived with a 31-24 win over the Wildcats.
Next, Baylor plays Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU -- with one loss total among them -- before finishing against Texas on Dec. 5. The 19-year-old Stidham is instantly thrown into the spotlight, charged with leading the nation's best offense as it tries to maintain an undefeated record against a tough November schedule with a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff bid on the line.
Baylor has replaced an injured star quarterback with a true freshman before under Art Briles, and it didn't go well. In 2009, Robert Griffin III and backup Blake Szymanski were both injured in the Bears' third game, thrusting Nick Florence, a true freshman, into the starting role. Florence went on to complete 165 of 266 passes for 1,786 yards with six touchdowns and nine interceptions, and Baylor finished 4-8 with a 1-7 record in the Big 12.
Things were much, much different then for Baylor, though. Briles was only in his second season, inheriting a program that languished at the bottom of the Big 12 for years. Griffin returned and won the Heisman two years later, and Florence eventually threw for 4,309 yards and 33 touchdowns upon returning to the starting lineup as a senior in 2012. Florence was a three-star recruit, stepping into a system that was still developing, with a supporting cast not near what Baylor has today under Briles.
Griffin himself started as a true freshman too, in Briles' first season. The Bears went just 4-8 that year too, but Griffin completed 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,091 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions and ran 173 times for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns, showcasing his big-time potential that would really come to fruition a few years later.
Stidham was one of the nation's top recruits and enrolled early, and unlike Griffin and Florence, he couldn't ask for a better situation around him. The Bears have the nation's best receiving corps, one of the best offensive lines and a running back, Shock Linwood, who averages around eight yards per carry. While Stidham is hardly guaranteed success, Thursday showed that Baylor's offense can keep rolling, at least in the passing game. There is plenty of reason for optimism, even in the wake of the disheartening injury to Russell, who had been leading the nation in passer rating. Baylor is more of an unknown than it was with Russell (himself a first-year starter), but it's still a title contender until proven otherwise.
Which leads to the key question: How many true freshman quarterbacks have led their teams to successful seasons? The list is not long -- emphasis on the word true, not redshirt -- as most coaches are hesitant to hand the reins of their offense to an 18- or 19-year-old. This season has seen one true freshman star in particular, as Josh Rosen has UCLA in the top 25 with a 6-2 record. It's possible he'll join the following list, which features 10 true freshman quarterbacks who led their teams to great seasons. This isn't based on the individual quarterbacks' stats -- especially because it's hard to judge quarterbacks of running teams in the 1970s. Instead, it's more based on how successful the teams went on to be, with a true freshman moving into the primary quarterback role.
Baylor would surely love for Stidham to join some of these names.
Note: Sports-Reference.com and the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia were essential in compiling this article.
1. Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma, 1985. The only true freshman quarterback to win a national championship, Holieway replaced an injured Troy Aikman, a sophomore, who broke his leg in the Sooners' fourth game, a 27-14 loss to Miami. They were ranked third at the time but fell to 10th. With Holieway taking over under the guidance of Barry Switzer, Oklahoma rattled off eight wins in a row to win the national championship. That included a 27-7 win over then-No. 2 Nebraska in November. Ranked third in the AP poll (second in the coaches), the Sooners got a bid to the Orange Bowl against undefeated No. 1 Penn State, and behind Holieway and the Brian Bosworth-led defense, they shut down the Nittany Lions to win 25-10. One of the highlights of the game was a 71-yard touchdown pass from Holieway to Keith Jackson to put the Sooners ahead in the second quarter.
Oklahoma secured an undisputed national title when No. 2 Miami lost the Sugar Bowl to Tennessee and No. 4 Iowa lost the Rose Bowl to UCLA.
For the season, in Oklahoma's run-heavy offense, Holieway completed 27 of 64 passes for 608 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions, and he ran 173 times for 862 yards and nine touchdowns. Aikman transferred to UCLA, and Holieway became entrenched as the starter, although he ended up sharing time with Charles Thompson during his senior season because of leg injuries.
2. Dan Marino, Pittsburgh, 1979. Before going on to a legendary career in the NFL, Marino started for three-plus years at Pittsburgh. Similar to Stidham, he replaced a starter in the seventh game his freshman year, taking over for the injured Rick Trocano during a 24-7 win over No. 17 Navy. The Panthers didn't lose with Marino as starter, including a 29-14 win over rival Penn State and a 16-10 win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. They finished 11-1 and ranked seventh in the AP poll, with Marino completing 130 of 222 passes for 1,680 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine picks.
3. Rick Leach, Michigan, 1975. Bo Schembechler actually entrusted a freshman with the starting quarterback job, three years after the NCAA made freshmen eligible. Leach completed only 32 of 100 passes for 680 yards with three touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but he ran 113 times for 552 yards and five touchdowns, alongside 1,000-yard rushers Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle. Michigan finished 8-2-2, losing to Ohio State by a touchdown and then to Oklahoma 14-6 -- the Wolverines first appearance in a bowl game other than the Rose Bowl, due to previous Big Ten postseason restrictions. Leach started for four years before going onto a Major League Baseball career.
4. Tommie Frazier, Nebraska, 1992. One of the best players in college football history, Frazier went on to lead the Cornhuskers to back-to-back national championships in 1994-95, as the perfect point man for Tom Osborne's option offense. Frazier's freshman numbers were modest but solid, as he completed 44 of 100 passes for 727 yards and 10 touchdowns and ran 86 times for 399 yards and seven touchdowns, sharing time with Mike Grant. The Huskers went 5-2 in games that Frazier started, finishing 9-3 and ranked 14th in the AP poll, with a loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
5. Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, 2008. Pryor came to Ohio State as one of the most touted recruits in the country, and while he wasn't exactly a perfect match for Jim Tressel's conservative style, the on-field results mostly worked out. (His career also ended with Tressel getting fired amid an NCAA scandal.) Todd Boeckman quarterbacked the Buckeyes to the national title game in 2007, but Pryor couldn't be kept off the field and became the primary quarterback. He threw for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran 139 times for 631 yards and six touchdowns. The Buckeyes opened the year ranked second in the AP poll, but a blowout loss to No. 1 USC and a tough home loss to Penn State left them at No. 10 at the end of the regular season. They lost to No. 3 Texas 24-21 in the Fiesta Bowl. Pryor started nine of 13 games.
6. Chad Henne, Michigan, 2004. A highly regarded recruit, Henne instantly stepped and started for Lloyd Carr's final four seasons. Henne actually had perhaps his best season as a freshman, completing 240 of 399 passes for 2,743 yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 picks. Michigan finished 9-3, but went 7-1 in the Big Ten -- its only loss was to unranked Ohio State -- to win the conference, before losing 38-37 to Texas in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines finished 14th in the AP poll.
7. Eric Zeier, Georgia, 1991. Ray Goff turned over the Georgia offense to the star freshman midway through 1991, and Zeier didn't disappoint. He completed 159 of 286 passes for 1,984 yards with seven touchdowns and four picks in 11 games, including six starts, teaming with Garrison Hearst in the backfield to lead the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record, a No. 17 ranking and a 24-15 win over Arkansas in the Independence Bowl. Zeier was one of the first players to graduate high school early and participate in spring practice before his first season.
8. Peyton Manning, Tennessee, 1994. Manning started eight games as a true freshman, replacing the injured Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton -- yes, that Todd Helton -- to start eight games. Manning won seven of those games, losing only to No. 10 Alabama 17-13. The Volunteers finished 8-4 and ranked 22nd, with a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, and Manning completed 89 of 144 passes for 1,41 yards with 11 touchdowns and six picks.
9. John Bond, Mississippi State, 1980. The Bulldogs weren't exactly a mainstay in the AP rankings or the postseason throughout the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s. But there were a couple strong showings early in the tenure of Emory Bellard, with the young Bond at quarterback. In 1980, Mississippi State went 9-3, beating No. 18 Miami 34-31 on the road and losing to Nebraska 31-17 in the Sun Bowl. They finished 19th in the AP poll, with Bond throwing for 849 yards, five touchdowns and six picks and running 131 times for 720 yards and five touchdowns. The Bulldogs didn't win nine games again until 1999.
10. Cale Gundy, Oklahoma, 1990. The brother of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, Cale Gundy was a four-year starter at Oklahoma, bringing the Sooners out of the Barry Switzer era under coach Gary Gibbs. As a true freshman in 1990, Gundy led Oklahoma to an 8-3 record. The Sooners reached as high as No. 4 in the AP poll before a three-game midseason losing streak. Gundy threw for 904 yards and four touchdowns, as Oklahoma was still run-heavy at the time. The Sooners finished the season ranked 17th. Mike Gundy also started as a freshman quarterback at Oklahoma State, helping to lead the Cowboys to a 6-5 record in 1986 with Thurman Thomas at tailback.
Honorable mention: Matt Barkley, USC, 2009; Casey Clausen, Tennessee, 2000; Chris Leak, Florida, 2003; Matt LoVecchio, Notre Dame, 2000; Wayne Peace, Florida, 1980; Ron Reeves, Texas Tech, 1978; Philip Rivers, N.C. State, 2000; Tom Savage, Rutgers, 2009; Art Schlichter, Ohio State, 1978; Matthew Stafford, Georgia, 2006.