As conference media days get set to begin, kicking off with SEC Media Days Monday July, 14, we will be spending the next couple of weeks ranking conferences in a variety of categories. Today’s flavor: Quarterbacks.
10. Sun Belt
As a conference already loaded with mediocre talent, the Sun Belt took a major hit at the quarterback position this offseason. Arguably the three best players at the position last year, Corey Robinson at Troy, Ross Metheny at South Alabama, and Kolton Browning at Louisiana Monroe have all graduated. No returning starter in the conference threw for more than 19 touchdowns last year. As far as incoming teams, Texas State and Idaho,were terrible in the passing game last year anyway. Appalachian State returns an efficient Kameron Bryant from last year and Georgia Southern brings in an option offense, but how good can either offense be their first year in FBS? New Mexico State was decent with Andrew McDonald, but McDonald is gone, leaving them with uncertainty too.
9. Conference USA
The conference returns only one quarterback who wasn’t part of a disastrous situation behind center this year, and he’s a pretty good one: Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. With 39 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions last year along with 3,916 yards passing as a junior, Cato alone was enough to keep the conference ahead of the Sun Belt. However, it’s all a waste after that. East Carolina is gone this year along with Shane Carden to the American Athletic conference, and nobody else managed more than 17 passing touchdowns in the conference, including incoming Western Kentucky returning quarterback Brandon Doughty. On top of that, the conference’s other decent quarterbacks from last year, including Taylor MaHargue at Rice, Jonathan Perry at UAB, Derek Thompson at North Texas, Logan Kilgore at Middle Tennessee, and Eric Soza at UT San Antonio, are all gone. That leaves a lot of room for terrible quarterback play next year in the conference.
A mid-major conference marked by great quarterback play last year will take a hit this year, but there is some impressive returning talent to keep them higher than other mid-majors on this list. Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch, who was a Heisman candidate throughout the year, and Ball State’s Keith Wenning,who threw for more than 4,000 yards, are gone. Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton, who had 21 passing touchdowns last year, is also gone. The good news for the conference is there is still some talent.Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson is back for his junior year, and he threw for nearly 3,500 yards last year to go along with 25 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions, not to mention his 5-touchdown performance in the MAC championship victory over NIU last year. He’ll be the head of the pack and could be a national superstar. Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata also was impressive last year, throwing for 24 touchdowns, and he’s back for his third year with the Bulls. The potential for Licata and Johnson keeps the MAC higher on the list than it otherwise would be. There’s no need to even discuss the rest of the teams in the conference.
7. Mountain West
Fresno State’s Derek Carr, San Jose State’s David Fales, Wyoming’s Brett Smith, even Hawaii’s Sean Schroeder all threw for more than 25 touchdowns last year, which includes Carr’s 50 touchdowns and Fales’s 33 touchdowns. They’re all gone. So is UNLV’s Caleb Herring, who threw for 24 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions last year. Left to lead the pack are quarterbacks that have shown signs of being very good but not played enough for anybody to be sure. The only exception is Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson, who had 23 touchdowns passing last year to only 11 interceptions. He’ll probably be the best passer in the league. But right behind him could be Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, who missed the last eight games last year due to an ACL sprain but threw for 18 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions before he got hurt and is a dual threat. However, his injury keeps a question mark on him. Boise State’s Grant Hedrick is another quarterback who looked pretty good when he played with 16 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions, but he really only played half a season, and with Chris Petersen gone, nobody knows how good he’ll be. Cody Fajardo at Nevada will be back for his senior season after throwing 13 touchdowns to 3 interceptions last year and another 8 touchdowns rushing. He should be good, but he did miss two games last year, and Nevada was 4-8, so the jury is still out on him as well. In short, the Mountain West has the potential to have some great quarterbacks, but those guys are too unknown for the most part to move the conference anywhere above this spot on the list.
6. American Athletic
The four best quarterbacks from the conference are gone, as is one of those quarterbacks’ teams to another conference. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles carried the torch for the AAC last year, which made it one of the best passing conferences, but they weren’t the only two. Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay threw for 3,300 yards and 22 touchdowns, and SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw for 3,500 yards and 21 touchdowns. Both are gone as well. But while those quarterbacks are gone, there’s another group returning that will be the new face of the conference’s aerial assault, and they have enough talent back to keep the AAC high on the list. Houston’s John O’Korn will probably be the best quarterback of the bunch after throwing for 28 touchdowns and more than 3,100 yards as a freshman last season. Temple quarterback P.J. Walker managed 20 passing touchdowns last season in only eight games as a freshman. Look for those two to put up bigger numbers this year. Competition for best of the crop this year though comes with the addition of East Carolina to the conference, who returns Shane Carden. Last year Carden completed 70.5 percent of his 549 attempts and threw for 33 touchdowns to 10 interceptions with 4,184 yards passing. Carden, Walker, and O’Korn should all be stars this year, and they’ll keep the conference’s passing game relevant. However, last year’s atrocious quarterback play and this year’s uncertainty facing newcomers Tulane and Tulsa along with the problems facing Connecticut, South Florida, and Memphis, keeps the conference out of the Big Five’s league when it comes to quarterback play.
SEC teams have a lot of talented recruits, as always, to fill the roster spots behind center, but the conference probably took the biggest hit of anybody in terms of quarterbacks leaving. The most obvious loss is Johnny Manziel. Then there’s AJ McCarron at Alabama. Aaron Murray is gone at Georgia, Connor Shaw is gone at South Carolina, Zach Mettenberger is gone at LSU, and James Franklin is gone at Missouri. But as I mentioned a month back in an article about teams who won’t miss their starting quarterback, most of the SEC teams are loaded defensively still to make a run, and Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama, and Missouri all have pretty good quarterbacks waiting in the wings. It’s also worth mentioning that Nick Marshall will be back at Auburn, and Bo Wallace is back at Ole Miss. So in short, the SEC has lots of talent still at the quarterback position, but too much talent was lost last year and there are too many unproven guys coming in to put the conference above any other power conference simply in terms of quarterback play.
Actually, the conference shouldn’t even be this high, but having the best quarterback in all of college football is enough to carry the torch for it. Jameis Winston is back for his sophomore year, and his name alone is enough to have the conference high on the list. But that’s the problem. He basically is alone. Tajh Boyd is gone from Clemson, Stephen Morris is gone from Miami, Chase Rettig is gone from Boston College, Bryn Renner is gone from UNC, Tom Savage is gone from Pitt, and Logan Thomas is gone from Virginia Tech. Even incoming Louisville lost its quarterback. So this conference really looks to be Jameis Winston and Co. at quarterback this year, but that’s good enough, and there are some other bright spots. Anthony Boone at Duke and Maqruise Williams at UNC played very well last year and are back this year. Also, Cole Stoudt could be pretty good for Clemson, Chad Voytik at Pitt was a rivals.com 4-star recruit, and Tyler Murphy at Boston College showed signs of talent last year at Florida before transferring.
3. Big 12
Bryce Petty. We all know the Heisman candidate headlines returning talent in the Big 12, and for good reason. But there’s also returning talent behind center in Jake Waters at Kansas State, Davis Webb at Texas Tech, and Trevor Knight at Oklahoma. All four quarterbacks are on the Maxwell Award watch list. There are some questions in the conference, though, mainly with Texas, who faces lots of uncertainty at quarterback. Oklahoma State also had some troubles last year, as did TCU and West Virginia. I’m of the belief that coaching will able to solve the issues at all three schools this year, and the passing game shouldn’t be much of a problem. The top of this class is enough to put it in the top 3 conferences for quarterback play this year, and there should be a lot of high-scoring affairs in games. The biggest red flag might be Knight at Oklahoma, given the fact that he’s still a bit unproven and Stoops’s teams have a pretty good track record of never living up to incredibly high offseason hype.
2. Big Ten
Go down the list of the Big Ten quarterbacks last year and try to pick out the best one who is gone. Christian Hackenberg at Penn State, Braxton Miller at Ohio State, and Connor Cook at Michigan State could all be Heisman candidates, along with Devin Gardner at Michigan. If that’s not enough, what about Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld, who threw for 21 touchdowns last year, or Wisconsin’s Joel Stave, who threw for 22 touchdowns last year? That’s a solid six quarterbacks who could all be great this year, not to mention incoming Maryland’s sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, who still has a lot to prove if he can stay healthy. The biggest, and perhaps only, loss for the conference among signal callers is Illinois’s Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for 21 touchdowns last year and 3,272 yards. However, everybody else should make for some very exciting offensive games in a conference that has always been built on defense and power football.
1. Pac 12
This isn’t even close. Lead by Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota at quarterback, there is no uncertainty facing any Pac 12 team except for Washington and Arizona, the only two to lose their quarterbacks. It’s also worth pointing out that both players were in the bottom half of starting quarterbacks last year in terms of passing yards. Which brings us to the next point: every great Pac 12 quarterback returns this year. This will make for a very exciting aerial season out west. Mariota’s 31 touchdowns to 4 interceptions to go along with his 3,600 yards passing and his dual threat abilities speak for itself. Then there’s Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, who threw for 20 touchdowns last year. Brett Hundley at UCLA also threw for 3,000 yards, like Mariota, and had 24 touchdowns. Did I mention USC’s Cody Kessler, who had 20 touchdowns? What about Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, who threw for 37 touchdowns? Then there’s Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly with 28 touchdowns. Travis Wilson at Utah and Sefo Liufau at Colorado both had modest passing numbers, but Liufau missed the first part of last year, and Wilson is a dual threat who should be much more efficient this year. That means eight great quarterbacks and two pretty good quarterbacks should be back next year. This should be exciting to watch.