Can Zach Mettenberger continue the run of first-year quarterbacks playing for the title?
When predicting college football’s national champion, experience at quarterback is usually one of the most important factors to consider. However, is it time to reconsider how important experience is under center? Three of the last four teams to play in the title game had a first-year starter at quarterback. Alabama’s Greg McElroy took home the title in 2009, while Auburn’s Cam Newton won the Heisman and national championship in 2011.
Since the BCS was created in 1998, nine quarterbacks have played for the national title in their first season:
1998: Tee Martin, Tennessee - W
1999: Michael Vick, Virginia Tech - L
2002: Craig Krenzel, Ohio State - W
2007: Matt Flynn, LSU - W; Todd Boeckman, Ohio State
2009: Greg McElroy, Alabama - W
2010: Cam Newton, Auburn - W; Darron Thomas, Oregon
2011: AJ McCarron, Alabama – W
Is the emergence of first-year quarterbacks as national champs a new trend in college football? Considering the unpredictability from year-to-year, it’s probably too early to make any judgments. The success of McElroy, Newton and McCarron show different options can lift a team to the title. Newton carried Auburn, while McElroy and McCarron were steady for Alabama team’s that boasted one of the nation’s best rushing attacks and defenses.
Although it’s too early to make any long-term predictions about this recent trend, there is a good possibility a first-year starter at quarterback will make it to the national title game in 2012. Which teams are the most likely to have a first-year starter at quarterback and play for the national championship?
Top 5 Contenders to Win the National Title With a First-Year Starting Quarterback
1. LSU (Zach Mettenberger)
After struggling to generate a consistent passing attack last season, LSU hopes Mettenberger is the missing piece to another run at the national title. Mettenberger spent one year at Georgia and transferred to Butler Community College to play in 2010. In his one season in the junior college ranks, Mettenberger threw for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns. He played in five games last season for the Tigers, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and one touchdown. With one of the best defenses in the nation and a punishing rushing attack, LSU won’t need Mettenberger to throw for 3,500 yards. However, in order for the Tigers to win (not just play) the national championship, he needs to be a difference maker.
2. Oregon (Marcus Mariota or Bryan Bennett)
Whether it’s Mariota or Bennett taking the first snap for the Ducks this season, Oregon will be a national title contender. Oregon returns 10 starters and has a capable duo (Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas) to pickup where LaMichael James left off at running back. Bennett made one start in relief of Darron Thomas last season, throwing for 156 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado, while rushing for 69 yards. Mariota redshirted last season and made quite an impression in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and adding 99 more on the ground. Mariota brings more athleticism to the offense, but Bennett has plenty of mobility to thrive in this offense. Coach Chip Kelly shouldn’t be too worried about starting a new quarterback, as Mariota or Bennett should keep Oregon’s offense among the best in the nation.
3. Texas (David Ash or Case McCoy)
Quarterback play is really the only obstacle standing in the way of Texas competing for a Big 12 title. Oklahoma is the preseason favorite but lost two offensive line starters and is still searching for the right mix at receiver. The Longhorns return the conference’s best defense, along with a deep stable of running backs and an improving offensive line. David Ash finished 2011 with an edge over Case McCoy, but the battle continued into the fall, with Ash earning the No. 1 role for the season opener. Although Ash earned the right to start, McCoy will see some playing time. Playing two quarterbacks isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t sound like Ash put any distance on McCoy for the No. 1 spot. After improving its win total by three games from 2010 and 2011, Texas could be in for a similar jump in 2012. However, finishing the regular season unbeaten and knocking off Oklahoma for the Big 12 title will depend on how much Ash or McCoy progresses and clearly assumes the No. 1 spot.
4. Michigan State (Andrew Maxwell)
The battle between Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska to win the Big Ten Legends Division should be one of the most competitive races in college football. The Spartans are the defending division champs, but must replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. Cousins finished his Michigan State career with 9,131 yards and 66 touchdowns, along with serving as one of the team’s leaders during his three-year run as the starter. Maxwell was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school but has played sparingly over the last two seasons. He has thrown for 294 yards and one touchdown in his short career in East Lansing, while completing 56.9 percent of his passes. With one of the Big Ten’s top defenses, offensive lines and running backs (Le’Veon Bell), Maxwell won’t have to win games on his own. However, early tests against Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State could decide if the Spartans challenge for another 11-win season or finish behind the Wolverines and Cornhuskers in the division.
5. Oklahoma State (Wes Lunt)
The Cowboys nearly made the national title last season, coming within one field goal of beating Iowa State and finishing unbeaten. Getting to No. 1 or No. 2 in the polls will be a little more challenging in 2012, especially with the departure of quarterback Brandon Weeden, receiver Justin Blackmon and center Grant Garner. Lunt (a true freshman) enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, which enabled him to get a head start on learning the offense. He played well in the spring game, throwing for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 15 completions. Lunt’s spring performance was enough to vault him into the No. 1 spot, and he appeared to widen the gap in the fall. The Cowboys have a cupcake opener against Savannah State and take on Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette before playing Texas to open Big 12 play. Mike Gundy has done a good job of developing quarterbacks throughout his tenure, and Lunt looks like the next superstar to lead Oklahoma State’s offense.
Five Longshots/First-Year QBs to Watch
Auburn (Kiehl Frazier or Clint Moseley)
Unfortunately for Auburn, there’s no Cam Newton on the roster once again. The Tigers ranked 100th nationally in total offense last season and may not be much better in 2012, especially with uncertainty under center and the departure of running back Michael Dyer. Sophomore Kiehl Frazier is expected to start at quarterback, but he has only thrown 12 passes in his career and was recruited to run Gus Malzahn's spread offense. New coordinator Scot Loeffler plans to implement a pro-style attack, which will require an adjustment period for Frazier. Clint Moseley is also in the mix to start but has been dealing with shoulder trouble in fall camp. Although the offense is an issue, Auburn’s defense should be solid, especially under new coordinator Brian VanGorder and one of the SEC’s top defensive lines. Another reason to consider Auburn a longshot for cracking the top 10 is a difficult schedule, which features road trips to Mississippi State, Alabama and Vanderbilt, along with a neutral site game against Clemson. Although the Tigers should be strong in the trenches, the offense needs another year of development to threaten for another national championship.
Boise State (Joe Southwick)
It will be impossible to replace Kellen Moore, but Boise State is still a threat to make a BCS bowl. Southwick has played in 16 games, throwing for 400 yards on 40 completions. He also has two touchdowns and completed 74.1 percent of his throws. Southwick was pushed by true freshman Nick Patti for time in the spring, but pulled away in the fall. Reloading on offense hasn’t been an issue for coach Chris Petersen, but the Broncos return only one starter on defense. The schedule is favorable, but trips to Michigan State, Nevada and Wyoming won’t be easy. Considering Boise State’s penchant for reloading, the Broncos won’t slip too far in the top 25. However, contending for a national title is probably a year away.
Florida (Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel)
Considering the offenses Florida had under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, it has been a surprise to see just how much this offense has struggled over the last couple of years. With John Brantley finishing his eligibility, Florida will turn to sophomores Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel under center. Both players received some playing time last season and have been in a virtual dead heat for the starting job in preseason workouts. Brissett is the better passer, while Driskel brings more athleticism to the position. In addition to the question marks at quarterback, Florida needs to find playmakers at running back and receiver and shore up a questionable offensive line. The defense should be salty, which should keep Florida in the hunt for the SEC East crown. However, a national title is an extreme longshot with the concerns on offense.
Notre Dame (Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix or Gunner Kiel)
If the Irish want to play in a BCS bowl this year, they have to find an answer at quarterback. Dayne Crist started the opener against South Florida last season but was pulled in favor of Tommy Rees. Although Rees finished with 20 touchdowns and 2,871 yards, he threw 14 picks and struggled against Notre Dame’s toughest opponents last year – Florida State, Stanford and USC. An off-the-field incident will keep Rees from playing in the opener against Navy, which opens the door for Everett Golson. The redshirt freshman brings a different dimension to the offense with his mobility and could help spark an offense that scored less than 20 points in each of the last three games in 2011. If Golson fails to impress in the opener, coach Brian Kelly could turn to Hendrix (sophomore) or Kiel (true freshman). Another obstacle to Notre Dame making a run at a national title is a schedule that features games against Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, USC and Oklahoma. Ouch. Even if the Irish show improvement, it’s a longshot they can navigate those five games without a loss.
Stanford (Josh Nunes or Brett Nottingham)
In a mild surprise, coach David Shaw declared Nunes the starter for the season opener against San Jose State. Nottingham held a slight edge over Nunes at the conclusion of spring practice, but was unable to win the job in the fall. It’s possible both quarterbacks will play significant snaps in 2012, however, there’s no question Stanford will miss Andrew Luck. Nunes has thrown only two passes in his career, while Nottingham tossed eight last year. Expect the Cardinal to lean on the rushing attack and a defense that returns seven starters. Stanford’s schedule will present some challenges, especially with road games against Washington, Notre Dame, California and Oregon. Although the Cardinal is due for a fall, this program still has enough talent to be a top 15 team.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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