After the departure of top pick Andrew Luck to the NFL, many wondered if the Stanford football program was doomed for a regression back to their previous status as an occasional contender for the Pac-12 title.
But then Kevin Hogan emerged as the starter, leading the Cardinal on a dominating stretch run. First, he outdueled Marcus Mariota to lead Stanford to a 17-14 win over Oregon in what many consider the Pac-12’s game of the year. Hogan would follow that up with back-to-back wins over Brett Hundley’s UCLA Bruins, the latter of which gave the Cardinal their first Pac-12 title since 1999.
Here’s the amazing thing: Hogan, Mariota, and Hundley were all underclassmen last season. That trio – along with fellow standouts Taylor Kelly and Sean Mannion – leads an amazing collection of young quarterbacks that should remind the nation that the Pac-12 is once again the Conference of Quarterbacks.
Good case can be made that Mariota, and not Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, was the nation’s best freshman quarterback in 2012. Mariota led the conference and finished seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, throwing for 2677 yards and 32 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions on the year. He also proved to be a devastating runner, adding 752 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground while averaging a jaw-dropping 8.15 yards per carry.
Not surprisingly, Oregon went 11-1 on the season and had the Pac-12’s most powerful offense by a significant margin.
While Mariota did earn first team All-Pac-12 honors, Oregon’s total dominance on offense may have actually worked against him on the national level. Imagine the raw numbers Mariota could have put up had Oregon not gone to the second string so often after putting away teams by halftime.
As a former five-star prospect from the 2011 recruiting class, Hundley was clearly the most-hyped quarterback on this list coming out of high school.
It did not take long for Hundley to show the nation exactly what all the hype was about, throwing for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns in UCLA’s 36-30 over Nebraska early in the year. This sparked the Bruins to a 9-5 record, winning the Pac-12 South title and making a second consecutive appearance in the conference’s championship game.
Hundley would lead the conference with 3740 passing yards while also throwing for 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on the season. He also had 355 yards and 9 scores on the ground, proving to be very dangerous when operating out of the Pistol formation.
Not bad for a freshman quarterback operating out of an offense that was completely different from the one he had learned during his redshirt season the year before.
Hogan arrived a little later to the party than everybody else on this list, taking over the starting job at Stanford with four games remaining on the regular season schedule. He proved to be the spark that the Cardinal offense needed, throwing for 1096 yards and 9 touchdowns while completing 71.7% of his passes – a mark that would have led the Pac-12 if he had enough attempts to qualify for the crown.
Stanford would win all four games, including a 17-14 victory over Oregon in Eugene that handed the Cardinal the Pac-12 North title. Hogan would lead Stanford to victory over UCLA in the championship game, then turned in a gutty performance in a 20-14 win over Wisconsin to give the Cardinal their first Rose Bowl victory since 1972.
Even Andrew Luck, the Cardinal’s starting quarterback the past three seasons, was never able to do that.
Stanford finished the year with a 12-2 record, with losses at Washington and Notre Dame (in overtime) both coming in the first half of the season prior to Hogan entered the lineup. Considering how they finished the year, one cannot help but wonder if the Cardinal would have made the BCS Championship had Hogan began the year as the starting quarterback.
Eyebrows across the Pac-12 were raised when Taylor Kelly beat out a pair of more-touted players and emerged as Arizona State’s starting quarterback this fall.
But the sophomore from Eagle, Idaho proved to be a great fit for coach Todd Graham’s spread offense, throwing for 3040 yards and 29 touchdowns while finishing ninth in the nation in passing efficiency. He also proved to be every bit the dual threat as other names on this list, rushing for 520 yards to pace the Pac-12’s third-ranked ground attack.
As a result, the Sun Devils surprised a lot of people with an 8-5 record on the year.
Kelly’s showing in the Kraft Bowl against Navy may have been the best postseason performance by any Pac-12 quarterback, completing 17-of-19 passes while racking up 5 touchdowns and 348 yards of total offense in ASU’s 62-28 rout. As a result, many figure to have the Sun Devils listed among the prime contenders for the 2013 Pac-12 South title.
Many people forget that Mannion was only a sophomore this past season, largely because he first earned the starting nod early in the 2011 season and has already started 18 games in his college career.
But Mannion was a major reason why Oregon State was the Pac-12’s most improved team, turning in a gutty performance in the upset of Wisconsin that keyed the Beavers’ school-record 6-0 start. Injuries began to set in after the victory over Washington State and plagued Mannion for much of the second half of the season, which led to him being shuffled in-and-out of the lineup and may have contributed to his issues with interceptions late in the year.
Mannion wound up with 2446 yards and 15 touchdowns on the year but did not start for Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl, with Mike Riley opting to go with the healthier Cody Vaz against Texas. Still, Mannion is a great fit for the Beavers’ pro-style attack, and his physical gifts are a great sign that he will be playing on Sundays in a couple of years.
While these five are the conference’s biggest standouts, they are by no means the end of the Pac-12’s collection of talented underclassmen quarterbacks. Utah’s Travis Wilson started the final seven games of his freshman season after injuries forced Jordan Wynn to call it a career and provided a nice spark to the Utes’ offense down the stretch. WSU’s Connor Halliday, who set a Pac-12 freshman record with 494 yards against Arizona State two years ago, was shuffled in-and-out of the lineup last year but is the clear favorite to run the Air Raid for the Cougars next year. And while Max Wittek is by no means guaranteed the starting job at USC, he does offer Trojans faithful reason for hope after turning in a gutty performance against Notre Dame in his first-ever college start.
It’s safe to say that the Pac-12’s quarterback legacy is in very good hands.