An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Oregon sophomore Marcus Mariota checks in at No. 5.

The countdown:

10. Brett Hundley, UCLA
9. David Fales, San Jose State
8. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
7. Aaron Murray, Georgia
6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon


They may forever be loosely tied together, two three-star quarterbacks in the same recruiting class of 2011, both explosive runners, both talented passers, both redshirts as freshman, both Oregon verbal commitments in the summer of 2010. Imagine how different things would be had they both ended up in Eugene.

But Johnny Manziel switched to Texas A&M and Marcus Mariota stayed despite speculation he wouldn't at the time, and after winning quarterback competitions as redshirt freshmen, now the two are arguably the most complete quarterbacks in the country, both playing for preseason national favorites after massive debut seasons. That's where the similarities end, of course. Manziel won the Heisman, and the offseason of insufferable scrutiny of his every move continues. At Oregon, despite being an All-America candidate for a top-five team, Mariota has yet to really hit national stardom and yet to fully distinguish himself from the greater Oregon system.

Now, he returns for another run at the national championship game, only without the perfect coach for his style of play (Chip Kelly) and without a 1,700-yard rusher (Kenjon Barner). But while everyone wonders what Kelly will do with the Philadelphia Eagles, the situation that he left behind is much more stable.

And Mariota may be a better 2013 Heisman bet than Manziel.


Last Friday at Pac-12 media day, Stanford coach David Shaw called Mariota "the most complete quarterback in the nation." Politically adept coaches are fond of praising rival quarterbacks all the time, of course, especially those in their conference and on their schedule. But it may not be far from the truth. At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Mariota runs like a gazelle, with an explosive first step that allows him to get to the second level with ease when there's a seam. Ten of his 106 carries went for more than 20 years last year. As a passer, he's more patient in the pocket than a typical scrambler, and while many passes end up being short tosses to De'Anthony Thomas, his 68.5-percent completion rate -- 66.2 percent on third down -- is still impressive, especially for a freshman.

Mariota is a better passer than Braxton Miller, a more dangerous runner than anyone but Miller and Manziel. But unlike those two, he didn't have to be everything to his offense last season.

The table below shows how many times Mariota, Manziel and Miller passed and ran in 2012, how many yards were gained per pass attempt and rush attempt and the percentage of their team's plays in which they attempted a pass or ran it themselves:







Share of plays









Texas A&M







Ohio St






Manziel and Miller were involved in a significantly higher percentage of plays than Mariota, as Oregon's deep pool of talent on offense, in Kelly's system, allowed Kelly to spread the wealth.* The criteria for the Heisman and All-America teams are notoriously vague, but if we pay special attention to perceived value to a team -- in other words, vote for awards as if they're MVP awards -- then it's not surprising that Mariota doesn't get as much recognition.

*It must also be noted that Oregon's numerous blowout wins lent themselves to more running and more reps for reserves. Mariota attempted only 24 passes in nine fourth quarters out of 13 games, according to, and attempted a pass in only 10 out of 13 second halves. However, both Manziel and Miller also attempted passes in only nine fourth quarters (Manziel 62, Miller 35).

At no point did anyone think Mariota was solely responsible for Oregon's success. Kenjon Barner was the team's Heisman candidate (he finished ninth in the voting), and explosive all-purpose back De'Anthony Thomas has been hailed as one of the nation's greatest playmakers, which he certainly is, for two years. Manziel and Miller, while surrounded by good talent, unquestionably stole the show at their respective schools last year. At Oregon, Mariota was a piece of the puzzle -- a great one, but just one piece.

We've been trained to expect big numbers from Oregon's offense anyway. It has been one of the nation's best for several years now, and at first glance, Darron Thomas' numbers in Oregon's BCS championship game season in 2010 aren't all that different from Mariota's freshman numbers: 2,881 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INTs, 61.5 percent for Thomas; 2,677 yards, 32 TDs, 6 INTs, 68.5 percent for Mariota. Mariota was just a little more efficient, and he also averaged nearly two more yards per carry. But whereas Thomas foolishly left early for the NFL draft and went undrafted, Mariota is already coveted by NFL scouts and will draw infinite Colin Kaepernick comparisons, although Mariota is much more accurate and polished as a passer at this stage of his career.

For whatever it's worth, Mariota finished last season with a higher QB rating than Manziel, throwing six more touchdown passes on 98 fewer attempts, and he had the slight edge in average yards per carry. All things considered, Manziel was obviously better -- he had one of the best seasons in the history of the sport, after all -- but on a per play basis, the gap really wasn't that wide. Mariota just didn't have to do nearly as much by himself, nor did Oregon want its freshman quarterback to have to do so.


This season, Oregon's offense will surely look similar to what we've grown accustomed to the past few years. Kelly may be gone, but his top offensive lieutenant, Mark Helfrich, takes over, and there's no reason for anything to undergo drastic changes. The system works, especially with the current personnel. But until Oregon actually takes the field on Aug. 31 against Nicholls State (or, rather, in a real game the next week at Virginia, which Oregon will likely win by 35 too), we won't fully know what Helfrich and promoted coordinator Scott Frost intend to do.

The versatile Thomas will continue in his joker role, perhaps with a few more touches but still not getting the bulk of the carries. Barner's job as the lead ball carrier will fall to sophomore Byron Marshall or freshman Thomas Tyner, or a combination of both. It's hard to imagine Mariota not doing more, unless Oregon continues to beat opponents so badly in the first half that he can lounge on the sideline in the second half even more than he did last year.

Oregon's three leading receivers are back, including Thomas, athletic tight end Colt Lyerla and wideout Josh Huff, and Lyerla in particular appears ready for an increased role as a passing target. With a year of starting experience comes more trust, and with more trust the training wheels come off for a quarterback who won't turn 20 until midway through this season. We don't know exactly what's in store for Oregon's offense in 2013, but Mariota will almost certainly pass for more yards, and depending on how the rest of the backfield shakes out, it wouldn't be surprising to see him run for more yards too.

The only thing preventing people from going all-in on Oregon for a trip to the national championship game is the loss of Kelly. In the long run, it could certainly be a problem. No one knows. In the short-term, the system is already in place. Helfrich doesn't have to reinvent the wheel or change the "culture" of Oregon football. It's a dream situation for a first-time head coach: Oregon has the personnel, and the Ducks are as good of a bet as anyone to get to Pasadena for the title game.

If they're there, that means Oregon will have won at Stanford on a Thursday night on national TV, and Mariota can likely book his December trip to New York. While he obviously must deal with the pressure of quarterbacking a preseason title favorite, it's nothing near what his counterpart Manziel must deal with in facing the burden of impossible expectations, on top of everything else. College Station ended up being the perfect home for Manziel's college career, just as Eugene appears perfect for Mariota.

Chip Kelly may be gone, but Oregon may have found the best possible quarterback for his system. Everything is still in place for Mariota to thrive and get the recognition that comes with it.


Contact me at and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE. Check back next week for No. 4 on our quarterback countdown.