The year 2014 witnessed the ascendance of the backup quarterback in college football, to the point that two backups on the same roster powered Ohio State to a national championship.
Braxton Miller was injured. J.T. Barrett replaced him and made a run at the Heisman Trophy. He got injured late in the season. Cardale Jones, though coming in cold, acted like a savvy veteran in three championship events: the Big Ten Championship Game, the Sugar Bowl, and the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
In the NFL, teams are supposed to have decent options at quarterback. If the lead dog goes down, professional organizations ought to be nimble and wise enough to acquire (or cultivate, or both) a competent game manager who will make basic plays and enable his defense to win games. In college football, finding a good additional quarterback is not as easy, and it’s definitely not as certain. It’s hard enough for 32 NFL teams to find good backups. How much more difficult it is for 128 FBS teams to identify a quality number two at football’s most important position. Ohio State, amazingly enough, found a quality number-three man. Urban Meyer would not have won that national title without Cardale Jones.
The backup quarterback is a readily identifiable need, but in many cases, the need arises not from a free choice on the part of the coaching staff, but from the necessity of having to replace an injured starter. This was the case at Ohio State in 2014, and a number of college football teams this season — Navy with Tago Smith, SMU with Matt Davis — lost their No. 1 quarterbacks on or before opening day for the entire year. A few other teams — Colorado with Sefo Liufau and Florida with Luke Del Rio — missed their No. 1 signal-callers for a few weeks before getting them back.
Yet, the 2016 is notable not just for the instances of injury, but for all the situations in which a coaching staff had a hard time identifying the No. 1 quarterback in early September.
No commentary is needed here.
Simply read this partial list of teams (and coaching staffs) whose opening-day starter either wasn’t the right fit or remains part of an uncertain quarterback situation (or both):
— USC with Max Browne over Sam Darnold
— Alabama with Blake Barnett over Jalen Hurts
— Notre Dame with the Malik Zaire-DeShone Kizer split
— Oregon with Dakota Prukop over Justin Herbert
— Georgia with Greyson Lambert over Jacob Eason
— South Carolina with Perry Orth over Brandon McIlwain
— Wisconsin with Bart Houston over Alex Hornibrook
— LSU with Brandon Harris over Danny Etling
Again, these are not injury-based complications, but opening-day decisions by coaching staffs which have been revealed to be errant. It’s an eye-catcher to see this many quarterback situations turn for reasons other than injury (or disciplinary issues).
Therefore, this is not the year of the “backup” quarterback so much as it is the year of the “other” quarterback, the man who should have been quarterback all along.
Among all the plot points in this journey through the autumn of 2016, few have been more fascinating or significant.
We’ll see if these “other” quarterbacks are able to handle the heat in the chill of November and beyond.