Each week, Sports on Earth is counting down the best returning college football players at every position entering the 2017 season. These rankings are based on a combination of talent, proven production and potential at the college level. They are not NFL Draft rankings. This week, the final installment covers the top 35 quarterbacks.
The 2017 season will be one of the most exciting for quarterbacks in recent college football history. Yes, Deshaun Watson is gone, but the Pac-12 and Big 12 are loaded with talented passers, the SEC's QB stable is on the rise, Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is back and there are plenty of proven Group of Five passers. Sorting out the top quarterbacks at the college level, right now, is not easy, but these are our rankings of the top quarterbacks entering 2017, based on a combination of talent, proven production (which leaves out breakout candidates like Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush) and what might come next.
35. Ryan Finley, N.C. State. Finley started his career at Boise State but left after an injury moved Brett Rypien into the starting job. He won top quarterback job in Raleigh last season, completing 60.4 percent for 3,055 yards, 18 TDs and eight INTs, a solid debut that sets the stage for increased expectations for a team widely viewed as a sleeper.
34. Eric Dungey, Syracuse. Dungey can put up huge numbers in Dino Babers' offense, and he has flashed potential. But hits to the head have caused him to miss seven-plus games over the past two years. Dungey completed 64.8 percent for 2,679 yards, 15 TDs and seven INTs with 293 rushing yards and six TDs last year, but he missed the last three games after taking a hard hit against Clemson. When on the field, he's a mobile playmaker who should grow further in this offense, and while he loses top wideout Amba Etta-Tawo, the offense returns a lot of experience. The Orange will likely need Dungey to throw a lot, because they play a brutal schedule that includes road games against LSU, N.C. State, Miami, Florida State and Louisville, plus Clemson at home.
33. Wilton Speight, Michigan. Speight went from somewhat unexpected winner of last offseason's Michigan QB competition to the seasoned veteran on a 2017 team that loses seven of its top eight tacklers, its top tailback and its top three receivers. At 6-foot-6, 243 pounds, Speight looks the part of a pro-style Big Ten quarterback, and he had a solid debut as starter, completing 61.6 percent for 2,538 yards, 18 TDs and seven INTs, in addition to showing some pocket mobility, even if he's not a runner. Speight's accuracy and mechanics need work, but growth can be expected under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh and new QBs coach Pep Hamilton.
32. Nick Stevens, Colorado State. A second-team All-Mountain West pick in 2015, Stevens temporarily lost his job last year to Faton Bauta, who followed Mike Bobo from Georgia, and freshman Collin Hill. Bauta's struggles and Hill's injury opened the door for Stevens to rebound, and he ended up completing 64.2 percent for 1,936 yards, 19 TDs and five INTs to finish fifth nationally in passer rating as the Rams took off on offense late in the season. This is a dangerous offense that shouldn't be overlooked in a division that includes Boise State's Brett Rypien and Wyoming's Josh Allen, and after last year's early drama, Stevens is poised for big things.
31. Matt Linehan, Idaho. The Vandals will try to go out on a high note in their last season in the Sun Belt and the FBS. Fortunately, they have the quarterback to do it. Linehan threw for 3,184 yards, 19 TDs and 10 INTs last year, and while his play was uneven, he had some big games in the second half -- especially his 381 yards and four TDs in a 61-50 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win against Colorado State. The son of Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the Vandals' senior quarterback is a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder with the potential to join his dad at the next level.
30. Shane Buechele, Texas. Buechele started his true freshman season on a high note, at the center of a new-look, up-tempo Texas attack. He threw for 280 yards and two TDs in the dramatic opening win over Notre Dame. But Texas faded, and Buechele ultimately took a backseat to tailback D'Onta Foreman in the offense. Buechele ended up seventh in the Big 12 in passer rating, completing 60.4 percent for 2,958 yards, 21 TDs and 11 INTs. Now, the question is how he meshes with new head coach Tom Herman. He showed plenty of potential as a freshman and is the obvious favorite for the job, but he does have to hold off touted freshman Sam Ehlinger.
29. Justin Herbert, Oregon. Amid all the angst in Eugene last year, Herbert emerged as a promising quarterback for an offense that still finished 18th in yards per play despite the team's 4-8 record and youth on the offensive line. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Herbert replaced Dakota Prukop and started seven games, completing 63.5 percent for 1,936 yards, 19 TDs and four INTs. The Ducks will have a better O-line and can lean heavily on their running backs, and while they'll go only as far as the defense lets them, Herbert is a promising, rising star, even if overshadowed by the more proven QB talent elsewhere in the Pac-12.
28. Jesse Ertz, Kansas State. Ertz won the starting job in 2015 but tore his ACL on the first play of the season. He bounced back last year as the full-time starter, and while he passed for only 1,755 yards and nine TDs (with just four picks), he was quietly one of only five quarterbacks nationally to rush for 1,000 yards. He had 183 rushes for 1,012 yards and 12 TDs, with over 100 yards in three of Kansas State's final six games in a 9-4 season. Ertz was uneven as a passer, partly because of a shoulder injury that required postseason surgery, but he returns to an experienced Wildcats offense that has high expectations and has proven himself as a playmaker at the center of an improving unit.
27. Kyle Allen, Houston. Allen started 14 games in two seasons at Texas A&M, but the Aggies coaching staff botched a crowded QB situation, and both Allen (Houston) and Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) transferred. Murray still has to wait behind Baker Mayfield, but Allen is in good position to replace Greg Ward Jr. as Houston's starting QB under new coach Major Applewhite. A five-star recruit, Allen completed 58.5 percent for 3,532 yards, 33 TDs and 14 INTs during an up-and-down two years with the Aggies. With a veteran O-line and a stellar receiving corps, there should be high expectations for his first season at Houston.
26. Jacob Eason, Georgia. A top-five overall recruit in the class of 2016, Eason won the starting job as a true freshman under new coach Kirby Smart. There were signs of brilliance -- a game-winning fourth-down throw at Missouri, a go-ahead 47-yard pass with 10 seconds left vs. Tennessee -- but as can be expected from a freshman, Eason's performance was all over the map. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds with a big arm, Eason completed 55.1 percent for 2,430 yards, 16 TDs and eight INTs, finishing 11th in the SEC in passer rating. The receiving corps and offensive line both had issues last year, and under a new regime, the whole offense never consistently clicked. While Eason was pushed some by true freshman Jake Fromm in the spring, he's still a high-upside player poised to take a step forward as a sophomore.
25. Riley Ferguson, Memphis. After beginning his career at Tennessee, Ferguson played juco ball, then transferred to Memphis and won the starting job as Paxton Lynch's replacement. Lynch set a high standard, but in Mike Norvell's first season as head coach, Ferguson had a stellar season, throwing for 3,698 yards, 32 TDs and 10 INTs for a team that scored 38.8 points per game. Nine starters return to the offense, and the tandem of Ferguson and senior wideout Anthony Miller will be among the most prolific in the nation.
24. Tanner Mangum, BYU. Mangum's career arc is certainly not typical. The No. 7 QB in the recruiting class of 2012 -- when Jameis Winston was No. 1 -- Mangum went on a two-year LDS mission. Then, he was supposed to back up Taysom Hill as a freshman, but an injury to Hill pushed Mangum into the lineup. He promptly beat Nebraska with a Hail Mary and Boise State with another miracle pass in his first two games. Mangum ultimately threw for 3,377 yards that season. Last year, he was back on the bench, attempting only 33 passes as Hill returned to the lineup. Now, it's Mangum's turn, again, as the 23-year-old junior gives second-year coordinator Ty Detmer a talented pure passer to work with.
23. Shea Patterson, Ole Miss. A five-star recruit, Patterson burned his redshirt late last season following an injury to Chad Kelly, playing the last three games. He debuted with a 338-yard, two-TD effort in a win at Texas A&M that showed some shades of Johnny Manziel. The next two games didn't go as well, but Patterson was the top QB in the class of 2016 and boasts a high upside with his ability to make plays on the move. He should put up big numbers under new coordinator Phil Longo, who led prolific FCS offenses at Sam Houston State.
22. Austin Allen, Arkansas. Allen replaced his brother, Brandon, and had a solid debut season as a starter, completing 61.1 percent for 3,430 yards, 25 TDs and 15 INTs. Turnovers were an issue -- he threw five picks over the last two games, featuring blown leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech -- but he averaged an SEC-best 8.6 yards per attempt. This season, the key is cutting down on mistakes, including taking fewer sacks, and Allen must also adjust to a new supporting cast with 1,300-yard tailback Rawleigh Williams and four of his top five receivers gone.
21. Mike White, Western Kentucky. In 2014, before Willie Taggart figured out what to do with the USF offense, White completed 50.4 percent for 1,639 yards, eight TDs and seven INTs for a Bulls team that finished 119th in scoring. He transferred to WKU, sat for a year and then replaced the prolific Brandon Doughty. Under coach Jeff Brohm, White completed 67.3 percent for 4,363 yards, 37 TDs and seven INTs, averaging 10.5 yards per attempt. Now, after a breakout season in a fantastic offense, White will transition to a new offense under former Notre Dame coordinator Mike Sanford. White also loses his top two receivers, top tailback and a second-round pick lineman, but even if his numbers dip as a senior, he proved last year that he's grown significantly as a passer over the course of his college career.
20. Brent Stockstill, Middle Tennessee. Among returning quarterbacks, only Luke Falk, Mason Rudolph and Baker Mayfield have passed for more yards over the past two seasons than Stockstill, according to Sports-Reference. Since winning the job as a redshirt freshman under his father, head coach Rick Stockstill, Brent Stockstill has completed 65.1 percent for 7,226 yards, 61 TDs and 16 INTs in 23 games. He forms a prolific duo with dynamic and versatile receiver Richie James, and the lefty is the biggest reason why Middle Tennessee -- which scored 39.7 points per game last year -- has a chance to win its first conference championship since the Sun Belt in 2006.
19. Brett Rypien, Boise State. The nephew of Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien, Brett Rypien was perhaps the biggest recruit in Boise State history, a four-star QB who has started 23 games since arriving, earning first-team All-Mountain West honors both years. He doesn't have the NFL Draft hype of division rival Josh Allen, but Rypien has been the more prolific college QB thus far, throwing for 3,646 yards, 24 TDs and eight INTs as a sophomore to rank sixth nationally in yards per attempt. Rypien ended last season on a rough note in back-to-back losses to Air Force and Baylor, but he's a skilled passer who can throw a pretty deep ball, and he'll have Boise State in the New Year's Six mix.
18. Jake Bentley, South Carolina. Bentley was supposed to be in high school last year. Graduating high school a semester early to participate in spring practice has become common; Bentley sped up the process and enrolled last summer. After spending the first half of the season on the bench, he ousted four-star true freshman Brandon McIlwain -- who has since transferred to California -- and played the final seven games. Bentley completed 65.8 percent for 1,420 yards, nine TDs and four INTs, going through expected growing pains, especially against Clemson, but ultimately showing the poise, mechanics and accuracy to provide newfound hope for the offense of a Will Muschamp-coached team.
17. Logan Woodside, Toledo. Woodside started in 2014, lost his job to Alabama transfer Phillip Ely (who had torn his ACL the year before) and redshirted in 2015 and emerged as a star back atop the depth chart in 2016. The pairing of Woodside and head coach Jason Candle produced big results, as Woodside completed 69.1 percent for 4,129 yards, 45 TDs and nine picks, ranking second in passer rating nationally. An efficient statistical machine, Woodside threw at least three touchdowns in all but the bowl (when he had two) and averaged at least eight yards per attempt in all 13 games. He's poised for a massive season with Cody Thompson and Jon'Vea Johnson back in the receiving corps.
16. Will Grier, West Virginia. Few things seem to improve the reputation of a quarterback more than transferring, especially when sitting out a year is required. There's no doubt that the hype around Grier has grown, but the results have a good chance of matching it. Grier had a stellar first half of his redshirt freshman season at Florida in 2015, made to look even better by the horrors the Gators have experienced on offense before and after him. A record-setting passer in high school, Grier completed 105 of 160 passes for 1,202 yards, 10 TDs and three INTs in six games before a PED suspension prompted his transfer to West Virginia. He spent last year on the sideline, and now he'll become Dana Holgorsen's new prized quarterback, a high-upside passer playing under a head coach who will let him loose.
15. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. The quarterback of the future at Baylor before Art Briles was fired, Stidham replaced the injured Seth Russell at the end of the 2016 season, starting three games before his own injury. In those three games, Stidham passed for a total of 934 yards, six TDs and two INTs, with wins over Kansas State and TCU and a loss to Oklahoma. After sitting out last season after the scandal broke at Baylor, Stidham arrived at Auburn in the spring and is the favorite to unseat Sean White for the starting job. Strong-armed and athletic, Stidham will allow Auburn to better stretch the field in the passing game and diversify an offense that grew stagnant the past couple years.
14. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. Dak Prescott was the greatest player in Mississippi State history, and the attention followed him to the NFL. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald didn't get enough credit for his performance as Prescott's replacement, partly because the Bulldogs went just 6-7. The lightly recruit 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald -- Dan Mullen was proud to point out that he beat Tennessee-Chattanooga for his services -- passed for 2,423 yards and 21 TDs but, more impressively, rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs. Only Derrius Guice had more rushing yards among SEC players, and only Lamar Jackson and Quinton Flowers had more rushing yards among QBs nationally.
13. Jalen Hurts, Alabama. Not only did Hurts take hold of the Alabama starting job over 2015 five-star recruit Blake Barnett by the end of last year's opener, he won SEC offensive player of the year honors as a true freshman. While Hurts showed in the playoff that he has a long way to go as a passer -- the Crimson Tide struggled to stretch the field and were abysmal on third down in those two games -- he nearly led Alabama to an undefeated season and national championship and provided a new dimension for a Nick Saban team. Hurts rushed for 954 yards and 13 TDs and passed for 2,780 yards, 23 TDs and nine INTs, and he should improve as a passer in his second year, the first under new coordinator Brian Daboll. His running ability makes this Bama backfield even more terrifying.
12. Deondre Francois, Florida State. Few quarterbacks proved to be tougher than Francois last year. Behind an offensive line that often struggled to protect him, Francois took a ton of hits, as the Seminoles gave up 36 sacks in 13 games. Francois nevertheless played well as a redshirt freshman, throwing for 3,350 yards, 20 TDs and seven INTs with an average of 8.4 yards per attempt. The FSU running game is still in great shape, but with star tailback Dalvin Cook gone, pressure increases on the O-line and the receiving corps to provide better support for their rising star quarterback.
11. Josh Allen, Wyoming. Most football fans probably haven't seen him play, but Allen has emerged as a hot commodity in NFL Draft circles, an early favorite to be one of the top quarterbacks selected. The 6-foot-5, 222-pound Allen started his career at Reedley Community College, then missed most of 2015 at Wyoming with an injury. As a redshirt sophomore, Allen led the Cowboys to a division title, completing 56 percent for 3,203 yards, 28 TDs and 15 INTs and rushing for 523 yards and seven TDs. Strong-armed and mobile, Allen excels at throwing on the move and pushing the ball downfield. He also takes snaps from under center and plays in a pro-style offense similar to what Carson Wentz played in at North Dakota State (Allen's coach at Wyoming is former NDSU coach Craig Bohl). Allen has work do to in terms of accuracy and decision-making, but there's no doubt that the raw tools are there. The spotlight will be shining brightly on Laramie this fall.
10. Luke Falk, Washington State. Falk's two full years as a starting QB are what you expect from a Mike Leach QB: 4,561 yards and 38 TDs in 2015, and 4,468 yards and 38 TDs in 2016. His average per attempt has been 7.1 both seasons, as he's accurately moved this Air Raid offense with shorter throws, racking up completions at a 70-percent rate as a junior. Originally a walk-on, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Falk has grown into one of college football's most prolific passers, leading the Cougars to 17 wins over the past two years -- the only two winning records Wazzu has had since 2003.
9. Quinton Flowers, South Florida. Flowers did not get enough credit for his phenomenal season last year. Yes, he was named AAC offensive player of the year, but his electric play still flew under the radar nationally. In leading South Florida to its best season ever -- 11-2 record, No. 19 final AP ranking -- Flowers ranked 16th nationally in passer rating (2,812 yards, 24 TDs and seven INTs) and second among QBs in rushing (1,530 yards, 18 TDs), only 41 yards behind Lamar Jackson. Flowers has to deal with a coaching change, but he's a tremendous weapon for offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and is the biggest reason why USF will enter the season as the favorite for the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl spot.
8. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. In 2014, as an unexpected redshirt freshman starter, Barrett excelled for the Buckeyes, finishing fifth in the Heisman race, although his season was cut short by an injury in the regular-season finale. He averaged nine yards per pass attempt and had 938 rushing yards and 45 total TDs, setting up the Cardale Jones-led title run. Over the past two seasons, including a 2016 time share with Jones, Barrett has averaged just 6.7 yards per pass attempt with 55 total TDs. Despite Ohio State's success as a team, the offense has had difficulty finding a rhythm the past two seasons, with problems at receiver, too, and as a result, Urban Meyer hired Kevin Wilson as his new coordinator. The Barrett we saw as a freshman is a Heisman candidate. The Barrett we saw last year-- eighth in the Big Ten in yards per pass attempt, with little success downfield -- isn't. Barrett in particular ended the season in a funk, averaging under four yards per attempt with one TD and three INTs in Ohio State's last three games. He's a talented runner with escapability, and he's undeniably a skilled passer who doesn't make many mistakes. It's up to Wilson's new offense to consistently unlock that 2014 production again in Barrett's senior season.
7. Trace McSorley, Penn State. In his first season as the starter, under new coordinator Joe Moorhead, McSorley was the best quarterback in the Big Ten, emerging as a fearless big-play machine. He made plays with his legs -- 365 yards, seven TDs -- and he has proven to be an instinctive point guard for this offense, making good decisions with his feet while leading the Big Ten in passer rating. His completion percentage was only 57.9, but he took a lot of shots downfield and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, throwing for 3,614 yards, 29 TDs and only eight picks in 14 games. McSorley's mobility and willingness to push the ball downfield have made him an excellent fit for Penn State's offensive evolution and a great backfield partner for star tailback Saquon Barkley. It will be difficult to match last year's success on deep balls, but he'll have a better offensive line in front of him and still has a deep cast of skill talent to work with.
6. Josh Rosen, UCLA. Anointed as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick the moment he began playing for UCLA, Rosen now must bounce back from a rough sophomore season in which he received little help from his O-line and run game, hurt his shoulder and missed the second half of the Bruins' plummet to 4-8. In 19 career games, Rosen has completed 59.7 percent for 5,584 yards, 33 TDs and 16 INTs, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. There's no doubting his skill set, as he's a polished passer mechanically with a ton of pro upside. This season is about returning healthy from the shoulder problems and hopefully getting more help from those around him -- including new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who had been at Michigan and should be a good fit. Rosen's ceiling remains unlimited.
5. Jake Browning, Washington. A shoulder injury limited Browning down the stretch last year, as his production fell off, but he still put up phenomenal numbers in leading the Huskies to the playoff and their first Pac-12 title since 2000. Browning threw 43 TD passes and only nine INTs, completing 62.1 percent for 3,430 yards. Before the Nov. 12 loss to USC, he had 34 TDs and three TDs in the first nine games, which had him in the thick of the Heisman race behind Lamar Jackson. Browning isn't a big quarterback and doesn't have a huge arm, but he's accurate, makes good decisions and does everything a QB needs to do to succeed under coach Chris Petersen. He's capable of leading Washington back to the playoff.
4. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. A four-star recruit in 2014, Rudolph stepped in the last three games of his freshman season because of injuries, threw for 3,770 yards despite ceding some snaps to J.W. Walsh in 2015 and had the job all to himself last year. The result was a phenomenal junior season in which he passed for 4,091 yards, 28 TDs and only four INTs, leading Oklahoma State to a 10-3 record. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Rudolph opted to return for his senior season, and he'll have arguably the top receiving corps in the nation thanks to the return of James Washington, as well. With a strong arm, a pretty deep ball and what will be one of the nation's best offenses, Rudolph is a Heisman sleeper who shouldn't be overlooked in the conversation about potential top-10 overall QBs next spring.
3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. Mayfield is the type of player who seems like he's been a college quarterback for a decade. A walk-on Week 1 starter at Texas Tech in 2013, Mayfield ended up transferring to Oklahoma, where he sit out a year, then became a star in Norman. He's been a top-four Heisman finisher the past two years, throwing for 7,664 yards, 76 TDs and 15 INTs over two seasons at Oklahoma. In fact, he broke Russell Wilson's single-season passer rating record last year and averaged 11.1 yards per attempt. Mayfield is back for his senior season without coach Bob Stoops, WR Dede Westbrook and RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and he's dealt with unwanted offseason attention after a public intoxication arrest. Mayfield won't be suspended, though, and he's proven to be a fantastic match for new head coach Lincoln Riley, putting up huge numbers as a mobile quarterback with a knack for improvisation and eluding defenders to make big plays.
2. Sam Darnold, USC. He didn't do it alone, but nobody was more responsible for USC turning a nightmare season into the Rose Bowl and a likely preseason top-five ranking than Darnold. Darnold took the starting job from Max Browne (who transferred to Pitt) after three games, and after losing on the road at Utah, he led the Trojans to nine straight wins, capped by a brilliant 453-yard, five-TD performance in the thriller in Pasadena against Penn State. Darnold has only 10 starts under his belt and is a redshirt sophomore, and yet he's rightfully viewed by many as the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. His delivery is a bit unorthodox, but all the results are there: He has a strong arm, he can fit the ball into tight windows, he can move the pocket and he can make plays on the run. While he's No. 2 on this list, he's more likely than Lamar Jackson to win the Heisman and would be ranked No. 1 if this were based on pure passing ability. In fact, he has a case for No. 1 regardless, but there's no shame in being second, at the college level, to Louisville's star.
1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville. Try to put aside what happened to Louisville at the end of last season, when it ended on a three-game losing streak. Jackson dominated the Heisman conversation all year, and deservedly so. Nobody made highlight-reel plays like he did as a sophomore. Few players could touch his jaw-dropping numbers. Jackson began the season with eight total TDs in one half against Charlotte. The next week, he had 610 yards of total offense against Syracuse. The next week, he led Louisville to a 63-20 win over Florida State. That type of production was unsustainable, but even with drops from receivers and a shaky offensive line that stumbled late in the year, Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs and rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 TDs. There are plenty of good runners at quarterback, but Jackson is up on a different tier that few players besides Michael Vick and Vince Young have touched. He also has a big arm, and while he's still growing as a passer, there's no doubt that he improved his command of the offense significantly in Year 2 under Bobby Petrino. Jackson faces the near-impossible task of following a Heisman season, but don't forget that he did things that few quarterbacks have ever done last year.