- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Not long ago, Big 12 media days was an event worthy of a red carpet, with star-studded quarterbacks annually filling the halls.
Many -- like “Vince” and “Sam” -- were on a first-name basis with their fans. Others -- like “RG3” -- donned catchy nicknames.
This year, though, there were no rock stars at media days in Dallas. Because, well, there are no marquee quarterbacks returning.
As the SEC with defense, the Big 12 has become synonymous with quarterbacking. Of the past 13 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft, six are Big 12 alums.
But these are foreign times in the conference. For a change, quarterbacking is the Big 12’s big unknown.
“We're in the same situation as seven or eight others,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who is replacing his school’s all-time leading passer, Geno Smith.
“Pretty much everyone is in the same boat.”
A boat that seats virtually everyone in the league.
Texas' David Ash is the Big 12's only expected starter who started more than five games last season. Six other teams are still officially involved in quarterback derbies, including Texas Tech, which could wind up starting true freshman walk-on Baker Mayfield in its opener with projected starter Michael Brewer dealing with a back injury.
Such quarterback uncertainty has rendered the Big 12 as wide open as ever, with six teams receiving first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll.
“I think it would be unfair to even predict what could happen in the league this year,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who has hinted he won’t announce Clint Chelf or J.W. Walsh as the starter until the opener against Mississippi State. “You have a certain number of teams, five or six, who if they stay healthy and get quality quarterback play, have a chance to win the league.
“For the fans and for the media, this year is as exciting as it gets -- because I don’t think anyone really knows.”
But the lack of marquee returning quarterbacks is also predominantly why for the first time in its history the Big 12 doesn't have a team ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls. Oklahoma State was the league’s highest-ranked squad at No. 13.
Ash started every game but one for the Longhorns last season. But he also was benched against Kansas and TCU.
TCU’s Casey Pachall had a banner 2011 campaign. But he left four games into last season to seek treatment for substance abuse.
And while Chelf and Walsh both won games for the Cowboys as starters last year, it’s unclear at the moment which of the two will get the majority of snaps.
“The preseason polls for the majority in my opinion are based on returning quarterback play, because we all know how important quality quarterback play is to winning games,” Gundy said. “They look on paper and see there’s not a lot of returning quarterbacks in this league and so you’re not going to get recognized as much as other schools.”
Coaches and players around the conference, however, caution not to dismiss this batch of quarterbacks just because they’re new.
“There’ll be a bunch of names you’ll be talking about next year -- that they’re all back,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
While there’s no Vince Young, Sam Bradford or Robert Griffin III yet, there is talent.
Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, who are vying to replace four-year starter Landry Jones in Norman, were both four-star recruits. So was Kansas’ Jake Heaps, who sat out last season after transferring from BYU.
Baylor’s Bryce Petty had offers to play at Nebraska and Virginia Tech coming out of high school.
“The quarterback play in the Big 12 last year was phenomenal,” Holgorsen said. “And it's always going to be phenomenal.
“It's just going to be with newer people.”