College football QB tiers: Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Michael Penix, but who’s next?

On Monday’s episode of The Audible, a discussion about Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson led us to come up with our “QB Tiers” heading into the 2023 season. While we had a few disagreements, ultimately our lists were close enough to combine them into a consensus version.

Heisman winner Caleb Williams is the obvious top pick, but there are a lot of talented and experienced quarterbacks coming back this year. This is by no means a complete list of every qualified FBS quarterback, but we hit the majority of Power 5 returnees as well as the top Group of 5 players.

Our main criteria for inclusion: at least one full season as the team’s primary QB.


Feldman: NFL teams: You might want to wait for Caleb Williams with what I’m hearing

Tier 1

Caleb Williams, USC

Stew: I know Caleb and Drake Maye are being grouped together in the early 2024 NFL Draft talk, but Caleb is in a tier to himself. He produced nearly 5,000 yards of offense, 42 touchdowns and just five interceptions last year. I put him among the elite of the elite to come through college recently — i.e., the Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow class.

Bruce: NFL QB coaches I spoke to this spring are higher on him than they were on Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud. Williams is thick and strong, and his ability to extend plays and make off-platform throws is ridiculous. He’s in a great system to showcase his talent, and having Kliff Kingsbury around in the meetings, helping out in game-planning is only going to make him that much more dangerous.

Tier 2

Drake Maye, North Carolina

Michael Penix, Washington

Stew: These two have also separated themselves from the pack, each throwing for well more than 4,000 yards last season while completing 65 percent-plus of their passes. Penix, in particular, near-single-handedly helped Washington improve from 4-8 to 11-2 in coach Kalen DeBoer’s first season.

Bruce: Penix has a special arm and is in a really good situation there with those coaches and receivers. He can put up similar numbers again, which is really saying something. Maye has top-five talent, but I’m a bit skeptical that his offense will be as explosive in 2023 as it was last year in Phil Longo’s system.

Tier 3

Jayden Daniels, LSU

Frank Harris, UTSA

KJ Jefferson, Arkansas

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

Bo Nix, Oregon

Michael Pratt, Tulane

Devin Leary, Kentucky

Stew: Daniels is arguably not on the same level yet as a pure passer, but he also ran for 885 yards last season and can scramble and extend plays. Jefferson doesn’t get nearly enough credit given his versatility — he’s a 6-foot-3, 245-pound QB who was both a top-10 rated passer and a 600-plus yard rusher last season. Harris has been largely playing in obscurity at UTSA but threw for 4,063 yards last season. Bruce had to talk me into McCarthy, but it may be the two pick-sixes in the Fiesta Bowl that clouded my memory. He did throw for 22 TDs against five INTs and memorably shredded Ohio State.

Bruce: McCarthy is really gifted, is exceptional at throwing on the run and did have a very impressive performance leading Michigan to a blowout win at Ohio State without Blake Corum and with Donovan Edwards playing with a soft cast on his hand. I don’t think last year was a fluke with Nix. He always has been a whiz at extending plays. The change of scenery helped a lot, and now the Ducks have surrounded him with better receivers this year. Pratt played through a broken foot last year and just kept on making plays. He’s a beast, especially in the red zone. Liam Coen is back running the show at Kentucky, and he has another strong-armed transfer in Leary, who is probably a bit more accurate and throws with better anticipation than Will Levis did. McCall, a three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year, was magical in Jamey Chadwell’s system. I’m curious to see how the offense is in 2023 under the new staff.

Tier 4

Sam Hartman, Notre Dame

Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma

Tanner Mordecai, Wisconsin

Cam Rising, Utah

Jalon Daniels, Kansas

Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland

Jordan Travis, Florida State

Stew: There are two QBs here, Hartman and Travis, who merited consideration for Tier 3. But while Hartman throws for a lot of yards, he also throws a lot of picks (26 during the past two seasons at Wake Forest). Travis turns out no shortage of highlight plays, but I’d like to see him perform better in big games — he struggled against Clemson and Florida last season.

Bruce: Daniels is super smart and makes great decisions on the fly. He helped turn that disaster into a top-25 team. Gabriel’s underrated. He’s really gifted. Year 2 with his teammates will make a big difference for OU. Tagovailoa lost some really good receivers, but everyone I know around there talks about how special they think he is. It’s just a matter of him settling down and becoming more consistent.

Tier 5

Quinn Ewers, Texas

Will Howard, Kansas State

Joe Milton, Tennessee

Spencer Rattler, South Carolina

Jaxson Dart, Ole Miss

Jayden de Laura, Arizona

Riley Leonard, Duke

Will Rogers, Mississippi State

Kedon Slovis, BYU

Payton Thorne, Auburn

DJ Uiagalelei, Oregon State

Tyler Van Dyke, Miami

Cam Ward, Washington State

Stew: The common theme here is big names who have been inconsistent. I’m interested to see whether Ewers can move up a few tiers with a big 2023 campaign. Rattler had some huge games to end last season, most notably against Tennessee, but still ended with an 18-to-12 TD-to-INT ratio. Injuries and a coaching change set Van Dyke back last season after a promising debut. Fresh starts are also a recurring theme among this group. Thorne slid as well at Michigan State but could be rejuvenated playing in Hugh Freeze’s offense. Ditto for Uiagalelei at Oregon State. Slovis has been unable to replicate his initial success as a freshman at USC but may find more success at his third school.

Bruce: There probably are more “wow” QBs in this group than in Tier 3 and Tier 4 combined. Milton may have the biggest arm in college football, and I can’t wait to see how he does with a full season in Josh Heupel’s system, but UT does have to replace some really good receivers. I like the fit of Slovis with offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick at BYU. I’m expecting a big bounce back from the former USC QB in 2023. I’m more excited about Conner Weigman and Drew Allar than Stew is right now. From talking to coaches in both of their programs, both have the potential and makeup to be top-10 picks, and they will have good skill position players to lean on. I could see both being no lower than Tier 3 come December. Van Dyke would’ve been higher on this list a year ago, but the cast around him wasn’t good, and now it is improved quite a bit. It’s still not great, but Miami added some speed and the offensive line should be a lot better. Two others I’m really curious to watch are Shedeur Sanders, who will have some really dynamic receivers to play with, and Austin Reed, who jumped up to Western Kentucly and threw for a ton of yards and should again this year.

(Photo of Caleb Williams: Matthew Visinsky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)