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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

MAC the Best QB League in the F.B.S.?

More often than not, former B.C.S. conference quarterbacks win Super Bowls. Mississippi won its second in five years last night; Michigan lost its second in five years. California took home the hardware last February. It was Purdue lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Tennessee’s expense in 2010. It’s a new era, but the story remains the same. Alabama quarterbacks won the first three Super Bowls – Bart Starr and Joe Namath – followed by Purdue and Louisville; a former Boilermaker, either Len Dawson or Bob Griese, won three rings over a five-year span from 1970-74. Over the last decade, only one non-B.CS. conference has put a Super Bowl-winning quarterback into the N.F.L.: the MAC, Ben Roethlisberger, twice.

The MAC knows quarterbacks, from Roethlisberger to Josh Harris to Omar Jacobs to Dan LeFevour to Chandler Harnish – a non-stop conveyor belt of talent, albeit one that slides in under the radar when compared to the Heisman-winning talents seen in the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the SEC

This year’s haul, the MAC’s 14-strong crop of starting quarterbacks, may be the league’s best since Roethlisberger’s senior season in 2003. When it comes to 2012, the MAC may have the best group of starters in the entire F.B.S. – better than the A.C.C., Big 12 and Pac-12. Perhaps not in terms of overall talent, but certainly in terms of experience and proven talent. It’s in the latter categories that the MAC stands above the rest of the country.

The MAC brings back 12 returning starters at quarterback, though it’s one of the two lost stars that looms large: Northern Illinois is going have a difficult time replacing Harnish, particularly with the program’s still-undecided future at offensive coordinator. The Huskies hoped to replace Wisconsin-bound Matt Canada with Rutgers assistant P.J. Fleck, but Fleck opted out of the coordinator position 24 hours after signing on the dotted line.

Northern Illinois and Buffalo will break in new starters in 2012. The Huskies have a nice option waiting in the wings in junior Jordan Lynch, who became the heir apparent at the position after N.I.U. moved former quarterback DeMarcus Grady to receiver heading into last fall. Like Harnish, Lynch is a dual-threat option who should keep the Huskies’ running game rolling; in 2011, Lynch rushed for 246 yards and 3 scores in limited duty.

Buffalo will turn to another junior, Alex Zordich, as it replaces former Cincinnati transfer Chazz Anderson, a one-year rental for Jeff Quinn and the Bulls. Zordich has one leg up on Lynch heading into the fall: he started four games as a freshman in 2010. How did Zordich fare in the starting lineup? Not well. But thanks to that experience, as well as a much-needed season spent on the bench, the Zordich we see this fall shouldn’t resemble the overmatched freshman we saw in 2010.

In total, Zordich has as much starting experience as Temple’s Chris Coyer, who didn’t break into the lineup until the final month of MAC play last fall. The Owls circulated through three quarterbacks in 2011, as the program has done several times in the recent past, but the offense found its groove with Coyer – a powerful, punishing runner with work to do as a passer – running the show from under center.

If we count Coyer, six MAC programs are relatively unsure of its potential quarterback play. Lynch can play, but losing Harnish does put N.I.U. on notice; now that he’s gone, perhaps Harnish will get the sort of recognition he deserved as a multiple-year starter. Buffalo’s offense is a wreck. Coyer played well over a small sample size, but he needs to prove himself over the span of an entire season.

Kent State’s Spencer Keith, a senior, needs to carry his superb second half over to 2012. It was a tale of two seasons: one awful, one terrific. The Golden Flashes, who have bowl aspirations, need Keith to play as well in September and October as he did in November, when he threw seven touchdowns without an interception.

Akron may again go with Clayton Moore this fall, but after his struggles, along with the program’s coaching change, the Zips may turn back to senior Patrick Nicely, a former starter.

And then there’s Massachusetts, the MAC’s newest member, who has a returning starter in Kellen Pagel – whose father, Mike, had a 12-year career in the N.F.L., bouncing between starting and backup duty in Cleveland and Indianapolis. There are two issues with judging Pagel on his 2011 season: one, he was a first-year starter; and two, the Minutemen’s level of competition will take a distinct step forward this fall.

Six MAC teams have issues under center. Some, like at Buffalo, have bigger concerns than others. Akron seems like the most likely to alter its starting rotation, especially with Terry Bowden coming into town; I could see the new staff go for a change at quarterback, even if the change returns Nicely to the starting lineup. On the other hand, eight MAC programs have enviable situations at quarterback.

Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton is entering his second season in the Bobcats’ new pass-heavy offense. After making such a nice improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bowling Green’s Matt Schilz should near Tyler Sheehan-like levels in Dave Clawson’s system.

Ball State’s Keith Wenning took a significant step forward under Pete Lembo, particularly when it came to protecting the football. Eastern Michigan’s Alex Gillett and Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio) have one thing that every team covets: years of starting experience.

Likewise with Western Michigan’s Alex Carder, who has the best combination of production and experience – not to mention an offense so perfectly suited for his skill set – of any quarterback in the MAC. After two years of sterling results, Carder heads into 2012 within striking distance of each meaningful passing record in W.M.U. history; with another fine year, he’ll eclipse the career numbers put together by Tim Hiller, his predecessor in the starting lineup.

While his team has struggled mightily over the last two years, Central Michigan’s Ryan Radcliff has done a nice job throwing the football – even if, at times, his passing numbers are inflated by the fact that the Chippewas are consistently playing from behind. Then there’s the two-headed monster of Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin at Toledo; as we saw last fall, the offense can perform at a high level with either taking snaps.

Can any other conference, B.C.S. or otherwise, tout such a high percentage of known commodities at quarterback? The MAC returns 12 starters, if we stretch that label to include Coyer and Temple. The league has eight returning starters seemingly capable of playing an entire season at an all-conference level; at least six of those returning starters can make a strong case for the being the MAC’s best at the position. Can any other conference in the F.B.S. make a similar claim?

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  1. Hokieshibe says:

    ACC has Logan Thomas (VT), EJ Manuel (FSU), Glennon (NCSt), Danny O’Brien (UMD – he had a rough year last year, but the kid is still very talented), Tahj Boyd (Clemson), and Tanner Price (WF). That’s six very talented guys.

    And all of the others are known commodities too. Stephen Morris at Miami has played half a season, Chase Rettig at BC has started a few seasons (I mean, he hasn’t been amazing, but he is a returning starter), Tevin Washington will be in his 2nd season at GT (3rd if you count the second half of 2010), Sean Renfree at Duke has been there a while, I’m pretty sure Brynn Renner returns at UNC, and Rocco started almost the whole year for UVA.

    So 12/12 of the ACC’s returning starters have seen significant playing time (most of which are returning starters), and 6 of them are legit stars.

  2. K says:

    Love your stuff, been reading it for the last couple years. Credible what you wrote on TCU last couple times.

    Maybe can pay you back with a tip. TCU will win the Big 12 this year, and I bet some cash to back it up. Their QB is the only good one in the whole conference, best I tell. Baylor lost theirs and so did Okie State. And Texas doesn’t have one, nor do they have an offensive line. You can’t correct that in one year, goodbye to Mack Daddy, his last year.

    Turby picked Tex, OU, and West Virginia to be the top 3 in the 12. He is in for a rude awakening when he travels to Fort Worth.

    They, TCU, literally, have everybody back of consequence. They will return the defense of old with 3 super safties and new corners. White and Garrett will be the new corners. Need Brock to recover, but everything else is in place.


  3. Michael says:

    So far removed are we from Trent Dilfer’s ring that we easily forget his WAC-cum-Non-AQ contribution?

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