The college quarterback is not only looked up to on the field as a leader but off the field in the classroom as well. A representative of the football program and the school, he’s expected to get the job done during games and also academically. It’s a lot of pressure but it’s only certain quarterbacks have been able to handle really well. Heisman Trophy-well, as a matter of fact.
What’s a good way to determine this list of the best college quarterbacks of all time? Looking at which quarterbacks in history won that Heisman Trophy. Now granted, there are obviously college quarterbacks who’ve played the game that didn’t get the Heisman that absolutely should be on this list. This one, in particular, is just focusing on those who’ve lined up under center who’ve taken home the Heisman.
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It’s interesting to note that looking at the list of Heisman Trophy winners (thanks to Heisman.com for listing who’s received the award over the years, which was a good reference in selecting who made this list) since 2000, quarterbacks have won the Heisman 17 times. Seventeen times! And that’s a lot more within a certain timespan in the history of the award as it used to go to mostly the running back position.
So, while taking this back to quarterbacks who received the award early on to present day, without further ado, here’s that list. And we’ll start this off with some honorable mentions (because there’s 35 total quarterbacks who’ve won the Heisman and even more who didn’t that should be on the list, as well).
Honorable Mentions: Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Jameis Winston (Florida State), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Paul Hornung (Notre Dame), Joe Burrow (LSU), Pat Sullivan (Auburn), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Tom Brady (Michigan).
20 Of The Best College Quarterbacks Of All Time
Thanks to Sports Reference for the stats, which you’ll see throughout each player listed. In parenthesis is the university the quarterback played for the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
20 – John Lujack (Notre Dame)
Lujack, per heisman.com, “won Notre Dame’s second Heisman while leading the Irish to a 9-0 record and national title in 1947.”
- College Passing Yards: 2,080
- College Passing Touchdowns: 19
- College Rush Yards: 438
19 – Troy Smith (Ohio State)
Smith, per hesiman.com, “became Ohio State’s seventh Heisman winner after leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season in 2006.”
- College Passing Yards: 5,720
- College Passing Touchdowns: 54
- College Rush Yards: 1,168
- College Rush Touchdowns: 14
18 – Marcus Mariota (Oregon)
Marcus Mariota put up numbers with Oregon! It led to him being drafted second overall by the Tennessee Titans in the 2015 draft.
According to the Oregon Ducks, he’s “(t)he most decorated player in school history led Oregon to more wins (36) than any of his contemporaries in three seasons while holding no fewer than seven of the program’s season and career passing pinnacles, and eclipsing conference standards . . . The Ducks’ first Heisman Trophy winner ever and the first from the state of Hawai’i became Oregon’s second unanimous first-team All-American of all time…”
- College Passing Yards: 10,796
- College Passing Touchdowns: 105
- College Rush Yards: 2,237
- College Rush Touchdowns: 29
17 – Kyler Murray (Oklahoma)
When I met Murray and introduced myself, one of the first things he said to me was, “Boomer!”. Obviously, if you know about the Oklahoma Sooners, this is associated with the school and its sports culture. It’s safe to say Murray enjoyed playing at Oklahoma, where he found incredible success as one of the best college quarterbacks to get it done with his passing and running. And this type of play has parlayed into the NFL, as well, with there being a period where he could’ve played a different sport completely in the MLB after getting drafted by the Oakland Athletics.
- College Career Passing Yards: 5,406
- College Career Passing Touchdowns: 50
- College Career Rush Yards: 1,478
- College Career Rush Touchdowns: 13
16 – Vinny Testaverde (University of Miami)
You’ll see a common theme on this list of quarterbacks being drafted either first or up there in the first round. If you play well as a quarterback in college, there’s a good shot at you being drafted early on draft night. Testaverde was no exception being the first pick in the 1987 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
- College Passing Yards: 6,058
- College Passing Touchdowns: 48
When you win the Heisman and serve our country admirably, playing the game at Navy, you have to be on this list. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “(f)ollowing his graduation, he spent a mandatory four years on active duty, including service in Vietnam, before he was able to turn his attention to pro football.” Shout out to this great quarterback and veteran.
- College Passing Yards: 3,799
- College Passing Touchdowns: 18
- College Rushing Yards: 635
- College Rushing Touchdowns: 18
14 – Sam Bradford (Oklahoma)
The 1st pick in the 2010 NFL draft by the St. Louis (now LA) Rams, Bradford was a stud in college at the quarterback position and that parlayed into the NFL, as well. Though it wasn’t an easy journey, he had faith to keep going. Just hear this cool story from Sports Spectrum’s Cody Benjamin “(o)n whether he still reads David and Goliath before every game…”
“I switch it up now a little bit, but every now and then, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll go back and read that,” Bradford said per Sports Spectrum’s Benjamin. “But that story to me, it just proves when you put your trust in the Lord, you can overcome whatever’s in front of you. And that’s one of the reasons I used to read that on game days, just knowing that when I was taking the field, He was on the field with me.”
- College Passing Yards: 8,403
- College Passing Touchdowns: 88
13 – Jim Plunkett (Stanford)
An OG New England Patriots quarterback, if you will, as he was drafted 1st overall by the Patriots in the 1971 draft out of one of the ‘Ivy League’ schools of the west in Stanford (even though they’re technically in the Pac-12 and when Plunkett played the Pac-8, they’re considered an academic prestigious university). But you may most know Plunkett if you’re an NFL fan from his time with the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders.
- College Passing Yards: 7,809
- College Passing Touchdowns: 53
- College Rush Yards: 369
- College Rush Touchdowns: 10
12 – Davey O’Brien (Texas Christian University)
When your name becomes associated with the best college quarterback each year, of course you have to be on this list. And that’s where Davey O’Brien comes in. It’s safe to say most of the quarterbacks on this list (if not all of them) were given the award named after O’Brien. The Davey O’Brien Award, per the award and foundation’s site, “honors candidates who exemplify Davey O’Brien’s enduring character while exhibiting teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership in both academics and athletics.”
O’Brien, per the award and foundation’s site, “(i)n 1938…threw for 1,457 passing yards – a Southwest Conference record that stood for 10 years. He had only four interceptions in 194 passing attempts, and set a NCAA record for most rushing and passing plays in a single season. That year O’Brien led the (Texas Christian University) Horned Frogs to their first undefeated season…”
11 – Steve Spurrier (Florida)
Spurrier’s 4,848 passing yards and 36 passing touchdowns is what I call getting the job done well at the quarterback position. And that’s not to mention his 228-89-2 record as a college football head coach! Not only was he a leader as a quarterback but he also carried that into his coaching, becoming one of the greatest college coaches in history, as well.
10 – Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
Lamar Jackson may simply be the best dual-threat college football quarterback to have ever played. According to heisman.com, “(h)is 51 touchdowns running and passing ties him with Tim Tebow for third on the all-time Heisman chart. He’s the first player to win the Heisman with at least 30 touchdown passes and at least 21 rushing touchdowns. His 1,538 rushing yards are the most-ever by a Heisman-winning quarterback.”
- College Passing Yards: 9,043
- College Passing Touchdowns: 69
- College Rush Yards: 4,132
- College Rush Touchdowns: 50
9 – Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame)
Bertelli not only was a Heisman Trophy winner, he also honorably served our country. Oh and by the way that all happened in the same season! Going from quarterback to active duty in the military alone is a feat alone that deserves to be not only one of the best college quarterbacks of all time but one of the great sports stories of all time, as Bertelli bravely suited up for our country after suting up with Notre Dame football.
Per hesiman.com, “(d)uring his senior year in 1943, the Marine Corps activated Bertelli after six games of Notre Dame’s 10-game season. In the six games Bertelli started in, he threw 36 passes, completing 25 with 10 touchdowns. Bertelli’s six-game 1943 performance was enough to win the Heisman Trophy.
8 – Andre Ware (Houston)
Ware has to be in the top 10 solely for these accomplishments, which include breaking barriers (per hesiman.com): “Ware won Houston’s first Heisman by virtue of one of the great passing seasons in NCAA history…Ware threw for 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns as Houston averaged 53.5 points per game…Ware set 26 NCAA records…He was also the first black quarterback to win the award”.
- College Passing Yards: 8202
- College Passing Touchdowns: 75
7 – Chris Weinke (Florida State)
Chris Weinke’s story is incredible. Weinke chose to pursue the pro baseball route then decided to return to college to be Florida State’s quarterback.
Per heisman.com: “Weinke was recruited by over 70 Division 1 schools…But his football career got put on hold as…Weinke was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 1990 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft (the 62nd player taken overall) by the Toronto Blue Jays. After spending four days in August 1990 on the FSU campus, Weinke signed a contract to play in the Blue Jays’ minor league system. FSU head coach Bobby Bowden promised Weinke that he would always have a scholarship offer if he wished to return…Weinke spent several years in the minors before returning to FSU in 1997 at age 25.”
- College Passing Yards: 9,839
- College Passing Touchdowns: 79
6 – Doug Flutie (Boston College)
When you mention classic college football games, Doug Flutie’s last-second heave to the endzone to get Boton College the win is up there as one of the best games of all time. Not only did Flutie help his team win that game with that pass, his college career was one of the best of any quarterback to play the position.
- College Passing Yards: 10,579
- College Passing Touchdowns: 67
- College Rushing Yards: 969
- College Rushing Touchdowns: 7
5 – Cam Newton (Auburn)
The stats here are from his lone Auburn year in 2010 when he won the Heisman (he appeared in six games with Florida in 2007 and 2008):
- Auburn Passing Yards: 2,854
- Auburn Passing Touchdowns: 30
- Auburn Rushing Yards: 1,473
- Auburn Rushing Touchdowns: 20
Newton is currently a New England Patriots quarterback and with the Carolina Panthers in 2020 was a Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, winning the “Nationwide Walter Payton Man of the Year Charity Challenge” per the Panthers.
“I appreciate the fans for showing support in helping Nationwide’s Charity Challenge,” Newton ‘said in a statement’ according to the Panthers. “I’m using this platform to enhance programs and grants that will greatly impact the community. To be nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award is something that I really appreciate – because it’s bigger than football. God has blessed me and all I’m trying to do is bless others.”
4 – Danny Wuerffel (Florida)
Per his website: “At University of Florida, Danny led the Gators to four SEC Championships and the National Championship” and in the video on his site, it mentions how he left football completely to join a faith-based non-profit organization.
“During his NFL years with the Saints, Danny volunteered after practice with Desire Street Ministries, serving in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, a neighborhood ranked by HUD as one of the worst in the country. He felt so strongly about the pivotal role Desire Street plays in reshaping communities he became their Executive Director following his NFL career with the Packers, Bears and Redskins.”Dannywuerffel.com: ‘Bio’
- College Career Passing Yards: 10,875
- College Career Passing Touchdowns: 114
3 – Robert Griffin III (Baylor)
Aka “RGIII”, the modern-day OG of the dual-threat college quarterback. Griffin III also has a foundation that is “helping feed the hungry, educate the world and uplift our military veterans & underprivileged youth” per the RG3 Foundation Twitter bio.
- College Passing Yards: 10,366
- College Passing Touchdowns: 78
- College Rushing Yards: 2254
- College Rushing Touchdowns: 33
2 – Charlie Ward (Florida State)
Not only did Charlie Ward win the Heisman Trophy, instead of choosing to play in the NFL, he decided to play a completely different sport: basketball. A multi-talented multi-sport athlete, Ward isn’t only one of the best college quarterbacks of all time but one of the best student-athletes of all time. Period.
According to heisman.com, “One of the most decorated players in the history of college football, Charlie Ward won literally every award he was eligible for as a senior quarterback on Florida State’s 1993 National Championship team. In addition, Ward was the sparkplug on three Seminole NCAA Tournament basketball teams. He’s the only Heisman winner ever to play in the NBA.”
“God allowed me to do something that was a passion of mine at a high level, and I am still humbled to receive such an honor. The road to winning the @heismantrophy was not easy, so I never take it for granted that I was blessed with such a prestigious award. I am grateful to my family for supporting me along this amazing journey and want to thank them for always being there for me.”Charlie Ward, Instagram post
- College Passing Yards: 5,747
- College Passing Touchdowns: 49
- College Rush Yards: 889
- College Rush Touchdowns10
1 – Tim Tebow (Flordia)
This one’s a given. Tim Tebow was that dude in college. Winning two national championships and leading his team on and off the field, Tim Tebow was the consummate college quarterback.
Tebow’s still going at it as a Jacksonville Jaguars tight end and raising money for his birthday to help people across the world (as mentioned in a tweet): “My life purpose is to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. That’s why I am asking that in honor of my 34th birthday, you prayerfully consider joining me to fight for those living in chaos, hardship, and darkness. Give today…”.
If you’d like to help the Tebow Foundation, giving back to “rescue babies who have been abandoned in South Africa…provide a safe place for trafficked and battered women in Uganda…bring orthopedic and spiritual healing to children with physical disabilities in Zimbabwe…build a school for children with intellectual disabilities in Guatemala” you can do so here.
- College Passing Yards: 9,285
- College Passing Touchdowns:88
- College Rush Yards: 2,947
- College Rush Touchdowns: 57
There you have it, folks! The best college quarterbacks of all time. Who’s your favorite that’s either on the list or not? Let me know in the comments! And have yourself a game-changing, game-winning drive-type of day!
Charlie Lapastora is a sports/news multimedia journalist who’s reported, written, produced, anchored, shot video/edited on different NBC, ABC, and FOX shows in multiple TV markets, along with digital & new media companies. Charlie has traveled the country telling national sports, news, feature, and original stories on a cable news network, airing on top 10 TV markets, satellite radio, and digital platforms. He is passionate about his faith, family—being a husband to whom he calls the G.O.A.T. of women—about reppin’ his home state of Michigan and Detroit teams (yes, including the Lions), good coffee, and loves how sports brings people together. He’s traveled the world leading and coaching sports camps and has also worked at the Detroit Pistons and LA Clippers’ NBA teams.
- 1 20 Of The Best College Quarterbacks Of All Time
- 2 20 – John Lujack (Notre Dame)
- 3 19 – Troy Smith (Ohio State)
- 4 18 – Marcus Mariota (Oregon)
- 5 17 – Kyler Murray (Oklahoma)
- 6 16 – Vinny Testaverde (University of Miami)
- 7 15 – Roger Staubach (Navy)
- 8 14 – Sam Bradford (Oklahoma)
- 9 13 – Jim Plunkett (Stanford)
- 10 12 – Davey O’Brien (Texas Christian University)
- 11 11 – Steve Spurrier (Florida)
- 12 10 – Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
- 13 9 – Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame)
- 14 8 – Andre Ware (Houston)
- 15 7 – Chris Weinke (Florida State)
- 16 6 – Doug Flutie (Boston College)
- 17 5 – Cam Newton (Auburn)
- 18 4 – Danny Wuerffel (Florida)
- 19 3 – Robert Griffin III (Baylor)
- 20 2 – Charlie Ward (Florida State)
- 21 1 – Tim Tebow (Flordia)
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