Top 10 Best Triple Option Quarterbacks Ever
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Every year, the Army-Navy game takes us back to a bygone era when the Triple Option was college football’s dominant offense. With the two service academies — who still run the offense — meeting again on Saturday, we rank the Top 10 Best Triple Option QBs Ever.
Oklahoma proudly boasts three QBs on this list, the most of any school. And it all began with Mildren, widely billed as the “Godfather of the Wishbone”.
In 1971, Mildren orchestrated an OU offense that averaged 472.4 yards/game. He himself set a since-broken NCAA record for rushing yards in a season by a QB (1,140). Had the Sooners not been edged by Nebraska in the Game of the Century, they would have been national champions. It was due in large part to Mildren that the Sooners became an unstoppable ground force for the next two decades.
Like its fellow service academies, Air Force has long favored the Triple Option. And no Falcons QB ran it with the panache of Michael “Dee” Dowis.
In his 1989 senior season, Dowis was an honorable mention All-American and the WAC Offensive Player of the Year in addition to finishing sixth in the Heisman voting — the highest ever finish for a Falcon. His piece de resistance came in the season opener against San Diego State, when he gashed the Aztecs for 249 yards and six TDs (the latter mark remains a school record).
Upon leaving Colorado Springs, Dowis was the NCAA’s all-time leader in career rushing yards by a QB (3,612), a record that would stand for more than a decade until Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El broke it in 2001.
Long before serving as a four-term congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, Watts demonstrated his leadership qualities with the Sooners as the triggerman for Barry Switzer’s offense.
The Eufaula, OK, native threw for only eight TDs for his entire college career, but passing was never a key component to Switzer’s Wishbone offense. What Watts did was run for 1,342 and 34 TDs in three seasons as a starter (1978–1980), during which time the Sooners never averaged less than 343 rushing yards a game.
Most important was that Watts was a winner, guiding the Sooners to a 32–4 record, three straight Orange Bowl victories and three straight seasons with a No. 3 end-of-year ranking. Those leadership qualities make Watts’ given name of Julius Caesar Watts an appropriate one.
When Paul Pasqualoni’s Orangemen teams pounded opponents on the ground in the 1990s, it wasn’t premised on a bruising tailback like in bygone Syracuse seasons with Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. Rather, it was QB Donovan McNabb that led the way.
McNabb, whose only other scholarship offer to play QB was from Nebraska, is arguably the best all-around option QB on this list. In addition to rushing for 1,561 yards and 19 TDs in four years as a starter, McNabb also passed for 8,389 yards and a Big East record 77 TDs.
It’s little wonder that he was a three-time conference offensive player of the year (1996–1998) and led the Orangemen to the Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl in his junior and senior seasons, respectively.
In order to return Notre Dame to glory in the 1980s, coach Lou Holtz needed an elusive and strong-armed QB to lead his run-oriented offense. He found one in Rice, the crown jewel of his first Irish recruiting class (1986) and the first Proposition 48 athlete ever admitted to Notre Dame.
While Rice’s numbers in two-plus seasons were impressive (5,300 total yards and 36 TDs), his big game ability was what truly defined his career. He went 29–3 as a starter, including Notre Dame’s most recent national title (1988). In the ’89 Fiesta Bowl, matched up against another do-everything QB in West Virginia’s Major Harris, Rice went 7-of-11 for 213 yards and two TDs in a 34–21 win.
Rice was partially responsible for no less than keying Notre Dame’s renaissance in the late 1980s and 1990s. That is quite the resume-builder for the most widely followed program in the sport.
That obsession with dual-threat quarterbacks that major programs have these days? It began with Harris, the NCAA’s first QB to ever pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 2,000 during his career.
And he did it with style. En route to leading the Mountaineers to the 1988 de facto national title game against Notre Dame, Harris gave WVU fans enough exciting memories to last a lifetime. Mere mention of “The Play” around Morgantown will get people misty-eyed about his weaving TD run against Penn State, a game in which he outgained the Nittany Lions by himself (301–292).
Had it not been for a separated shoulder he suffered on the third play of the Fiesta Bowl against the Irish, Harris might have led the Mountaineers to their first (and only) national title - which would have put him even higher on this list.
How gifted a runner was the last great Nebraska star in the Cornhuskers’ era as an option program? In Crouch’s three seasons as the starting QB, his 16 rushing TDs in 1999 were the fewest he’d ever run for.
Crouch, the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner, would leave Lincoln as the FBS record-holder for career rushing TDs by a QB with 59 (equaled by Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick in 2010 but accomplished in eight more games). He also guided the Cornhuskers to their last stretch of dominance, going 35–7 as a starter.
Passing was never his forte (career-high completion percentage: 55.6%), but who needs to throw when you can weave your way through a helpless Mizzou defense like Crouch could?
Of all the Wishbone QBs that passed through Norman under the tutelage of coaches Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer, Holieway remains almost universally regarded as the best.
The Los Angeles native remains the only freshman QB to lead his team to a national title (1985) - no small accomplishment considering that he was pressed into action in the fourth game of the season after starter Troy Aikman went down with a season-ending injury.
From a record standpoint, few QBs can match Holieway’s 32–2 record in a little less than four years as a starter (a knee injury robbed him of chunks of his junior and senior seasons). He accumulated over 5,000 yards of total offense and 54 TDs during his career and to this day remains a fixture on media outlets’ lists of the greatest college QBs ever (including Lost Lettermen’s).
Currently his alma mater’s director of football player personnel, Hagan is listed in his bio as “arguably the best all-around athlete in the history of the CU football program.” High praise in light of the Buffaloes’ rich gridiron heritage, and it’s entirely merited in Hagan’s case.
The bottom line of his three seasons running Bill McCartney’s “I-Bone” offense was a 28–5–2 record that only scratches the surface of his accomplishments. The 1990 co-national championship (shared with Georgia Tech). Becoming the sixth player in NCAA history to pass and rush for over 1,000 in the same season. An undefeated mark (20–0–1) in Big Eight Conference play.
An All-American in 1989, Hagan had his No. 3 jersey retired by the team ten years later. Both then and now, Buffaloes fans still hold fond memories of him.
The story goes that then-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne shed tears of joy upon hearing that Frazier had accepted Nebraska’s scholarship offer in 1992. Think of how much more Osborne had to cry about by the time Frazier’s Cornhuskers career was all said and done.
Frazier isn’t only the best Triple Option QB ever, he is among the greatest college QBs ever. With Frazier as the starter, Nebraska went to three straight national championship games, winning the latter two (1994 and 1995). He ran for 2,263 yards and 36 TDs and (rather surprisingly) passed for another 47 scores.
He was the unquestioned leader and best player on one of the most dominant juggernauts college football has ever seen (the Huskers averaged 52.4 points/game in Frazier’s 1995 senior season). And of course, who can forget his epic run against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl? Naming any other QB No. 1 on this list would have been highway robbery.