Power Ranking the 10 Best QBs in Pac-12 History
The 2014 season marks the beginning of a new era for the Pac-12 Conference and college football as a whole. The bevy of quarterback talent returning to the league promises to bring at least one conference tradition into the College Football Playoff era.
Outstanding quarterback play has long been a hallmark of the conference, whether Pac-12, Pac-10, Pac-8 or Athletic Association of Western Universities.
The conference's 12 members all have standout quarterbacks at some time in their history, but the following list includes only those 10 who played in an incarnation of the current conference. Thus, Utah's Alex Smith (Mountain West), or Oregon State Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker(Independent), are not eligible.
Statistics compiled via Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Drew Bledsoe, Washington State
The conference was on an impressive streak of producing top-tier quarterbacks in the late 1980s, and Drew Bledsoe helped carry the tradition into the 1990s. Bledsoe won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 1992 and led the Cougars to the Copper Bowl with 3,246 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. He left Washington State with more than 7,300 yards in his three-year career.
Dan Fouts Oregon
Dan Fouts was the engine driving Don Coryell's high-octane offense with the San Diego Chargers, but before revolutionizing the pro game, Fouts rewrote the record books at Oregon.
Fouts set 19 different program records per GoDucks.com. Among them: career passing yards and total offense.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
In just two seasons, Marcus Mariota still has at least one more season running Oregon's potent spread offense and could cement himself among the conference's all-time greats.
Mariota has 63 passing and 14 rushing touchdowns in just two seasons—a byproduct of a more wide-open style to be sure, but his control of the game is undeniable. Mariota has just 10 interceptions in two seasons.
Cade McNown, UCLA
The first Rose Bowl participant of the BCS era—and last UCLA team to play in the Granddaddy of 'Em All—did so with Cade McNown running the show. McNown passed for 25 touchdowns and an impressive 3,470 yards in 1998, one season removed from throwing 24 touchdowns and 3,116 yards.
Warren Moon, Washington
Legendary Washington head coach Don James reached his first Rose Bowl at the end of the 1977 season with Warren Moon leading the way. Moon won Pac-8 Player of the Year that year, passing for 11 touchdowns and rushing for another six.
Rodney Peete, USC
Were it not for Barry Sanders putting together arguably the single greatest season in college football history in 1988, Rodney Peete may very well have won the Heisman Trophy. Peete finished second in the voting that season, after throwing for 2,812 yards and 18 touchdowns. Peete also rushed for five scores to cap off one of the best careers in USC history to that point.
Aaron Rodgers, Cal
Aaron Rodgers' professional success dwarfs his college tenure—running back J.J. Arrington was arguably the bigger star of the Golden Bears' 2004 offense, rushing for 15 touchdowns and surpassing the hallowed 2,000-yard mark.
Nevertheless, Rodgers excelled in his two seasons in Berkeley, Calif. He threw 19 touchdowns in 2003 and 24 in 2004, and was intercepted just 13 times both years combined. His 66.1 percent completion rate led the conference, ahead of even Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.
Akili Smith, Oregon
Long before Oregon introduced its quick-strike spread offense, Akili Smith was putting up numbers that would have been at home with the Ducks' current style of play. Smith passed for 32 touchdowns in 1998 and rushed for four more. His 3,763 yards passing that season helped solidify then-offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's reputation as a quarterback guru.
10. Ryan Leaf, Washington State
The Pac-12 has arguably never had a quarterback with quite as big an arm or as prolific an ability to throw all over the field as Ryan Leaf.
Leaf passed for an incredible 3,968 yards in 1997—best in the nation—and led Washington State to the conference championship and Rose Bowl.
Leaf's life has taken a few tragic turns since then, including a 2012 arrest for burglary and drug possession. But when he played on the Palouse, Leaf was on top of the college football world.
"Ryan Leaf is the best quarterback in America," former Washington State head coach Mike Price told the Associated Press in 1997.
9. Joey Harrington, Oregon
Oregon's erstwhile "Joey Heisman" campaign, which included a billboard in Times Square, failed to garner much support in the 2001 Heisman race. Joey Harrington finished fourth in the voting that season, but he had a lasting impact in establishing Oregon football as a national brand.
That image of a larger-than-life Harrington in a new, modern Oregon uniform set the tone for the Ducks' next decade. As for Harrington, he delivered with a great season.
Harrington led the Ducks to a conference championship in 2001, culminating in a 38-16 rout of Big 12 champion Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. His 350 yards passing and four touchdowns there was a fitting cap to a season wherein Harrington threw for 27 scores and was intercepted just six times. That was his second consecutive season surpassing 20 touchdown passes; he threw 22 in 2000.
Arguably the only thing keeping Harrington from the Heisman and Oregon out of the BCS Championship game was a 49-42 loss to Stanford, in which Harrington passed for three touchdowns and 270 yards.
Former head coach Mike Bellotti was prescient in his assessment to The Daily Emerald that the 2001 senior class, with Harrington as its leader, raised the bar for Oregon.
"Every year we talk about raising the level of play, and these seniors have not only talked about it, they've done it," he said.
8. Jake Plummer, Arizona State
Jake Plummer was the consummate leader for arguably the best team in Arizona State history.
"The way he performs under pressure, I think he'd make a great emergency room surgeon," Arizona State center Kirk Robertson said of Plummer in a November 1996 Sports Illustrated profile.
Plummer captained Arizona State to the conference title in 1996 and that season's Rose Bowl, where the Sun Devils fell just short of the national championship. He finished that season with 23 passing TDs and another three on the ground, and threw for 2,575 yards.
Plummer developed his leadership quality over four seasons as the Sun Devils' starter. His statistical output improved every year, and by the time he left Tempe, Ariz., he had accumulated 64 touchdown passes and 8,626 yards.
7. Gary Beban, UCLA
Gary Beban became UCLA's first—and to this date only—Heisman Trophy winner in 1967. However, he cemented his place in Bruins lore two years earlier.
Beban led UCLA to a frenetic finish against rival USC, connecting with Dick Witcher on a touchdown pass and following it up with a 49-yard connection to Kurt Altenberg that sealed the Bruins' place in the 1966 Rose Bowl.
Beban was as explosive of a dual-threat quarterback as college football had in his era, scoring 23 passing touchdowns in his three-year career and rushing for 35. He ran for pay dirt 11 times in his Heisman-winning campaign, and led the nation in passing yards per attempt with 8.7.
6. Carson Palmer, USC
Four USC Trojans claimed the Heisman Trophy before Carson Palmer won the sport's most coveted individual honor in 2002. None were quarterbacks.
Palmer was the first of two Trojans signal-callers to win the award in three years, however, as he ushered in a new period of prosperity at USC.
Palmer bridged the gap from the failed Paul Hackett era and the historically successful Pete Carroll era, running the offense for Hackett's final squad—the worst in USC history—and the first of seven consecutive USC teams to win the conference championship.
Palmer certainly did his part to contribute to the turnaround: his 33 touchdown passes in 2002 surpassed his total (29) of the previous two seasons combined.
5. Troy Aikman, UCLA
Troy Aikman's UCLA tenure was truncated to two years, the result of transferring after spending his first two seasons at Oklahoma. But two years was plenty for Aikman to leave a lasting impression.
The move from Oklahoma—which ran a wishbone offensive set—to UCLA's more pass-intensive philosophy was the right decision.
Aikman passed for 41 touchdowns in his two years at UCLA and in 1988 was a consensus All-American. He also won the 1988 Davey O'Brien Award and finished third in the Heisman voting.
The Dallas Cowboys made Aikman the No. 1 overall draft pick the following offseason, and NFL history was made in the years to follow. One person who saw Aikman's success coming was former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer.
Former UCLA head coach Terry Donohue recounted his interaction with Switzer to The New York Times in 1988.
''He said, 'I guarantee you, when he leaves UCLA, he'll be a first-round draft choice.' I told Barry, 'You've had enough first-round draft choices to know,'" Donohue said.
4. Jim Plunkett, Stanford
Stanford has just one Heisman Trophy winner in its program's history: Jim Plunkett in 1970. Considering the stable of quarterbacks to come through The Farm before and since, that's a lofty distinction.
In a game dominated by the run in that era, Plunkett was riding the wave of the future. He passed for 20 touchdowns in 1969 and 19 the following year, both times leading the conference. His 2,980 yards passing in 1970 were the most in the nation.
Plunkett capped his illustrious career by leading Stanford in a second-half rally against Ohio State, engineering two consecutive scoring drives that sealed a 27-17 Rose Bowl win. Plunkett took home a Rose Bowl Most Valuable Player trophy to go with his Heisman.
3. John Elway, Stanford
John Elway's contemporaries tried to compare the Stanford standout's abilities to the quarterbacks who preceded him.
"It's the way he scrambles," former USC coach John Robinson said of Elway in a 1982 People profile. "He reminds me of Roger Staubach."
Elway drew further comparisons to legendary quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas, but he proved to be unlike anyone at the position before him.
Elway passed for at least 20 touchdowns in three seasons, and led the nation twice with 27 touchdown passes in 1980 and 24 in 1982. Though he never recorded gaudy rushing numbers, Elway was also evasive in the pocket—a skill that made him more akin to the mobile quarterbacks of today.
Stanford is a university known for cultivated forward thinkers in all phases of life, so it's only fitting the Cardinal football program would produce a quarterback so ahead of his time.
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford
Sometimes greatness can be taken for granted. Such is the case for Andrew Luck's three illustrious years guiding Stanford's offense from 2009 to 2011.
Luck excelled in every facet of his repertoire, and did so with such a seemingly effortless flare that greatness was just expected of him.
Consider his final collegiate season. Luck finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2010, which made him the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 award. Obviously expectations on Luck were extraordinarily high, and Luck responded with five more passing touchdowns and nearly 200 more yards.
Perhaps because Luck was expected to perform at the highest level, he again lost out on the Heisman. But never winning college football's most hallowed trophy does not take away from one of college football's all-time best careers.
Following Luck's final home game in November 2011, Stanford head coach David Shaw said via GoStanford.com the quarterback's contributions far transcended stats and trophies:
There's no player in America like Andrew Luck. There really isn't. Forget about the stats, forget about the comparisons of other guys or whatever, it doesn't matter. What he does at the line of scrimmage, what he does with the ball you know, and the kid is completely unselfish. He doesn't care if you don't throw a pass, he doesn't care about his stats, he doesn't try to get bigger stats so he can win awards. The kid is the definition of what you would want at the quarterback position in all facets. I don't have a vote. We'll see what happens. I just know that he's one of a kind. He's one of a kind.
1. Matt Leinart, USC
One of the greatest careers in college football history began with a touchdown. Matt Leinart scored on his first pass attempt and never looked back.
He left USC with a legacy surpassing that of any Trojans quarterback before him, and set an especially high bar for those still to come. Thus far, no one has been able to match his benchmark for success.
Leinart reached just about every milestone a college football player can during his three years captaining the USC offense: conference championships all three seasons, national championships in 2003 and 2004 and a Heisman Trophy in 2004.
Though 2004 was Leinart's Heisman season, he was arguably better in 2003. He threw for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2004, with 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2003.
Really though, we're splitting hairs. Leinart put together three of the most impressive seasons ever for a quarterback in his time at USC, surpassing the 3,000-yard mark every year and leaving the program with 99 passing touchdowns to just 23 interceptions.
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