Friedlander: Who's the GOAT? Identifying the greatest quarterback for every ACC program
When Drake Maye announced his decision to opt out of next week’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl, effectively ending his career at North Carolina, social media was quick to anoint him as the Tar Heels’ greatest quarterback of all time.
But is he really?
The soon-to-be 1st round NFL draft pick is certainly the latest. And his statistics are impressive. But that doesn’t necessarily make him the greatest.
That term, shortened to the acronym GOAT, gets thrown around a lot these days. And its usually bestowed upon someone who is either still playing or has just finished playing.
It’s a subjective designation, of course. And it’s often the source of some spirited debates.
So let’s get one started.
Here are our picks for the GOAT quarterback at each of the ACC’s 14 current (for now, at least) football playing members.
Bet you don’t agree with them all.
Doug Flutie/Matt Ryan
Flutie is gold standard. And he has a statue outside of Alumni Stadium to prove it.
As if the 1984 Heisman Trophy and the then NCAA-record 10,5679 passing yards weren’t enough, the former Eagles star gained immortality with his iconic Hail Mary pass to Gerard Phelan in the end zone as time expired to beat Miami.
39 years ago today, November 23, 1984, Flutie’s Miracle in Miami occurred. With 6 seconds left and his team down 45-41, the Heisman Memorial Trophy winner Doug Flutie threw a pass from his own 37 to his roommate Gerard Phelan in the end zone for BC Eagles win over Miami… pic.twitter.com/2FvLUu3xJj
— Boston Radio Watch®️ (@bostonradio) November 23, 2023
But as great as Flutie was, he didn’t play for BC during its time as a conference member.
That opens the door for Ryan as the greatest quarterback of the Eagles’ ACC era. His credentials are nearly as impressive. The 2007 ACC Player of the Year, “Matty Ice” threw for 9,313 yards and 56 touchdowns, including 31 during his senior season of 2017 to break Flutie’s single-season school record while leading BC to 10 wins and an ACC Atlantic Division title.
Trevor Lawrence might have won a national championship and was selected as the top overall pick in the NFL draft. But it was his predecessor Watson that helped catapult the Tigers back into the national spotlight.
He took over as Clemson’s quarterback 4 games into his true freshman season of 2014 and promptly threw a school-record 6 touchdown passes and 435 yards against North Carolina in his 1st career start. The following year he led the Tigers to an ACC title and a spot in the national championship game.
Watson went one step further in 2017 by throwing for a school-record 4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns on the way to becoming ACC Player of the Year and a Heisman finalist for the 2nd straight season. He got the Tigers back to the national championship game, this time bringing home the title by completing a game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow in the final minute to beat Alabama.
Memories are short, which is why Bennett has become something of a forgotten man among the ACC’s best-ever quarterbacks. He made an immediate splash by earning the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Two years later he became the 1st player in ACC history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season on his way to the 1st of his 2 straight conference Player of the Year selections.
Bennett had another big year as a senior in 1983, throwing for 17 touchdowns with only 1 interception.
He ended up setting 7 national, 15 ACC and 42 Blue Devils records, surpassing Stanford’s John Elway as the NCAA’s all-time passing leader with 9,614 yards. He was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons before going on to become one of the greatest players in Arena Football League history and was inducted into the Duke Hall of Fame in 2011.
This was a close call between the Seminoles’ 3 Heisman Trophy winners. But with all due respect to Chris Weinke and Jameis Winston, their accomplishments don’t come close to those achieved by Ward.
And that’s not even taking into account the fact that Ward was also the starting point guard for FSU’s basketball team who was also a 1st round NBA draft pick.
On this day 30 years ago, Charlie Ward became the first Florida State football player to win the Heisman Trophy. Ward dominated as a senior, finishing with nearly 3,400 total yards, 31 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. Ward completed nearly 70% of his passes. pic.twitter.com/IGVLB2xCgk
— FSU History (@ThisDayFSU) December 11, 2023
Ward led the Seminoles to their 1st ever national championship in 1993, completing 70% of his passes for 3,032 yards with 27 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. He won more than 30 individual awards that season, including the Heisman by the 4th-largest margin in history and the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
A 2-time 1st-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year, he went 22-2 as a starter for FSU on his way to setting 7 ACC and 19 school records. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Hamilton was ahead of his time as an undersized dual-threat quarterback for the Yellow Jackets.
As a junior, he led Tech to a 10-2 season that included a victory against Georgia that ended a 7-game losing streak to the arch-rival Bulldogs, followed by a win against Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. The following season, 1999, Hamilton won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s best quarterback, earned 1st-team All-American honors and finished as the runner-up to Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne in the Heisman voting.
He set ACC records with 10,640 yards of total offense, 65 touchdown passes and 83 total touchdowns while leading Tech to bowls in each of his final 3 seasons. He was selected as a member of the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2002 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Cardinals have had their share of elite quarterbacks over the years, dating back to Johnny Unitas and current head coach Jeff Brohm. Only one, however, brought home a Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player in a season.
Jackson gave a glimpse of his potential as a freshman in 2017, when he took over the starting job midway through the season and earned MVP honors at the Music City Bowl by passing for 227 yards and 2 touchdowns while setting a game-record 226 rushing yards.
He followed that up with a sophomore season for the record books. He passed for 3,534 yards, ran for 1,571 and accounted for 51 touchdowns (30 passing, 21 rushing) on the way to becoming the youngest-ever Heisman winner at just 19 years, 337 days. His numbers were just as good the following season. But while he won a 2nd straight ACC Player of the Year award, he finished 3rd in the Heisman voting behind Baker Mayfield and Bryce Love before becoming the 1st overall pick in the NFL draft.
#OTD 𝐒𝐞𝐩𝐭. 𝟗, 𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟔: The Lamar Leap
— Louisville Athletics (@GoCards) September 9, 2021
As spectacular as Jackson’s statistics were, they were overshadowed by his electric playmaking ability. His most memorable moment came in a win against Syracuse in 2016 when he hurdled a Syracuse defender on the way to a touchdown, a play that became known as the “Lamar Leap.”
Gino Torretta/Brad Kaaya
Torretta spent the majority of his 1st 2 seasons as a backup to Craig Erikson, though he did set a single-game school record that stood for more than 2 decades by throwing for 485 yards against San Diego State when called upon to fill in because of an injury.
He finally earned the starting job as a junior and proceeded to win his 1st 26 starts, leading the Hurricanes an undefeated season and a co-national championship as a junior in 1991 and following that up with a Heisman Trophy-winning senior year in which he threw for 3,060 yards and 19 touchdowns before suffering his only loss in his final game, to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Torretta played before Miami became a member of the ACC. Of those quarterbacks who held the job since 2014, Kaaya has put up the best numbers. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2014 and still holds the school record for career passing yards with 9,968 with 69 touchdowns despite forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
It’s almost silly to bring up the subject of recency bias since Howell was the Tar Heels’ quarterback immediately before Maye took over. But while Maye has stolen the headlines for the past 2 seasons, led UNC to a Coastal Division title in 2022 and even broke several of Howell’s single-season records during his 2 seasons as the starter, it was Howell that produced the better numbers.
And not only because he spent an extra season in Carolina Blue before moving on to the NFL.
Howell’s 10,283 passing yards are the most in UNC history. He also ran for 1,009 yards. Those numbers are all the more impressive considering that he played behind a porous offensive line with little help from his running game during his final season.
It’s a reasonable assumption that Maye would have surpassed Howell’s yardage total had he stuck around for a 3rd year. But he would have had a hard time matching his predecessor’s 92 passing touchdowns and 107 total touchdowns combined passing and rushing scores.
Rivers earned the starting job from the 1st game of his true freshman season, throwing for 397 yards and 4 touchdowns while leading a game-tying drive in the final seconds before winning his debut performance in double overtime.
He would go on to start 51 consecutive games, virtually rewriting the entire Wolfpack and ACC passing record along the way by completing 1,147-of-1,710 passes for 13,484 yards – the 2nd most in NCAA history at the time of his graduation. He also threw for 95 touchdowns, a conference mark that stood until Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman surpassed it last year.
December 22, 2003: In his final game at NC State, Philip Rivers throws for 475 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-26 win over Kansas in the Tangerine Bowl.
Notice the clip of Rivers and his wife with their first of now ten children.
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) December 23, 2023
Rivers’ No. 17 was retired prior to his final home game at Carter-Finley Stadium and later that year, he was selected as the ACC’s Athlete of the Year for 2003-04. But his success wasn’t limited to individual honors. During his junior season of 2002, Rivers led the Wolfpack to an 11-3 record – the only double-digit win total in school history.
Dan Marino might be the best-known quarterback ever produced by Pitt, primarily because of his success in the NFL as a member of the Miami Dolphins. And to be sure, his college career was every bit as prolific with 8,597 passing yards and 79 touchdowns while leading Pitt to 3 consecutive 11-1 seasons from 1979-81.
But as outstanding as his performance was, he was never invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Four decades later in 2021 Pickett not only accomplished that goal, but he did it by leading Pitt to its 1st ACC championship and earning conference Player of the Year recognition.
Pickett could have left for the NFL in 2020 but instead chose to use his extra COVID year and return for a 5th season of eligibility. He made it pay off by setting school records with 4,319 passing yards and 42 touchdowns. Pickett also holds Pitt’s career mark with 12,303 yards and the single-game record with 519 against Miami in 2021.
He was the 1st quarterback taken in the draft that year, staying in Pittsburgh to play for the hometown Steelers.
Donovan McNabb/Eric Dungey
McNabb’s decision to play football at Syracuse was made in part because of the school’s nationally respected journalism program. The decision helped him pursue a post-retirement career as a broadcaster.
But he also distinguished himself on the field while a member of the Orange. He threw for 8,389 yards and 77 touchdowns while rushing for 1,561 yards and 19 scores during his 4 seasons. He led Syracuse to the 1998 Orange Bowl before becoming the 2nd overall pick in the NFL draft the following spring. His 77 touchdowns ranked 2nd all-time in his conference and his 8,389 yards were 3rd all-time. But that was in the Big East.
When it comes the Orange’s time in the ACC, the bar for quarterbacks was set by Eric Dungey. His 9,340 passing yards are the most in school history. He also holds 3 of the top 7 single-season totals as well – 2,868 yards in 2018, 2,679 in 2016 and 2,495 in 2017.
The Cavaliers might have finished at or near the bottom of the ACC standings in each of the past 2 seasons, but in 1990,, with Moore leading the way, they scored 337 points in their 1st 7 games, winning them all to rise to No. 1 in the national rankings. They dropped off after Moore suffered an injury, but still finished the season in the Sugar Bowl, the 1st New Year’s Day game in program history,
A dual-threat quarterback who earned 1st-team All-American honors and finished 4th in the Heisman voting, Moore set 41 NCAA, ACC and school records during his 4 season career at UVA – many of which still stand, including 7,897 yards of total offense and 83 combined touchdown responsibility.
Moore continues to be a loyal Cavalier. After spending time as an assistant coach, he has moved into administration as UVa’s associate director of development for the athletic department, where his primary responsibility is raising funds for a new football operations facility.
Michael Vick/Tyrod Taylor
Vick played 2 seasons for the Hokies. But he accomplished so much during that short time that he’s been inducted into his school’s athletic hall of fame.
As a redshirt freshman in 1999, he burst onto the scene by leading the nation in passing efficiency and guiding Tech to an 11-0 regular season and a spot in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game against future ACC rival Florida State. He was named Big East Player of the Year and finished 3rd in the Heisman voting.
Michael VIck lit up the turf at Virginia Tech before his stardom in the NFL 🔥 pic.twitter.com/LazOaLp3km
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 29, 2020
The Hokies went 11-1 again in 2000, with their only loss coming to Miami in a game in which Vick was severely limited by an ankle injury. He finished his career with 3,279 passing yards, 1,216 rushing yards and a combined 38 touchdowns through the air and on the ground.
Tech’s best quarterback of the ACC era, Taylor, posted nearly as many passing yards and even more touchdowns in his senior season alone. Not only did he throw 2,743 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2010 to go along with 659 yards and 5 rushing scores, he also led the Hokies to an ACC championship while earning conference Player of the Year honors.
Hartman followed an unusual career path during his 5 eventful seasons with the Deacons. In 2018, he became the 1st freshman in school history to start a season opener when he threw for 378 yards in an overtime win against Tulane. But he suffered a season-ending injury 8 games in. When his replacement, Jamie Newman, played well enough to earn the starting job the following year, Hartman was forced to take a redshirt.
But he stayed at Wake and when Newman transferred to Georgia in 2020, the door opened back up for him. And he made his 2nd chance count. Running coach Dave Clawson’s slow mesh RPO offense to perfection, he put together the 2 best seasons in school history – throwing for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns on the way to an Atlantic Division title in 2021 before posting 3,701 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2022.
His 110 touchdown passes passed Rivers for the most in ACC history. He is also 2nd all-time among the conference’s quarterbacks with 12,967 career passing yards while ranking among the top 3 in the league in several other statistical categories before transferring to Notre Dame for his final season of eligibility.