Generally, an experienced quarterback lets a coach sleep quite soundly at night. That’s why the coaches on this list likely will be tossing and turning when they think about their offenses over the summer.
None of the 10 major programs we’re spotlighting have chosen a starting quarterback; instead, the battles will continue during fall camp. It’s not a stretch at all to say picking the right guy is the difference between challenging for a league or division title or finishing 7-5 or 6-6 (well, for every team except one here, anyway).
Last season: Main starter was Barrett Trotter, who turned pro a year early Potential starters: Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley Buzz: To no one’s surprise, Auburn’s offense took a huge plunge last season after Cam Newton left. Moseley, who will be a junior this fall, started four games late in the season after Trotter was benched for being ineffective. Frazier played in every game last season as a true freshman; he had 76 rushes but just five pass attempts. Frazier had the upper hand in the spring, as Moseley missed about half of the practices with a shoulder injury. New coordinator Scot Loeffler has tweaked the offense of predecessor Gus Malzahn; there will be times when the quarterbacks get the snap from under center and the Tigers now plan to huddle between plays. Coach Gene Chizik said he wouldn’t name a starter until fall drills. The new quarterback (and the revamped offense) is going to be tested early: Auburn opens with Clemson in Atlanta, plays at SEC foe Mississippi State in Game 2, then plays host to LSU in Game 4 and to Arkansas in Game 5. The defense will be better than it was last season, but an offense that struggled last season very well could do so again unless it gets solid quarterback play.
Last season: Starter was Kellen Moore, who was a senior Potential starters: Grant Hedrick, Nick Patti or Joe Southwick Buzz: Moore won 50 games in four seasons. Good luck to whoever wins the job trying to match that. Southwick, a junior, was Moore’s backup last season; he played in eight games and attempted 30 passes. Hedrick, a sophomore who is a good runner, also played in eight games, but he attempted just three passes. Patti, who is listed at 5 feet 11, is a freshman from prep powerhouse Orlando Dr. Phillips who enrolled early and had a solid spring. The battle likely will come down to Southwick and Patti. Hedrick could be used as a sort of “wildcat” quarterback because of his running ability. Southwick’s familiarity with the offense could be the deciding factor. There isn’t much time to get acclimated: The Broncos open at Michigan State, which should have one of the top 15 or so defenses in the nation. And it’s not as if the new quarterback is going to be surrounded by a lot of proven talent: The Broncos return five full-time starters on offense but just one on defense.
Last season: Main starter was John Brantley, who was a senior Potential starters: Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel Buzz: Driskel and Brissett generally were regarded as two of the top six or seven prep quarterbacks in the nation as high school seniors in 2010, and both had to play last season as true freshmen when Brantley was injured. Both are athletic and possess strong arms. But both also were inconsistent in spring drills under new coordinator/quarterback coach Brent Pease, who was hired away from Boise State. Florida doesn’t have an established feature back or go-to receiver, which will make things tougher for whoever wins the starting job. It looks as if the rushing attack will be noticeably better than it was last season, but the passing game remains a giant question. Florida opens with Bowling Green, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both quarterbacks get ample time in that contest. But Games 2 and 3 are on the road against Texas A&M and Tennessee, respectively, so it would behoove Pease and coach Will Muschamp to decide on a starter early on.
Last season: Starter was Darron Thomas, who turned pro a year early Potential starters: Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota Buzz: Bennett played well when Thomas was hurt last season, and probably is a better runner than Thomas. But Bennett’s passing skills need refinement. Mariota, a redshirt freshman, played well enough this spring to lend some intrigue to the fall-camp competition at the position. Oregon has a lot of turnover on offense; in addition to the new quarterback, there will be a new starting tailback, a new starting tight end and a new go-to receiver, as well as two new starters on the line. A positive is that the defense should be better than it was last season. The Ducks don’t play a road game against a team that went bowling last season until mid-October, so the favorable early schedule should give coach Chip Kelly and his offense ample time to get the kinks out.
Last season: Main starter was Matt McGloin, who returns this season Potential starters: Rob Bolden, Paul Jones or McGloin Buzz: New coach, same situation at quarterback. Bolden, who will be a junior this fall, started for most of 2010 and the offense struggled. McGloin, a senior, started for most of 2011 and the offense struggled. Now Jones, a sophomore, is in the mix, too. McGloin was said to be slightly ahead in the three-man race out of spring practice, but new coach Bill O’Brien said he saw no need to pick a starter until fall drills. Bolden is the best athlete of the three, Jones has the best arm and McGloin knows the offense the best. The flipside: McGloin has proved to be an average Big Ten quarterback, at best. The same with Bolden. Jones is the wild card. Expect a run-heavy offense under O’Brien, just as it was under Joe Paterno. Not only are there questions at quarterback, the receiving corps looks pedestrian as well. Penn State’s defense again will be asked to do yeoman work. The early-season schedule is interesting. The Nittany Lions open with Ohio, which should be one of the leading contenders in the MAC. Other non-conference opponents are Virginia, Temple and Navy. Then, four of the first six Big Ten games are on the road.
Last season: Starter was Andrew Luck, who was a senior Potential starters: Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes Buzz: There’s no way the new guy is going to be as productive as Luck, and coach David Shaw said the quickest way to “lose the competition is to try and be Andrew.” Nottingham, a sophomore, played in six games and attempted eight passes as Luck’s backup last season. He is physically gifted and has a strong arm. Nunes, a junior, also has a nice arm, but he has attempted just two passes in his career. Nunes has a better grasp of the offense, Nottingham has the most upside of the two. Prevailing wisdom is that Stanford takes a few steps back this fall without Luck and some other key players. But the Cardinal defense should be salty, and the rushing attack should take some of the pressure off the new quarterback. The first big test comes Sept. 15, when USC visits. At some point in that contest, Stanford is going to need its new quarterback to make some plays. Will it happen?
Last season: David Ash and Case McCoy split the starts; both return Potential starters: Ash or McCoy Buzz: Neither of the candidates effectively threw the ball last season. While the rushing attack made big strides after a poor showing in 2010, the passing offense got even worse (from 232.0 ypg in 2010 to 189.9 last season). Ash has more upside, but McCoy does have some of the same attributes as his older brother, most notably a good football IQ. Ash is a good athlete, but he threw four TD passes and eight picks last season; he evidently made some strides in his decision-making in the spring, but not enough that coach Mack Brown named him the starter. Instead, the decision will be made during fall drills. Texas’ schedule should enable the quarterbacks to ease into the season. But the quarterback had best be sharp by Game 4, when Texas plays at Oklahoma State in a game that could determine the course of the season. Texas’ defense is such that the quarterback won’t have to win games; he just needs to make sure he doesn’t make too many mistakes to lose games.
Last season: Starter was Ryan Tannehill, who was a senior Potential starters: Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel or Jameill Showers Buzz: Showers, a sophomore, is the only quarterback on the roster who has played in a college game; he played in four games last season as Tannehill’s backup, throwing five passes. He came out of spring practice as the starter and did a nice job with A&M’s new offensive scheme. He has a strong arm and good mobility. Manziel, a redshirt freshman, is the best athlete among the quarterbacks and he really is Showers’ main competition. He is a big-time running threat, but isn’t as good a passer as Showers. Joeckel had some problems with consistency during spring drills and is a longshot to win the job, as is true freshman Matt Davis, who enrolled early and went through spring practice.
Last season: Main starter was Marshall Lobbestael, who was a senior Potential starters: Connor Halliday or Jeff Tuel Buzz: The Cougars have no shot at a Pac-12 North Division title, much less the league crown, but Mike Leach’s presence means their quarterback should put up big numbers. Tuel, who threw for 2,780 yards as a sophomore in 2010, began last season as the starter but played in just three games because of collarbone and calf injuries. Lobbestael took over as the starter before Halliday made his first start in Game 10. He threw for 494 yards and four scores against Arizona State, then threw for 289 the next week against Utah before being injured. Lobbestael then started the finale. Halliday was injured again on the first day of spring drills and missed the rest of the spring. Leach said he won’t pick a starter until fall drills because he wants Halliday to get a shot, though Tuel is expected to be the guy.
Last season: Starter was Russell Wilson, who was a senior Potential starters: Joe Brennan, Danny O’Brien or Joel Stave Buzz: Stave, who arrived on campus as a walk-on last year, exited spring practice atop the depth chart, ahead of Brennan. But while coach Bret Bielema praised Stave for his moxie after the spring game, the battle begins in earnest during fall camp. That’s when O’Brien, a transfer from Maryland, joins the team. The Badgers benefited from a quarterback transferring in from an ACC school last season, as Wilson guided them to the Big Ten title. But O’Brien isn’t nearly as good as Wilson. Still, he is expected to win the job. The new quarterback won’t have to do all that much, as there is solid surrounding talent, most notably TB Montee Ball. A trip to Oregon State in Week 2 holds some intrigue, especially if the quarterback situation is iffy. If the Badgers get OK quarterback play, they should win the Leaders Division. But it will take more than OK quarterback play to win the league again.