How college football's title-winning game manager QB went extinct

In 1992, Washington State's Drew Bledsoe threw for 3,246 passing yards -- third most in the country -- and led the Cougars to a surprising 9-3 record and top-15 finish. His big arm and big-for-the-era numbers earned him the top spot in the 1993 NFL draft. It didn't earn him the national title, though: that went to Alabama and its sensational defense. Bama quarterback Jay Barker (1,614 yards, 7 touchdowns, 9 interceptions) was primarily asked to stay out of the way and did so.

In 2003, NC State's Philip Rivers recorded a 170.5 passer rating while throwing for 4,491 yards -- the seventh- and fourth-best numbers ever, respectively, for a power conference quarterback. The Wolfpack went 8-5 with a Tangerine Bowl win, and Rivers was picked fourth in the 2004 draft. LSU, with head coach Nick Saban and eventual seventh-rounder Matt Mauck (2,825 yards, 148.2 passer rating), won the BCS championship.

It is part of college football lore: Offense pleases the eyeballs and earns the plaudits, and defense wins titles. Flashy quarterbacks might make it big in the pros, but game managers get rings.

Actually, that last paragraph should probably be in the past tense. Defense won championships, game managers got rings. It appears times have changed.

In the nearly four decades from 1965, when one-platoon football officially ceased to exist, to 2003, when Mauck helped Saban to his first title, only four quarterbacks both won a national title for their team and became a first-round draft pick, and it's four only if you count the supplemental draft. Two-time Nebraska champ Jerry Tagge went 11th in the 1972 draft; Penn State's Todd Blackledge went seventh in 1983; and the first two title-winning QBs at Miami, Bernie Kosar and Steve Walsh, went first in the 1985 and 1989 supplemental drafts.

As the principles of the spread offense began to dominate the sport, however, these percentages shifted quickly. From 2004 to 2015, five quarterbacks won titles and went in the first round: USC's Matt Leinart, Texas' Vince Young, Florida's Tim Tebow, Auburn's Cam Newton and Florida State's Jameis Winston. Granted, Leinart and Winston played in what we then would have called pro-style offenses, but offensive firepower and college football power were beginning to align.

Over the past five seasons, that alignment seems to have become permanent.

  • Clemson's Deshaun Watson threw for 8,702 yards and 76 touchdowns in the 2015-16 seasons while leading the Tigers to two CFP finals appearances, losing the first and winning the second. He then went 12th in the 2017 draft.

  • Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench -- replacing eventual second-rounder Jalen Hurts -- to lead the Crimson Tide to a title-game comeback win over Georgia in 2017. Tagovailoa would nearly become the first quarterback to post a 200 passer rating in 2018 and would go fifth in the 2020 draft despite injury concerns.

  • As a freshman, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence led the Tigers to a blowout of Tagovailoa's Tide in the 2018 title game on his way to a three-year career that featured 10,098 passing yards, 90 touchdowns, just two losses and the No. 1 selection in last month's draft.

  • LSU's Joe Burrow erupted for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and a 202.0 passer rating in 2019. The Tigers rolled to the national title -- beating Tagovailoa's Bama and Lawrence's Clemson along the way -- and, after easily winning the Heisman, Burrow went first in the 2020 draft.

  • Alabama's Mac Jones succeeded an injured Tagovailoa late in 2019, then topped Burrow by producing a 203.1 passer rating in 2020. He threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns in just 13 games, led the Tide on maybe their most dominant title campaign and went 15th in the 2021 draft.

Four times in 40 years, then five in 12, then five in five. It's hard not to think of that as a trend.

Despite the decades-long assumption that the quarterback is the most important position in team sports, having a hotshot quarterback did not correlate as well as it should with winning big. Now it does. Let's talk about why, and what it means for 2021.