College Football 2012: Power Ranking Every Conference by Starting Quarterbacks
When formulating preseason predictions for college football teams, undoubtedly, one of the first factors considered is projecting the strength of a team’s quarterback play.
This isn’t surprising for a number of reasons—mainly because quarterback is the most important position on the field and great play from that position can mask several weaknesses and help turn ordinary teams into ones capable of competing for championships in their respective leagues.
The phenomenon of conference supremacy is fairly recent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most vigorously debated subjects in college football.
Obviously, the SEC is at the forefront of the debate, but will they be on top when it comes to producing quality quarterbacks this season?
Two leagues putting out NFL-caliber quality at the position are the Big 12 and Pac-12, but how will they fare with several big names departing?
Find out inside as I power rank every conference by the quality of their starting quarterback play.
The WAC took a hit in the conference expansion madness over the last year, losing long-time members Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii—coincidentally, three of the top four schools in total offense in the WAC in 2011—to the Mountain West.
As a result, they will play this season with only seven schools—adding Lone Star State upstart programs Texas State and University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA)—and the league’s quarterback play will likely suffer a hit in 2012.
Utah State—who finished second in the WAC in total offense last year—brings back quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy, who should help keep the Aggies offense rolling in conference this fall.
Louisiana Tech also has a duel rotation in senior Colby Cameron and sophomore Nick Isham that should help the Bulldogs—with four of their five losses last season coming by seven points or less—compete for a second straight league title.
With only four teams in FBS competing without league affiliation, the sample size alone is reason for their low ranking.
However, Riley Nelson of BYU is looking to build on a strong junior season that saw him lead the Cougars' turnaround to a 10-win season.
At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly will likely open the competition up between juniors Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees—who both played last season—and redshirt freshman Everett Golson.
Army and Navy are both looking to rebound from disappointing seasons, but their quarterback play must improve for either to make noise in 2012.
10. Conference USA
A number of high-profile transfers will make the quarterback battles in Conference USA interesting to follow this season.
Former Texas signal-caller Garrett Gilbert will likely take the reins at SMU, while former Nebraska quarterback Cody Green is in the mix at Tulsa, and former Missouri reserve Tyler Gabbert will throw his hat into the ring at Central Florida.
Conference USA lost all five passers from the league’s top-five passing offenses in 2011, but Marshall’s Rakeem Cato and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles look to be two of the conference’s promising young talents who could blossom this fall.
9. Mountain West
With its top three quarterbacks departed, the Mountain West will enter new territory this fall at the quarterback position.
However, plenty of young talent is waiting to blossom in a league that has quietly produced solid quarterback play in recent years.
Wyoming's Brett Smith will look to build off of a strong freshman campaign (2,622 yards, 20 touchdown passes) while bearing the pressure of being the league's top returning passer.
Colorado State junior Pete Thomas should benefit from the arrival of new head coach Jim McElwain—who arrives after directing the Alabama offense the last four seasons.
Meanwhile, the Kellen Moore era is over at the league's remaining powerhouse Boise State, but Chris Peterson will likely plug in a talented passer—likely Joe Southwick—and keep the Broncos in contention for another run to a BCS bowl.
8. Big East
The departure of West Virginia’s Geno Smith leaves a giant hole at the top of the Big East’s passing records from 2011.
Smith was the only true elite passer in the league, and the dropoff is steep from him to what’s left behind in the shrinking league.
Seniors B.J. Daniels of South Florida and Tino Sunseri of Pittsburgh have the potential to lead the league in passing this season, but all eyes should be focused on Louisville young gun Teddy Bridgewater—who looks to improve on a solid freshman campaign, and has all the necessary tools to be a star sooner than later.
At Rutgers, the winner of the duel between Gary Nova and Chas Dodd will likely have a chance to emerge as one of the league’s better quarterbacks.
7. Sun Belt
Unlike Conference USA, the Sun Belt brings back each of its top-five passers from a year ago.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s Blaine Gautier will try to help the Ragin’ Cajuns earn their second straight bowl appearance, and perhaps win its first outright Sun Belt title in school history (ULL was co-champions in 2005).
Troy’s Corey Robinson and Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin have been the league’s top-two passers the last two seasons, and both figure to put up monster numbers for the third consecutive season.
Louisiana-Monroe’s Kolton Browning is another signal-caller to keep an eye on this fall in the Sun Belt—which features eight teams that return its starting quarterbacks in 2012.
6. Big 10
With the departures of Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, the only returning Big 10 passer who threw for over 3,000 yards last season is Iowa’s James Vandenberg.
However, Michigan’s Denard Robinson has passed for over 2,000 yards and rushed for over 1,000 yards the last two seasons—and will likely be the league’s marquee quarterback in his final season in Ann Arbor.
Juniors Taylor Martinez of Nebraska and Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois, and Ohio State sophomore Braxton Miller are another trio of dual-threat quarterbacks who figure to put up big numbers through the air and on the ground.
Beyond those five field generals, the rest of the league figures to be in search of upgrading the quality of play at the game’s most important position.
Its no secret that offensive shootouts are the norm for the MAC in the fall, but to say that would discount the quality of the quarterback play that is found across the league—which returns a number of gifted passers for the 2012 season.
A trio of senior field generals—Miami (Ohio)’s Zac Dysert, Western Michigan’s Alex Carder, and Central Michigan’s Ryan Radcliffe led the conference in passing last season and return with the intent of carving up defenses this fall.
Ohio University junior Tyler Tettleton enjoyed a monster sophomore campaign (3,306 yards passing, 38 total touchdowns) en route to leading the Bobcats to its first 10-win season since 1968 and its first ever bowl victory.
Toledo’s two-headed monster of junior Terrance Owens and senior Austin Dantin combined output (over 3400 yards passing, 33 touchdown passes) returns and will try to lead the Rockets to their third straight bowl appearance.
Overall, this league loses only two of its top-12 passers from 2011—which means more points and more shootouts in 2012.
Last year, the Pac-12 was at the top of this discussion featuring the likes of Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Brock Osweiler, Darron Thomas and Nick Foles amongst others.
This year, Barkley may be this season’s front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, but aside from him and Washington’s Keith Price, the Pac-12 will be in search of new stars to take over at schools like Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State.
Plus, the arrival of noted offensive gurus Rich Rodriguez (at Arizona) and Mike Leach (at Washington State) almost assures that the league will reload at the position in the near future.
For 2012, the tradition of quality quarterback play in the Pac-12 rests largely on the shoulders of Barkley and Price.
Every team in the league returns a quarterback that started at least one game last season—with Miami being the only team that doesn’t bring back one that was not a full-time starter.
Clemson’s Tajh Boyd heads a list of five returning signal callers that threw for more than 3,000 yards last season—with Boyd being one of four sophomores (Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, North Carolina’s Bryn Renner and Wake Forest’s Tanner Price being the others) to accomplish that feat last season.
Between Boyd, Thomas and EJ Manuel of FSU, the league has its share of strong-armed quarterbacks capable of making a splash nationally this season.
Add in solid starters like N.C. State’s Mike Glennon, Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington and Virginia’s Michael Rocco, the ACC may have the deepest group of starters from top to bottom in the country.
The most powerful conference in the country is usually a brutal league for quarterbacks looking to put up monster numbers due to the number of elite defenses that reside in the SEC.
Considering that only four SEC quarterbacks passed for over 2,000 yards last year, their plight becomes a bit clearer.
Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Georgia’s Aaron Murray both topped 3,000 yards—with both returning to teams primed for big seasons in 2012.
Alabama’s A.J. McCarron will look to build off of an impressive performance in Alabama’s 21-0 dismantling of previously unbeaten LSU in the BCS National Championship Game.
Missouri’s James Franklin’s numbers from last season would have placed him third among SEC passers last season—but he will likely find it harder to find success in the Tigers’ inaugural season in their new conference.
South Carolina’s Connor Shaw is a candidate to improve off of a strong second half of 2011 and play his way into the conversation as one of the league’s top field generals.
If healthy (and his supporting cast cooperates), Tennessee's Tyler Bray has the ability to surge towards the top of this list.
1. Big 12
The Big 12 has enjoyed a brilliant history of quarterback play recently, and despite the losses of Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill, a pair of returning gunslingers plus another pair of incoming stars will help the league carry on its tradition.
Between Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Kansas State’s Collin Klein and West Virginia’s Geno Smith, the Big 12 has three legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback.
Add TCU’s Casey Pachall and Texas Tech’s Seth Doege to that group, and scoreboard operators across the Big 12 will once again be busier than their comrades throughout the rest of the nation.
With several leagues returning marquee names at the most important position in the game, it’s the strength at the top that separates the Big 12 from the competition for being the league with the best quarterback play.