August 31, 2010
The obligatory quarterback competition is always good for eight months of infighting, factionalizing and other fun among the fan base. But for most coaches, the last week of preseason practice is no time for uncertainty: By the time the initial depth charts for opening weekend hit the stands Monday, the summer-long debates over signal-callers at Arizona State, Colorado, Colorado State, Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas Tech had all been definitively answered, for at least the first half of the first game. BYU couldn't decide between junior Riley Nelson and heralded freshman Jake Heaps, so it went ahead and committed to playing both in a two-QB rotation; ditto Mississippi State for at least the opener, where the Bulldogs expect to play both Chris Relf and Tyler Russell against Memphis. Anything to get a firm plan down.
That's one way to look at it. Another way is to let it play out until the last possible minute while keeping everyone in the dark. If there's anything to that approach, at least five teams are still on the right track:
• Michigan. Rich Rodriguez has "an idea" who might take the first snap against UConn, but whatever it is, he wasn't sharing it on the Wolverines' first depth chart, which heightened the never-ending debate between sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson by listing the official order as "Denard Robinson OR Tate Forcier OR Devin Gardner."
Best guess: September heroics notwithstanding, Forcier's height and mediocre arm/athleticism always threatened to relegate him to placeholder status until Robinson and/or Gardner were seasoned enough to unleash their Pat White and Vince Young vibes, respectively, without also serving up a steady diet of turnovers when the ball leaves their hands. It didn't help Forcier's cause that he served up four interceptions himself against Ohio State in his last start, and seemed to lose some of his teammates over the summer after losing ground to Robinson in the spring. Given the success of Rodriguez's "Spread and Shred" behind White at West Virginia (as well as similarly scrambly types Rasheed Marshall at WVU and Woody Dantzler at Clemson), take Robinson as the primary with regular cameos and a late-season push from Gardner if things start to veer off-track.
• Nebraska. The offense was so bad last year – the 'Huskers finished next-to-last in the Big 12 in passing and total offense, had more turnovers (8) than points (7) in a home loss to lowly Iowa State and memorably flubbed the Big 12 Championship Game despite holding the conference's highest-scoring offense to 13 points, less than one-third of its season average – Big Red fans were openly rooting for statuesque sophomore Cody Green to seize the reins for good while incumbent Zac Lee rehabbed a gimpy throwing elbow in the spring. Instead, obscure redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez stole the show with a pair of touchdown passes in the Red-White Game, forcing a three-way duel that will decide the 'Huskers' fate as a national darkhorse or a forgettable Big 12 also-ran in their last year in the conference.
Best guess: Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and head coach Bo Pelini have remained rigidly tight-lipped through the spring, summer and first three weeks of preseason practice, but bet against a viable senior incumbent at your own risk. With the exception of a three-touchdown outburst in the fourth-quarter at Missouri, Lee was a nonentity in the 'Huskers' biggest games, and the lack of any kind of consistent passing threat cost them dearly in all four losses. But he was also working through a shoulder injury for part of the season, and with the final record, it's not like he's radioactive; at the very least, the status quo coming off arguably his best performance in the bowl rout over Arizona is the logical bet to start the season.
• Ole Miss. Sophomore Nathan Stanley, regarded for most of the offseason as the most obscure in a relatively middling crop of SEC starters, is holding fast as No. 1, for now. But that probably only lasts as long as it takes for the NCAA to finally clear Oregon transfer Jeremiah Masoli, which could be any day now.
Best guess: In deference to his longevity in the program, Stanley starts Saturday against Jacksonville State regardless of Masoli's status, and keeps up in a token "competition" against JSU, Tulane and Vanderbilt before things start to get a little hairy against Fresno State and Kentucky. The Rebels could easily start 5-0 with Stanley and Masoli splitting time, but if he's eligible (and every indication is that he will be), Masoli will be entrenched before the Oct. 16 trip to Alabama.
• Penn State. Incredibly, the Nittany Lions' is the only "classic" quarterback controversy – "We lost a senior starter and we're not sure which former backup is going to replace him" – yet to be decided. Given that sophomore Kevin Newsome, last year's top backup as a hyped true freshman, was supposed to make quick work of the competition in the spring, and given that the competition consists of a former walk-on (Matt McGloin) and a true freshman (Robert Bolden), the longer the question hangs out there, the more nervous PSU partisans get.
Best guess: In 44 years, Joe Paterno has never opened a season with a true freshman starter under center in the first game, nor with a current or former walk-on. Based on that precedent alone, and prevailing assumptions coming into the season, Newsome is the best bet to start Saturday against Youngstown State (coincidentally, the most high-profile program to actually offer McGloin a scholarship out of high school). PSU plans to play all three against the Penguins, and with a trip to Alabama looming on Sept. 11, almost certainly will not subject a true freshman to a Nick Saban defense on the road in his first start. But the buzz out of camp has seemed to favor Bolden, who would have a chance to get comfortable against a couple MACrifices, Kent State and Temple, in State College before hitting the ground running at Iowa.
• South Carolina. The bizarre motivational ploy Steve Spurrier aimed at incumbent Stephen Garcia in the spring evolved into a full-blown controversy as of last week, when the Gamecocks listed true freshman Connor Shaw as a co-starter alongside Garcia, a fourth-year junior who started every game last year, on its first depth chart for Thursday night's opener against Southern Miss. That was after the Ball Coach insisted they're both gonna play in an effort to spark an attack that was held below 17 points in six of its last seven games with Garcia at the helm.
Best guess: They're both gonna play. Garcia will start against USM, but in grand Spurrier fashion, Shaw will see extended action, look underwhelming, and yield to Garcia for the next month or so, until Spurrier gets exasperated again. Rinse, lather and repeat throughout the year, with Garcia taking three-fourths of the snaps but yielding to Shaw for extended periods of time, and possibly a start or two at most. But Spurrier has never shown much patience with anything less than a Heisman-worthy effort from his starter, and this doesn't seem like any place to start.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.