Joe Burrow is the reason for these rankings. In watching Burrow win the Heisman by the largest margin ever (and earn the most first-place votes ever), I wondered: "Joe Burrow has gotta be one of the best playoff quarterbacks ever, right? He might even…is…is Joe Burrow the best playoff quarterback ever?"
Another note: Nineteen quarterbacks have accounted for the 24 playoff starts, but in this exercise, each quarterback gets a spot for each appearance. For example, Jalen Hurts is one of four quarterbacks with multiple playoff appearances and is ranked as a separate quarterback for each appearance (2016, 2017, and 2018).
Ranking the 24 starting quarterbacks in College Football Playoff history:
24. Ian Book (2018)
Ian Book replaced turnover-machine Brandon Wimbush in late September and led Notre Dame to eight straight wins and their first-ever playoff appearance. For those eight games, he was an efficient passer and capable-when-necessary runner.
23. Cardale Jones (2014)
Five years later, pre-playoff Cardale Jones remains a conundrum.
The former three-star recruit torched Wisconsin for 257 yards and three touchdowns on only 17 pass attempts in the Big Ten Championship, but that was his first college start and first game with 10 pass attempts. He's not the 23rd-most-talented playoff quarterback but remains buried because we barely knew Cardale Jones before Ohio State's 2014 playoff run.
22. Kelly Bryant (2017)
Two years after Kelly Bryant led Clemson to the playoff, I'm still wondering: How good was Kelly Bryant? And I still don't know. He was an average passer and above-average runner who didn't rip off countless 20- and 30-yard runs but had big runs in big moments on his way to 11 rushing scores in 2017.
21. J.T. Barrett (2016)
One year after sharing snaps with Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett led a frustratingly limited offense that couldn't produce big plays. Still, Barrett was good through the air and great on the ground.
20. Jake Coker (2015)
Among the seemingly bottomless pool of good-not-great Alabama quarterbacks before the Crimson Tide's aerial attack exploded a few years ago, Jake Coker was a senior in 2015 but an inexperienced senior. He entered the playoff with 400 career pass attempts and only 21 career passing touchdowns.
19. Connor Cook (2015)
Connor Cook received two first-place votes in the 2015 Heisman voting. He didn't deserve them (because every first-place vote belonged to Christian McCaffrey) but still, Connor Cook had a hell of a 2015 season in leading Michigan State to the playoff.
After a strong debut season in 2013, his career arc didn't skyrocket as many expected, but Cook still entered the playoff with 9,000 career passing yards.
18. Blake Sims (2014)
Blake Sims attempted 39 total passes over his first three seasons before winning the starting job (over Jake Coker) in 2014 and leading the Tide into the first-ever playoff. MVP of the 2014 SEC Championship, Sims ranked sixth nationally in yards per attempt (8.9) and seventh in passer rating (157.9).
17. Jake Fromm (2017)
Jake Fromm played poorly in Georgia's title-game loss to Alabama but was superb in leading the Bulldogs to Atlanta.
One of three true freshmen starting quarterbacks in playoff history, Fromm didn't throw much (230 attempts entering the playoff) in 2014 but was efficient when he did throw, averaging nine yards per attempt.
16. Jameis Winston (2014)
Jameis Winston wasn't great in 2014. He went from a big-play, efficient, Heisman-winning quarterback to mistake-prone, above-average quarterback who averaged 2.2 fewer yards per pass attempt and threw 18 interceptions.
15. Jalen Hurts (2016)
The only three-time playoff quarterback, Jalen Hurts made his playoff debut in 2016, becoming the first-ever true freshman quarterback to start a playoff game. He had four 100-yard rushing games (and another with 93) and threw only one interception in their first five games.
Unfortunately, Hurts' 2016 season will be remembered for a 13-for-31 performance in the loss to Clemson.
14. Jalen Hurts (2017)
Sophomore Jalen Hurts was slightly better than freshman Jalen Hurts. He wasn't as dynamic as a runner but led a more explosive passing game and threw just one interception in more than 200 attempts.
13. Baker Mayfield (2015)
Remember the rule: This is pre-Heisman Baker Mayfield.
This isn't record-smashing, Heisman-winning Baker Mayfield. While it's still different levels of elite, there's a significant gap between 2015 Baker Mayfield and 2017 Baker Mayfield.
12. Jake Browning (2016)
Jake Browning was a great quarterback in 2016. He was not a great quarterback in 2017 or 2018, which sadly polluted his marvelous 2016 season. Don't forget the quarterback who threw 43 touchdowns.
11. Trevor Lawrence (2018)
The highest-ranked true freshman on the list, Trevor Lawrence had one of the best true freshman seasons in college football history. Before toying with Notre Dame and Alabama in the playoff, Lawrence threw only four interceptions in 325 pass attempts (and had zero multi-interception games and threw for at least 250 yards in five of his final six full games.
10. Trevor Lawrence (2019)
The first of four 2019 playoff quarterbacks in the top 10, this year's Trevor Lawrence is better than last year's Trevor Lawrence. Clemson's offense ranked third nationally in points per play (0.609 points) and fourth in yards per play (7.2). He hasn't thrown an interception since Oct. 19 and has seven rushing touchdowns on the season.
9. Justin Fields (2019)
Justin Fields ranks in the top 10 nationally in yards per attempt (9.6), has a staggering 40:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and went 42-for-69 for 657 yards and eight touchdowns vs. Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan.
8. Jalen Hurts (2019)
This year's Jalen Hurts is the best Jalen Hurts.
He doesn't have a 17:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio like 2017 but set career-highs just about everywhere else, including an FBS-leading 11.8 yards per attempt. He leads all non-triple-option quarterbacks with 1,255 rushing yards and had three games with at least 150 rushing yards.
7. Deshaun Watson (2015)
The first-ever player with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season, Deshaun Watson was dominant in his first full season as a starter. A remarkably efficient passer who only once completed less than 65 percent of his passes in a game entering the playoff, Watson finished third in 2015 Heisman voting.
6. Deshaun Watson (2016)
Several of Watson's numbers dipped from 2015 to 2016, including most of his rushing numbers, but he was better in leading Clemson to their first national title in 35 years.
5. Tua Tagovailoa (2018)
The end was ugly for Tua: Four interceptions in his final three games, including two in Alabama's blowout loss to Clemson in the national championship. Before that, Tua was unbelievable, leading one of the best offenses in college football history with eye-popping stats in limited action thanks to weekly blowouts.
4. Baker Mayfield (2017)
Baker Mayfield's second straight season averaging over 11 yards per pass attempt was spectacular. He never threw for fewer than 240 yards (or two touchdowns) in a game, didn't throw an interception until Oklahoma's sixth game, had five rushing touchdowns, and posted six games with a quarterback rating above 200.
3. Kyler Murray (2018)
Neither Baker Mayfield nor Kyler Murray won a playoff game, but the Heisman winners entered the semifinal as two of the best quarterbacks of all time. Murray joined Watson in the 4,000-1,000 club (including playoff stats) and set the FBS record for yards per attempt (11.6).
2. Marcus Mariota (2014)
Entering the 2014 playoff, Marcus Mariota threw only 10 interceptions in more than 1,000 career attempts. An unstoppable dual-threat quarterback, the Ducks' first-ever Heisman winner finished his career with more than 2,000 rushing yards.
1. Joe Burrow (2019)
After a soul-searching battle against recency bias, yes, Joe Burrow is the best playoff quarterback ever after one of the most remarkable seasons in college football history.
Burrow swept the major individual awards after dominating defenses for 13 games, including a 28-for-38, 349-yard, four-touchdown performance in the SEC Championship.