As we get closer to training camp, it’s a good time to return to our Tuesday Top 10 list staple.
This week’s topic: ranking the conferences by best collection of QBs.
Last year, the SEC was loaded with experienced, big-game, play-making quarterbacks. This season, it’s the Pac-12 that’s absolutely stacked. The conference has 10 returning starters led by two bona fide Heisman contenders in Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion is a third QB that has received a lot of first-round draft talk.
ASU’s Taylor Kelly and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan are also proven talents who have won a bunch of games, while strong-armed Connor Halliday figures to pile up gaudy stats at Washington State but needs to cut way down on the picks if he’s to crack the top five in the conference. USC’s Cody Kessler finished 2013 on a high note and has displayed strong leadership for a program that had a chaotic season.
Ohio State’s dynamic Braxton Miller is the headliner, but Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s budding star Christian Hackenberg give the Big Ten a very strong top three. If Cook — coming off a terrific first season as a starter — can lead the Spartans to an upset win in early September at Oregon, he’ll jump into the Heisman race.
Michigan’s Devin Gardner had an inconsistent first full season as a starter but showed flashes of his talents by accounting for 32 TDs against just 11 INTs despite playing behind a very suspect O-line. He should have a strong 2014 as he gets more comfortable with new OC Doug Nussmeier. Another QB who should really benefit from new coaching is Rutgers’ Gary Nova, who has played a lot for the Scarlet Knights and now gets to work with noted OC Ralph Friedgen.
3. Big 12
I was tempted to slide the SEC in here, but the Big 12 has a stronger top three led by Heisman contender Bryce Petty from Baylor. In his first season as the Bears starter, Petty threw 42 TDs and just three INTs to go with 4,200 yards. He also ran for 11 TDs, and the Bears are again LOADED on offense.
Right behind him should be Texas Tech’s Davis Webb, who is ready to become a star as a sophomore. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder is coming off a fantastic spring and has coach Kliff Kingsbury very fired up: “He has a chance to be very special," Kingsbury said. "He has one of the quickest releases and strongest arms I’ve been around. Very smart, intellectual thinker. Processes things very quickly. Sees the field. Great at checking to the right place. He probably had the best spring I’ve ever been around as far as protecting the football and making plays in our scrimmages. In our live scrimmages, [he had] 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions, which was a huge step from where he was last year."
OU’s Trevor Knight capped off his freshman season by shredding Alabama’s D in the Sugar Bowl, throwing for 348 yards and four TDs while boosting expectations in Norman for a big second season.
After that top three, K-State’s Jake Waters (18 TDs, 9 INTs) probably is the next best option.
It’ll probably anger SEC fans to see any list that has their league this far down in something rated by conference, but there are just too many question marks at this point to default them higher up. Auburn’s Nick Marshall had a terrific debut season and it’ll be fascinating to see how he develops considering he’s the first starting QB that Gus Malzahn has had return for a season in nine years. After Marshall, the guys with starting experience that catch your eye are MSU’s big Dak Prescott, who is intriguing; Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, who should have a good year; and UF’s Jeff Driskel, who returns from injury.
I’ll take a spot on the Driskel/UF bandwagon right now, because I think new OC Kurt Roper is that good and Driskel does have some talent to work with. The wildcard that could really boost this group: Bama’s Jacob Coker, the FSU transfer who had Noles coaches and players raving. Also, keep an eye on freshmen Brandon Harris from LSU and Kyle Allen from Texas A&M — both have the ability to become stars.
The conference has one sure-fire star in FSU’s Jameis Winston, last year’s Heisman winner. He has first-pick-of-the-draft talent assuming he can keep the knucklehead behavior in check off the field. After Winston, things get pretty thin. Duke’s Anthony Boone is a good one, as is UNC’s Marquise Williams, and Virginia’s David Watford has some nice skills — although the latter won’t go to training camp as No. 1 on the UVA depth chart.
One to keep an eye on is NC State’s Jacoby Brisset, a big, talented UF transfer who has generated some nice buzz inside the program.
It’s a pretty suspect group, but there are two studs: the top guy is ECU’s Shane Carden, who has blossomed into a star in OC Lincoln Riley’s spread attack. Carden threw for 33 TDs and over 4,100 yards with just 10 INTs while completing 71 percent of his passes last season.
Houston’s John O’Korn, coming off a terrific freshman season, has star potential and should put up huge numbers with a superb receiving corps. A QB to watch for this year will be Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel, the Notre Dame transfer who does have a lot of speedy WRs to throw to.
7. Mountain West
The MWC would’ve ranked pretty high on this list last season, but it lost three studs in David Carr, David Fales and Brett Smith. Fortunately, the marvelous Chuckie Keeton from Utah State returns from injury to headline.
Nevada’s Cody Fajardo (13 TDs, 3 INTs) and CSU’s Garrett Grayson (23 TDs) are also both solid, and Boise’s Grant Hedrick has some talent too. Fresno just added Brandon Connette, a dual-threat QB who scored a lot of TDs for Duke.
Marshall’s Rakeem Cato is a great top dog, and I almost had C-USA in the No. 7 spot because he is such a playmaker. How good is Cato? His coach Doc Holliday told me Cato is "the best competitor I’ve ever been around, and I coached on staffs that had Tim Tebow (Florida) and Phillip Rivers (NC State)."
FAU’s Jaquez Johnson was named C-USA Newcomer of the Year in 2013 after running for a team-best 772 yards. ODU’s Taylor Heinicke is interesting. He threw for 33 TDs and 8 INTs last season, although he did face a bunch of really mediocre opponents. UTEP’s Jameil Showers, the former Texas A&M transfer, has one of the strongest arms in college football but is still largely unproven at this point.
BGSU’s Matt Johnson put up good numbers last season (25 TDs and just seven INTs), and he should be even more productive in new coach Dino Babers’ system. Buffalo’s big Joe Licata is also coming off a nice season (24-8 TD/INT) and is still only a junior.
Worth watching: Toledo has two promising QBs in Alabama transfer Phillip Ely and Michael Julian, a 6-5 dual-threat talent with loads of potential. Notre Dame transfer Andrew Hendrix, a good runner, has resurfaced to be the Miami of Ohio QB.
10. Sun Belt
Things start out pretty well with Terrence Broadway at ULL, a terrific triggerman for Mark Hudspeth’s system, but the drop-off comes fast after that. Well-traveled Pete Thomas, formerly at CSU and NC State and now at ULM, probably is the next best option.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and Fox Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.