Forde-Yard Dash: The nation's most efficient QBs have one big thing in common

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (coaches’ box barcalounger chair sold separately for Liberty’s next home game, Saturday against Buffalo):

[More Dash: Four playoff picks | Where to next? | Lynn Swann/USC]

SECOND QUARTER

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CHANGE, APPARENTLY, IS GOOD

Look at the top 10 most efficient passers in the sport through two weeks, and one thing jumps out — there is something that has dramatically changed since last year for every single one of them. Whether it’s new starters, new schools or new coaches, year-over-year change seems to have energized every situation.

Perhaps that’s coincidence, or simply the product of a small sample size of two games. But one thing is clear: substantive change is not necessarily an impediment to success. This might also be emblematic of the constant shifting sands of college football, and why the ability to adapt — as a player, a coach or an entire program — is an increasingly prized commodity:

Jalen Hurts (11), Oklahoma. What’s new: school. For three years, Hurts was a capable and at times very good quarterback at Alabama. For two games under Lincoln Riley, he looks phenomenal. Hurts is your national leader in efficiency with a rating of 252.39, which is better than either Baker Mayfield (227.31) or Kyler Murray (193.76) produced during the first two games of their Heisman Trophy seasons. Oh, and Hurts also has rushed for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns, far outstripping his Heisman predecessors in that area. Now, it’s true that both Mayfield and Murray played a Power Five opponent within those first two weeks, while Hurts has feasted upon Houston and South Dakota, so let’s wait and see how that goes. But for now, my goodness.

The nation's most efficient quarterbacks thus far have all experienced major change since last season, led by Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts. (Getty)
The nation's most efficient quarterbacks thus far have all experienced major change since last season, led by Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts. (Getty)

Joe Burrow (12), LSU. What’s new: passing game coordinator. The Joe Brady arrival and revival has transformed Burrow from a scatter-shooting thrower with modest accuracy and moderate explosiveness into the No. 2 efficiency QB in America at present (219.11). Accuracy is up 24 percent year-over-year, and yards per attempt has ballooned from 7.6 to 11.3. Burrow has thrown nine touchdown passes thus far — it took him 10 games to throw that many in 2018. The 29-year-old Brady worked the previous two years for the Saints under Sean Payton, and before that was at Penn State with James Franklin.

Anthony Gordon (13), Washington State. What’s new: role as starter. A lot of people expected the heir to Gardner Minshew to be Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud. Instead, Gordon won the job and has proceeded to produce customary Leach-level numbers: a 218.86 efficiency rating, third in FBS, and 442 passing yards per game, second in FBS. What Gordon has not done is face a decent defense, having played New Mexico State and Northern Colorado. Now a Houston unit that Hurts annihilated is up next on Friday.

Sean Clifford (14), Penn State. What’s new: role as starter. Clifford was sought by plenty of Division I programs out of Cincinnati St. Xavier, but not many bluebloods. Penn State landed him, redshirted him and then he played sparingly behind Trace McSorley and Red Zone bulldozer Tommy Stevens. But Stevens transferred after not being guaranteed the starting job following spring practice, and Clifford became The Guy. And so far The Guy has been on fire against admittedly soft competition. With a rating of 215.01 after ripping Idaho and Buffalo, Clifford is far ahead of where McSorley stood two starts into his Penn State career (141.43). Pittsburgh should provide a tougher test Saturday.

Spencer Sanders (15), Oklahoma State. What’s new: role as starter. Sanders redshirted last year and has become an instant standout this year, the latest in Mike Gundy’s line of highly productive quarterbacks. Sanders was great in his debut game, on the road against Oregon State, then tore up FCS McNeese State in Week Two. It helps having the great Tylan Wallace as a target (10 catches, 272 yards, five touchdowns thus far), but Sanders also can run the ball (160 rushing yards, 109 of them against the Beavers).

Tua Tagovailoa (16), Alabama. What’s new: offensive coordinator. Staff turnover has been a survivable constant for years in Tuscaloosa, but the loss of Mike Locksley after he coordinated the best offense in school history seemed potentially problematic. So far, so good under Steve Sarkisian. Tagovailoa has thrown 20 more passes through two games than last year (probably because the Crimson Tide struggled to run in the opener against Duke) with similar efficiency — the rating was 231.49 at this point in 2018, 204.34 in 2019.

Nick Saban's still around, but Tua Tagovailoa (13) has thrived under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. (Getty)
Nick Saban's still around, but Tua Tagovailoa (13) has thrived under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. (Getty)

Dillon Gabriel (17), Central Florida. What’s new: true freshman starter. Last Saturday, Gabriel became UCF’s fourth different starter in the last five games. From McKenzie Milton to Darriel Mack Jr., to Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush to Gabriel, change has been a constant at that position. Gabriel, who was recruited by both USC and Georgia, opted to follow Milton to Orlando from Hawaii. UCF coach Josh Heupel said he started Gabriel over Wimbush against Florida Atlantic because Wimbush wasn’t 100 percent, and Gabriel certainly produced some big plays — 245 passing yards on just seven completions, two of them easy throws for long touchdowns. There will be some intrigue surrounding who gets the start Saturday in one of UCF’s biggest home games ever, when Stanford visits.

Justin Fields (18), Ohio State. What’s new: school. The Georgia transfer has been an immediate hit in Ryan Day’s offense, cranking out one touchdown for every eight times he’s run or passed the ball. Fields has been highly accurate (76 percent completion rate) while avoiding mistakes (zero interceptions in 50 attempts). After a season with pocket passer Dwayne Haskins, Fields returns the quarterback run element to the Ohio State offense. Fields isn’t likely to come anywhere near Haskins’ 533 passing attempts of 2018, but he could easily run it 10-15 times a game.

Kedon Slovis (19), USC. What’s new: true freshman starter, new coordinator. Approximately nobody foresaw Slovis starting and starring for the Trojans in his second college game, but that’s what happened Saturday night. A moderately recruited three-star prospect out of Arizona, new USC coordinator Graham Harrell liked Slovis right away and elevated him to second string ahead of two more experienced backups to J.T. Daniels. When Daniels went down in the season opener with a torn ACL, the job fell to Slovis. He then sliced up Stanford for 377 yards and three touchdowns, completing 85 percent of his throws. Three of the next four games are on the road, and the home game is against perhaps the Pac-12’s best team in Utah, so we’re going to find out more about Slovis’ mettle rather quickly.

Anthony Brown (20), Boston College. What’s new: offensive coordinator. Mike Bajakian arrived from the NFL as the Eagles’ new play caller, and he’s made a tight end-friendly offense even more reliant on that position. Four tight ends have made 11 of BC’s 24 receptions in two games, with running backs contributing another four catches (three by star back AJ Dillon, including the longest reception of his career). Meanwhile, Brown utilized wideouts Kobay White and Zay Jones to hit big plays against Virginia Tech in the opener. Brown’s yards per attempt have jumped from 7.4 last year to 11.3 thus far this year.

Due to numerical constraints, The Dash has to cut the list there. But the next four in the pass efficiency ratings also have something new about them. In order:

Skylar Thompson, Kansas State. What’s new: head coach, offensive coordinator.

Anthony Russo, Temple. What’s new: head coach, offensive coordinator.

Jack Coan, Wisconsin. What’s new: role as starter.

Sam Howell, North Carolina. What’s new: true freshman starter.

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