Passing Grades: Which BCS Teams are up?

Quarterback is the most important position in football — not just because he operates the offense but because he's the field general. The Man. Of the top teams from each BCS conference last year (plus Notre Dame), here is the quarterback situation as of now. Will we see an upgrade or downgrade in the teams' passing production?

Louisville: I admit I like Teddy Bridgewater a lot, partly because he really impressed me at the Elite 11 Camp in California two years ago. As a true freshman in 2011, he threw for 2,129 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs and a 64.5 completion percentage. He needs to get that interception number down but those numbers don't tell the whole story — in his last five regular season games he threw seven touchdowns and only three picks. The Belk Bowl was a disaster (3 INTs), but to be fair to Bridgewater, he was also sacked five times. If Bridgewater can learn to throw the ball away instead of trying to force an ill-advised pass, he could well bring the Cardinals to a BCS Bowl.

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Cincinnati: There's not a very nice way to put this: The Bearcats will not be a prolific offensive machine this year. Quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead are gone, as well as three starters on the offensive line. Munchie Legaux will take over at quarterback and he has some experience but with only four returning starters on offense, this is a rebuilding year.

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Notre Dame: Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly has a problem on his hands — the same problem former head coach Charlie Weis had — and it won't be solved until the fall. Who will be the starting quarterback? There are four quarterbacks vying for the job: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and early enrollee Gunner Kiel. Golson had the best spring game of the four but Rees has the most experience. With a to-be-determined starting quarterback facing a particularly challenging schedule this year, Notre Dame fans might want to keep their high expectations in check.

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USC: Quarterback Matt Barkley surprised a lot of experts by deciding to return to USC instead of declaring early for the 2012 NFL Draft. Barkley has the best receiver tandem in college football to make his case for the Heisman Trophy — Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Last year Barkley threw for 3,500-plus yards, 39 TDs, 7 INTs and held a passer rating of 161.22. Can he do better than that? Considering he now has a huge incentive that he hadn't seen in two years — the ability to play in a bowl game — I say yes.

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Oregon: Chip Kelly's high-octane offense has plenty of depth but when quarterback Darron Thomas left early, there must have been some shocked Ducks. Bryan Bennett looks like the most likely replacement although Marcus Mariota could unseat him. The receiver corps is stocked but relatively unproven. It'll be hard to match last year's scoring offense (Ducks averaged over 46 points per game) but surprisingly, Oregon was only ranked No. 68 in passing offense. With running backs De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner keeping the defenses' front sevens honest, I see an increase in passing due to so many defenders focused on the rushing attack.

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Stanford: Andrew Luck left some big shoes to fill, but it's not just that gaping hole that downgrades them — offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin are also gone. Brett Nottingham has an early jump on the quarterback battle but some underclassmen — especially Evan Crower — could make the decision more difficult for head coach David Shaw. Andrew Luck was a special player and I just don't see anyone surpassing Luck's passing productivity this year.

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Wisconsin: It was a good 2011 for the Badgers, but they had NC State transfer quarterback Russell Wilson's services to help land them in the Rose Bowl. This year they have Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien, who looks like the best prospect to start at quarterback, but he won't get to campus until May and has to learn the system before the coaching staff will make that move. O'Brien's 2011 numbers aren't spectacular (1,648 yards, 7 TDs, 10 INTs and a 109.6 passer rating) but the Terrapins ran the spread, so perhaps the Badgers' offense will suit him better. The offense lost three All-Big Ten offensive linemen as well, and although Wisconsin never seems to have a problem reloading at the line, protecting O'Brien (or whoever ends up taking the snaps) and opening up holes for Montee Ball will be a big task.

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Penn State: Quarterback Rob Bolden — who tried to procure a transfer release from the school last year but was denied — had a rough 2011. Bolden went 53 of 135, throwing 2 TDs and 7 INTs. Matthew McGloin is also competing for the starting spot with better numbers; 125 of 231, 8 TDs and 5 INTs. The only other quarterbacks with game experience are Shane MacGregor (one pass completion) and Garrett Venuto (one pass completion). New head coach Bill O'Brien is also throwing a new playbook at the offense which makes things more difficult. In the spring game last week, three quarterbacks had a combined five passes intercepted: McGloin (1), Paul Jones (1) and Bolden (3), with one of Bolden's screen passes being intercepted by a defensive tackle.

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Michigan: Denard Robinson is one of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in college football, but sometimes the excitement factor isn't always a good thing for Michigan fans. We know he can bait defenders into a pass rush while he zips past them, but it's his throwing under pressure that can give fans reason to look to the heavens. If he improves his footwork and decision-making — and those are the two things offensive coordinator Al Borges is focusing on — then he'll improve upon last year's 20-15 TD-INT ratio.

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Ohio State: Braxton Miller was probably one of the most underrated quarterbacks of 2011 and it's hard to figure out why. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, and considering the baptism by fire the freshman was thrown into when Terrelle Pryor opted for the NFL Supplemental Draft, he's done a remarkable job. His numbers are respectable: 1,159 passing yards, 14 TDs and 4 INTs. How much better will he be under Urban Meyer's new offense? *gulp*

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Michigan State: The Spartans lose Kirk Cousins and it's a big loss — Cousins was ranked No. 32 in FBS passing and averaged almost 237 passing yards per game. But there are massive losses on the receiver corps, including the school's all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham and All-Big Ten tight end Brian Linthicum. Andrew Maxwell is the heir apparent at quarterback, but he was questionable with a sprained knee going into Michigan State's spring game. The Spartans have four starting offensive linemen returning and they do have a talented backfield, but Maxwell has little experience (18-of-26, 171 yards, 1 TD).

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LSU: Les Miles really hasn't had any quarterback stability since Ryan Perrilloux was dismissed from the team in the spring of 2008. Both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee never developed into team leaders, and for a team that is seemingly in the BCS Championship conversation every year, this trend is alarming. Zach Mettenberger will get his chance this year. Mettenberger was dismissed from Georgia in 2009 (violation of team rules) and played a year at Butler Community College before landing at LSU. He's had a great spring and could be another Cam Newton in terms of a thriving-in-a-second-chance situation, but it's still puzzling that an elite SEC West team can't consistently recruit and develop a quarterback.

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Alabama: The defending BCS champions have quarterback A.J. McCarron returning. Since the defense only returns a handful of starters, I expect the offense to have to put up gaudier numbers to possibly compensate. Still, while Alabama may not be at nearly the strength it was last year, the Crimson Tide are the BCS champs and have the most important position returning — the quarterback. And Nick Saban.

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South Carolina: Now that the Gamecocks have tasted an 11-win season, why not go for 12? Quarterback Connor Shaw is back and for a team that has experienced some instability at the position over the years, this is a huge plus. Assuming running back Marcus Lattimore is 100 percent healthy (knee), the Gamecocks could be a lethal scoring machine this fall. If the running game reaches its full potential, the passing game will open up for the veteran Shaw and he will surpass the 177.4 yards per game he averaged last year after taking over the starting gig in October. I'm banking on both of those scenarios to happen.

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Georgia: Aaron Murray is probably the best quarterback in the SEC and he's back. So are some very talented receivers. The O-line took a big hit losing both tackles and center Ben Jones, but honestly, there was room for improvement in that unit. Head coach Mark Richt knows how good this team could be and there's some pressure on him — sometimes, that's a good thing. This year, it's all good. Light up the scoreboard, Aaron.

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Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy never seems to have a problem reloading, but this year is different — quarterback Brandon Weeden was 28 years old when he was drafted on Thursday. Forget the nice arm, what about the maturity factor? Clint Chelf is the projected starter and he'll probably pick up where Weeden left off, but with only three returning starters on the offense, we won't see the same numbers. Justin Blackmon, one of the best receivers in the country who was also drafted on Thursday, will be sorely missed. He averaged over 117 receiving yards per game.

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Kansas State: Collin Klein is one of those quarterbacks that gets the job done without a lot of accolades. It's a shame because in 2011 he had to overcome a lot of injuries and still rushed for over 1,100 yards and passed for over 1,900 yards. If the Wildcats can get a running game that doesn't have Klein plowing ahead with the ball, his passing numbers could increase. But part of Kansas State's success last year was that they were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 and they surprised everyone — the cat's out of the bag now. Bill Snyder is a heck of a coach and I still think the Wildcats will have a good year, but probably not the same 10-3 success they had last year.

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West Virginia: This could be the year West Virginia feels a meteoric rise in college football and a lot of it is due to quarterback Geno Smith. Last year Smith threw for over 4,300 yards and posted a 31-7 TD-INT ratio all while under new head coach Dana Holgorsen. Despite the Mountaineers playing in a much tougher conference, they could be unstoppable, especially since both Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin return to play toss-and-catch with Smith. Geno Smith could be a Heisman sleeper.

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Clemson: Tajh Boyd put excitement back in the ACC, mostly for good reasons, but there were some bad as well. He had very good stats (3,328 yards, 33 TDs, 12 INTs) but there were some lapses of judgment at key moments in a game that made fans squeamish. The Tigers lost four of their last six games and we won't even talk about the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia. Still, Boyd is another year older and has some unbelievable talent (hello, Sammy Watkins!) to throw the ball to and I think that maturity will translate into much better numbers. The Tigers just have to forget that they haven't "been there" before and start really believing in themselves.

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Virginia Tech: Every year there seems to be some serious holes to fix on the Hokies and every year Frank Beamer's team answers the bell. The good news: Logan Thomas returns as the ACC's best dual-threat quarterback. The bad news: The Hokies have plenty of holes to fill all over the offense, which includes the O-line. The good news: When you have a quarterback that can both run and pass the ball, the pass option can be very effective in adjusting to an inexperienced line. Under normal circumstances, I would downgrade the passing game but this is Virginia Tech — I'm a believer.

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