The dominating narrative around LSU football the next two weeks will be a familiar one: Who is the starting quarterback?
This is an interesting competition. I can talk myself into any of the guys being good starters, something that wasn’t always the case in years past. I was thinking about how refreshing this competition has been, which made me realize just how many of these we’ve gone through lately.
So I’ve decided to go through and rank LSU’s quarterback competitions of the last 15 years. Before we get into the rankings, let’s go over some things.
The number one criteria is DRAMA. That’s why the year we knew it was going to be Joe Burrow isn’t in the top spot. Yes it was nice and I wish it was the case every year, but it’s not what makes QB competitions intriguing.
I chose the last 15 years for two reasons. Most simply it is roughly the amount of time I’ve followed LSU football beyond just waiting for my dad to turn the games on every Saturday. The other reason is 2008 is usually recognized as the start of LSU’s turbulent relationship with the quarterback position. That run of Davey-Mauck-Randall-Russell-Flynn was pretty solid. There were some solid competitions, but nothing like what we got in subsequent years. Now, onto the list!
Contenders: Myles Brennan, Peter Parrish, TJ Finley, Max Johnson
Winner: Myles Brennan
This one is last because not only was the competition nonexistent, the offseason was nonexistent as well. COVID robbed us of seeing an LSU Spring Game at Southern, but also of the opportunity to overreact to Myles Brennan not immediately being as perfect as Joe Burrow. We had to wait until the Mississippi State game to do that.
Contenders: Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee, Russell Shepard (!)
Winner: Jordan Jefferson
The Jefferson and Lee saga lasted so long with so many twists that it can be hard to remember 2009 where Jefferson was squarely the starter and Lee was a turnover machine destined to be a career backup. Anyway remember Russell Shepard looking like the next Pat White?
Contenders: Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee, Zach Mettenberger
Winner: Jordan Jefferson...
...until an unfortunate Thursday night/Friday morning at Shady’s. In case you’re new or too young to remember, Jefferson was among several players involved in a brawl that left four people hospitalized just two weeks before the start of the season. Luckily for the Tigers, this team was so damn good that the quarterback position was almost ireelevant as the team was able to steamroll the SEC, clobber Georgia in Atlanta and finish the season as 13-0 SEC Champions. A shame they were never able to play a bowl game for some reason.
Contenders: Zach Mettenberger, Stephen Rivers, Jerrard Randall
Winner: Zach Mettenberger
There was no drama here, but there was palpable excitement over Mett being the true gunslinger LSU needed. More on him later.
Contenders: Brandon Harris, Danny Etling, Lindsey Scott Jr, Justin McMillan
Winner: Brandon Harris...
...For 1.25 games. Even though he had his struggles in 2015, I think most LSU fans believed in his abilities and felt a more opened offense combined with the talent around him would be more than enough for him to put up numbers at an All-SEC level.
Then the season started, Harris was extremely ineffective and LSU was saved by a Big Ten QB transfer for the first time in a three-year span.
Contenders: Zach Mettenberger, Stephen Rivers, Anthony Jennings, Rob Bolden
Winner: Zach Mettenberger
This was a shoe-in, but fans were interested to see how Cam Cameron’s offense would help Mett progress from an underwhelming 2012. He did! Although that WR duo certainly helped. Jennings came in for a few special packages and took over for the last two games when Mettenberger was lost to a torn ACL.
Contenders: Danny Etling, Myles Brennan, Lindsey Scott Jr, Justin McMillan
Winner: Danny Etling
The first offseason QB competition under Ed Orgeron was pretty calm. It wasn’t until midseason things got dramatic. Etling was entrenched as the starter after a serviceable 2016. But despite being a #good quarterback, he rotated with true freshman Brennan in back to back games against Syracuse and Troy. Brennan was very talented, but so clearly not ready for the moment, unlike the fifth-year senior who started. This was spicy for a minute, but after that rough two-game stretch Etling was solidified as the guy and led LSU to a respectable finish to the season.
Contenders: Brandon Harris, Anthony Jennings, Justin McMillan
Winner: Brandon Harris
2014 was arguably the low point of the LSU QB drought. Things needed to be better in 2015, and by things we mean Brandon Harris. Anthony Jennings showed promise but everyone knew by the end of 2014 he had a very low ceiling. Harris showed incredible flashes as a true freshman, but his lone start at Auburn was a complete disaster. Even though this competition was very open, I think everyone knew where this was headed. This is also the only time on this list the previous season’s starter was unseated strictly due to quarterback play. The other times it happened involved either injuries or legal troubles.
Contenders: Joe Burrow, large gap, Myles Brennan
There was nothing dramatic here. Everybody knew Joe Burrow was the starter and Myles Brennan was a capable backup. The only reason this is so high is because LSU proved during the Spring Game they would be running a spread offense and we didn’t really know how to act. Then the season started and we REALLY didn’t know how to act.
Contenders: Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris
Of all the two-man races, this was the most open. Jennings was on his way to being an LSU folk legend following his 99-yard game-winning drive against Arkansas. But then a subpar performance in the Outback Bowl and a ton of hype surrounding true freshman Harris made this competition one that took center stage. A lot of LSU fans were split on this one. Even as the season went on people argued. Not fun times!
Contenders: Jayden Daniels, Garrett Nussmeier, Myles Brennan, Walker Howard
The saga that inspired this story. I think you could’ve made a case for any of the four back in February. But things have mostly sorted themselves out now. Howard, despite being a five-star, seems ready to embrace being a backup for a year. No complaints there. Nussmeier showed lots of promise in his limited time as a freshman. Is he ready to take the next step? Jayden Daniels dazzled as a true freshman, but then regressed under a dysfunctional coaching staff the next two years.
Then there’s Myles Brennan, who was in a weird position of being a sixth-year senior with the best three-game start in the history of LSU quarterbacks, but has been kept off the field for almost two years by some of the most bizarre injuries possible. The wild and bizarre story of his LSU career came to a close last week when he announced his decision to step away from football. We don’t have fond memories of the 2020 season, but Brennan was that dude. It didn’t help that he needed to be perfect to win two of those three games, and he came up just a single yard short on one of them. In just three starts he threw 11 TDs. That’s the same number Danny Etling threw in 2016 that made us say “We finally have a good QB!”
So we are now seemingly down to a two-man race. Arguments can be made for both. The only thing we know for certain is arguments will be made.
Contenders: Max Johnson, Myles Brennan, TJ Finley, Garrett Nussmeier
Winner: Max Johnson
Prior to spring practice this looked like it could go any way. Brennan played his ass off in three starts, but was coming back from an injury that had literally never been seen before. Finley started more games than anyone the year before but was very inconsistent. Johnson won both games he started, but had clear limitations, Nussmeier was a true freshman but had easily the highest upside of all four. After Finley transferred to Auburn and Myles Brennan wore flip flops on the dock, Johnson became the obvious answer. He had similar trajectory to Jennings where he was a hero at the end of the prior season, but as a full-time starter the cracks in his game showed. Nussmeier did get some time and played almost a whole game against Arkansas. And like Harris in 2020, the talent was just as obvious as the inexperience. Just one year later, Nussmeier is the only one of these four still in the program, and two of these guys will likely be suiting up against LSU. Weird times we live in.
Contenders: Ryan Perrilloux, Jarrett Lee, Andrew Hatch, Jordan Jefferson
Winner: Andrew Hatch
Oh Lord... 2008. It was Perrilloux’s to lose, which... he sadly did. He was kicked off the team in May for a myriad of broken team rules including missing classes and team meetings, multiple arrests and an incident at Kona Grill. Following this, the battle came down to Harvard transfer Hatch and freshmen Lee and Jefferson. Hatch was named the starter and led LSU to three wins out the gate, but an injury against Auburn forced Lee into the lineup. What happened after that? All three guys rotated in and out trading opportunities to throw pick-sixes.
Like Brennan (though obviously for greatly different reasons) Perrilloux is one of the biggest what-ifs in program history. An athlete with a huge arm and plenty of playing experience already, he would have kept LSU afloat as they rebuilt the roster following the 2007 title, and likely could have thrust them back into title contention in 2009. But instead “LSU Quarterback” became a cursed phrase for the next decade.
Contenders: Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee
Where to begin? Let’s go all the way back to the end of a disappointing 2008 season finishing on a high note with true freshman Jefferson playing electric in a Peach Bowl win. Everyone knew he would be the starter in 2009 with Lee as the backup. Jefferson started 12 of 13 games, only missing the game against Louisiana Tech due to injury. The offense once again underwhelmed as Jefferson was not quite the next Vince Young as we hoped. Would the offense have been better that year if Lee started? I don’t know but Lee’s Wikipedia page seems to imply so.
So as spring practice got underway in 2010, people wondered if Jefferson would keep his starting job. Results were inconclusive in the spring. Once the season got underway it was revealed Jefferson would take LSU’s first snap against North Carolina. And the offense got off to a great start!... but then scored 0 in the second half and almost let UNC steal the game.
LSU won against Vandy, Mississippi State and West Virginia with Jefferson under center, but he averaged less than 100 passing yards per game and the offense still wasn’t lighting the scoreboard up. So on Oct. 2 against Tennessee everyone knew Jefferson had a short leash. How did he respond? By running 83 yards to the house on the first snap. Great! Controversy over right? Nope! The next drive ended with a Jefferson interception. Then drive No. 3 began with Lee under center. So he must have taken the reigns for the rest of the game and made the offense his right?
Lee and Jefferson swapped plays all game until the very last drive when Jarrett Lee appeared to be leading a clutch game-winning drive. He got all the way to the Tennessee 2 when... Miles put Jefferson in for the last 30 seconds. LSU won in the absolutely stupidest way imaginable, and nobody was any better for it. The following week LSU went to Florida, and again swapped QBs back and forth, but both played pretty well in a hostile environment. Lee threw a TD to Terrence Toliver in the waning seconds to establish himself as LSU’s most clutch and dependable quarterback, and clear-cut starter.
Just kidding, they kept swapping QBs for the rest of the season. Kinda hilarious that Nick Saban was coaching an offense with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Julio Jones and still didn’t score as many points as an LSU offense that couldn’t even pick a quarterback.
For a whole season LSU couldn’t decide who the starting quarterback was. What can be more dramatic than that?
No. 1: 2018
Contenders: Joe Burrow, Justin McMillan, Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse
This probably wouldn’t have been No. 1 if not for how far the curtain on this competition has been pulled back. And I doubt the curtain is pulled that far if not for the meteoric rise Joe Burrow had a full year after this competition took place.
But man, this is LSU history right here. This saga is the Rogue One of the greatest team in LSU history.
Following Danny Etling’s departure, LSU and second-year head coach Ed Orgeron had a big question mark at QB. Heralded four-star Myles Brennan seemed like the guy on paper, but his small frame and struggles in limited action gave the fanbase pause. Three-star Justin McMillan was never expected to be the starter, but was entering his fourth year in the program and was well-liked by teammates. Then you had Lowell Narcisse, a three-star redshirt freshman who had a big arm and plenty of athleticism. Nobody was ruled out of the competition, but nobody stood out in spring practice. Brennan had obvious talent, but still needed to make some progress for LSU fans to feel good about a daunting schedule that included six teams ranked in the preseason Top 25. But behind the scenes, Justin McMillan was the guy in the minds of the team. He had won them over with his leadership and playmaking.
A month after the spring game, LSU acquired graduate transfer Joe Burrow. While most assumed he would be the starter, he came in not knowing any of the playbook and not having run an offense from under center his whole life. Yet everyone outside the program penciled Burrow in as the starter. While they ended up being correct come kickoff of the first game, nobody was aware just how dramatic this was behind the scenes.
Most of these details were revealed in a fantastic article by Jeffrey Marx, so don’t think I’m inflating the drama just to make my case. Many LSU football players did not like Joe Burrow in the summer of 2018. They felt like he transferred in and stole the starting job away from a guy who had earned it by their side all year. Joe was aware of this and didn’t try to be loud or showy, he just did the work necessary.
As summer camp progressed, Burrow began taking a majority of the first-team snaps. The starter wasn’t going to be named until the week of the first game, but two weeks before that McMillan and Narcisse both left the team and announced their intentions to transfer. Some players were furious. According to Marx, some players felt the quarterbacks were not evaluated properly and Burrow was treated as the starter from the beginning.
Ed Orgeron actually went and got the daily grades of the quarterbacks to show the players how Burrow had been scoring the highest. He LITERALLY brought receipts! Despite this, some players still didn’t agree with the decision and were loyal to McMillan. Orgeron said some players were behind Joe, but most were #TeamJustin.
A players only meeting took place and the team voiced their frustrations. Players spoke openly about how they were upset about the way the competition was handled. Thaddeus Moss said “everybody naturally had just a little animosity towards [Burrow]. You could feel the tension in the room.”
After sitting there listening to everyone air their grievances, Joe finally stood up and addressed the whole LSU football team for the first time.
“If anybody has anything to say, if anybody has any beef with me, come out and say it right now. We’ll hash it out. But after this, we have to be a team, because we’re going to win a lot of football games together, and we can’t have any of this get in the way.”
Even after that meeting, not everybody was sold on Joe. It took some non-QB feats to win some guys over, such as inserting himself into a pregame scuffle with Miami or putting his body on the line in a physical game against Georgia. But a lot of players are very open about how he won them over with things other than gaudy quarterback play.
Joe Burrow is the most accomplished player in LSU Football history. No player elicits more excitement and adoration than him, and it will likely be a long time before another one does. That’s what makes it so wild to remember that his arrival to the program caused a a civil war among the team, and created a rift that might have been permanent had the losses started piling up.
These days LSU has a film crew capturing everything going on inside the Football Ops Building. While I’m sure that’s nice for those who are willing to pay for it, there’s no amount I wouldn’t pay to travel back to the Summer of 2018 and listen to the conversations that took place about that quarterback competition.