With Andrew Luck returning, Stanford ranks as the top quarterback unit for 2011.
They're the teams within the team - those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it's the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball - these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a college football team to New Year's Day - or beyond.
It's entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 11th annual Athlon Awards.
Much of the emphasis for these rankings was placed on the starter, with a slight bump given to teams with a proven backup. Production for 2011 was included, so quarterbacks (example - Ryan Lindley) losing a lot of receivers or offensive linemen suffered in the rankings. Although quarterbacks like EJ Manuel of Florida State have a lot of potential, an advantage in the rankings was given to proven players.
1. Stanford - Despite being considered the No. 1 draft prospect, Andrew Luck returned to Stanford for his junior season. Luck threw for 3,338 yards and 32 scores in 2010, along with completing an impressive 70.7 percent of his passes. With the loss of three line starters and departure of coach Jim Harbaugh, Luck may not repeat last year’s numbers. Finding new weapons at receiver is also a concern, especially if Chris Owusu can't stay healthy. The Cardinal have a deep collection of tight ends, which should help ease the pressure on a developing group of receivers. Despite the question marks around him, Luck still is the nation’s best quarterback and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
2. Boise State - Kellen Moore has one more year to add to one of the most prolific careers by a quarterback in NCAA history. Moore has thrown for 10,867 yards and 99 scores while tossing only 19 interceptions. The senior has completed 68.2 percent of his passes during his career. He finished fourth in the 2010 Heisman Trophy voting and if the Broncos rank among the top 10 teams in the nation once again, expect another invite to New York at the end of the year. Even with a season to go, Moore is already Boise State’s career leader in passing yards, completions and passing touchdowns. Sophomore Joe Southwick will likely serve as the No. 2 quarterback this year.
3. Baylor - Robert Griffin showed no rust in his return from a torn ACL, throwing for 3,501 yards and 22 scores last season. He also added 635 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Griffin tied Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden for the best completion percentage among Big 12 passers at 67 percent. Deciding the Big 12's top quarterback isn't easy, but how valuable Griffin is to his team gives him a slight edge over Weeden and Oklahoma's Landry Jones. Not only has Griffin developed into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, but he’s also elevated Baylor’s program, last year leading the Bears to their first bowl game since 1994.
4. Oklahoma - Landry Jones was thrown into the fire when Sam Bradford was hurt in 2009 and had his share of struggles, but he has since developed into one of the elite quarterbacks in college football. Jones threw for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns last season and finished second in the Big 12 in passing efficiency. He tossed 12 picks on 617 attempts last year, but that was an improvement from tossing 14 on 449 throws in 2009. Jones returns one of the best receiving corps in college football and should see approach 5,000 passing yards once again. Consistency and mistakes were a concern early in Jones’ career, but he has improved in both areas. Don't be surprised if the junior makes a run at first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011.
5. Oklahoma State - At 27, Brandon Weeden isn’t your ordinary college quarterback. The junior thrived in his first year as the starter last season, throwing for 4,277 yards and 34 scores. The Cowboys will have a new offensive coordinator with the departure of Dana Holgorsen, but the Pokes will keep a similar scheme in place. Weeden’s veteran presence should prevent a drop-off from Oklahoma State’s offense in 2011. Sophomore Clint Chelf is expected to be the No. 2 quarterback this year, but the future of the program could be true freshman J.W. Walsh. Considering Weeden's age, this could be his last season at Oklahoma State, which makes the development of Chelf and Walsh even more important.
6. USC - Needs to cut down on his mistakes, but junior Matt Barkley should be primed for his best season at USC.
7. Oregon - Darron Thomas posted 3,367 yards of total offense last year, but will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps.
8. Michigan - Rich Rodriguez is out, which means the spread offense is gone. However, Denard Robinson is still one of the nation's most dangerous quarterbacks and should post big numbers in Michigan's new offensive scheme.
9. Northwestern - The Wildcats were 0-3 after Dan Persa's Achilles injury. All signs point to Persa returning at full health this year, which is great news for Northwestern's shot at competing for the Big Ten Legends Division title.
10. Wisconsin - Russell Wilson's arrival in Madison should give Wisconsin a great opportunity to make a return trip to the Rose Bowl.
11. Arizona - Wildcats have five new starters on the offensive line, but Nick Foles and one of the top receiving corps in the nation will make this a dangerous offense.
12. Michigan State - Senior Kirk Cousins could be one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks. However, the Spartans return only two starters on the offensive line this year.
13. Georgia - Aaron Murray turned in a solid freshman year and even without A.J. Green, he should improve as a sophomore.
14. West Virginia - With Dana Holgorsen in as head coach/offensive coordinator, Geno Smith should have a big statistical season.
15. Cincinnati - Zach Collaros loses top receiver Armon Binns, but remains one of the Big East's best quarterbacks.
16. Houston - Case Keenum is back from a torn ACL and could set the NCAA record for most career passing yards.
17. Tulsa - G.J. Kinne led Conference USA in total offense per game, but lost coordinator Chad Morris to Clemson.
18. Nebraska - If Taylor Martinez can stay healthy, he could be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten at the end of the year.
19. Notre Dame - Will it be Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees? Considering Brian Kelly's history of getting production from multiple quarterbacks, it may not matter who starts.
20. Hawaii - Bryant Moniz went from walk-on to preseason first-team All-WAC quarterback. The senior has four new offensive line starters, but Hawaii should remain near the top of college football in scoring offense.
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