Editor’s Note: This story is part of 247Sports’ what-if week, which examines some of the most interesting might-have-happened scenarios in college football history.
In the football world as we know it, Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes II were NFL first-round draft picks, the latter is the reigning MVP and Super Bowl MVP, and Oklahoma is viewed as the unofficial Graduate Transfer QB U. But a series of interconnected events led to that reality, and somewhere out there, perhaps there is a timeline quite different.
What if Baker Mayfield kept his starting quarterback job at Texas Tech in what became a fateful 2013 season? That is our timeline for this look at who was impacted and how by the Texas Tech quarterback shuffle in 2013-14 and Mayfield’s resulting transfer to Oklahoma.
Rather than dive into the background of the Mayfield drama at Texas Tech that led to his move to the Sooners, we want to consider what happens if Mayfield remains the starter for the duration of the 2013 season, leading to a quarterback room in 2014 that would have included Mayfield, Mahomes, and Davis Webb.
What happens to Texas Tech?
In the fall of 2013, Texas Tech’s quarterback room included Mayfield, Webb, and Michael Brewer, who wound up transferring to Virginia Tech, a move that would have still been very likely had Mayfield wound up sticking around.
During that season, Mayfield and Webb combined to throw for more than 5,000 yards — Webb for 2,718, Mayfield for 2,315. Mayfield started the first several games of the year before suffering a minor injury, paving the way for Webb to take over for the next five games.
What all happened in that quarterback room and with head coach Kliff Kingsbury is a topic for another day. What matters in this hypothetical is that once Mayfield was no longer starting, his time at Texas Tech was over, paving the way for his transfer.
But what if Mayfield never gets hurt and Webb never becomes the guy? What if Mayfield holds on tight to that starting spot for good in 2013?
In almost identical pass attempts in that 2013 season, Webb’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was better than Mayfield’s: 20-9 to 12-9. But Mayfield’s completion percentage was higher — 64.1 to 62.6 — and he was much more capable of making something happen with his feet — 190 yards and three touchdowns compared to Webb’s minus-12 yards and no TD’s.
Texas Tech started the year 7-0 — with Mayfield starting the first five games — but lost its final five regular-season games — with Mayfield starting the final two — before winning the Holiday Bowl 37-23 vs. Arizona State to finish with an 8-5 record (Webb started that bowl win). If Mayfield is healthy and starting for all of those games, does Tech fare better? It’s tough to say, because as the schedule progressed, the competition got tougher — the five losses came to a top-five Baylor team (with Mayfield starting), top-20 teams in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and eight-win teams in Kansas State and Texas (with Mayfield starting).
But the larger question is what happens the following season in 2014 — with Mayfield as an established, 13-game starter — in that QB room as incoming freshman Patrick Mahomes II enters the discussion?
Prior to arriving at Tech, Kingsbury already had momentum as an offensive mind as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel’s magical run with the Aggies. Webb was a longtime commit for the Red Raiders, but still enrolled early at Texas Tech after Kingsbury was hired in Dec. 2012. In April 2013, Kingsbury landed a commitment from Mahomes, a junior at Whitehouse (Texas) High School at the time. Mayfield walked on and earned the starting job to start the 2013 season and eventually won Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.
It’s reasonable to think that if Mayfield had started the entire 2013 season, rather than only 7 of 13 games, he would enter the 2014 campaign entrenched as the starter over Webb and Mahomes, who signed with Texas Tech in Feb. 2014. But one thing is certain, even under our hypothetical scenario: Kingsbury was very high on Mahomes, and the East Texas standout was eventually going to get his shot.
In reality, Webb started the first eight games of the 2014 season before Mahomes took over and started the final four games. Texas Tech was 3-5 and coming off an 82-27 loss at 10th-ranked TCU when Mahomes got the starting nod.
If Mayfield is still the starter at Tech, do the Red Raiders fall to 3-5 in those first eight contests? Does Mahomes even get any backup spot duty in those first eight games, which he got as Webb’s reserve?
Perhaps Mahomes’ status as Kingsbury’s chosen one transcends the rest of the quarterback room, regardless of Mayfield or Webb’s presence. The reality of the current Mahomes timeline suggests that very well may have been the case, considering he started every game the rest of his Tech career en route to the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Mayfield’s enormous production and Oklahoma’s 22-4 record in 2015-16 fueled his status as a Heisman Trophy candidate entering the 2017 campaign. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Mayfield would have produced monster numbers had he stayed at Texas Tech from 2013-16, but would he have gotten the wins to catapult into the Heisman discussion? That 2017 Heisman season saw Mayfield lead OU to a 12-2 record, giving the Sooners a 34-6 record in Mayfield’s three seasons.
Even with Mahomes at quarterback, Texas Tech went 7-6 in 2015 and 5-7 in 2016, despite Mahomes throwing for 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in that junior campaign. Does Mayfield produce different results for the Red Raiders if he’s a three- and four-year starter in those 2015 and 2016 seasons?
Given Mahomes’ production — 10,446 total yards of offense and 99 total TD’s in 2015-16 — it’s difficult to envision Mayfield creating much of a turnaround record-wise for the Red Raiders, even as a vastly experienced starter. Mahomes, in that scenario, has to wait his turn or transfer, but again, given Kingsbury’s affinity for him, Mahomes not getting a shot sooner than the 2017 season seems unlikely.
Additionally, without the 34-6 three-season span at Oklahoma, and the 2017 Heisman Trophy, does Mayfield ascend to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft? That’s also tough to see happening.
One aspect of this jumbled quarterback room that likely stays the same as it happened in reality: Webb transferring from Texas Tech. Once Mahomes took over in the ninth game of the 2014 season, Webb’s time as the man for Kingsbury’s offense ended. If Mayfield is the entrenched starter, or the QB battle becomes Mayfield vs. Mahomes, Webb is the odd man out. As it happened, Webb landed at Cal for the 2016 season, threw for almost 4,300 yards, and got drafted 87th overall in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
What happens to Oklahoma?
Other than Mayfield himself, perhaps no other entity benefited more from his transfer to OU than the Sooner football program. In 2014, Oklahoma went 8-5 and averaged 203 passing yards per game, fewer than the Sooners’ rushing output, and about 465 total yards per game.
Mayfield’s arrival at OU in 2015 coincides with Lincoln Riley’s as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator, as well as Oklahoma’s resurgence as one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. In 2015, that passing average jumps by more than 100 yards to 308 per game, resulting in 530 total yards per game. The Sooners go from 8-5 in 2014 to 11-2 and Big 12 champions the next year, their first of three league titles in a row with Mayfield at the helm, culminating in a College Football Playoff berth in 2017.
Oklahoma is still riding that conference title wave. The Sooners have since added two more Big 12 crowns to give them five in a row, easily the most consecutive conference championships since the Big 12’s inception (1996).
It must not be forgotten that Mayfield helped bridge the Bob Stoops era and the Lincoln Riley tenure in Norman. He also played a seminal role, along with Riley, in establishing Oklahoma as the en vogue graduate transfer destination for high-profile quarterbacks.
If Mayfield never arrives at Oklahoma, do the Sooners become the destination for Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts? The two-season span of 2013-14 — the two years between the Landry Jones era and the Mayfield era — were the only two seasons since 2007 that OU averaged fewer than 258 passing yards per game. If Mayfield doesn’t take over the Sooners in 2015, does OU’s offense get back on track to the explosive numbers from the Jones and Sam Bradford tenures?
As for Murray, if he transfers elsewhere, does he throw for 4,000, rush for a 1,000, and account for 54 touchdowns en route to the 2018 Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft? If Hurts winds up elsewhere, does he earn a Heisman finalist spot and get drafted 53rd overall as a second-round selection in the 2020 draft? Both are talented quarterbacks with multi-faceted playmaking skill sets, but the perfect stage to shine — and win a lot of games — at Oklahoma certainly helped their respective draft stocks (not to mention Heisman chances).
Kingsbury’s 2014 quarterback room would have been Mayfield, Mahomes, and Webb if Mayfield had stuck around. As noted earlier, Mahomes seemed like the chosen one once he signed with the Red Raiders, but it’s impossible to know exactly how everything works out with Kingsbury managing a QB room with what turned out to be top three 90 NFL Draft picks.
Does Kingsbury still become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals if his starter for four years at Tech is Mayfield? It’s not guaranteed, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility considering he landed that job after getting ousted at Tech, even with a top-10 draft pick at quarterback in Mahomes.
As for Riley, his offensive prowess no doubt played a major role in OU’s offensive resurgence, and the resulting meteoric rise in the Heisman discussion and on draft boards for Mayfield, Murray, and Hurts.
But what if Mayfield is still at Tech, and OU’s starting quarterback opening 2015 is, say, Trevor Knight, who threw for 3,100 yards, 23 TD’s, and 17 INT’s in 18 games in the previous two seasons? Riley’s success at OU is undeniable, and the relation of him to his QB’s seems like a chicken-and-egg debate.
Perhaps reality worked out best for literally everyone?
Run down the cast of characters and consider where each is in 2020 on our current timeline of reality:
— Mayfield left Tech, went 34-6 at Oklahoma, won a Heisman, got drafted No. 1 overall in 2018, and starts for the Cleveland Browns
— Mahomes put up huge numbers at Tech, got drafted 10th overall in 2017, and is widely regarded as the best player in the NFL after winning an MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP for the Kansas City Chiefs
— Webb left Tech for Cal, threw for more than 4,000 yards, got drafted 87th overall in 2017 by the New York Giants, and is now with the Buffalo Bills
— Kingsbury is entering his second year as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and has Kyler Murray as his franchise QB
— Riley is the head coach at Oklahoma, where he is 100 percent job-secure with a 36-6 record as he aims for his fourth consecutive Big 12 title (and sixth in a row for OU)
It’s hard to argue that things could have worked out better for the individuals involved in this situation. As far as the programs, Oklahoma obviously benefited from Mayfield’s arrival, and while Texas Tech has not experienced the winning the fans want so badly, Red Raiders everywhere have the satisfaction of calling the best player in the NFL their own. In this case, what happened in reality certainly seems like the best-case scenario for those involved.