Oklahoma announced Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham will not be eligible to play for the Sooners in 2014 after his waiver request to make the receiver immediately eligible was denied by the NCAA on Friday.
Now Knight, the Sooners starting quarterback, is left with junior Sterling Shepard as his lone proven receiver to target heading into this season. Shepard had 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. The rest of the receivers on the Sooners' roster combined for 17 receptions for 228 yards in 2013.
The Sooners were hoping Green-Beckham would become eligible to provide a proven playmaker on the outside after the 6-foot-6, 225 pound receiver had 59 receptions for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns for Missouri in 2013 before his dismissal last spring.
Much of the burden is likely to fall upon Durron Neal, the second-leading returning receiver on the roster. Neal was an Army All-American when he arrived on campus but has yet to fulfill those high expectations with 18 career receptions for 251 yards in his first two seasons.
"I think we have some real stability with Shepard and Neal on the perimeter," receivers coach Jay Norvell said earlier this week. "Then we've got some young guys, K.J. Young and Michiah Quick, that are kind of coming on in the slot."
Sophomore Derrick Woods is another receiver the Sooners are counting on to become an impact player on offense for the first time in his career after a redshirt freshman season that featured just two receptions for 29 yards including a clutch third-down reception in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
"We could play with Derrick Woods as a starter," Norvell said. "There's no question and feel confident doing that. He's been in the fire. He made a huge play in the Sugar Bowl and the one thing about that kid, you get him in a competitive situation, he really responds."
A portion of the onus could also fall upon covered tight end Blake Bell, who made the switch from quarterback in January with an eye on becoming an big target for Knight.
Keep an eye on a pair of redshirt freshmen who will get more opportunities with Green-Beckham out of the equation. Jordan Smallwood, who has impressed since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2013 but was forced into a redshirt season by a broken foot in the preseason a year ago, and K.J. Young, who has emerged as an potential impact player in the slot for the Sooners, have both used a redshirt year in 2013 to put themselves in position to make an impact this fall.
"K.J.'s just playing a lot faster," Norvell said. "He really has an understanding of what we want him to do inside. He's playing really fast, roaring off the football. That's a big thing here at Oklahoma. We really stress coming off the ball and playing with speed, and when you watch guys like Kenny Stills and Jalen Saunders, when those guys played, they roared off the football, and K.J.'s starting to get that."
Incoming freshman Michiah Quick is another player who could see his role expand with Shepard's ability to play in the slot or on the outside allowing the Sooners to move Shepard around with a goal of getting their top three or four receivers on the field.
It's clear the Sooners like their talent at receiver but it is largely unproven. OU's season opener against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30 and second-non conference game against Tulsa on Sept. 6 will be critical for the Sooners offense to figure out which receivers can be counted on heading into their home matchup with Tennessee on Sept. 13.
Bring it on, Matt Barkley. All in for Andrew Luck. Ain't no one stopping Toby Gerhart. Yeah, we've tapped this dance before. But the last few years the end result has been a lonely solo.
Pac-12 Heisman contenders usually enter the season with considerable hype. And that makes sense given the offensive prowess of the conference. After all, you can eliminate half of the college football population since it's essentially an offensive award. And it stands to reason that the conference known for its innovative offenses and playmakers also produces frontrunners. But lately those frontrunners have been afterthoughts by Black Friday.
No doubt about it, the Pac-12 is in a Heisman drought. The pursuit of a stiff-arm-player has been met by, well, stiff-armed-voters.
The current slump isn't as bad as the 28-year drought from when the award was first given out in 1935 to the time Oregon State's Terry Baker won in 1962. And it's not as long as the 21-year gap between Marcus Allen in '81 and Carson Palmer in 2002 (sorry Pac-12, you don't get to claim Rashaan Salaam in '94).
The last "official" Pac-10/12 player to win the Heisman Trophy was USC quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004, so we're coming up on a decade. There was, of course, the vacated winner of 2005 – Reggie Bush – whose exploits have been wiped from existence.
And so have the trophies.
Bush and USC have returned their cast-bronze mementoes to the Heisman Trust. And a Heisman spokesman was extremely tight-lipped when asked about their location, saying only that they were "locked away in a secure area." No doubt they're being watched over by Tupac and the Knights Templar, along with the location of Atlantis and the alternate ending to The Sopranos that we all really want to believe exists. Don't stop believin'.
According to one report, it's in a storage unit in New York. I imagine it looking something like this ... where it's being examined by ... top men.
If the previous few years fell under the category of "good chance" for the Pac-12 to win a Heisman, then 2014 certainly has to be considered a "great chance." With 10 returning starting quarterbacks bringing national attention to the league, it's two who are taking center stage -- the Oregon Ducks' Marcus Mariota and UCLA Bruins' Brett Hundley.
Both are exciting, dual-threat athletes who are going to put up those monster offensive numbers that Heisman voters gravitate toward. And while the specter of Bush's Heisman season is just that, the national media seems to have come around to the idea the Pac-12 is in the conversation for top conference in college football because of its schedule, its depth and -- above all -- its quarterbacks.
Just as the Pac-12 is a quarterback-driven league, the Heisman has turned into a quarterback-driven award. Every winner since 2000 has been a quarterback except for Mark Ingram in 2009. The spread offense opened up all sorts of possibilities for voters because offensive totals once thought unimaginable are now standard operating production for elite dual-threat quarterbacks. The idea of a player throwing for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushing for 700-plus yards and 10 touchdowns once boggled voters' imaginations. Now it's expected of a Heisman winner --widening the gap even further between quarterbacks and all other position groups.
Fortunately for the Pac-12, they have a pair of guys who match the profile. Last season, Mariota passed for 3,665 yards and threw 31 touchdowns to four interceptions. Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Mariota rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. Hundley added 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
It helps too that both players lead teams ranked in the preseason top 10. And both players have high-profile nonconference games early in the season that will draw the eyes of voters East of Lake Tahoe.
Nor does it hurt that both Hundley and Mariota have squeaky clean records, as far as we know. Consider three of the past four winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton -- all had off-field question marks, be it legal or otherwise. Perhaps character will play into Decision 2014? After all, the word "integrity" appears twice in the Heisman Trust mission statement. From what we've seen from Mariota and Hundley so far, they fit the bill.
Both players have said numerous times over the past eight months that they are prepared for the onslaught of attention that comes with a Heisman contending candidacy. Both passed up being first-round NFL draft selections in 2014 to finish their time at school and end their careers -- both hope -- with a trip to the first College Football Playoff.
And in doing so, one of them might also end the Pac-12's Heisman drought.
The gig is about to change.
McEvoy's athleticism is undeniable. The guy played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season after briefly competing for the top quarterback job in camp. Questions remain about his passing skills, and he has no experience as an FBS quarterback after transferring to Wisconsin from Arizona Western College last winter.
If Wisconsin wanted experience, it would have picked Joel Stave, who has made 19 starts the past two seasons and boasts 3,598 pass yards and 28 touchdown passes. If Wisconsin wanted the status quo at quarterback, Stave would be the obvious choice. And based on most practice reports, picking Stave over McEvoy based on performance would have made sense, too.
But McEvoy was coach Andersen's guy all along. Andersen wants more mobility and playmaking skills from the quarterback spot, and the 6-foot-6, 222-pound McEvoy provides it. Andersen wants more than one ball-carrying option in the backfield along Melvin Gordon or Corey Clement.
Tom Minnick, who coached McEvoy at Arizona Western in 2012, said Andersen had seen what a mobile quarterback could do at Utah State (Chuckie Keeton) and wanted McEvoy for the same reason.
McEvoy must prove himself as a passer, especially with a mostly anonymous receiving corps. He struggled throwing the ball last summer, but showed improvement this spring and in camp.
"He's got a weird throwing motion, but he was very accurate," Minnick said. "He got the ball there, and his arm’s very strong."
Before camp, I was fairly certain McEvoy would be the starter for the LSU game. But Stave's performance seemed to change the narrative, and you wouldn't have blamed the coaches for going with experience against LSU.
But this is about Wisconsin's future on offense, not its past. In McEvoy and dynamic freshman D.J. Gillins, Andersen has made it clear that the days of the statuesque quarterback at Wisconsin are over.
The key for McEvoy is to replicate some of the things his predecessors delivered -- namely limiting turnovers -- while adding a dual-threat element to the offense. His first assignment undoubtedly will be a tough one, and few would be surprised if Stave also sees the field against LSU.
Wisconsin always will be a haven for running backs and offensive linemen, but the quarterbacks should be a bigger factor going forward. McEvoy is the first of the new Badgers quarterbacks, but he won't be the last.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman hailed the leadership skills of the redshirt freshman. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off Barrett's positive attributes as a passer, starting with his ability to make the right decisions and consistent accuracy that should allow them to pay off for the Buckeyes. Coach Urban Meyer focused on Barrett's potential as a "distributor," likening him to famed Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton in the process.
But there is one more comparison that has popped up during a wild week at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that might offer another clue about how the Buckeyes might look this season without Braxton Miller running the show, one which the coaching staff mentioned to SI.com's Pete Thamel.
Barrett's smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak. "I'll take that," Meyer said with a smile. "I'm a big Chris Leak fan."
If Barrett is Meyer's latest version of Leak, it stands to reason he might also have a need for somebody to fill the role Tim Tebow played in the two-quarterback system that won Florida a national title in 2006. And, look at that, Ohio State has a 6-foot-5, 250-pound battering ram in Cardale Jones already on the roster.
The conversation about Jones has died down considerably since he left spring practice with the backup job ahead of Barrett, but it's not hard to envision how he could still have an impact for the Buckeyes as they put together a game plan for next week's opener against Navy.
For starters, Meyer has proven adept at managing multiple quarterbacks in his spread system in the past. Even a year ago with Miller in the fold, Meyer expressed his desire to find a way to get Guiton more involved and eventually installed a package of plays in the red zone that featured his backup quarterback.
One problem with using them both more often, aside from Miller's athleticism clearly setting him apart, was Meyer's two options behind center had similar skill sets. But that isn't really the case with Barrett and Jones, with the former four inches smaller and relying on an accurate arm, and the latter boasting a powerful-but-inconsistent arm but capable of pounding away at opponents regularly on the ground.
When asked on Wednesday, Meyer didn't rule out playing both quarterbacks as he tries to replace Miller's production, though he didn't provide any insight into how that rotation might work.
But even with Meyer simply saying "sure, yeah," looking at his past and the talent on hand, it's not a stretch to think some sort of quarterback combo could be back in his playbook -- if it isn't already there.
Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld found himself in a time-share situation at quarterback the past two seasons. No matter how well he performed -- and he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2013 -- Sudfeld never knew exactly when he might start or even play.
Throughout it all, he never complained. He saw a much bigger picture.
“It would be really hard for me, if I had a bad game or something, to get too upset,” Sudfeld said. “I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems.”
Sudfeld’s upbringing ensured that he would never get too wrapped up in himself. He comes from a family of missionaries who actually dare to try and alleviate some of the world’s problems.
His grandfather, Bob Pagett, is a former pastor who along with his wife, Charlene, decided to create a relief organization after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. He never dreamed it would take flight the way it has.
Assist International focuses on needs such as providing fresh water, delivering medical supplies and serving orphans in Third World nations. Pagett said the organization has completed projects in more than 60 countries around the world. It has built orphanages and schools in Romania, Uganda and other war-torn or impoverished areas.
Along the way, it also became the family business. Sudfeld’s father, Ralph, will take over as president of the organization next year, while his mother, Michelle, serves as fundraising director. Nate’s older brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development.
Pagett told each of his nine grandchildren that they could go with him on a relief mission when they turned 14. Shortly after he reached that age, Nate Sudfeld went to Uganda and Kenya, meeting renowned missionary Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe along the way. Sudfeld recalled playing soccer with orphans during the trip.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for our grandkids,” Pagett said. “When you grow up in Modesto and all of a sudden you go to Vietnam or Romania, your eyes are wide open and you’re a world person. They’re really into helping the poor and needy around the world, because they’ve been exposed to the world.”
Sudfeld has been itching to go on another mission ever since his first one. He had planned to join his twin brothers Matt and Zach, the latter of whom is a tight end for the New York Jets, on a trip to Uganda this spring. But the itinerary got postponed, and by the time it happened this summer, he was too wrapped up in football preparations.
Sudfeld hopes there will be time after this season to go somewhere on a mission.
“It seems like almost every time I’m on the phone with him he’s saying, ‘When can I go out? When’s the next trip?” Matt Sudfeld said.
For now, though, the Hoosiers take priority, and Sudfeld is the team’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback for the first time. Tre Roberson’s surprising transfer this summer cleared the way for the 6-foot-5 junior who threw 21 touchdown passes in eight starts a year ago.
It’s also the first time that fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson won’t have to juggle quarterbacks. He says Sudfeld has the talent to be "one of the premier players in our league" and that he has definite NFL potential.
That’s what Sudfeld has dreamed of since he was a high school freshman, when he would practice his throwing motion in front of a mirror to make sure he maintained a quick and compact release despite his height. Sudfeld said not having to look over his shoulder this season gives him more confidence, but he’s not settling for just owning the starting job.
“I’m not trying to just be the No. 1 quarterback at Indiana,” he said. “I’m trying to be one of the better players around. If I do that, it will make our whole team better.”
As he was raised to do, Sudfeld sees the bigger picture at play. And football is never all that’s on his mind.
“I’m really glad I was able to get out of my little California bubble at a young age,” he said. “[Relief work] is something I definitely want to be involved in as I get older. There’s nothing like it.”
"He’s the best punter we have," Saban said this week. "I mean, have you seen him punt?"
We had not. Practices and scrimmages are closed to the media, remember.
"Well, that’s an easy one," Saban said.
Saban looked around the room to see if there were any more questions. There were none.
If only every day were so simple.
Naming a starting punter is one thing. Finding your next starting quarterback is another. Not when you are replacing a two-time champion in AJ McCarron. Not when you are the consensus No. 2 team in the country coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2008. Not when you have two vastly different options to choose from.
The fact that Blake Sims has hung in the competition this long is surprising to many. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the former four-star athlete was wondering if he would play running back or receiver for the Tide. Now, after four years in the system, he has worked on his delivery, studied the playbook and become what coaches and teammates describe as a much more accurate passer.
All of the sudden it’s a race between he and Jake Coker. At least that is what we’re told.
Again, practices and scrimmages are walled off to the prying eyes of the media. And the stats the program typically provides? They have gone missing, too. All that is left is one man’s word to draw from, and there is always the potential for a bit of cat-and-mouse games from Saban.
"Somebody has got to take the job," Saban said. "One day one guy plays really well and you say, 'Well, that looks like that might be it.' And the next day the other guy plays really well.
"I think the good news is we have two guys that I would feel very comfortable playing."
On the one hand is Sims, who is said to have the intangibles: comfort with the offense, command of the huddle and the respect of his teammates. He even has a new mindset, according to safety Jarrick Williams, who said, "Blake has an attitude, you know. He’s taking the competition very seriously."
Black said he is often asked about the quarterback competition around town and on campus. His response: "It’s a tough decision. I’ll leave that up to coach Saban."
But the timing of Saban's decision is a topic of debate. A two-quarterback system for the first few weeks of the system is now a distinct possibility. The hope is that by Week 4 against Florida -- after non-conference games against unranked West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss -- someone will have seized the job.
Between now and then, the questions about where the quarterback race stands will keep coming. There won’t be many more easy days to talk about the starting punter. And the happy Saban we saw this week? He might revert to the form we saw a week prior when he threatened to withold the scrimmage statistics again if he was asked about the competition once more.
In judging this race, patience is the one and only virtue. Until Week 1 against West Virginia, we won’t know much of anything.
"I would like to see somebody take the bull by the horns from a leadership standpoint, a consistency standpoint and win the job here sometime," Saban said. "But we're not going to make a decision until somebody does that."
For two seasons, Jacoby Brissett and Tyler Murphy worked alongside each other on Florida's practice fields and film room, in the weight room and the meeting rooms, but throughout the entirety of 2011 and 2012 they combined to make just one start. They'd push each other to get better, but more often, they bonded during long conversations about stifled dreams and brighter futures.
For years, there was a nebulous finish line, a point when Murphy and Brissett hoped at least one of them might be a starter. Now, there's a date circled on the calendar for both quarterbacks: Oct. 11, 2014. It's the day Brissett, now the starting QB at NC State, and Murphy, now the starter at Boston College, will go head to head on the field.
After it became clear Brissett's career at Florida had plateaued in 2012, he decided it was time to transfer. He sat down with Murphy and mapped out his options. West Virginia seemed a possibility, but the coaching staff there was eager to compare Brissett with former Moutaineers QB Geno Smith, and Brissett had already spent too much time living in the shadows of other players.
"I was like, 'I'm not the next Geno,'" Brissett said. "I wanted to be Jacoby, and I felt like [NC State] was a place I could do that."
Brissett already knew NC State coach Dave Doeren from his recruitment, which made the transition a bit easier. Still, Brissett would have to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules, which meant one more year watching from the sidelines.
At Florida, a season-ending injury to incumbent Jeff Driskel finally gave Murphy his first opportunity to start. He threw the first pass of his four-year career on Sept. 21, 2013 against Tennessee, and he started the next six games for the Gators -- four of them losses. Although Murphy had some solid outings, the losses dogged him. A shoulder injury ended his season in November, and by then it was clear Driskel would be back atop the depth chart when he was healthy.
With one year of eligibility left, Murphy began to think about following Brissett out the door, and, as a New England native, Boston College seemed like an ideal fit.
"He was telling me Boston College was one of the schools he was looking at, and I was like, 'Oh, Boston College is one of the teams we play,'" Brissett said. "So as much as I wanted to tell him to be positive as the season went, I was hoping he'd go to Boston College just so I could play him. But I remember him countless times saying he wanted to stay, he didn't want to transfer."
But what Murphy wanted more than anything was a chance to play, so Brissett offered some advice: Make a decision and don't look back.
"You can't say I'm going to transfer and then say never mind because everybody knows you want to leave," Brissett said. "So just do it and get it over with, know where you want to go. And no matter where you go, if they're taking you right now, you're pretty much going to be the starter. So make sure when you go there, play how you play and you'll be fine. Everything else will take care of itself."
So far, it has.
Murphy didn't have the luxury of preparation at Boston College, but the Eagles' depth chart offered few other options, and he was installed as the team's starter almost from Day 1.
The two QBs still talk nearly every day -- no longer trading stories about what it might be like to start, but instead debating the ways they still needed to get better now that they're No. 1 on their respective depth charts.
And yes, there's still some sour feelings about Florida, about the opportunities that never developed there. It's not anger or frustration, but rather a drive to prove something to the coaches who doubted them.
"You want to show them why you transferred and show them you could play at the highest level," Brissett said. "Whatever they said you couldn't do, you go out there and do it. All it takes is the right person, the right situation and the right coach to say, 'You're my guy.' And I'm pretty sure Murph's thinking the same thing. It's not worrying about Florida, it's worrying about ourselves."
And of course there's still that date looming on the calendar, when Brissett and Murphy are finally reunited. They've talked about that a lot, too.
But just like those long days of practice at Florida, the chatter isn't about competition so much as it is about the future, about what they've worked so hard to achieve.
"It will definitely be kind of weird to go up against somebody you've grinded with and stayed after practice and done drills with and watched film with, and give each other tips to get better," Murphy said. "But I think it'll be exciting and I think it'll be a fun game to play and I think it'll be a great atmosphere."
After all, it's the perfect scenario for both QBs. On every snap from scrimmage, either Murphy or Brissett will be on the field, and that's really all they ever wanted.
"As corny as it sounds, it puts a smile on your face to see one of your good friends doing what you know he wants to do," Brissett said. "We had those countless talks when we were playing with each other -- 'Man I wish I was out there playing.' And now I'm going to get to see first hand, see him play."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Who will the SEC’s next star be? It was the underlying theme at SEC media days as the coaches stole the spotlight, rather than the players, and there’s no doubt the conference lost some serious star power after last year, including one "Johnny Football." But to find the league’s next star, you must first ask yourself: What does it take to be a star?
Is it simply putting up big numbers in a conference loaded with talent? Do wins and losses matter? And how much does a player’s personality and charisma factor into his appeal?
If recent history is any indication, the latter plays a major role.
What do Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow have in common? They all won the Heisman Trophy, and they all had plenty of personality. Even Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, had a certain aura about him, a presence that captivated audiences nationwide.
“He’s not big on the spotlight,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He doesn't have to have the attention. He doesn't crave it, not that that's a bad thing, but he just likes to lay low, go about his business and do his thing. When it's game time, he likes to let it loose, let it rip and compete.”
It’s always been that way for Marshall. He didn’t grow up in the state of Texas or in a metropolis like Atlanta. As his high school coach, Mark Ledford, put it, “He grew up in a town [Pineview, Georgia] that’s got one caution light, and I’m not sure, really, it needs it.”
In high school, Marshall had a game where he threw six touchdowns to six different wide receivers, and he was happier for them than he was with what he did.
“That’s Nick,” Ledford said. “He’s never been one to reap all the glory.”
When Marshall arrived at Auburn last summer, he was a junior college quarterback with high expectations, but nobody knew anything about him other than his checkered past (in February 2012, he was dismissed by Georgia for violating team rules). In 2014, the expectations are even higher, yet Marshall himself is still a mystery.
“He’s not going to take the podium with a microphone stuck in his face and go try to be something that he’s not,” Ledford said. “What you’ve been getting with Nick, that’s about what you’re going to get.”
Auburn had planned to bring Marshall to media days, an opportunity to put their quarterback in the spotlight, but that fell through when he was pulled over just days before and given a citation for possession of marijuana.
An opportunity wasted. Instead of peeling layers back this offseason, more layers were added.
Now, as the 2014 season approaches, the usual suspects have already been mentioned for the Heisman Trophy -- names like Winston, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty. Some pundits have included Marshall’s name, but his odds are higher. He’s more of a dark horse candidate than a front-runner.
“It’s a matter of opinion,” Auburn assistant coach Dameyune Craig said. “You can look at what Jameis did last year as a [redshirt] freshman; he won a national championship. You can look at Nick Marshall and say this kid was a first-year starting quarterback that played defensive back and he took us to the national championship game in the toughest conference in the nation.
“So I don’t see why he wouldn’t be in that category, based on what he did and his production. He put up over 3,000 yards of total offense, accounted for a lot of touchdowns."
Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “You look at the people in the Heisman race, and they’re on winning teams. Nick just needs to lead us and keep winning. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.”
Marshall is not Newton, Tebow or Manziel. Marshall doesn’t embrace the spotlight as so many others before him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be the next star in the SEC. He might even be the next Heisman Trophy winner, but don’t ask him about it. That’s not his style.
“I'm not too worried about the Heisman,” Marshall told reporters earlier this month. “I'm trying to gain the trust of my teammates and my coaches, and then I'm just trying to go out there and win games.”
Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth
Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC
Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)
Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.
High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.
Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.
Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)
Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.
They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
That judgment? Things worked out well for the SEC and Big Ten. Not so much for the Pac-12 and Big 12.
The Big Ten added Nebraska three seasons ago to give it 12 teams. The Cornhuskers, despite not satisfying their demanding fans, have gone 17-7 in league play and won 28 games overall.
The Big 12 replaced those two with TCU and West Virginia, teams that had won BCS bowl games as members of the Mountain West and Big East conferences, respectively. Yet neither has posted a winning record in Big 12 play, and both regressed to 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the conference last year.
The Pac-12? It raided the Big 12 for Colorado, which went 5-7 and 2-6 in 2010, and the Mountain West for Utah, which went 10-3, 7-1 that year. Neither has matched its 2010 records in the Pac-12 nor posted a winning record in conference play. The Buffaloes have gone a meager 4-23 against Pac-12 foes, while the Utes have gone from 4-5 to 3-6 to 2-7 in conference games.
Nebraska has been to three consecutive New Year's Day bowls, beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl last year, while Texas A&M has won a Heisman Trophy and two bowl games. Like the Aggies, Missouri has won a Cotton Bowl against the Big 12. Both have produced top-five rankings over the past two years.
The lone badge of postseason honor for the Pac-12 newbies? Utah's victory over Georgia Tech in the 2011 Sun Bowl. To the Utes' credit, they have gone 9-1 in games outside the Pac-12 over the past three seasons, including 3-0 versus their bitter rival BYU.
Although the Pac-12 has surged after realignment in terms of national perception, gaining ground on the SEC, and the Big Ten has stagnated by comparison, that's had nothing to do with expansion. While Pac-12 folks aren't going to whine about the fruits of expansion -- Exhibit A being a $3 billion TV deal -- or even grouse about poor-to-middling results from the new members, it's fair to say the short-term gain in terms of assets on Saturdays has been slight.
As assets, Colorado and Utah don't attract national eyeballs at present as they would if they were winning 10 games and were nationally ranked. The Utes' nail-biter with Arizona State in November was an interesting game, but it would have been featured prominently in highlight shows that night if it were a battle of ranked teams eyeballing the South Division title.
That said, other Pac-12 coaches might enjoy not having two more teams threatening to play at a Top 25 -- or better -- level. The conference, even with the Utes and Buffs slumping, is deeper than it's ever been. In fact, if both were playing at a high level, the conference's chances to put two teams in BCS bowl games, as it did in two of the previous three years, would have been reduced, costing each team about $1 million since 2011. That holds true looking forward to a potential berth -- or berths -- in the College Football Playoff.
Depth is good. It's fun to celebrate top-to-bottom quality. But it also makes it more difficult to go 12-0 or 11-1 in the regular season, records typically required for national title contention.
Still, the Pac-12 is better served by Utah and Colorado improving. The conference certainly would like the Denver and Salt Lake City markets to turn their attention to college football in large numbers.
Not to conclude with an outlandish assertion here, but here's a guess that the folks most eager for the Buffs and Utes to help the Pac-12 feel good about its expansion choices are the fans, administrators, players and coaches associated with both programs.
Having won all but two of the previous nine matchups in this series, the MEAC comes into the 10th annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney (11:45 am ET Sunday, Aug. 31, on ESPN) with some understandable swagger.
The North Carolina A&T State Aggies, who finished 4-4 in the conference and 7-4 overall, understand that better than anyone as they prepare to face the SWAC's Alabama A&M Bulldogs.
First-year Aggies head coach Rod Broadway has a bit of an advantage on this stage, having been here before. In 2009, he was the head coach of Grambling State, though his Tigers dropped a 34-31 decision to South Carolina State.
While this matchup isn't poised to be a battle of coaches, it will feature two teams that have never before met on the gridiron but know that winning this nationally televised game has implications bigger than just a win in the record books.
Like Broadway, Alabama A&M first-year head coach James Spady got a good taste of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge while he was an assistant at Alabama State. In 2005, South Carolina State topped Alabama State 27-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
And unlike any previous two coaches who've dueled in this series, Spady and Broadway are well-acquainted. Spady was an offensive coordinator on Broadway's staff in 2009.
"Coach Broadway has done a good job," Spady said. "He has established a good system. He's always prepared. I remember being a part of his staff. I know him very well."
North Carolina A&T State: High-power offense
Averaging 27.5 points a game in 2013, which ranked third in the MEAC, the Aggies were one of the most explosive teams in the league. Led by running back Tarik Cohen and wide receiver Desmond Lawrence, their offense is potent.
Named the MEAC Rookie of the Year last season, Cohen has proved that he can run between the tackles and get to the edge. He led the MEAC in rushing with 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards a carry and 104.4 yards a game. At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, he is diminutive in size but giant in talent.
Lawrence is a real speedster at wide receiver. An NCAA track and field All-American, he was A&T's leading receiver, with 37 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama A&M defensive backs should expect to see a lot of the Durham, North Carolina, native.
The Aggies' maestro on offense is quarterback Kwashaun Quick. A 6-foot, 185-pound junior, Quick was listed as the No. 1 signal-caller on the team's depth chart this spring. Last season he played in seven games, completing 14 of 28 passes for 115 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
He's also not afraid to tuck it and go. Quick had 14 carries for 58 yards, averaging an impressive 8.3 yards a carry.
The Aggies will receive excellent run and pass blocking from offensive lineman William Robinson, an All-MEAC selection who has NFL size at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds.
On the other side of the ball, the Aggies were second in scoring defense last season, giving up just 16.8 points a game. Much of the credit can be attributed to the outstanding play of senior linebacker D'Vonte Grant. Truly a playmaking linebacker, Grant accounted for 102 total tackles (58 solo), leading the team. He also ranks seventh in the conference with 9.3 tackles a game, playing the run and the pass, as his three interceptions attest.
Grant is projected to get plenty of support from the Aggies' other defensive stalwart -- outside linebacker Marcus Albert. A 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore, Albert is lightning-quick against the run. Up front, defensive lineman Daniel Pinnix, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior who had seven sacks and 22 total tackles last season, is the team's best pass-rusher.
Special teams should also be strong again for the Aggies. Gastonia, North Carolina, native Cody Jones -- a former standout soccer player at Huss High School -- is one of the best place-kickers in the MEAC. He connected on 9 of 13 field goals and made 30 of 31 PATs to lead the team in scoring with 57 points.
Alabama A&M: Defensive-minded
Spady is looking to put his stamp on the Alabama A&M program. The former assistant at Nevada, where he was the tight ends and co-offensive line coach, knows he is tasked with rejuvenating a Bulldogs program that finished 4-8 last season (4-5 in the SWAC). His expectations are high, and he is looking forward to the MEAC/SWAC Challenge being a springboard for the season.
"It's a great honor for them to have chosen us," said Spady, who began coaching in 1995 at his alma mater, UTEP, and served as Grambling State's offensive coordinator from 2007-09. "It's a great classic to be involved in. We're thrilled to be a part of it. North Carolina A&T is a quality opponent. It will be a tough game and a real challenge for us."
On offense, the Bulldogs had trouble putting points on the board last season, tallying just 16.4 points a game, ranking ninth in the conference.
The Bulldogs will rely on quarterback Jaymason Lee to change that tide. He'll have a great teacher in quarterbacks coach Willie Totten, the former Mississippi Valley State University great (1981-85) whose main target at wideout was Jerry Rice.
With Totten's tutelage, Lee, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior, will certainly put the ball in the air. As a sophomore, he connected on 99 of 212 passes for 1,561 yards, with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. He brings leadership and pocket presence, and will rely on All-SWAC receiver Montaurius Smith to make him look good. Smith had 55 receptions for 779 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging a respectable 14.1 yards a catch. Lee and Smith should be able to elevate a passing game that ranked eighth in the SWAC.
Alabama A&M will employ a running attack to keep the defenses honest. The Bulldogs will depend on Bryan Brower and Brandon Eldemire to grind out some first downs. Eldemire, the team's top returning rusher, had 72 carries for 550 yards and three touchdowns last season. With an eye-popping 7.6 yards a carry, expect Brower to be featured often.
On D, the Bulldogs should shine brightest. The team was ranked fourth in the league, and Spady is excited about linebackers William Pritchett and Brower, and defensive lineman Quentin Parks and defensive back A.J. Clark, two key returning starters who have 73 tackles between them.
"Alabama A&M Football is thrilled to be a participant in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge," Spady said. "Anytime you play against a Rod Broadway-coached team, you better be ready to play technically sound, error-free and physical football. We look forward to the challenge."
In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.
In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.
Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
- Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)[+] EnlargeStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's defensive line will have many holes to fill with Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles gone.
- Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)
- Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU)
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama)
- Dominique Easley (Florida)
- Kony Ealy (Missouri)
- Tre Mason (Auburn)
- Mike Evans (Texas A&M)
- Greg Robinson (Auburn)
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.
That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.
The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.
Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.
For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.
Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.
Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.
Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.
Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.
Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
You're forgiven if this entire exercise seems foreign. But at least 10 of the ACC's 14 teams will start new faces under center when games kick off next week. And there is a good chance that four of those 10 will have quarterbacks who began their college careers elsewhere.
"I really don't know," Miami coach Al Golden said of the surplus of ACC quarterback transfers. "We liked where we were in the spring, and clearly Ryan [Williams] went down the week before the spring game. It's really not a function of not being confident in the guys that are on campus. It's more a function of just wanting to get a guy that has been in the game and has the experience."
Golden acknowledged the quarterback market has been busier than usual, particularly in his league. He brought in former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps this summer after Williams, the Hurricanes' No. 1 quarterback, suffered a right ACL injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. (Williams, naturally, began his career elsewhere, at Memphis.)
Heaps, eligible immediately as a graduate transfer, is battling true freshman Brad Kaaya to start Miami's opener.
"I think the quarterback position has grown in terms of talent over the last few years," said Heaps, who set several freshman records at BYU in 2010 before losing his job both with the Cougars and later at Kansas. "There’s a lot of great, quality quarterbacks in college football right now and they all want a chance to play. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of these guys transfer. They’re in their situation but they know they can play somewhere else so they make those moves and try and find the best situation for them and in some cases it works out, in others it doesn’t. Just knowing they have that opportunity is first and foremost.
"Sometimes things just don’t work out. Recruiting is the way it is and sometimes a situation isn’t what you think it will be when you get there. It’s been a unique trend in the last little bit, but I think if a guy has an opportunity to go play, he should go explore that."
Likewise, fellow Coastal member Virginia Tech turned to the free-agent route following an underwhelming spring from its three quarterbacks, welcoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (and two true freshmen) to the race to replace Logan Thomas and kick-start an offense in need of a jolt after just 15 wins in the past two seasons. In an odd twist, Brewer, who has two seasons left to play after graduating from Texas Tech, was recommended to the Hokies' staff by Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who coached Brewer back at Lake Travis (Texas) High.
Brewer brings with him a nearly 71 percent completion percentage from his limited action with the Red Raiders, including 440 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
On the other side, in the more daunting Atlantic, a pair of second-year coaches are turning to former Gators quarterbacks to command their offenses.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio goes back with Tyler Murphy, a fellow Connecticut native whom Addazio had initially recruited to Gainesville, Florida, during his time as an assistant there. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State shortly after coach Dave Doeren was hired there, sitting out last season and taking enough initiative behind the scenes to earn the starting nod before spring ball this year.
“Last year we brought in Brandon Mitchell [from Arkansas] through the one-year loophole, and then at the end of the year, Pete Thomas and Manny Stocker left to go to [Louisiana-Monroe and UT-Martin]," Doeren said. "While that was going on, Jacoby transferred here from Florida. So I’ve seen about all of it that can go around. It’s just part of what recruiting is now. Guys want to play and people don’t want to wait their turn much anymore."
Murphy, who transferred in January, has one year to add some pizzazz to an Eagles' offense looking to spread the field more after last season's run-heavy approach. He spoke often with Brissett (who has two years left at NC State) back when both were still weighing their options when departing Florida.
The familiarity was more than enough to reunite Murphy with Addazio, who said a guy like Murphy probably should have gone to BC in the first place.
"Being a New England guy and growing up around BC, I watched a lot of BC and Matt Ryan in the early 2000s," Murphy said. "So it feels good to be a part of this institution, this program and I'm looking forward to the season."
Florida State could see a pair of its former quarterbacks start against each other next week, as Jake Coker transferred to Alabama one year after Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was supportive of both, with Trickett being familiar with WVU (his dad used to coach there before moving to FSU) and Coker heading to his home-state program after backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Fisher likened the rash of quarterback departures to that of college basketball transfers, because both are possession-dominated athletes.
The graduate-transfer rule, popularized by Russell Wilson three years ago, has only added to that. And, in many ways, it has been a boon for both sides.
"[It] gives some opportunities for guys that are worried about situations like Tyler's," Addazio said, referring to Murphy's injury-shortened 2013. "He's like, 'I've got one shot at this thing. I want to go where I feel like I've got the best opportunity to be the starter.' So you're seeing a lot of this right now. I like this opportunity."
For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.
“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”
That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.
The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.
The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.
Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.
The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.
Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”
The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.
The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.
Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.
Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.
The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.
“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”
But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.
“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”
“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.
Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.
Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.
It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”
That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.
As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”
Some might say dramatically.
Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.
What's that really mean?
Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.
Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.
He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.
"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."
Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.
His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.
What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.
All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.
Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.
"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."
Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.
"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."
Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.
"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."
With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.
In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.
"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."