Commentary

Quarterbacks enter 2007 with much to prove

Originally Published: August 7, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Most of the time, quarterbacks seem so cool and in command. Like they have all the answers.

Not this time. Not this season. In 2007, even the nation's very best college quarterbacks come with questions attached. No QB opens August without something to prove -- to fans, to media members, to opponents, to themselves.

Here's the top 25 list of pressing quarterback questions.

25. The entire Atlantic Coast Conference
The question: Can anybody here play?
In 2006, 31 QBs nationwide had a pass efficiency rating of 140 or higher. Zero played in the ACC. The top nine returning quarterbacks in the league combined to throw 84 touchdown passes and 87 interceptions. Blech.

24. Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
The question: Next Brady Quinn or next Ron Powlus?
That one won't be answered in full for years -- but if the breathlessly hyped Clausen does not earn the starting job in South Bend this fall after entering school last January to get a jump, he'll be behind both guys. Quinn and Powlus started as true freshmen, one on his way to the record books and the first round of the NFL draft, the other on his way to four years of unfulfilled expectations. If Notre Dame is going to exceed relatively modest predictions, it needs Clausen to live up to his advance pub.

23. Anthony Morelli, Penn State
The question: Well?
A lot of Nittany Lions fans wonder whether Morelli is the biggest roadblock to a blockbuster season in State College. The senior was rated as high as the No. 2 quarterback in the nation coming out of high school and hasn't lived up to that billing yet. But the annals of college football are full of touted quarterbacks who waited to flower until their final season (see: Leak, Chris).

22. Shaun Carney, Air Force
The question: Does that right arm work?
Carney spent three seasons running the option for Fisher DeBerry, and now will attempt to reinvent himself as a passer under new coach Troy Calhoun. Actually, the 5-foot-10 Carney has thrown it decently when the Falcons did put it up -- but part of his success was the element of surprise. We'll see how he does now that opponents actually expect Air Force to throw on occasion.

21. Erik Ainge, Tennessee
The question: Can it end with an SEC title?
Ainge's four-year starting career has been all over the map: he was a freshman stud, a sophomore bust and a junior reclamation project. Just about the only thing he hasn't done is lead the Volunteers to an SEC championship (though they played in the title game in '04). Can he get there this year after losing his top three receivers?

20. Casey Dick, Arkansas, and Mike Teel, Rutgers
The question: What happens when they don't hand off?
Mostly, Dick and Teel will be asked to turn and give the ball to the two best running backs in America, Darren McFadden and Ray Rice. The tricky part is what happens when they have to throw. Neither quarterback distinguished himself in that department last year -- though Teel closed the season with three strong performances in a row. If they become serious passing threats, both teams become much better.

19. Sam Keller, Nebraska
The question: Fresh start = fresh glory?
Keller left an epic quarterback controversy at Arizona State and now takes over a Nebraska offense that returns five top receivers from a Big 12 North championship team. He'll need to be good against a schedule that features nine opponents that played in bowl games last year.

18. Dennis Dixon, Oregon
The question: Was his summer vacation worth it?
Dixon's decision to rekindle a dormant pro baseball career rather than stay in Eugene and work out with his teammates chapped Mike Bellotti. The coach has toned down his highly critical rhetoric from earlier this summer, but if Dixon isn't sharp early, he'll open the door for eternal backup Brady Leaf.

17. Brandon Cox, Auburn
The question: Now or never?
When he replaced Jason Campbell in 2005, Tigers fans insisted Cox would be better than the man who led Auburn to an undefeated season. He hasn't been. Auburn's offense struggled much of last season as Cox tried to play through injuries, and he closed the year with six touchdowns and seven interceptions in the last five games. Cox's senior season needs to be a big one if Auburn is going to contend in the SEC West.

16. Todd Boeckman, Ohio State
The question: Troy Who?
Not likely that Buckeye fans will be saying that this year, as Boeckman steps in for '06 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. As a 23-year-old junior, Boeckman should have the maturity to handle a thankless task; we'll see whether he also has the arm for it.

15. Matthew Stafford, Georgia, and Juice Williams, Illinois
The question: Is it takeoff time?
Both hot-shot recruits wound up starting last season as true freshmen, and both took their lumps. Stafford threw six more picks than TDs and presided over ignominious losses to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Williams completed just 39.5 percent of his passes on a 2-10 team. But both showed flashes of greatness, and both will be expected to improve by light years this fall.

14. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
The question: Just another Mike Leach creation, or the real deal?
Some people think Harrell is the most talented plug-in yet to the Leach passing machine. The proof won't be in his individual numbers, but in his ability to lift the Red Raiders past the Texas-Oklahoma axis and into the Big 12 title game for the first time. Don't count on it this year, given the losses at receiver, offensive line and on defense.

13. Tyler Donovan, Wisconsin
The question: Can you picture this guy in a BCS bowl?
Following John Stocco isn't exactly like following Joe Montana, but Stocco was a big-time winner. One of the few question marks on this Badgers team is whether a senior with two career starts can manage the position and win games like his predecessor. Donovan filled in phenomenally during a big win last season at Iowa; now he has to do it for 12 weeks -- including games at Penn State and Ohio State, and home against Michigan.

12. Blake Mitchell, South Carolina
The question: Is he a Holtz QB or a Spurrier QB?
Mitchell was recruited by ground-bound coach Lou Holtz but has been handed the keys to Air Stevie Boy (and, like most Spurrier quarterbacks, he's had the keys taken away a few times). Some SEC watchers think the Gamecocks have a chance to break through the glass ceiling this year in the Eastern Division. For that to happen, Mitchell has to play the best football of his career -- and do it without receiver Sidney Rice and some key linemen.

11. Colt McCoy, Texas
The question: Can he win like Vince?
McCoy proved last season that he's a tremendous passer. Now he has to prove he can elevate a team into national title contention like the legend who came before him. Other than an early hiccup against loaded Ohio State he had a great freshman year, stopped only by injury late in the season. This year Bevo is thinking BCS -- if McCoy can take him there.

10. The state of Arizona
The question: Bounce back to frosh form, or continue the soph slump?
Greatness was widely expected from Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter and Arizona's Willie Tuitama last season. Greatness was not delivered. Carpenter, a revelation off the bench in '05, heaped too much pressure on himself after beating out Sam Keller and imploded during the first half of the year before recovering late. Tuitama tried to play through concussions and other bumps and bruises and was not the same game as the electric rookie of '05. Both are playing in new offenses this year, and both are expecting a return to freshman form.

9. Ben Olson, UCLA
The question: Big Ben or Big Tease?
Five years ago, Olson was the No. 1 high school player in the country. After signing with BYU and going on a Mormon mission, Olson wound up in Westwood and has started four games in two years. Now, as a married 24-year-old junior, the job of getting UCLA into the BCS falls to him. A manageable schedule and tons of returning experience puts the Bruins in position for a breakthrough season -- if Olson plays like the quarterback he was touted to be in 2002.

8. Matt Flynn, LSU
The question: Worth the wait?
How often does a team lose the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and expect to be better the next season? (Don't say Tennessee '98, when Tee Martin replaced Peyton Manning, because nobody saw that coming.) That's the expectation in Baton Rouge this fall, thanks to the team's belief in Flynn. Seems like he's been waiting in the wings for a decade, and now he gets to try to take Les Miles where JaMarcus Russell could not.

7. Tim Tebow, Florida
The question: How's the transition from fullback to quarterback?
That's what Tebow was last year as a freshman: a glorified single-wing fullback, scattering tacklers with his battering-ram running style in short-yardage situations. Now he'll play the position he was recruited to play: all QB, all the time, throwing it more than running it. He seems like the perfect Urban Meyer quarterback, and he's surrounded by a ton of talent. Expectations are completely insane.

6. Brian Brohm, Louisville
The question: Why is he still here?
He was projected as a first-round NFL pick last spring. His brilliant play-calling coach left for the NFL. He's had his share of injuries. Add it all together and you know why a lot of people expected Brohm to be in a pro camp right now instead of adjusting to a new offense with the Cardinals. Time to prove he made the right call.

5. Whoever gets the call at Oklahoma
The question: How low should the bar be set?
The three anonymous individuals battling to start for the Sooners -- Sam Bradford, Keith Nichol and Joey Halzle -- have combined to throw two college passes. Coach Bob Stoops won't demand instant greatness from this group, but Oklahoma does need to frequently distribute the ball to a talented receiver corps. With just about everything else in place, the quarterbacks will either lift the Sooners into the top five or drop them out of the top 10.

4. Chad Henne, Michigan
The question: Can he win the big ones?
Injury is the only thing that can keep Henne from becoming the Wolverines' first 10,000-yard QB, but that won't decide his legacy in Ann Arbor. The pertinent numbers are these: Henne is 0-3 against Ohio State and 0-3 in bowl games. Those losses have been more attributable to defensive lapses than anything Henne has done, but let's be honest: you cannot take the bagel against the Buckeyes and in bowls for your career and be a Michigan hero.

3. Pat White, West Virginia
The question: Can you run from Morgantown to New Orleans?
White is by far the most dangerous running quarterback since Vince Young, as his 1,219 rushing yards and 18 rushing TDs last year attest. He's freakishly fast. But if the Mountaineers are going to make a push for the national title, White needs to throw more productively. At 185 pounds, his best chance of staying healthy all year is to pass more than the 179 times he did last season and run less than 165 times. (Remember, Young had the same thing to prove his final year at Texas.)

2. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
The question: Can you win the Heisman with no one watching?
Brennan is going to try. He'll put up pinball numbers on a team some think could run the table. He'll also play most of his games on Aloha time, far enough off Broadway that voters will have to try hard to see him. This will be a fascinating test case for a voting body that almost never fails to favor the glamour boys from the glamour schools.

1. John David Booty, USC
The question: Palmer, Leinart … Booty?
The first two guys have their names on the Heisman and their places in USC history secure. Palmer led the Pete Carroll renaissance and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Leinart turned the renaissance into a dynasty and became a first-round pick. Can Booty -- who is so Shreveport to the other two guys' Cali cool -- be a suitable heir? Can he win hardware in December and in January? Does the dynasty continue or crumble on his watch?

The answers are coming soon. To all 25 pressing quarterback questions.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.