One of my favorite sportswriters back in the days of the Big Eight was Bill Connors of the Tulsa World. One of Connors theories was that you couldnt win the conference title without an experienced quarterback. But I dont remember what he said would happen in years when only the less-talented teams have one.
Things look a bit topsy-turvy in the Big 12 football world of 2010. Colorado will return by far the most experienced quarterback in the league – Cody Hawkins, who has started large portions of three seasons – but he lost his job in 2009, and nobody will be predicting the Buffaloes to win anything this fall, anyway. Then comes Jerrod Johnson of Texas A&M with 21 starts.
Nobody else in the league has more than 15 career starts at quarterback.
Baylors Robert Griffin III has 14 and Missouris Blaine Gabbert checks in with 13.
Nebraskas Zac Lee, who started 12 games last year, makes the Cornhuskers fifth in overall quarterback experience, just ahead of OU and Landry Jones, who made 10 starts after Sam Bradford went down. Texas Techs Taylor Potts also had 10 starts, but many in Lubbock think Steven Sheffield is a better quarterback.
The point is this: It may not be a banner year for quarterbacks in the Big 12. Among the top seven most experienced signal-callers, only Johnson, Griffin and Gabbert will be surefire starters in September.
What does it all mean? Maybe 2010 is the year to win a Big 12 championship with an unproven quarterback – at least, if early preseason polls are any indication.
Of the three Big 12 teams that have appeared in those polls, Nebraska will have a slight edge on defense over Texas and Oklahoma, and the Huskers special teams should be excellent. The Longhorns and Sooners will have an edge at wide receiver, but the Huskers will be better at tight end. All three teams will be pretty much even at running back. NU has Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead, OU has DeMarco Murray and Texas has innumerable athletes to plug in, although none of the underclassmen it used last fall were spectacular.
The quarterbacks will make the difference – just as Connors would have predicted. At least, among the teams with the most overall talent.
If Nebraska gets excellent quarterback play this fall, it has a great chance to win the Big 12 and finish in the Top 10. In fact, NU could accomplish both if it only gets above-average production from its quarterback.
So NU should be in good shape with Lee, a senior, and sophomore Cody Green, both of whom started more than one game and got a considerable amount of experience last fall. Right?
Why cant I get excited about that prospect? Maybe because neither one seemed to improve that much as the season progressed.
Im figuring Lees injury into the equation. That would explain some of his limitations throwing the ball. But having a torn elbow ligament doesnt account for Lees decision-making problems, lack of speed and ineffectiveness at running the option play for most of the season.
For his part, Green had several opportunities to leave Lee in the dust and make a name for himself last fall, but obviously was not ready. Green had a good first half against Baylor but seemed to go downhill from there.
No matter whether Florida native Brion Carnes signs a letter of intent with the Huskers, or whether home-grown Bronson Marsh ends up playing quarterback at NU sometime in the future, this years recruiting class will not have an impact on the 2010 season as far as quarterback is concerned.
And even if redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez or sophomore Kody Spano (rehabbing from a second ACL injury) steps forward and look goods in spring football, it will surely come down to Lee and Green this fall. Despite his shortcomings in 2009, Lee had an effective outing against Arizona in the Holiday Bowl to build momentum for 2010, and starts the year as the frontrunner.
Will Lee improve as much between his junior and senior seasons as did Scott Frost in 1997? And if he doesnt, is Green ready to fill the gap? Those may be the biggest questions hanging over the Nebraska football program in 2010.
Even in a year without major talent or experience returning, quarterback play likely will be the big story in the Big 12 this fall. Bill Connors would have expected nothing less.