Although unknown to some, Conference USA has the luxury of being filled with some extremely impressive offensive teams. The conference had four teams ranked in the top 25 in total offense last season and six overall in the top 50.
At the head of each of these teams is a quarterback that runs the show. The league is as deep as it's ever been at the quarterback position heading into 2011, with the majority of the teams returning their respective starter from a season ago.
In the first of many positional previews to be done for Conference USA, the following is a team-by-team ranking and breakdown of the quarterback position by how they appear on paper heading into the fall.
Sophomore Ryan Williams shocked the program when he decided to leave the football team just days before the start of spring practice, citing a change in the team's offensive philosophy as the reason why. Williams was projected to start next year as the No. 1 quarterback, after showing flashes of brilliance over the course of the previous season as just a true freshman.
With the loss of Williams, plus the fact that last year's starter to begin the season, Cannon Smith, is moving to safety, the Tigers are left vastly inexperienced at the quarterback position.
Sophomores Andy Summerlin, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, and Will Gilchrist are set to battle it out for the top spot on the depth chart. Summerlin is believed to be a very talented player, but you never know how certain athletes will respond to surgery like Summerlin experienced last spring.
The Tigers are in a tough situation, and finding a quarterback that can turn around last season's No. 117th ranked offense is crucial for head coach Larry Porter.
Former standout quarterback Trevor Vittatoe has completed his four years of eligibility and now it is time for someone else to run the show in El Paso.
Nick Lamaison, a junior-college transfer that was previously committed to the University of Tennessee, is projected by a lot of people to become the new starter for the Miners. The 6'1", 205-pounder got the chance to enroll early and participate in spring drills, so he should have as good of a chance as anybody to earn the spot. As long as he works hard and doesn't take anything for granted, Lamaison has the goods to be under center in the opener on September 3rd.
If Lamaison can't get the job done, sophomore Carson Meger has a chance to earn the job as well. Meger has only thrown three passes in his brief career at UTEP, but he did manage to put together a solid spring that has impressed coaches and others around the program.
Other candidates to compete for the top quarterback spot include senior Tate Smith and dual-threat freshman Javia Hall.
The Thundering Herd will have two young players battling for the starting quarterback position going into next fall in the form of sophomores Eddie Sullivan and A.J. Graham.
Sullivan was forced into game action last year as a true freshman due to injuries in front of him, and subsequently struggled as expected.
Graham missed most of the year with a hurt ankle that he suffered during an early season matchup against Southern Mississippi. Many around the Thundering Herd program feel as if Graham is the man for the job, but he is going to have to earn it with a solid fall camp.
Whoever wins the position is going to have to experience a big learning curve in their full first season at the helm of the Marshall offense. Although there is a lot of talent here, to expect one to come in and put up huge numbers right away would be unrealistic.
Junior quarterback Ryan Griffin enters this season as the clear-cut starter for the Green Wave.
Since taking over at the end of the 2009 season as a redshirt freshman, Griffin has done well as the go-to guy for Tulane. After putting up a good showing that impressed coaches to cement himself as the starting quarterback heading into last season, Griffin put up solid numbers in 11 games in 2010. Completing 223 passes, Griffin notched 2,371 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air.
Without much talent around him, Griffin did about as good of a job as most quarterbacks would have in last year's Green Wave offense.
At 6'5", 215 pounds, he has the perfect size any coach would love for their gunslinger to have at this level. With a prototypical quarterback body, a good football brain, and a rocket of arm to match, Griffin has the chance to become a great starter in Conference USA in his final two years.
As long as he keeps working hard and picks up his game as his career possesses, Griffin will continue to provide a solid foundation to build the Tulane offense around going forward.
After missing much of last season with a shoulder injury, rising sophomore Taylor McHargue enters 2011 as the obvious starter for the Rice Owls.
McHargue began last year as a starter after a stellar spring but only appeared in the first few games of the season before suffering the injury mentioned above. He returned two games later against SMU, only to injure himself once again and miss the next five games. McHargue ended up returning for the final two contests of the season and showed why the coaching staff was so high on him by leading the Owls to two consecutive victories over East Carolina and UAB to end the season.
When McHargue was on the field, he led the Owls in quarterback efficiency by a wide margin coming in with a 158.7 rating. In five games played, he completed 33-of-58 passes for 491 yards and six touchdowns. He also managed to avoid the turnover bug for the most part, only throwing one interception.
As long as McHargue finds a way to stay healthy this coming season, there is no reason he can't take the next step and become an elite quarterback in Conference USA.
As arguably the most underrated quarterback in the conference, Bryan Ellis burst onto the scene last year and led the UAB offense to heights many thought it couldn't reach just a year after the graduation of the wondrous Joe Webb.
Ellis grabbed the starting position just a few games into last season and never looked back on his way to a junior campaign that saw him amass 2,940 yards and 25 touchdowns through the air.
If there is anything Ellis needs to improve on going forward, it is his consistency. At times, he looked like an All-Conference USA performer, and at others, looked as if he was a true freshman.
As the No. 1 guy going into 2011, expect Ellis to come in confident and inspired to take the Blazers offense to an even more elite level. If he can find a way to cut down on his mistakes, there is no reason the rising senior won't be able to do just that.
There is no denying the kind of talent that Kyle Padron has. He has the arm, the size and the demeanor to be an all-time great in SMU history. Sometimes, however, Padron has problems putting it all together into one complete package.
When he does, he's a magnificent quarterback that leads an extremely dangerous June Jones-driven offensive assault.
When he doesn't, he becomes a turnover-prone quarterback that struggles to get his confidence back.
But as just a junior heading into 2011, the sky is the limit for this young gunslinger. Padron notched career bests a year ago, tossing the rock 508 times for a total of 3,828 passing yards and 31 touchdowns.
Mustang coaches and fans would like to see the 14 interceptions come down a little, but either way, they've got a star in the making on their hands.
When Jeff Godfrey came into last season's early season matchup with NC State in the second half, Central Florida fans were witnessing the birth of a great quarterback in Orlando.
Godfrey entered the game late in the third quarter with the Knights trailing 28-7 and hopes looking dim. However, the young freshman shined in the spotlight, passing for 107 yards on seven completions and adding 53 yards on the ground, along with two rushing touchdowns. Even though UCF ended up falling just short of an improbable comeback with a 28-21 loss, the fight and talent that Godfrey showed raised eyebrows across the UCF community.
Godfrey ended up starting 12 games on the year, leading the Knights to a Conference USA Championship and a Top 25 finish, after knocking off Georgia in the 2011 Liberty Bowl. It was a sensational season for the freshman as he amassed 2,159 passing yards and 566 rushing yards. Between the passing attack and the ground game, Godfrey scored 23 total touchdowns.
Some question whether Godfrey's smaller frame can continue to hold up as he tries to take the next step in his career, but UCF fans still have reason to believe he can lead them to another C-USA title or even beyond this coming year as long as he is on the field.
Senior Austin Davis returns for his fourth season as the starting quarterback for the Golden Eagles.
Davis has been a model of consistency since he took over the starting role in Hattiesburg. He earned Freshman All-American honors in 2008 and second team All-Conference USA honors a year ago. In between those years, in his sophomore season, Davis looked as if he was once again on his way to another phenomenal season, but a foot injury he suffered during the fifth game of the year ended his season.
Davis bounced back in 2010, putting up solid numbers with 3,103 passing yards and 20 touchdowns.
Although Davis probably isn't looked at as much of a runner, looking at his size and stature, he can really hurt opponents with his feet. Last year, Davis netted 452 yards on the ground to come in at third on the team in rushing yards and also scored 10 rushing touchdowns to lead the team.
There is no reason to believe Davis won't have another great season as he wraps up his Golden Eagle career.
A lot of ECU fans didn't know what to expect from junior-college transfer Dominique Davis coming into last season, but he turned out to be quite a performer in the first year of the installation of the "air-raid" attack in Greenville.
Davis racked up improbable numbers considering he arrived just in time for fall camp after missing all of the spring. With only one month prior to the season to learn the new offensive system, Davis thrived, putting up 3,967 passing yards and 37 touchdowns through the air. Nearly 65 percent of his passes went for completions.
Davis also did his fair share of damage on the ground as well, coming in at second on the team in rushing touchdowns, with nine. His 300 rushing yards (not counting sacks) suggests he didn't run all that often, but he did a good job of making something out of nothing when plays broke down.
He did have a high number of interceptions with 16 in 2010, but expect him to try to improve that number heading into his senior season. If he can limit his mistakes, Davis can become a first-team All-Conference USA performer.
Participating in his first full offseason in the ECU program, the ceiling for Davis to grow is as high as any one quarterback's in the entire country.
G.J. Kinne has been a monster for the Golden Hurricane since transferring over from Texas prior to the 2008 season.
He took over the starting role as a sophomore in 2009 and put up good numbers despite his team ending the season with a losing record at 5-7. Kinne showed that he was a true dual-threat quarterback, completing 61 percent of his passes for 2,732 yards through the air, while also rushing for an impressive 393 yards to lead the team.
Last season, Kinne enjoyed a breakout campaign that opened eyes across the country. As a junior, he once again led his team in rushing; this time with 561 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. In the passing game, Kinne was extremely efficient, throwing for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions. His on-field performance earned him first team All-Conference USA honors.
With a solid stock of quarterbacks around him in Conference USA going into this year, it will be tough for Kinne to repeat as a first team All-CUSA performer. Add in the fact that offensive wizard and former head coach Todd Graham has moved on to guide the Pittsburgh Panthers and the task becomes all the more harder. Nonetheless, with another year of experience under his belt, it's hard to imagine Kinne not putting up another incredible season for his team.
He's back folks.
That would be none other than Case Keenum.
Not only Houston fans but all college football fans as well get the luxury of witnessing one of the game's finest take the field for one more season. It would have been wrong for Keenum to go out the way he did after tearing his ACL early last season against UCLA. Instead, the NCAA did the right thing and granted the gunslinger with a fifth year of eligibility.
In case you haven't seen this man play, Keenum has the chance to set a number of NCAA career passing records in 2011. Coming off back-to-back years in which he threw over 5,000 passing yards in 2008 and 2009 (only the second player ever to do so), Keenum was a legitimate candidate to take home the Heisman Trophy with another great season last year.
With the injury, however, those chances went out the window in a hurry. Houston, which was ranked No. 23 heading into the UCLA game, went on to lose seven games and failed to become bowl eligible. If that doesn't tell you how important Keenum was to his team, then I don't know what will.
With 13,568 career passing yards, Keenum is 3,504 yards away from breaking the all-time NCAA career passing record held by former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang. As long as he stays healthy and can regain the form that made him so dominant prior to his injury, there is no reason to think that Keenum can't do it and cement his name as one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever to play the game.