The college football season is nearing an end, but the race for the top spot in my quarterback rankings is still in flux. The disappointing performances of Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel and Bryce Petty have paved the way for unheralded Derek Carr to make a legitimate run at the crown.
Although the Fresno State star entered the season on the radar of scouts following his impressive junior campaign, he has vaulted into first-round consideration based on his spectacular play this fall. Carr has surpassed the 3,500-yard mark for the third consecutive season, has thrown at least 26 touchdown passes and reduced his interception totals in each season. Most impressively, he has displayed a mature game that could make him an immediate starter at the next level.
With Carr playing at an exceptionally high level, I've had several scouts tell me that he could be a top-15 pick by the time the draft rolls around in May. While his performance at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine will ultimately determine if his value continues to soar, Carr's strong finish to the season has certainly made him one of the intriguing prospects to watch heading into bowl season.
Let's take a look at the rankings ...
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State
(Last week's rank: 1)
The redshirt freshman sensation has emerged as the clear front-runner for the Heisman Trophy based on his consistent production over the course of the season. Winston has completed more than 69 percent of his passes, while posting an impressive 32:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With the Seminoles playing like the best team in college football, there is substantial momentum for Winston to walk away with the trophy despite his looming legal concerns.
2. Derek Carr, Fresno State
(Last week's rank: 4)
The college football world is just catching wind of Carr's exceptional play this season. The Fresno State star has been brilliant from the pocket, compiling six 400-yard passing games and a stellar 39:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the Bulldogs' unbeaten run through the Mountain West schedule. Factor in his clutch performance in the Bulldogs' close games (San Diego State, Boise State, Rutgers and Hawaii), and it's time to put Carr's name in the conversation as one of the top players in college football.
3. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
(Last week's rank: 2)
It's unfortunate the preseason hype surrounding Bridgewater's game has led the football world to cast an overly critical eye on the top quarterback in the game. Skeptics fail to fully appreciate Bridgewater's exceptional arm talent, pocket passing skills and leadership guiding to Cardinals to a 10-1 record in the AAC. While some have pointed out his pedestrian output in recent weeks (66 of 102 passes for 691 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the last three games), it is important to note his steady and consistent play as the director of a pro-style attack that doesn't rely on tricks and gimmicks to inflate his production.
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4. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
(Last week's rank: 3)
After struggling against LSU for the second straight year, it's obvious the Tigers are Johnny Football's kryptonite. However, the dismal performance will have little impact on Manziel's NFL future based on his stellar track record as a big-game performer. Scouts will dig into the tape to see if the Tigers exposed any fatal flaws in Manziel's game, but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has been so good this season that he has earned a bit of a mulligan for his poor showing.
5. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
(Last week's rank: 7)
Boyd fell off the map for a little bit after a poor showing against Florida State on a big stage, but he gets an opportunity to make amends for his dismal performance by playing well against a talented South Carolina squad this weekend. If Boyd can show the poise, confidence and playmaking skills that have made him one of the most prolific passers in ACC history, he can re-emerge as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
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6. AJ McCarron, Alabama
(Last week's rank: 8)
McCarron's game doesn't excite some football fans because he functions as a game manger in the Crimson Tide's offense. NFL coaches, however, will have a greater appreciation for his winning ways and selective playmaking at the next level. McCarron excels in the three key areas that matter most in the minds of coaches (red zone, third down and two-minute drill), leading to a higher grade than some will expect based on his individual production.
7. Zach Mettenberger, LSU
(Last week's rank: 11)
The buzz is already building that Mettenberger will enter the discussion as a possible first-round selection in the 2014 draft. The LSU standout has already shown the arm talent to excel at the next level, but NFL evaluators are impressed with the tremendous growth he has displayed as a pocket passer and game manager. He has learned how to "connect the dots" (take the underneath routes and check down) as a passer, which will make him an efficient playmaker at the next level.
8. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
(Last week's rank: 6)
Scouts are beginning to question Mariota's pocket presence and awareness after watching the Ducks star struggle for the second time this season. Although his numbers have remained steady and consistent, evaluators have noticed the misfires on intermediate throws that have shown up in recent weeks. Additionally, the increase in sacks and in-pocket fumbles have led to concerns about Mariota's feel for the pass rush. While some continue to tout Mariota as the possible top quarterback in the 2014 draft, I would hold off on anointing the redshirt sophomore as the front-runner until he performs better on a big stage.
9. Brett Hundley, UCLA
(Last week's rank: 9)
There is little doubt that Hundley is one of the most talented quarterbacks in college football, but the buzz is building in NFL circles that he is not quite ready for prime time. Scouts have cited his deep-ball inaccuracies and inconsistent anticipation as potential concerns, which is why some suggest he would be wise to spend another year in Westwood. Although Hundley could change that opinion with a strong performance against USC, the poor showings against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State will be tough to overlook in draft rooms.
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10. Bryce Petty, Baylor
(Last week's rank: 5)
After witnessing Oklahoma State's suffocation of Petty and the Bears' offense, it's easy to suggest the junior has feasted on inferior defenses throughout the season. While that isn't meant to dismiss Petty's remarkable numbers, it's hard to credit him for his production when he struggled to string together completions and sustain drives in a big game on a national stage.
11. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
(Last week's rank: 12)
The Buckeyes are riding a 22-game unbeaten streak, but the team is routinely dismissed as a national-title contender due to questions about Miller's pocket-passing skills. Critics wonder if he can make tight-window throws against an elite defense committed to making him throw from the pocket. To date, he has passed every test, but looming matchups against Michigan and Michigan State (in the Big Ten Championship Game) will give us a better indication of how far Miller has come as a passer.
12. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
(Last week's rank: 13)
The Huskies are on the verge of crashing the BCS party for the second consecutive year on the strength of Lynch's spectacular play as a dual-threat quarterback. The gritty senior became the fifth quarterback in FBS history to join the exclusive 20/20 club (20 pass touchdowns; 20 rushing touchdowns), with a sensational effort against Western Michigan on Tuesday night. Lynch rushed for 321 yards on 27 carries and added 39 passing yards in a 33-14 win that clinched the Huskies' spot in the MAC Championship Game.
13. Blake Bortles, Central Florida
(Last week's rank: 14)
Bortles has been key to the Knights' emergence as one of the top teams in college football. The junior standout has been an impressive playmaker from the pocket, completing more than 68 percent of his passes, while also adding a few nifty runs in key moments to sustain drives. With Bortles also compiling a solid 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, it is time to recognize him as one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
14. Aaron Murray, Georgia
(Last week's rank: 10)
It's a shame that the career of the SEC's most prolific quarterback prematurely ends following a knee injury, but scouts certainly recognized and appreciated his growth as a passer and playmaker for the Bulldogs. Murray single-handedly kept an injury-ravaged Georgia offense on track, displaying exceptional leadership traits along the way. While the injury will impact his draft status, Murray will undoubtedly get a shot to make a roster as a developmental prospect based on his impressive career resume and intangibles.
15. Shane Carden, East Carolina
(Last week's rank: NR)
East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill deserves a ton of credit for rebuilding the Pirates into a top 25-caliber team, but it has been the stellar play of Carden that has helped ECU shoot to the top of C-USA. Carden has compiled seven 300-yard passing games and thrown at least three touchdowns in seven contests. Factor in his steady improvement as a passer in several key areas, and scouts will take a close look at Carden's game as one of the top signal callers in the 2015 class.
16. Keenan Reynolds, Navy
(Last week's rank: NR)
After watching Reynolds score eight combined touchdowns (seven rushing; one passing) against San Jose State, it's quite possible that the sophomore sensation is Navy's best quarterback since Roger Staubauch. Reynolds has tallied 34 total touchdowns (26 rushing; eight passing), while showing a versatile game that makes him a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Most importantly, he has thrived in Navy's biggest games and given the team a chance to notch an eight-win season with a victory over its rival Army on Dec. 14.
Out of the list: Nick Marshall, Auburn (last week's rank: 15); Bo Wallace, Ole Miss (last week's rank: 16).
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.