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February 7, 2008
Big 12 has a leg up under center
Conventional wisdom stresses the importance of a proven quarterback, especially in this age of spread offenses and zone reads.
Conventional wisdom also says the Southeastern Conference is the premier league in college football.
But if the first principle applies, the second might not – at least not in 2008.
Quick, name the top three returning quarterbacks in the SEC next season.
LSU's Ryan Perrilloux? Possible, but he threw just 75 passes in '07. Alabama's John Parker Wilson? He's a two-year starter who passed for more than 2,800 yards last season, but he's been a punching bag for Tide fans. Arkansas' Casey Dick? His fans blast him, too. Mississippi State's Wesley Carroll? He had almost as many interceptions (seven) as touchdown passes (nine) last season. Vanderbilt? Who is the Commodores' starter? Ole Miss' Jevan Snead? He has barely played in two years.
Because of so much uncertainty at quarterback, is it unreasonable to suggest the quarterback-heavy Big 12 could usurp the SEC's status, for at least one season?
Ten starting quarterbacks from the Big 12 are scheduled to return in 2008, and that jumps to 11 if you include Nebraska's Joe Ganz, who started the final four games last season and threw 16 touchdown passes in that span. Iowa State is the only Big 12 team that doesn't return a quarterback who started a game in '07.
Eight Big 12 quarterbacks ranked among the nation's top 30 in passing yards, passing efficiency or both.
So, if nothing else, that would seem to give the Big 12 a head start on most conferences. Spring football begins in about a month, and it's obviously a better situation if the quarterback already has a keen understanding of the offense and a rapport with the other players.
But as Brian Brohm and Louisville showed last season, a returning starting quarterback – no matter how good – doesn't ensure a successful season. By the same token, Tebow, the Heisman Trophy recipient, was a reminder that a first-year starter can perform at the highest level.
Still, the thought endures that returning a starting quarterback is the first step in building a winning team. Even Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the most unconventional of coaches, buys into the conventional wisdom.
Yet Leach says returning a starting quarterback is a distinct advantage.
"Part of what makes a guy good is experience, or some level of experience," he said. "Other players get used to him and draw from the guy that's in charge. I do think that's an advantage."
But what about B.J. Symons in '03, Sonny Cumbie in '04 and Cody Hodges in '05? All only started as seniors.
"That's not nearly as premeditated as my reputation," Leach said. "Allegedly, I'm supposed to be the guy that only plays seniors. But it was really a simple process: We just used the best quarterback we had.
"But if you're playing experienced guys, it helps a little bit."
Graham Harrell, Tech's returning starting quarterback, threw for 5,705 yards to lead the nation in passing this past season.
What does that say for the conference?
"It says, for the sake of Texas Tech, it's a shame some of those (quarterbacks) didn't graduate earlier," Leach said. "I think it's going to be a great, great quarterback conference. We had some of the best quarterbacks in the country last year, and that's going to continue to be the case next year."
No doubt there. But will that be enough to propel the Big 12 past the SEC for a year?
And there is another side to that coin. While Big 12 quarterbacks have excelled, its defenses have struggled. The only Big 12 teams to rank among the nation's top 40 in total defense this past season were Kansas and Oklahoma. Conventional wisdom says strong defenses also are required for success.
It's easy to remember national champions, but many people forget who finished second. In the past 30 years, what team has finished second in the final Associated Press poll most often? (Answer at the end of the column.)
An article last week pointed out five common denominators that all or most of the 10 BCS national champions have shared. But Michael McKenzie, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Keuka College in Keuka Park, N.Y., offered another.
McKenzie pointed out that most of the champions are from southern states or a state touching an ocean.
"The championship and titles have increasingly gone south. And this phenomenon only mirrors the general population trend. Play around with that for a while," McKenzie wrote.
If that is expanded to states bordering any large body of water, then add Ohio State (2002), which has Lake Erie to the north.
And Ohio State is the only program from a northern climate to win a national championship in the past decade.
Tennessee won in 1998, and Oklahoma won in 2000. Though it's certainly south geographically, Oklahoma is viewed more as midwestern state than as a southern state.
Texas A&M has often been accused of being obsessed by state rival Texas. And the Aggies, who taunt Texas in their war hymn, apparently have supplied more evidence for that.
A&M players are receiving an Alamo Bowl ring; Penn State defeated the Aggies 24-17 in the Alamo Bowl.
But the ring will include A&M's 38-30 winning score over Texas. Perhaps the thought is that beating Texas enabled the Aggies to get into the Alamo Bowl.
• Mississippi State quarterback Michael Henig, citing a chronic hip injury, has decided to end his football career. Henig was the Bulldogs' starter at the beginning of last season, but injuries forced him out of the lineup and he was replaced by freshman Wesley Carroll.
• Two Duke football players are facing misdemeanor charges stemming from a nightclub incident in late January. Star wide receiver Eron Riley was arrested for fighting, while wide receiver Austin Kelly was arrested for obstructing officers.
• Louisville linebacker Lamar Myles is an early entry into the NFL Draft, but he did not receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. He will have a chance to impress scouts at Louisville's Pro Day in March.
• Arkansas State's new mascot committee has recommended "Wolves" as the new nickname. "Indians" is the current nickname.
Miami finished as the AP national champion runner-up four times in the past 30 years. The Hurricanes were second in 2002, 2000, 1988 and 1986.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.