Predicting College Football's Top 15 Passing Offenses in 2010
Though I hail from the land of the Big Ten, watching Lloyd Carr's Michigan teams call run, run, incomplete pass, punt 70 percent of the time didn't brainwash me into the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy.
Instead, it taught me there was something more to a college offense: yes, running the ball is important. But passing it is exciting.
I've tried to predict which 15 teams will have the most successful statistical passing games in 2010.
I've weighed the returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end (and offensive line, naturally). I've gauged completion percentage, measured wind resistance, and adjusted for inflation.
Then, I threw all that out, and came up with this.
Missouri returns one of the conference's most touted quarterbacks after a year of profound growth.
In the five games between Texas and the Texas Bowl, Blaine Gabbert threw for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions (including four games without a pick), all on a tender ankle.
I can't explain the bowl loss, but I do know Pinkel's system to have success, even if his defenses (*cough cough* 40 points to Baylor's backup quarterback *cough*) do not.
If you want to contend that Gabbert did it against the lesser defenses in the Big 12, fine. That's still against whom he'll throw in six out of the eight conference games next year. (The Tigers miss Texas.)
If you want to contend that Missouri is short on receivers, I'd have a harder time arguing. Gabbert loses his top two targets, both of whom accounted for about 60 percent of his completions.
The Tigers bring in a pair of impact freshman wideouts in Jimmie Hunt and Marcus Lucas. Beyond that, Pinkel has proven he can do more with less. Heck, even last year they ended up 14th-best in the country.
14. Oklahoma State
What some have forgotten in the era of players like Michael Crabtree and Dez Bryant is that the Air Raid wasn't designed to make great players look good. It was designed to make bad players better.
Even though Oklahoma State is losing arguably its two most talented and prolific players in Zac Robinson and Bryant, it's also welcoming one of the best passing coordinators in the Air Raid game in Dana Holgorsen.
Holgorsen made Case Keenum a 5,600-yard passer. Robinson's backup, Brandon Weeden, isn't too far a step down from Keenum, who was a two-star dual-threat quarterback as a recruit.
Weeden wasn't half bad standing in for Robinson, even leading the Cowboys on a second-half comeback against Colorado in November, and he didn't have Bryant to bail him out.
I'd say the above-average recruiting Oklahoma State has done in the Mike Gundy era coupled with Holgerson's system and a fresh, low-expectation outlook on life will help these Cowboys get back to their overachieving ways.
13. NC State
Even though NC State's Russell Wilson had the most passing touchdowns in the ACC and the second-most passing yards per game, the Wolfpack were behind and living on the edge in almost every game. How can we reasonably expect those numbers to continue?
Actually, from a theoretical perspective, that's a terrific reason to endorse NC State as a potential top-15 passing offense.
Their defense, having lost three of its senior D-linemen, should actually be worse. They'll be playing from behind even more, with even bigger deficits.
They actually return a pretty seasoned crop of receivers. Owen Spencer led the nation in yards per catch at a whopping 25.5, and Jarvis Williams was a competent possession receiver who caught 11 of the team's touchdowns. The two strike an age-old balance.
And Wilson is one of college football's most versatile and exciting quarterbacks no one has heard of. Being underrated will be useful when the Pack are down 24 points, and the defense expects it least.
12. Texas Tech
After a month or two of unfounded paranoia, I'll tentatively say Texas Tech will continue to run the Air Raid (for the next year) under Tommy Tuberville.
I'm also vouching my confidence in Steven Sheffield to win the starting QB job. Sheffield missed some time with a foot injury last year, but I would rather have my quarterback miss time for injury than for the kind of confidence issues Taylor Potts was having after Sergio Kindle rung his bell.
He just looked the better quarterback; hopefully, that's not an assessment purely made through the rose-colored glasses worn when evaluating a backup.
And while we're vouching confidence, I'll say that Texas Tech won't miss inside receivers coach and assistant offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who was fired by Tommy Tuberville.
New offensive coordinator Neal Brown comes fresh from a prolific gig at Troy. The Trojans were the fourth-best passing offense in yards per game on Brown's watch.
At Texas Tech, he'll have a chance to score points and throw the ball with better athletes. And you know that TTech fan base has a wide-open state of mind.
Let's hope this is a better marriage of philosophies than the one Tuberville presided over at Auburn with Tony Franklin. The Tigers half-implemented, half-neglected Franklin's spread scheme, resulting in a disastrous season—as well as Franklin's and Tubervile's, ultimate demise.
The dysfunction was rumored to be originating from the top down, but maybe Tuberville's changed. People do learn their lessons—sometimes.
11. Florida State
Christian Ponder was on his way to an All-American season when he went down with a separated shoulder last year.
It was a bad break for a frustrated kid who had led his team from the brink of ignominy more than a few times last year. The 'Noles had many reasons to lay down, but Ponder never did.
Even his injury was from chasing down and making contact with DeAndre McDaniel, who was returning one of Ponder's four interceptions in the Clemson game.
Ponder will be in his third year with Fisher as offensive guru, and the experience should show.
Assuming his rehabilitation is successful, he'll be throwing to a trio of sophomore wideouts and some great young talent from Florida State's outstanding
DeJoshua Johnson and Kenny Stills were two four-star receivers in Rivals' top 250, and Christian Green, the No. 61 athlete, could also get in the mix as a receiver or all-purpose back in Jimbo Fisher's offense.
Sometimes, veteran quarterbacks and rookie receivers are a volatile mix, but I trust Fisher to be able to synthesize the two squads seamlessly. Look to how well he's united both parties during the potentially touchy transition as proof.
He's cleaning up on the recruiting trail. If he can back it up on the field, he'll be the most successful and exciting rookie head coach of 2010.
10. South Carolina
A half-dozen angry South Carolina fans e-mailed me after I included Stephen Garcia in the 10 worst quarterbacks of the BCS, and some of them got personal. A gay person living in San Francisco—how could you imply such a thing?
After a closer look, they were probably right—at least about Garcia. He played behind a beat-up line that gave up the most sacks in conference, and he still passed for the second-most yards to a group of young, untested receivers.
And according to cfbstats.com, Garcia's QB rating was actually better in conference than out of it.
In my defense, it just seemed to fit a pattern: Spurrier, unable to coach a quarterback since Florida, boiling over with frustration.
But it's a pattern we'll likely see broken next year, if we haven't already.
Garcia's less-than-exciting 2010 numbers (17 TDs, 10 INTs) will need to improve significantly to approach the top 15.
But with Alshon Jeffrey and Tori Gurley forming one of the best and brightest one-two punches in the conference, and exciting athletes like Stephon Gilmore and Marcus Lattimore picking up slack in the running game, there's reason to believe even a fake sportswriter like myself will have cause to eat his words.
Ooh, here's an unpopular one. But it's one we have to admit to ourselves: USC is going to be good at passing again—and soon.
Bringing in Kyle Prater, 2010's top wide receiver recruit, as an early enrollee was a must for a receiving corps depleted by Damian Williams' early departure. But when he catches 12 touchdowns as a freshman, the Trojans will look far from desperate.
Matt Barkley is still the No. 1 choice of whatever draft he enters.
And failure is not something any of these players are used to doing. They will be hungry to reclaim their iron grip on the Pac-10, which makes Jeremiah Masoli's arrest that much more impactful.
Despite the depleted offensive line and the concerns with Barkley's regression, this is an offense not even the biggest boob in the country could screw up.
Speaking of Lane Kiffin, would it be too obnoxious to suggest that he's actually a competent QB coach? That Tennessee's Jonathon Crompton was the SEC's most efficient passer for, like, a four- or five-game stretch back there?
We got our shots in while we could. Now it's the Trojans' chance to return fire.
8. Ohio State
You know the scene in The Two Towers when, in a shining display of light, Gandalf the Grey reappears as Gandalf the White?
I feel as though Pryor the Grey died at the Purdue game, was buried, and reincarnated as Pryor the Scarlet.
Since his breakout performance in the Rose Bowl, I've believed Terrelle Pryor is about to have one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had in college football.
His plan to marry his athletic talents with Tressel's tutelage of a pro-style scheme is going to succeed. Take that Rose Bowl performance and multiply it 12 times, against iffier defenses than Oregon's.
That the competition might not be worthy of him is unfortunate, but, either way, Pryor is fated to go from one of college football's least consistent and least efficient passers to a top-15 talent.
All those Buckeye wide receivers that have been redshirted in the shadows will have breakout years.
And the platoon will be led, of course, by DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, now seasoned receivers in Tressel's schemes.
7. Notre Dame
I keep trying to apply the "transition period" label to Brian Kelly's first year at Notre Dame, and it just keeps falling off.
Kelly's offense is just too simple and too effective to need "the right recruits" and an awkward attitude adjustment in order to succeed.
Notre Dame's offensive players are—no offense—twice as talented on paper as what Kelly had at Cincinnati. Literally. All-American wide receiver Mardy Gilyard was a two-star running back.
And though he hasn't thrown for a meaningful down (merely handing the ball off again and again during minimal time against Purdue), Dayne Crist is an intelligent quarterback who's had to switch from a scheme of significant complication to one of almost none. No one takes calculus and starts complaining about algebra.
Michael Floyd is the best returning wide receiver in college football. Kyle Rudolph is up there as a tight end. A legit No. 2 can and will emerge from the masses to take the heat off Rudolph and catch a few touchdowns himself.
Cincinnati's was the eighth best passing offense nationally last year. Notre Dame's was fifth. You'll notice I averaged them.
Hey, maybe it will only get scary after Week Two...
Are you tired of Big 12 offenses yet? Too bad.
Stanford's was the second-worst passing defense in the Pac-10, but I still think the Oklahoma offense that hung 418 yards and three touchdowns on the Cardinal's D is closer to what the Sooners will look like in 2010 than what it ran in conference play last year.
Because as much as he tried, nothing could have prepared Landry Jones for the starting job at Oklahoma behind Heisman winner Sam Bradford.
It was a season of finding his touch, but it ended on an extremely optimistic note. The Jones-to-Broyles connection that was good for 15 touchdowns should be good for that and much more.
The priority is in finding other receiving threats. The player with the second-most receptions was running back DeMarco Murray.
Stoops addressed this problem with a pair of impact recruits, wide receiver Kenny Stills and "ATH" Tony Jefferson. Jefferson projected as a safety to some of the recruiting sites, but OU has stockpiled its safeties.
Dejuan Miller, Stills, and Jefferson could see plenty of action. And though he's not the ideal target from a statistical perspective, DeMarco Murray returns as well. If he wants to catch 41 passes again, he can knock himself out. Uh, not literally.
Jake Locker has the beastly physical traits to be good. And with a full year of Steve Sarkisian's pro-style system in his memory banks, he now has the coaching to apply them.
Every significant receiver returns to a unit that, short of consistency or greatness, showed promise and raw ability even though they fell short of a bowl.
Much like their freakishly athletic quarterback, Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, and James Johnson could be the most surprising and productive receiving squad of any in the Pac-10.
The Huskies were second in the conference in yards per game, so don't chalk up their collapse entirely to the offense.
Plus, the offensive line returns every starter, as well as Gregory Christine, a senior backup at the guard position.
Sarkisian will be working with a more seasoned group than any he had at USC. I'm predicting big things for Locker, who will try and make good on his questionable decision to return for senior year.
The word out of Miami's summer camp is that the running backs are impressing, which should be great news for offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
Whipple relied heavily on the play-action pass last year despite the fact that the Hurricanes had a so-so running game at best.
That meant defenses didn't need to bite on the fake, and it resulted in too many coverage sacks and poor throws from a rushed Jacory Harris.
Harris had the grit to get through the year, but he also struggled with interceptions. I'm of the opinion that high interception totals from good quarterbacks means the coordinator is taking a lot of risks. It's a good thing for a young player in the long run, even if it means losing heartbreakers to North Carolina.
Those risks should pay off with better decision-making, and if the Canes can improve their ground game, Harris can run the play-action with confidence again.
The Canes return their top five returning receivers, four of which were sophomores last season.
Maturity is as crucial an intangible in a receiver as swagger. This year, the Canes have plenty of both.
So this is what Michigan's quarterback could have looked like.
The big, barrel-armed quarterback led the Hogs to a 3,624-yard, 30-touchdown season, good for 10th-best in the country. And he did it in the ESS-EEE-SEE, people.
To be fair, Ryan Mallett had some drawbacks. His completion percentage (55.7) wasn't great, and it dips to 51.1 when you take games only in conference play. Additionally, 14 of those 30 touchdowns were against out-of-conference opponents. Some statistical padding has definitely been going on.
But he did improve over time; there's no denying that. And he played one of his best games against Florida, which, statistically, ended the year as the best passing D in the conference.
Getting up for big games is as good of a trait as you can have as a player in this conference.
Plus, his five favorite receiving targets return from what was considered the SEC's strongest and most talented receiving unit last year.
If the SEC is as good as it says it is on defense, Mallett's first full year as a starter has him forged. Year Two is when the Hogs will reap the benefits.
I don't know how big of an impact losing offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to Oklahoma State will be for Houston's attack, but it looks like head coach Kevin Sumlin has done a good job at replacing him.
Sumlin, a former OC himself, promoted Jason Phillips, Houston's co-offensive coordinator last year, to the top job, while keeping him on receiver duties. He also promoted quality control assistant Kliff Kingsbury to a co-OC position. Kingsbury will also coach quarterbacks.
Texas Tech fans will recognize Kingsbury as one of Mike Leach's past proteges in the Air Raid. So the good news is quarterback Case Keenum is learning from someone well-versed in the system.
Plus, with his top three receivers returning, we know Keenum can get the numbers. We also know the attack can crumble against good passing defenses like East Carolina and Air Force.
The true tests will be the Cougars' road games at UCLA and Texas Tech and at home against Mississippi State. A great game in any or all three of those, and Keenum should not only match or exceed his historic 2009 output; he should contend for the Heisman.
1. Boise State
The team, the team, the team.
With every receiver, tight end, running back and offensive lineman returning to help him, the bare minimum you can expect from Kellen Moore—2009's second-most efficient passer, who also threw for the second-most touchdowns—is greatness.
A great SI article on him and the Boise program detailed his impressive work ethic and insatiable drive to overachieve, and a BCS win will have only fed that.
Moore returns probably the best duo of receivers in Titus Young and Austin Pettis. Provided Pettis has healed from his late-season ankle injury, which required surgery, I see Boise repeating as a top-five passing offense against even stiffer competition.
Once you've come this far, there's no going back.