With the first half of the conference out of the way, we’ll waste little time and get into the meat of the star quarterbacks. To be fair, there is no shame being in the top half of this list, and the difference between two passers can boil down to something as simple as personal preference. As it usually does. So, read on and find out who tops the list. Feel free to offer any opinions, objections or abuse in the comments section, or find me on Twitter.
6. Kevin Hogan, Stanford
If you subscribe to the belief that quarterbacks are measured by championships, then no doubt you think Hogan is getting short shrift here – and you could build a solid case for him. But Hogan, more than anyone else in the conference, has the benefit of a defense that makes a 7-point lead look like 70 points, and is asked to do little more than not lose. He’s more than a game manager though, having shown the ability to make plays out of nothing, particularly with his feet. Hogan had one of the least talented receiving corps on the list last season, and has just 19 starts to his name (16-3). Odds are, Hogan won’t get a chance to change his MO this season, so we won’t really get a chance to see what kind of quarterback he can be. For that reason, it’s hard to put him higher on the list.
5. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
During the Beavers 6-1 start last season, one could easily envision Mannion as the best quarterback in the PAC 12. Even an opening day loss to Eastern Washington couldn’t take the sheen off. In the opening seven games, Mannion completed 68.6% of his passes for 2992 yards, 29 TDs and just 3 interceptions. Outstanding statistics. Then the going got tough. With 5 consecutive games against ranked teams, Mannion returned to the old passer we know and, ahem, love, tossing interceptions like they were going out of fashion. In that 5 game streak, Mannion completed 68.1%, passing for 1411 yards. However, he threw just 7 TDs against 11 interceptions. The senior did recover to beat Boise State in the bowl game, but the luster had long since rubbed off.
4. Cody Kessler, Southern California
In another tale of 2 seasons, Kessler bumbled a little at the start of the season, but came on strong down the stretch. After suffering through Lane Kiffin’s excessively conservative play-calling (remember Washington State?), Kessler flourished when Ed Orgeron took the training wheels off and opened up the playbook. Sure, he had his tough outings, such as the losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, but his needle is definitely pointed in the right direction. Many will point to his dominant 344 yard, 4 TD performance against Fresno State in the bowl game, but for a game that potentially defined his career, check out the win over Stanford. Despite a running attack that managed a mere 23 yards, Kessler took the offense on his shoulders, passing for 288 yards and a score, and leading the team on a game-winning field goal drive late in the game. Expect big things this season.
3. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
The Sun Devils have had a resurgence under head coach Todd Graham, and a huge part of that has to do with the play of Kelly. Entering his third year as a starter, Kelly has been the focal point of the offense from day one, leading ASU to 18 wins in that time. An unheralded recruit out of high school, Kelly took a redshirt in 2010, then rode the pine in 2011 before unleashing his impressive dual-threat skills on the PAC 12. Last season he threw for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs, and added another 608 yards and 9 TDs on the ground – impressive production indeed. However, his accuracy is inconsistent (12 interceptions), and he has struggled when forced to pass (converted 32.2% of third downs through the air last season, per CFBStats). His legs give him an added edge though, and the ability to make plays out of nothing. With some Sun Devil records already under his belt, Kelly is back for one last hurrah, although he’s has to get it done with some key starters gone. If he can take another leap forward in his development though, it may be tough to keep ASU from stepping over the PAC 12 hump.
2. Brett Hundley, UCLA
Hundley had a fine first season as redshirt freshman in 2012, leading the Bruins to 9 wins and a spot in the conference championship game. However, a lot of the offensive success that season had to do with the stellar running of Jonathan Franklin (1734 yards), who gave opponents something else to focus on rather than the young quarterback. With Franklin out of eligibility entering 2013, the Bruins turned to Jordon James to carry the rushing load. However, James made it just 4 games into the season, with an injury leaving UCLA with no apparent bellcow replacement. Coach Jim Mora Jr turned to Hundley to carry the load, and he responded with a fine year, passing for 3071 yards and 24 TDs (9 interceptions), and leading the team in rushing with 748 yards and another 11 scores. His signature game came in week two. The Bruins appeared out of sync to start against Nebraska, struggling to deal with the untimely death of teammate Nick Pasquale. With the Cornhuskers dominating most of the first half, Hundley led a late first-half drive for a TD, and inspired the team to blow Big Red away in the second half. Hundley, arguably the top NFL quarterback prospect in the conference, returned to UCLA for his junior year, and will be a contender for all manner of awards, as well as a high draft ranking in 2015.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Sure, Mariota plays in a “gimmick” offense. Sure, he’s got the massive shadow of Stanford looming over him, but this guy can play. The current Heisman favorite (for the second year running), Mariota is another dual-threat quarterback who runs his “gimmick” offense to perfection, and is a crisp passer who completed 63.5% of his passes last season while throwing just 4 interceptions. He racked up 3665 yards and 31 TDs, with 5 games over 300 yards, despite playing in a run-first offense (just 386 passing attempts). Granted, the Ducks’ dynamic running game helped Mariota as a passer, as no team could afford to sell out against the run either. Mariota added 715 yards and 9 scores on the ground, but kept his eyes downfield when he ran, looking to take advantage of eager defensive backs cheating up. Mariota may not be the best pro prospect in the conference, but he is definitely on NFL hotlists, and like Hundley, he will be in the running for all manner of awards. But he may have to beat Stanford and win the PAC 12 to receive any.