It’s not the type of an individual matchup in which the players appear on the field at the same time – say, a cornerback trying to blanket a wide receiver or a left tackle seeking to slow the rush of a defensive end – yet none draws as much anticipation as two star quarterbacks trying to outperform the other in a high-stakes game.
College football’s biggest QB showdown this season will occur Friday night between Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields in a College Football Playoff semifinal – the Sugar Bowl – at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
It’s a rematch of a 2019 semifinal, when Lawrence helped rally Clemson past Ohio State, 29-23, and into the national championship game, and the next chapter for two juniors who played high school football about 20 miles apart in the Atlanta suburbs and should be intrinsically linked in the 2021 NFL Draft class. The 6-foot-6 Lawrence is expected to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the 6-3 Fields is considered a top-5 prospect if not second to Lawrence (BYU’s Zach Wilson also could be in the lofty mix).
Should Lawrence and Fields be the first two quarterbacks drafted on April 29, they would join an exclusive list. Since 2000, there have been eight college games that involved quarterbacks who went on to be the first two signal callers selected in the same draft. It includes just seven QB pairings because Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa met in both the 2018 and ’19 regular seasons, with each claiming a victory on the way to directing a national championship season. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Burrow first overall and the Miami Dolphins picked Tagovailoa fifth last spring.
Prior to their two matchups, there were wide-ranging scenarios with the list of quarterback meetings, including two that occurred before anybody envisioned what was to come. In the 2003 regular season, Alex Smith made his first career start in a Utah win over Cal, which after two series brought Aaron Rodgers off the bench. Also in the 2009 Gator Bowl, freshman EJ Manuel captured MVP honors as Florida State won coach Bobby Bowden’s final game over West Virginia, which brought freshman Geno Smith off the bench when the team’s starting QB was knocked from the game.
National titles were secured when Vince Young lifted Texas over Matt Leinart’s USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl and Florida’s Tim Tebow outplayed Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford in the 2008 BCS championship game. Florida State’s Jameis Winston suffered his only loss as a college starter against Oregon and Marcus Mariota in a 2014 CFP semifinal (Rose Bowl), just four months before they became the top two draft picks – Winston going No. 1 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed by Mariota to the Tennessee Titans.
In addition, JaMarcus Russell and LSU beat Brady Quinn’s Notre Dame in the 2006 Sugar Bowl. Their college success didn’t continue into the NFL, where they combined for only 45 career starts and more interceptions (40) than touchdown passes (30).
The eight matchups between quarterbacks who became the first two selected in the same draft involved six eventual Heisman Trophy winners – Leinart (2004), Tebow (2007), Bradford (2008), Winston (2013), Mariota (2014) and Burrow (2019) – as well as two runners-up (Young in 2005 and Tagovailoa in 2018) and three third-place finishers (Leinart in 2005, Quinn in 2006 and Tebow in 2008).
Lawrence, a leading contender for the 2020 Heisman, and Fields have high-level skill sets, but their ability to produce wins is most important. Since his transfer from Georgia, Fields has led Ohio State to 19-1 record the last two seasons – the only loss to Clemson in the 2019 CFP semifinal. Lawrence’s only loss as a starter occurred in the Tigers’ following game – against LSU in the championship – but his 34-1 record marks the highest winning percentage (.971) among FBS starting QBs since the Division I split in 1978.
Over the last two seasons, Lawrence’s 74 total touchdowns (pass and rush) rank second in the FBS behind Florida’s Kyle Trask (75), and Fields’ 71 in four fewer games than Lawrence are tied for the fourth-most. This season, they have the highest completion percentage of their three-year careers – Fields at 72.6 and Lawrence 69.2. Particularly telling during the regular season, Lawrence had the highest Well Thrown% (87.41) among Power-5 quarterbacks, and Fields was fourth (84.21). The WT% metric is revealing because it uses Stats Perform’s extensive, accurate data to measure how often quarterbacks make on-target throws.
Such ability reflects why Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields should stay connected long after Friday night’s showdown. They just may be the next QB duo to go from squaring off collegiately to being the first two signal callers selected in the same NFL Draft – a talented, exclusive club.
Jacob Jaffe contributed to the research in this story.
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