The best college football coach-quarterback tandems for 2016 are all more than capable of reaching the College Football Playoff.
Life these days moves quicker than ever. And if you plan to keep pace, sometimes you’ve got to shave corners and employ shortcuts whenever they’re available. So, if you want to appear well read about the 2016 College Football Playoff hunt, but don’t have an abundance of time to digest all of the fine print, bone up today on which programs harbor the best combination of head coach and quarterback. It’s a painless two-minute drill that’ll serve you well this summer.
Now, obviously, the evaluation process doesn’t end with two individuals. If you can’t make stops or protect the pocket, championship dreams will fade before Halloween. But there are no more important individuals to a program than the coach and the quarterback. If those two spots are in good shape, you’re going to win a lot of football games. And the following 16 schools ought to win plenty this season.
16. North Carolina – Larry Fedora and Mitch Trubisky
Fedora really took a giant leap forward in 2015, guiding the Tar Heels to 11 wins and the ACC Coastal Division title. The coach is banking on Trubisky keeping his offense on course this fall.
Trubisky has been itching for this opportunity to lead the Carolina attack since he left high school as Mr. Football in the state of Ohio. He’s a very good fit for the system, with the athleticism and the passing skills to bloom into one of the league’s breakout stars of 2016. Quarterbacks tend to flourish when Fedora is tugging on the strings, and Trubisky possesses the talent, drive and know-how to hit the ground running as the Heels’ successor to Marquise Williams.
15. Cal – Sonny Dykes and Davis Webb
Dykes and Webb form one of college football’s newest power couples, but boy do they have the potential for an exciting honeymoon.
Dykes, who has been a hit in Berkeley, helped developed Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. In Webb, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech, the coach may have another future pro at his disposal. The 6-5, 225-pound senior has the experience and the arm talent to flourish as the triggerman in Dykes’ prolific Bear Raid attack. The key for Webb will be to acclimate quickly this summer, because he has a lot to retain in a short period of time.
14. Tennessee – Butch Jones and Joshua Dobbs
To say this is a critical year for Jones—on and off the field—would be a gross understatement.
Yeah, Jones has succeeded so far in elevating the Volunteers in three seasons, raising the team’s win total and overall talent level in each subsequent year. But now Tennessee is expected to compete for the SEC East for the first time in nine years.
Plus, Jones is firmly under the microscope for the alleged football team’s role in a Title IX lawsuit filed against the University by eight women. Fortunately, the coach has Dobbs, a sterling ambassador of UT football, both on and off the field. He’s a triple-threat, skilled runner, improving passer and classroom standout majoring in aerospace engineering.
13. Washington – Chris Petersen and Jake Browning
Petersen is beginning to turn the corner as he enters his third season in Seattle. If he gets the Huskies to the next rung on the Pac-12 ladder, it’ll have a lot to do with the development of Browning.
Petersen, best known for his eight years of brilliance at Boise State, is assembling the personnel to make a run at Oregon and Stanford in the North Division. One of those key parts will be Browning, who was overshadowed in the league by UCLA’s Josh Rosen in 2015, but still delivered a table-setting debut. Browning will benefit from last year’s growing pains and the return of speedy John Ross on the outside.
12. Louisville – Bobby Petrino and Lamar Jackson
After a year of growing pains at the quarterback position, Petrino has a dynamic young quarterback to build around for the next few seasons.
Petrino has one of the best offensive minds in the game. And the long track record to back it up, wherever he’s been. But he’s never had a playmaker as explosive as Jackson, who plays as if he’s channeling a young RG3. As a true freshman out of Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School, Jackson led the team in rushing, capped by an electrifying bowl effort versus Texas A&M. With even modest improvement as a passer, he’ll be among the scariest weapons in all of college football.
11. Washington State – Mike Leach and Luke Falk
Quarterbacks have always amassed monster numbers when playing for Leach, one of the game’s mad scientists. Falk, though, is not the garden variety compiler or product of a system. He’s a big-time hurler who just happens to operate in a great system for pitchers.
Falk is technically a former walk-on, though he received an offer from Florida State before his junior year before the recruiting process went a little haywire for him. He’s actually one of the most talented quarterbacks Leach has ever coached. And Falk’s arm talent plus Leach’s history for beating the odds is a key reason why Wazzu believes last year’s improbable 9-4 campaign was no anomaly or one-hit wonder.
10. Oklahoma State – Mike Gundy and Mason Rudolph
Now that Gundy has his most skilled quarterback since Brandon Weeden graduated following 2011, it’s going to be fun watching Rudolph further bloom in 2016.
Gundy is one of the half-dozen or so most underrated coaches in America. After starting 4-7 in 2005, he’s reeled off 10 straight winning seasons, including six Top 25 finishes and the 2011 Big 12 championship. And his offenses are perennially diverse and explosive. This fall, his attack will again be led by Rudolph, a fast riser who threw for 3,770 yards as a sophomore, despite being surrounded by an incomplete cast and closing the season hobbled with an injured ankle.
9. UCLA – Jim Mora and Josh Rosen
A second year together is going to be beneficial to both Mora and Rosen in 2016, as they inch closer to becoming one of college football’s power couples.
Mora plucked Rosen out of Manhattan Beach, Calif. to be the franchise quarterback that guides the Bruins to their first Pac-12 title in 18 years. Other than some faux anger directed at the prodigy from time to time, the duo is off to a very good start. Rosen was fourth in the league in passing as a true freshman, and he should take a quantum leap as long as the receiving corps can be rebuilt before the opener.
8. Iowa – Kirk Ferentz and C.J. Beathard
Veteran leadership won’t be a problem in Iowa City this season. The Hawkeyes are set at head coach and at quarterback as they look to defend their Big Ten West crown.
Iowa will be led by one of the longest current tenured coaches in college football and a senior quarterback with NFL aspirations. While there have been ebbs and flows during Ferentz’s 17-year tenure, he’s coming off his first 12-win campaign as the head of the program. One of his peak performers in 2015 was Beathard, who earned All-Big Ten Second Team in his debut as a full-timer. And his mobility, toughness and arm strength will be fully featured again this fall.
7. Miami – Mark Richt and Brad Kaaya
Hope in Miami entering 2016 starts with the hiring of Richt and continues with the maturation of Kaaya.
The Canes upgraded on the sidelines when they inked Richt to replace Al Golden last December. The program gets an experienced leader who coached in a ton of high-profile games in the SEC. And unlike the situation he left in Athens, Richt won’t have any question marks behind center.
Kaaya is about to begin his third season as a starter, having thrown 42 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions so far in his budding career. And if he leaves following his junior year, he could be the highest Miami QB selected in the NFL Draft since Vinny Testaverde went No. 1 overall in 1987.
6. Houston – Tom Herman and Greg Ward
Herman is one of the hottest young head coaches in college football. In Ward, he has the ideal multi-dimensional threat to help carry out his offensive plans.
In their first season as partners, Herman and Ward helped lead the Cougars to 13 wins, an American title and a New Year’s Six bowl upset of Florida State. And the best may still be ahead in 2016, even after Ward accounted for 38 touchdowns by vexing defenses with his quick feet and his improving passing skills.
5. Ole Miss – Hugh Freeze and Chad Kelly
The last time the Rebels were in such good shape at quarterback, Eli Manning was still an amateur and Peyton was still a Colt.
Freeze, whose Ole Miss teams have improved in each of his four seasons, has done a terrific job handling Kelly so far. Remember, Kelly arrived in Oxford with a reputation for behavioral problems after being dismissed from Clemson. However, he not only kept his nose clean in 2015, he also threw 31 touchdown passes and spearheaded defining wins over Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
4. Notre Dame – Brian Kelly and Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer
No one in America boasts a better lefty-righty combination at quarterback than the Irish. Their situation on the sidelines is solid as well.
Kelly has gradually become a fixture in South Bend, winning 55 games and making one national championship appearance in six seasons. One of his main objectives this summer will be to decide between Zaire and Kizer, both of whom are eminently qualified to pilot the offense. Zaire threw as many touchdowns as incompletions—three—in the Week 1 rout of Texas. But a Week 2 ankle injury opened the door for Kizer to perform like an emerging star over the balance of the season.
3. Oklahoma – Bob Stoops and Baker Mayfield
At this time last year, the quarterback was undecided and the coach was under scrutiny in Norman. That was then and this is now.
Mayfield played his way into Heisman contention with 43 total touchdowns and 3,700 passing yards, while being one of the driving forces of Oklahoma’s Big 12 championship and playoff berth. Meanwhile, Stoops, who never stopped being one of the top 10 or so premier college coaches, set forth a reminder with his eighth outright conference title in 17 seasons with the Sooners. Year 2 of Stoops and Mayfield figures to be even better than the opening act.
2. Ohio State – Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett
The Buckeyes have had a ton of work to do this offseason. Quarterback, though, is a position with which no one is concerned.
There’ll be plenty of high-profile position battles in Columbus. Unlike last year, quarterback isn’t one of them, which is good news for Barrett and the entire team. Meyer is the second best coach in the country behind Nick Saban. And minus the distractions, Barrett is poised to perform like he did as a rookie in 2014, when he accounted for 45 touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman vote.
1. Clemson – Dabo Swinney and Deshaun Watson
Based on coach and quarterback alone, the Tigers are the early favorite to return to the national championship game.
Swinney and Watson are emerging stars on the sidelines and in the huddle, respectively. The former has turned Clemson into a legit powerhouse that won 14 games in 2015 and came within a touchdown of winning the national title. Swinney recruits remarkably well, beating out a slew of contenders for Watson two years ago. No. 4 took flight as a sophomore, accounting for 47 touchdowns. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe he won’t be even more lethal in his third fall on campus.