July 18, 2011

New QBs key for some conference contenders

As we get ever closer to the start of the 2011 season, we will hear more and more about the importance of veteran players at key positions.

At no position is experience talked about more than quarterback.

Indeed, Oklahoma is being touted as a national title contender because of the return of Landry Jones; Stanford - despite losing its coach and three-fifths of its offensive line - is being bandied about as a potential national dark-horse because of the return of Andrew Luck; and LSU is being given the nod by some in the SEC West because it has a three-year starter at quarterback in Jordan Jefferson.

Well, the next time you hear talk about how a team has to have an experienced quarterback, strike back with this nugget: Three of the past four - and five of the past nine - national champions have had first-year starters at quarterback.

We're not talking about league championships here; we're talking about national titles.

Since 2002, Ohio State (with Craig Krenzel in '02), LSU (Matt Mauck in '03 and Matt Flynn in '07), Alabama (Greg McElroy in '09) and Auburn (Cam Newton last season) have worn the crown with first-year signal-callers. (In addition, three of the past four Heisman winners - two quarterbacks and a running back - were in their first seasons as starters.)

Of course, you do have to win your conference before you can hope to win a national title.

And in that vein, here's a look at teams that have legitimate hopes for a conference title this fall despite carrying the "burden" of having a first-year starting quarterback.


ACC

THE TEAMS: Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech

OVERVIEW: The preseason favorites in the Atlantic (FSU) and Coastal (Virginia Tech) divisions must replace quarterbacks who were drafted - the Seminoles with Christian Ponder and the Hokies with Tyrod Taylor. North Carolina loses T.J. Yates, who had an up-and-down career but ended on a high note.

FLORIDA STATE: New starter E.J. Manuel actually has started six games in his career in place of an injured Ponder, so he has some experience. Still, going into a season as the starter is new for Manuel, and while there are really no questions about FSU's defense, there are a few about the offense. Manuel is a big guy (6-5/234) with mobility and a good arm. While there is no true feature back or an elite receiver, Manuel has a solid group of tailbacks and a deep receiving corps with which to work. Manuel is going to put up big numbers in at least four of the first six games (Louisiana-Monroe, Charleston Southern, Wake Forest and Duke); how he performs in the other two - Game 3 at home against Oklahoma and Game 4 at Clemson - will determine if FSU starts 6-0, 5-1 or 4-2.

VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies lost their quarterback and their top two tailbacks. The new quarterback is Logan Thomas, a great athlete who was recruited as a tight end. At 6-6 and 245, Thomas is even bigger than Manuel, but he lacks experience. He played in seven games last season, going 12-of-26 for 107 yards. Another difference from Manuel: Thomas has no established tailbacks behind him. Thomas does have good receivers and a solid line, and he should be able to ease into the job because the early-season competition isn't that tough. The Hokies should be 4-0 before playing Clemson and Miami back-to-back. Another difference from Manuel: While FSU coaches will be counting on the experienced Manuel to make big plays, Virginia Tech coaches can't rely on that from the inexperienced Thomas. Hokies coaches are more likely to ask Thomas not to lose games rather than to go out and win them.

NORTH CAROLINA: Yates had a solid senior campaign, and the Tar Heels new need starter Bryn Renner to play the same type of consistent football. UNC has a good line and a nice group of receivers. But the tailbacks are a giant question, putting way more pressure on Renner than Manuel and Thomas will have. As with FSU and Virginia Tech, the Heels have a defense that is good enough to win the league. Is the offense up to the task? UNC doesn't really see a good defense until Game 7, when the Heels play host to Miami. Frankly, a lot - a lot - has to go right for the Heels if they're to win the ACC. The schedule certainly helps. But if Renner struggles in September, this will be a long season for the Heels.


BIG EAST

THE TEAMS: No team with a new starter has a legit chance at the league title.

THE BUZZ: Six of the eight teams have returning starters. The only that don't are Louisville and defending tri-champ Connecticut.


BIG TEN

THE TEAMS: Ohio State and Wisconsin

THE BUZZ: The offseason turmoil at Ohio State, which has included the departure of three-year starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, has made for a much more interesting Big Ten race. League newcomer Nebraska, which features one of the best running quarterbacks in the nation in Taylor Martinez, looks to be the favorite in the Legends Division, but the Leaders Division looks wide open now.

OHIO STATE: Pryor started as a true freshman, and his departure could mean that touted true freshman Braxton Miller gets the starting nod for the Buckeyes this season. Miller enrolled early, went through spring practice and was praised for his knowledge of the offense and his athletic ability. Senior Joe Bauserman, who barely has played in his career, sophomore Kenny Guiton and redshirt freshman Taylor Graham are the other candidates. Despite all the turmoil, Ohio State - on paper - still has the most talent, top to bottom, in the Big Ten and has a realistic shot at the league title because of a solid defense, the Big Ten's best offensive line and some good skill-position players. Miller has the most upside of the quarterback quartet. The flipside, obviously, is that he is a true freshman and is going to make mistakes. Can the coaches live with the inevitable mistakes? After what should be relatively easy games against Akron and Toledo to open the season, the Buckeyes have Miami, Michigan State and Nebraska in Games 3, 5, and 6. To win those contests, the Buckeyes will need to be sharp offensively.

WISCONSIN: The Badgers don't really have a "new" starting quarterback; they just have a starting quarterback who is new to them. Russell Wilson started for the past three seasons at N.C. State but already has graduated and was allowed to transfer and have immediate eligibility. His decision to attend Wisconsin moved the Badgers from a Big Ten hopeful to a Big Ten challenger. Wilson enters the season having thrown for 8,545 yards and 76 TDs in his career; he also has rushed for 1,083 yards and 17 scores. While Scott Tolzien had been an effective quarterback the past two seasons for the Badgers, a defense didn't have to game plan against Tolzien. You do have to game plan against Wilson. Wilson never had a productive rushing attack when he was at NC State, with the Wolfpack averaging between 121 and 124 rushing yards per game in the past three seasons. Those numbers are a good half for the Badgers. Conversely, the Badgers never really have had a true threat in the passing game of late. They do now. Barring injury - or plain stubbornness from Badgers coaches - Wilson will have the biggest impact of any first-year starting quarterback this fall.


BIG 12

THE TEAMS: No team with a new starter has a legit chance at the league title.

THE BUZZ: If the league still had two divisions, Missouri would be a title contender in the North.


PAC-12

THE TEAM: Arizona State

THE BUZZ: This is a league filled with experienced quarterbacks - the deepest league in the nation at the position, in fact.

ARIZONA STATE: Junior Brock Osweiler started the final two games last season after Steven Threet was hurt, and Osweiler is the unquestioned starter now that Threet has had to give up football because of numerous concussions. Osweiler is a huge guy (6-8/240) with surprisingly good mobility; he's not necessarily a threat to run but he does have some nimbleness about him in the pocket. He threw for 647 yards and five TDs - with no interceptions - in his starts, which were wins over UCLA and Arizona. But while he attempted 85 passes in those two games, he threw only 24 other passes last season and 21 of those attempts came in mop-up duty in routs of Northern Arizona and Washington State. There is an experienced line in front of him and an OK group of tailbacks behind him. But while there's an experienced group of receivers, there is no established go-to guy. In addition, the schedule doesn't give Osweiler much time to get his feet wet. There's a sure win against UC Davis in the opener, but then comes a tough six-game stretch: Missouri, Illinois, USC, Oregon State, Utah and Oregon, with the Illini, Utes and Ducks on the road. The defense again will be stingy, but any hopes the Sun Devils have of winning the Pac-12 South depend on a productive offense. That means Osweiler must carry over his strong play from the end of last season.


SEC

THE TEAMS: Alabama and Arkansas

THE BUZZ: The West is best in the SEC this season, even though four of the six division teams (all but LSU and Mississippi State) are breaking in new starting quarterbacks. Ole Miss and defending national champion Auburn don't really have realistic division hopes, but Alabama and Arkansas do. In addition, the best news for the Tide and Hogs is that LSU does have a returning quarterback in Jordan Jefferson, who has been less-than-capable as a starter.

ALABAMA: This season's Tide look a lot like the 2009 Tide, who went on to win the national title - there's a potentially devastating defense with a big-time back eight (the Tide run a 3-4), an experienced and talented offensive line, an OK group of receivers, a tailback who has a world of potential if not a ton of production thus far (Trent Richardson is playing the Mark Ingram role this season) and a brand-new starting quarterback. In 2009, it was Greg McElroy at the controls; this fall, it figures to be sophomore A.J. McCarron, though redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will get a shot at the job during fall camp. McCarron has a big arm and was 30-of-48 for 389 yards and three TDs as a reserve last season. Sims is a better runner but not as polished a passer. Alabama is a prime example of a team that doesn't necessarily need a playmaker at quarterback; it just needs a guy who is steady, takes good care of the ball and lets his backs and receivers - and defense - do all the heavy lifting.

ARKANSAS: Ryan Mallett is gone early to the NFL, but as long as coach Bobby Petrino is around, the Hogs are going to have a productive offense. The question: Is it a 30-points-per-game offense or a 38-points-per-game unit? Junior Tyler Wilson is the new starting quarterback, and he did well in his only extensive playing time last season: 25-of-34 for 332 yards, four TDs and two picks in a 65-43 loss to Auburn when Mallett was injured in the first half. But Wilson - who has good size (6-3/215) and a strong arm - threw just 17 other passes all season. He has a stud tailback behind him in Knile Davis and can throw to the SEC's best receiving corps. But his line will have three new starters, including both tackles, and while the defense has gotten better of late, it's still not of the caliber of Alabama's or LSU's, the teams the Hogs must beat to win the division. That means that in the big games, the offense must come through. The early schedule should allow Wilson and the rebuilt line time to get comfortable, as the Hogs open with Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy. But things then get serious: Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn back-to-back-to-back. The Alabama game, obviously, is one of the most important SEC games of the season and will have a huge bearing on who wins the West.


CONFERENCE USA

THE TEAMS: No team with a new starter has a legit chance at the league title.

THE BUZZ: The league's five best teams have returning starters at quarterback, and four of those five have upperclassmen at the controls; the "outlier" is UCF, with sophomore Jeff Godfrey.


MID-AMERICAN

THE TEAM: Temple

THE BUZZ: Northern Illinois and Toledo look like the two best teams in the league, and they have experienced quarterbacks. But both are in the West Division. The East Division favorites look to be Temple and Miami (Ohio), and both could have quarterback controversies. Miami has a new coach and two quarterbacks (Zac Dysert and Austin Boucher) who won some big games last fall.

TEMPLE: The Owls also have a new coach and are adapting to a new scheme (the spread option) and have three quarterbacks who played last season (Mike Gerardi, Chester Stewart and Chris Coyer). But the best quarterback candidate might be JC transfer Clinton Granger; he has the most upside and is athletic enough to be dangerous as a runner and as a passer. The question: He did not enroll early, so how quickly can he grasp the offense? There are two good tailbacks in Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown, and an OK receiving corps. But the line has four new starters, and the uncertainty at quarterback could end up costing the Owls the division title. Back-to-back non-conference games against Penn State and Maryland in late September will provide a gauge as to how quickly - or not - the new offense has jelled.


MOUNTAIN WEST

THE TEAM: TCU

THE BUZZ: Andy Dalton was a steady four-year starter for the Horned Frogs, and he improved as a passer each season. Dalton is gone, though, as is Utah's Jordan Wynn, whose team now is in the Pac-12. The new guy on the block is Boise State's Kellen Moore, whose program joins the Mountain West this season. Three of the top four Mountain West teams return their starting quarterback - all but TCU. San Diego State's Ryan Lindley is a good one who is underrated nationally, and Air Force's Tim Jefferson is a great fit for the Falcons' triple-option offense.

TCU: The Horned Frogs' defense always is going to be stingy, but the offense could lack some bite this fall. Dalton is gone, as are four starting offensive linemen and three of the top four receivers. Coaches like new starting quarterback Casey Pachall, a sophomore who is more athletic than Dalton. Pachall played in eight games last season, but threw just nine passes and had only 15 rushing attempts. A new quarterback playing behind a rebuilt line isn't necessarily a recipe for success. Still, despite a tough early-season schedule - four of the first six are against teams that went to bowls last season, and three of those four are on the road - TCU should be fine because of its defense. But the Horned Frogs have had back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons because their offense was almost as good as their defense, and that will not be the case this season.


SUN BELT

THE TEAMS: No team with a new starter has a legit chance at the league title.

THE BUZZ: The top two conference contenders - really, the only teams that look as if they have a shot at the crown - are FIU and Troy, and each has a second-year starter at quarterback.


WESTERN ATHLETIC

THE TEAMS: Fresno State and Nevada

THE BUZZ: The league lost two of the top 12 or so quarterbacks in the nation; Boise State's Kellen Moore now is toiling in the Mountain West and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick is readying for what he hopes will be an NFL season. The WAC looks like a three-team race, and Hawaii is the only contender that returns its starter (Bryant Moniz).

FRESNO STATE: Sophomore Derek Carr has enough offensive talent around him for Fresno to win the league, and if he's anywhere as close as good as his brother - former NFL overall No. 1 pick David Carr - the Bulldogs will be in good shape this fall. Carr (6-3/190) has a strong arm, and the coaches seem likely to let him wing it around more often than recent Bulldogs quarterbacks. Carr was 10-of-14 as a true freshman backup in 2009, then redshirted last season. The last time he threw a pass in a game was Oct. 24, 2009, against New Mexico State. Forget easing into the job this season: The Bulldogs open with road games against California and Nebraska, and there are back-to-back non-conference games against Ole Miss and Boise State in early October. If Carr can survive that quartet of opponents without having thrown a bushel of picks, he will have proven he has enough moxie to lead Fresno to the league title.

NEVADA: Kaepernick was a great fit for the Wolf Pack's "Pistol" offense because of his dual-threat ability. He was extremely dangerous as a runner. His replacement will be senior Tyler Lantrip, a more polished passer than Kaepernick but not near the runner. Lantrip has thrown all of 23 career passes. Redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo and sophomore Mason Magleby are better runners than Lantrip, but they seem far more likely to dual for the backup job than actually start. The Wolf Pack have a good line, but there are questions at tailback (Vai Taua is gone) and wide receiver (Rishard Matthews is the only proven receiver on the roster). In short, Carr has more to work with than Lantrip - and is more talented, to boot.


Grid bits
This has not been a good offseason for Arizona State. Two projected starters - WR T.J. Simpson and CB Omar Bolden - suffered knee injuries during spring practice that seem likely to keep them out for the season. Bolden, especially, is a big loss, as he would've contended for All-Pac-12 honors. There was more bad news last week, when starting DE James Brooks left the team for personal reasons. Brooks wasn't going to be an all-league guy, but he would've been an experienced senior for a line that already lost its two starting tackles from last season. Fellow DE Junior Onyeali made some All-Freshman teams last season, but Onyeali (5-11/233) strictly is a pass rusher at this stage of his career, meaning the Sun Devils' linebackers are going to be really busy against the run unless some defensive tackles make big strides. Coaches were hoping sophomore DT William Sutton could make a big impact, but Brooks' departure makes that almost mandatory now.

Arizona State wasn't the only team to get bad news last week. West Virginia starting G Josh Jenkins will miss the season after knee surgery. Jenkins was hurt during the spring game, and it was hoped rest and rehabilitation would be enough. It wasn't, and his departure means WVU will have two new starting guards this fall. WVU also lost a key reserve at linebacker when Branko Busick was booted from the team after being charged with armed robbery in Morgantown.

Former Pittsburgh QB Pat Bostick's eligibility ended after last season, but he'll still be around the team: He'll be the radio analyst on Panthers games this fall. Bostick was a big recruit who never lived up to the hype, but as a freshman, he was the starting quarterback in the 2007 victory that knocked West Virginia out of a spot in the title game and, as a result, sent then-WVU coach Rich Rodriguez on the way to Michigan. Bostick is in graduate school pursuing a master's in education. He replaces former Pitt star OT Bill Fralic, who resigned from the post after seven seasons. Fralic was critical of Pitt AD Steve Pederson in January, but he told Pittsburgh media last week that living in Atlanta and commuting to games had gotten to be too much.

The Ohio High School Football Coaches Association is encouraging its members to wear a white shirt and tie during their season-openers next month in an homage to former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel - you know, the same guy who resigned last month in disgrace after breaking NCAA rules. Tressel was inducted into the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame recently despite never coaching high school ball in the state. Interestingly, coaches in the Ohio Hall have plaques installed in a place of honor in - wait for it - Ohio Stadium.

Are you jonesing for football to the point where you would even watch league media day activities? Well, ESPNU has you covered. The network will cover the media days for the SEC (July 20-22), Pac-12 (July 26) and Big East (Aug. 2).

California is in the process of remodeling Memorial Stadium - the Golden Bears will play their home games this season at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants - and the school is letting fans vote on some potential field designs.

The Southern Conference, one of the best FCS leagues, announced last week that it will have a game of the week televised on PBS stations in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina starting this fall.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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