Stanford is the ideal setting for Andrew Luck, a 21-year-old quarterback who so shuns the spotlight that his unconventional decision to return to school was announced in a mundane two-sentence news release. At Stanford, Luck can blend in to his idyllic surroundings merely as an architectural design major pedaling his mountain bike around campus, rather than stand out as the possible top pick in the NFL draft.
Considered by some to be the best college quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, Luck also will share the spotlight in his own conference. As the curtain rises on the college football season, no conference in the country is poised to feature as many elite, experienced quarterbacks as the new-look Pacific-12 Conference. In the first season of its expanded 12-team, two-division configuration, the league whose footprint now stretches inland to Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colo., has simply been dubbed the “conference of quarterbacks.”
Nine teams have back starting quarterbacks from last season. Six of them threw for more than 2,400 yards. And five — Luck, Southern California’s Matt Barkley, Oregon’s Darron Thomas, Arizona’s Nick Foles and Utah’s Jordan Wynn — are on the watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award, the most of any conference.
“It’s the year of the quarterback in this league,” Oregon Coach Chip Kelly said.
During the conference’s preseason media tour, Utah offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, whose team is entering its first season in the league, said “obviously this is just a quarterback factory here.” And USC Coach Lane Kiffin said “it’s unbelievable to have so many . . . you are waiting to find an offense that can’t move the ball, and you don’t find one.”
Conferences continue to define and redefine their identities as conference realignment alters the sport’s landscape. The ACC has had its parity, the Big East its perceived mediocrity. Hulking linemen and robust ground games are often synonymous with the Big Ten, which this season adds Nebraska, a program bred on the same formula. The national title-producing Southeastern Conference — with the exception of last season’s Cam Newton-led Auburn team — has recently been filled with stout, athletic defenses. Some electrifying offenses have been found — and should again be this season — in the Big 12, but the league’s future existence may be in question.
While all this was happening over the past two years, the former Pac-10 has reinvented itself under Commissioner Larry Scott. He helped the league secure a 12-year, $3 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox, the most lucrative deal in college athletics. The addition of Colorado and Utah allows the conference to split into two divisions — North and South — and stage a conference championship game. And from Oregon’s “blur” offense to the exploits of the strong-armed, quick-footed Luck, no league may rival the Pac-12 in sheer entertainment value.
A league that has a history of producing recognizable quarterbacks has only reaffirmed that identity during this season of transition. Scott began the Pac-12’s preseason media day by referencing the league’s current quarterback crop in the same breath as past luminaries such as Troy Aikman (UCLA), Drew Bledsoe (Washington State), John Elway (Stanford), Dan Fouts (Oregon), Warren Moon (Washington) and Aaron Rodgers (California).
Scott called the Pac-12 football brand as “dynamic as any in college sports,” adding that “year after year we seem to produce the best quarterbacks and the most sophisticated offenses in the country, and 2011 promises to be no exception.”
The six quarterbacks who threw for more than 2,400 yards last season also averaged a 63.8 percent completion percentage, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. That list doesn’t even include Wynn; he threw for 2,334 yards despite missing three games because of an injury. Wynn has said he is motivated to be mentioned among the league’s distinguished quarterbacks.
“I love that competition,” USC’s Barkley said of the top-to-bottom quarterback talent. “We’re not necessarily looking at each other to one-up each other, but you know that those guys are there pushing you to be better.”
The standard bearer is Luck. His father, Oliver, played quarterback for the Houston Oilers in the mid-1980s.
Last season, Luck completed 70 percent of his passes and threw for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns (with eight interceptions) under Jim Harbaugh, who is now coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Luck has a comfort level with first-year Coach David Shaw, who had been the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh. Crediting Shaw with everything from teaching him the West Coast offense to instilling a strong practice routine during his redshirt season, Luck says the transition has been smooth.
Said Shaw: “Having a quarterback that we know and that we trust and that will work his butt off, we have got him in place. That helps me a lot. Now we just concentrate on what goes on around him.”
Seventh-ranked Stanford’s nemesis will be third-ranked Oregon, the only team to beat the Cardinal last season. Thomas threw for 2,881 yards and ran for 486 during a season in which he accounted for 30 total touchdowns and, Kelly believes, showed improvement each week.
“I don’t know if there is a ceiling for him,” Kelly said, “and I hope there is not because college football is a quarterback-driven game. This league is a quarterback-driven league and we are going to go as far as Darron can play.”
Because of NCAA sanctions, USC cannot play in a bowl game or the league’s first conference championship game. But Barkley, whose touchdown-to-interception ration improved dramatically last season, should compete for Heisman Trophy consideration. Kiffin said Barkley is “on schedule to be in that conversation,” later adding that Barkley can have “one of those seasons like we have seen before with Carson [Palmer], [Matt] Leinart, John David [Booty], Mark Sanchez, have one of those elite seasons.”
There are others worthy of attention. It was Arizona’s Foles (290.1 yards per game) — not Luck (256.8) — who led the league in passing yards per game last season. Foles’s completion percentage (67.1) was second best in the league.
The list goes beyond the Big Six.
Often overlooked is Oregon State’s Ryan Katz, who began last season by throwing 129 passes without an interception. He finished last season’s game against Oregon with a broken wrist on his throwing arm. And there is Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 junior who threw for 647 yards and five touchdowns in the final two games last season, wins over UCLA and Arizona.
“The one thing about this league that sticks out,” Kelly said, “is Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Darron Thomas, Ryan Katz. The list goes on and on.”