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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

May 10, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Pac-12 North picks: How important is a veteran quarterback?

After a detailed look at the Pac-12 football camps (by the wonder of the Internet, not the 737), it’s only proper that I do the imprudent thing and take a stab at picking the two division races (with the proviso that I can turn them upside down after fall camps).

That led me to some research that I found interesting. Oregon and Stanford are going to be the popular 1-2 choices in the Pac-12 North, but as you know, neither has a returning starter at quarterback. That’s a red flag for graybeards like me, who got indoctrinated on the notion that you don’t go very far in this league without a proven one.

I approached it with that assumption. But it turns out, that’s a trend that’s changed.

I went back through the past 20 years of Pac-12/10 champions. And what I found is, in recent years, there’s a whole lot more prevalence of newbies succeeding at the quarterback spot – winning championships – than there used to be.

Matter of fact, in four of the past six seasons, the winner of the league had a new starter at the quarterback spot. That’s a fairly stunning development, and a disclaimer to a time-honored tradition.

Compare that to a seven-season stretch from 1996 to 2002, when it took a veteran quarterback to lead his team to the league championship.


Off the top of my head, I can see three possible reasons why this has happened:
— Oregon has had two of the “outliers” of the past six years in Jeremiah Masoli (2009) and Darron Thomas (2010). It’s possible the Ducks and their Star Wars system are so far ahead of the curve that as long as they plug a good, savvy athlete into that spot – one that doesn’t have to be a great passer – they’re all right.
— In the past decade, USC has had two non-veteran starters lead their teams to a title – Matt Leinart (2003) and John David Booty (2006). It may be that the talent around them was so overwhelming – national-title-caliber, in Leinart’s case – that it helped pull up the guy under center.
— Piggybacking on the first (Oregon) point, that run of seven different Pac-10 champions in seven seasons (1994-2000) came at a time when nobody was running the spread-option in earnest — only the spread, with multiple receivers. So it should make sense that it usually required an experienced hand at quarterback, operating more traditional offense (if the spread passing game can be called traditional). And if you had a senior doing it, that was clearly preferable to a sophomore.
Here’s the rundown of the champions of the past two decades, with an asterisk in those years when the winner had a first-year starter:
2011: Darron Thomas, UO, and Andrew Luck, Stanford (8-1 each)
* 2010: Darron Thomas, UO (9-0)
* 2009: Jeremiah Masoli, UO (8-1)
* 2008: Mark Sanchez, USC (8-1)
2007: John David Booty, USC and Rudy Carpenter, ASU (7-2)
* 2006: John David Booty, USC and Nate Longshore, Cal (7-2)
2005: Matt Leinart, USC (8-0)
2004: Matt Leinart, USC (8-0)
* 2003: Matt Leinart, USC (7-1)
2002: Jason Gesser, WSU and Carson Palmer, USC (7-1)
2001: Joey Harrington, UO (7-1)
2000: Marques Tuiasosopo, UW; Jonathan Smith, OSU and Joey Harrington, UO (7-1)
1999: Todd Husak, Stanford (7-1)
1998: Cade McNown, UCLA (8-0)
1997: Ryan Leaf, WSU and Cade McNown, UCLA (7-1)
1996: Jake Plummer, ASU (8-0)
* 1995: Brad Otton-Kyle Wachholtz, USC and Damon Huard, UW (6-1-1) (The USC quarterbacks were first-year starters)
1994: Danny O’Neil, Oregon (7-1)
* 1993: Wayne Cook, UCLA; Rob Johnson, USC; and Dan White, UA (6-2) (Cook and White were new to season-long starting status)
1992: Billy Joe Hobert-Mark Brunell, UW and Steve Stenstrom, Stanford (6-2)
OK, enough history. On to the Pac-12 North. We’ll be back with the Pac-12 South picks in a day or so.
1. Oregon. I’ll take the bait and believe Oregon can do it again with an unproven quarterback, mostly because the defense might be the Ducks’ best ever. But there are reasons for pause, not only the quarterback, but questionmarks at receiver, and LaMichael James is no longer around. (De’Anthony Thomas is, however.)
2. California. This could be completely crazy, but I’m banking on a quantum improvement from QB Zach Maynard. And as we know, Cal customarily plays pretty salty defense. It should also help that the Bears are back home in remodeled Memorial Stadium.
3. Washington. The Huskies have their share of questionmarks, not the least of which is how much they can obliterate memories of their awful 2011 defense. I’m guessing that can be upgraded significantly, though not to a championship level. Without Chris Polk, QB Keith Price might find the offensive going tougher, though.
4. Stanford. No doubt this pick might be the biggest stretch of the division. I think Stanford’s defense will be top-shelf, but no team in the country will see a bigger shortfall at quarterback than the one left by Andrew Luck’s departure. And the Cardinal also lost three high draft picks up front, which is going to change the equation as well.
5. Washington State. Part of me sees Jeff Tuel putting up preposterous numbers, throwing to more quality receivers than he can keep happy. The other part of me envisions a defense with a lot of leaks and a lot of youth. The Cougars may have to win games 47-42. (And they might.)
6. Oregon State. If anything will mark the conference in 2012, I think it’s a compression from the bottom – meaning there won’t be anything resembling a pushover among the 12 teams. And certainly OSU isn’t. But Sean Mannion is going to have to lower his interceptions (18 last year) for the Beavers to make a serious surge upward.

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