The most popular ACC take coming out of last season was that it had risen to the top of the nation’s conference hierarchy. That may be true, but it’s not an open-and-shut matter, and the debate is sure to be revisited again after bowl season. What’s not in doubt is that the ACC had the nation’s best quarterbacks a year ago. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson probably should have won it instead, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky was the first signal-caller taken in this year’s draft and none of them posted a better QB rating than Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman. Not all of the ACC’s best passers left school this off-season, but a big talent drain at the position will result in the “Conference of Quarterbacks” title changing hands.
It now belongs to the Pac-12. There is no other league with a larger accumulation of high-end talent talent under center, and whatever the Pac-12 lacks in overall quality, it makes up for in peak value. Staying up for #Pac12AfterDark can be a tough sell on a Saturday stuffed with compelling matchups elsewhere across the country, but there may be no choice for both college football fans losing patience with errant throws, bungled snaps or drops in SEC games and NFL junkies wanting to get an early look at their favorite team’s potential savior.
There’s also the strong possibility the competitive stakes will be too high to resist. Odds are good that at least one of the Pac-12’s All-America-caliber arms will have the attention of the Heisman electorate in late-season games with College Football Playoff implications. Washington’s run to the national semifinals in 2016 felt a year ahead of schedule. This season, the Huskies and USC will enter Week 1 with realistic shots at staying in the CFP hunt up until Selection Sunday. If they do get there, it will probably be because Jake Browning and Sam Darnold carried them.
Those two headline SI.com’s look at the top five QBs in the new Conference of QBs, ranked according to their projected production and impact on the playoff race.
1. Sam Darnold, redshirt sophomore, USC
The last time we saw Darnold, he was roasting Penn State’s defense for 453 yards and five touchdowns in a three-point Rose Bowl win, setting the stage for a monster sendoff to his college career this fall. True, he will be eligible to play two more years after this one, but if he maintains the bar he set as a first-year starter last season, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he’s not a top-10 pick next April. Coach Clay Helton’s decision to elevate Darnold to QB1 last September catalyzed the Trojans’ transformation from a rickety ship with a 1–2 record to a state-of-the-art speed boat on an express trip to Pasadena. With Darnold throwing darts behind a sturdy offensive line, USC beat then-undefeated Washington by double digits in Seattle, crushed crosstown rival UCLA and hammered Notre Dame to close the regular season. Next came his star turn against the Nittany Lions, which extinguished any possibility that he would enter this season as anything other than the super-hyped frontman of a popular title pick.
In order to rise to the occasion, Darnold will need to adjust to life without first-team all-conference tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, but the Trojans have recruited well enough at receiver to supply Darnold with a dangerous crop of targets replacing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rodgers, and tailback Ronald Jones II is a home run threat who’ll command enough respect from defenses to open up passing opportunities downfield. Darnold’s biggest obstacle is the only one totally out of his control: USC has no bye week. The Trojans showed last year they can mow down a row of conference opponents without blinking, but a slate featuring an early-September date with Stanford and a late-September trip to Washington State, plus a non-conference tilt with an improved Texas squad, could wear USC out by the regular-season finale against UCLA.
2. Jake Browning, junior, Washington
Browning finished last season as the Power 5’s most efficient quarterback not named Baker Mayfield, who smashed the record for single-season passer rating. Browning had hinted at his potential with a promising freshman season that included 12 starts and nearly 3,000 passing yards, but few foresaw the quantum leap that landed him the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of The Year award and a spot in the thick of the Heisman conversation. The two-week stretch that served as Browning’s coming-out party came early in the season, but it’s still stunning in retrospect: After slicing up Stanford’s defense with three touchdown passes in a 44–6 rout at Husky Stadium, he tossed six in a 49-point beatdown of longtime rival Oregon in Eugene. The sorry state of the Ducks’ defense took some of the shine off that performance, but the Stanford win seemed to reflect a shift in the Pac-12 North’s balance of power.
In beating the two teams who own the past seven conference titles, Washington had left no doubt who the division’s best team was, and Browning’s rise made it possible. He will have the Huskies in the running for another league title and playoff bid in 2017 ... unless Darnold has something to say about it. It’s unfortunate that, unlike last season, Washington won’t face USC in the regular season, although that’s far and away the most likely conference title game matchup. Browning won’t have first-round pick John Ross to throw to, but senior Dante Pettis was a No. 1-caliber target deployed as a complementary weapon last season only because Ross was around. Diminutive speedster Chico McClatcher should get more opportunities to turn inside throws into long gains, and Browning will have the Pac-12’s top running back tandem (junior Myles Gaskin and senior Lavon Coleman) to shoulder part of the offensive workload.
3. Luke Falk, RS senior, Washington State
When evaluating any quarterback at the controls of a turbocharged system like Mike Leach’s Air Raid, it’s tempting to question whether the credit for his gaudy statistics should go to the system or to the player. Falk definitely benefits from playing for a head coach that called on him to throw the ball a nation-high 633 times last season, but that volume wasn’t too much to handle. Falk completed 70% of his passes, second only to Mayfield nationally, and tossed a Pac-12-high 38 touchdowns while righting the Cougars from a nervy 0–2 start in time for a 7–0 surge through the Pac-12. Like Browning, Falk tore up Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks, totaling 728 passing yards and five touchdowns over a pair of blowouts in early October. Browning got the better of Falk in Washington’s 45–17 Apple Cup win, but that bad day didn’t outweigh Falk’s brilliant work over the balance of 2016.
He returns to Pullman for a final season of running Pac-12 defensive backs ragged, and his decision to put off the NFL draft immediately positioned the Cougars as Washington’s primary threat in the Pac-12 North. (Stanford’s got a good case, too, but the Cardinal visit Martin Stadium in November, and we’ll talk about Oregon a little later.) Falk and Browning will both be coping with the loss of go-to pass catchers, but just as Washington shouldn’t worry too much about finding a replacement for Ross, Washington State will probably be O.K. without Gabe Marks and River Cracraft.
Junior Tavares Martin Jr. is a good bet to at least get within shouting distance of the team-leading 89 passes Marks hauled in last season. Plus, Sports Illustrated All-America guard Cody O’Connell is back to help keep Falk’s pocket clean and clear space for the offense’s three leading rushers from 2016 (redshirt sophomore James Williams and redshirt seniors Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks). An early date with Boise State could be trouble, but if Falk can get Washington State past that, he’ll have a shot to outduel Darnold on the Palouse in a late-September showdown between undefeated squads that could double as a preview for the conference title bout.
4. Justin Herbert, sophomore, Oregon
Oregon entered last season hoping for a repeat of the plug-and-play success it enjoyed with Eastern Washington graduate transfer quarterback Vernon Adams. The Ducks tabbed another grad transfer QB out of the Big Sky Conference, Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, as their Week 1 starter in 2016, but he was benched in favor of Herbert after an 18-point loss to Washington State in early October. Herbert had a rough debut against a Washington defense that finished fourth in the country in yards per play allowed last season, but he had established himself as the Ducks’ signal-caller of the future by the time his true freshman campaign wrapped with a 4–8 finish that precipitated the firing of head coach Mark Helfrich.
New Ducks coach Willie Taggart played up the notion that Herbert was competing for the starting job this spring, but it’s more likely that was part of a larger effort to promote competition up and down the roster. (Two other quarterbacks who conceivably had a chance to beat out Herbert, sophomore Travis Jonsen and redshirt freshman Terry Wilson, have both transferred out of the program.) Herbert is Oregon’s guy, and he should prove it this fall by lifting the Ducks back into the North race a year after they dropped every division matchup, including losses to Washington and Stanford by a combined 74 points.
Anyone looking at Oregon as a possible buy-low bounceback pick entering this season may blanch at brutal trips to Palo Alto (Oct. 14) and Seattle (Nov. 4), but the Ducks do get Washington State, Utah and Oregon State in Eugene, and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt should mold his unit into something far more formidable than the bottom-10 group (according to Football Outsiders’ S&P + metric) that Brady Hoke oversaw in 2016. For Herbert, getting accustomed to a new system and coaching staff, including co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, is a big undertaking in itself, and he’ll need to do it with a mostly unproven group of pass catchers, one that last month lost top receiver Darren Carrington, who was dismissed a couple of weeks after a DUI arrest and is transferring to Utah. With workhorse Royce Freeman and change-of-pace option Tony Brooks-James back for another season at tailback, defenses won’t able to sell out to defend the pass without risking getting gashed on the ground.
5. Josh Rosen, junior, UCLA
Rosen opened his college career with a performance that seemed to justify the towering expectations he brought to Los Angeles as the No. 1-rated quarterback in the class of 2015: 28 of 35 for 351 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Virginia. Yet two years after showing off a future top-10 pick’s arm strength, accuracy and poise in his debut, Rosen enters what’s expected to be his final college season as the other quarterback in his own city. Rosen appeared in only six games last season before undergoing surgery to address a shoulder injury, but he returned in time to participate in spring workouts. He will be working under a new offensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, with former Michigan passing game coordinator and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch taking over for Kennedy Polamalu. (Polamalu, now the Vikings’ running backs coach, had followed current Texas A&M OC Noel Mazzone.)
The shuffling shouldn’t faze a passer as gifted as Rosen, and short of the shoulder malady limiting him in some way, all-conference recognition and an early-first-round draft projection are realistic goals. Rosen’s spot at the bottom of this list is less a commentary on his individual ability than on UCLA’s place in the Pac-12 and national power structure. The Bruins open with a daunting non-conference matchup against Texas A&M and face tough trips to cross-division opponents Stanford and Washington and South foe Utah. It would also take a special effort to avoid a third consecutive double-digit loss to USC. When that matchup rolls around, on Nov. 18 at the Coliseum, the Trojans should be putting the finishing touches on a convincing playoff résumé, while the Bruins may be fighting for bowl eligibility. A lot of NFL scouts will be watching, though, to prepare for a potential pre-draft debate over which SoCal QB deserves to be chosen first. Rosen elevates the Pac-12’s profile as the destination for preeminent quarterback play. He just happens to play for a middling team with a rigorous schedule and an underwhelming supporting cast around him.