Commentary

There's no argument where the best QBs live: the Big 12

Originally Published: September 16, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (fake nose and glasses sold separately at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center (1) in Columbus, Ohio):

It's open season on offensive geniuses. Charlie Weis blows a knee on the South Bend sideline. Ballyhooed new Auburn coordinator Tony Franklin schemes his team to three points in Starkville -- and it's enough. Steve Spurrier's offense in year four at South Carolina is worse than it was with Lou Holtz's leftovers. Rich Rodriguez is overseeing the nation's 101st-ranked unit in Ann Arbor.

But there is at least one vibrant refuge of offensive pyrotechnics. Thank goodness for …

Bombs Away In The Big 12

College football would be nothing without endless debate -- who is No. 1, which conference is best, who should win the Heisman, who should be this week 's Dashette, etc. -- but the argument has ended on one subject.

[+] EnlargeChase Daniel
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesChase Daniel is at the top of the heap in the Big 12, leading the nation's top-ranked offense.
The best quarterbacking in the country is going on in the Big 12.

This is not necessarily breaking news. Almost all of the conference's dozen QBs were playing at a high level last season, and some of them for several years. But now, they've gone and taken over college football. The race to be a first-team All-American is only slightly more competitive than the race to be first-team all-Big 12.

Consider: Six of the NCAA's top seven active QBs in career passing efficiency are in the Big 12. The league also has three of the NCAA's top four in 2008 efficiency … and four of the top eight … six of the top 13 … eight of the top 24 … 11 of the top 40. Five of them are ahead of the efficiency rating that led the nation in 2007 (176.5).

In a league that loves the spread offense, these guys barely even throw incompletions anymore. Six of them are completing more than 70 percent of their passes -- last year, just one did so.

These guys are so good they have run other quality quarterbacks out of the league or out of the position. Allan Evridge left Kansas State and is now the starter at Wisconsin, Jevan Snead transferred from Texas and is starting at Mississippi, and Kerry Meier moved to wide receiver last season at Kansas and has excelled there.

Soon, they'll have to start doing it in league games, which might cool down the numbers a bit. Before then, The Dash lists all 12, best to least:

Chase Daniel (2), Missouri. National efficiency rank: fourth. Key stat: Missouri presently leads the nation in scoring and total offense, and Daniel has more touchdowns (seven) than incompletions (six) in his past two games. Next game: Home against Buffalo on Saturday.

Sam Bradford (3), Oklahoma. National efficiency rank: second. Key stat: He has thrown 10 touchdowns in his past 54 attempts, a crazy 18.8 percent touchdown percentage, and leads the nation in completion percentage at 79. Next game: Home against TCU on Sept. 27.

Colt McCoy (4), Texas. National efficiency rank: eighth. Key stat: In addition to throwing it around with aplomb, he has rushed for a team-high 111 yards in two games. Next game: Home against Rice on Saturday.

Graham Harrell (5), Texas Tech. National efficiency rank: 37th. Key stat: He has 16 400-yard passing games in his career and is the nation's active yardage leader -- by a mile. Next game: Home against Massachusetts on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerKansas State QB Josh Freeman isn't even the upper half of the conference rankings despite his No. 3 pass ranking.
Todd Reesing (6), Kansas. National efficiency rank: 24th. Key stat: Formidable rhythm quarterback has accounted for 46 touchdowns, running and passing, in 16 games. Next game: Home against Sam Houston State on Saturday.

Zac Robinson (7), Oklahoma State. National efficency rank: 11th. Key stat: Averaging 11.4 yards per pass attempt, fourth-best nationally. Next game: Home against Troy on Sept. 27.

Josh Freeman (8), Kansas State. National efficiency rank: third. Key stat: After being plagued by picks as a freshman, the junior hasn't thrown an interception in three-plus games dating to November 2007 and has thrown just one in his past five-plus games. Next game: At Louisville on Wednesday in a big one for both teams.

Cody Hawkins (9), Colorado. National efficiency rank: 35th. Key stat: The coach's son has accounted for 15 touchdowns in his past five games, dating to his true freshman season in 2007. Next game: Home against West Virginia on Thursday in a huge game for Colorado credibility.

Joe Ganz (10), Nebraska. National efficiency rank: 23rd. Key stat: Diversified his portfolio Saturday against New Mexico State by catching a 20-yard touchdown pass, throwing a TD and running for a score as well. Next game: Home against Virginia Tech on Sept. 27.

Robert Griffin (11), Baylor. National efficiency rank: 13th. Key stat: True freshman is the top rushing quarterback in the nation after tearing through Washington State for 217 yards this past Thursday. His 19.7 yards per carry in that game set a Big 12 record for single-game average. Next game: At Connecticut on Friday.

[+] EnlargeElsa Benitez
AP Photo/Tammie ArroyoThe Big 12 signal callers have nothing on Elsa Benitez.
Austen Arnaud (12), Iowa State. National efficiency rank: 40th. Key stat: The Cyclones have won five games under second-year coach Gene Chizik, four of them when Arnaud has had at least 10 combined runs or throws. Next game: At UNLV on Saturday.

Stephen McGee (13), Texas A&M. National efficiency rank: 85th. Key stat: He is 2-1 as a starter against hated rival Texas and produced 736 yards of total offense in those three games. That's 10.7 percent of his career production in only 8.3 percent of his games. Next game: Home against Miami on Saturday. (McGee injured his shoulder early in the Aggies' Sept. 6 victory over New Mexico and might be replaced in the lineup against the Hurricanes by sophomore Jerrod Johnson.)

Good as they've been, they all take a back seat to Dashette Elsa Benitez (14), whose efficiency rating is off the charts.

Honorable Mention To The MAC Men

There's another strong quarterback conference out there that chronically flies under the radar: the Mid-American Conference. There are six MAC QBs in the top 50 nationally in pass efficiency -- and all things considered, that league has faced stiffer competition and played more road games than the guys in the Big 12.

The top guns from the MAC:

Nate Davis (15), Ball State. National efficiency rank: sixth. Key stat: Has had a minimum of 280 yards of total offense in seven straight games. Next game: At Indiana on Saturday.

Dan LeFevour (16), Central Michigan. National efficiency rank: 48th. Key stat: Tebow Lite has accounted for 86 total touchdowns (58 throwing, 27 passing, 1 receiving) in 31 career games. Next game: At Purdue on Saturday.

Drew Willy (17), Buffalo. National efficiency rank: 19th. Key stat: Four-year starter has had just one multiple-interception game in his past 15. His last throw was his best -- a 35-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass on the last play to beat Temple this past Saturday. Next game: At Missouri on Saturday.

USC-Ohio State Rewind

This much we know after the Cremation in the Coliseum: Since the end of last season, Pete Carroll (18) has done a brilliant job preparing his team for 2008, while Jim Tressel (19) has not.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Harry How/Getty ImagesPete Carroll's abillty to reload leaves him all smiles after beating OSU.
Carroll was tasked with replacing his starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver and four-fifths of his offensive line, plus three first-round draft picks from his defensive front seven. All told, the Trojans lost 26 lettermen.

Yet the net effect shows USC is better than in 2007, better than anyone else in the nation so far and possibly better than ever. Despite having several potential weaknesses on paper heading into the season, none has been exposed on the field. That's recruiting, and that's player development. Nobody does it better.

Tressel, on the other hand, welcomed back 19 starters from a team that played in the BCS National Championship Game. Lettermen lost from '07: only 12, second-fewest nationally among teams from BCS conferences. There was no rebuilding effort.

Yet the Buckeyes have been only slightly more successful than Merrill Lynch in 2008. Beating Youngstown State doesn't matter. Flailing past Ohio was bad. Being pummeled in another high-profile game -- USC joins LSU and Florida in the Sweater Swatters Club -- was worse.

Which goes to show the perversity of preseason polls and their effect on subsequent rankings. The Buckeyes currently are ranked 14th in the USA Today coaches' poll -- the one that matters in the BCS standings, and the one in which the ballots are kept secret until the end. Someone please enlighten The Dash: What has Ohio State done thus far to warrant a top-15 ranking ahead of South Florida (20) and East Carolina (21)? Other than the fact that it began the season there?

The Buckeyes might eventually put together a better body of work than the Bulls or the Pirates, but they haven't yet -- that's the laundry system at work. Voters love to vote for the jerseys of great programs, even if they aren't capable of backing it up on the field. That explains why the coaches ranked Michigan in the preseason poll, despite a massive talent drain and complete system overhaul.

And understand this: That laundry mentality gives Ohio State an outside shot at climbing back up 12 spots over the next 12 long weeks.

[+] EnlargeChris Wells
AP Photo/Mark AveryWhen will we ever see Beanie Wells back in pads?
Of course, the only way that's even remotely conceivable is if running back Chris "Beanie" Wells (22) returns to health. And the problem there is that we've gone more than two weeks without any straight answers about Wells from The Vest.

Wells went down with a foot/toe injury on Aug. 30. It remains unexplained. Even in a sport in which coaches take pride in giving out disinformation, misinformation and no information on injuries, Tressel has overachieved.

On Sept. 2, he said, "Tell [Ohio State fans] to worry about Gustav and Rita and those kinds of things. Beanie is going to be fine."

Sept. 4: "Beanie won't go this week [against Ohio]. I feel good about his progress, but it isn't enough progress to practice through yesterday."

Sept. 9: "You know, Beanie ran well yesterday. In fact, he ran better than I thought he would."

Sept. 11: "I'm listing him as doubtful. … We were hoping he'd edge up closer to 90 [percent healthy], as opposed to 75, but I'm not sure."

Sept. 12: "We won't have Beanie tomorrow."

Ohio State can't afford many more tomorrows without Beanie if it wants to turn around a disappointing start to an anticipated season.

Undefeated And Under Radar

The Dash examines a dozen teams currently cruising without a loss but also without much love. The question: Do they deserve a big hug or a cold shoulder?

TCU (23). Wins so far: New Mexico, Stephen F. Austin, Stanford. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 119th. The Horned Frogs have reclaimed their identity as nasty defenders who live off turnovers. In a disappointing 8-5 season in 2007, they had a minus-7 turnover ratio. So far this year, they are plus-9 -- much more like it for a program that was plus-51 from 2002 to 2006. Winning a conference road game and contributing to the Mountain West punking of the Pac-10 makes for a very solid start. Verdict: big hug.

[+] EnlargeKentucky
AP Photo/ James CrispKentucky likely won't be considered a contender until it meets the Tide in October.
Kentucky (24). Wins so far: Louisville, Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 136th. The Wildcats are allowing only 6.3 points per game, fifth-best in the nation. But until we know more about how good the Cardinals are, it's hard to know how good Kentucky is. The Cats were thisclose to a brutal loss when Middle Tennessee completed a Hail Mary, but receiver Eldred King was tackled on the Wildcats' 1-yard line Saturday night in a 20-14 UK victory. Verdict: Jury still out and likely will remain out until Kentucky plays Alabama on Oct. 4.

Iowa (25). Wins so far: Maine, Florida International, Iowa State. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 163rd. A defense with some big holes to fill has done the job in a big way, leading the nation in total points allowed with eight -- and two of those were on the offense for taking an intentional safety against the Cyclones. But the competition has been soft and all the games have been at home. A program that has lost seven of its past eight road games still has a lot to prove. Verdict: cold shoulder.

Nebraska (26). Wins so far: Western Michigan, San Jose State, New Mexico State. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 138th. The Cornhuskers are another team that hasn't seen the inside of an airport since last year, fattening up on underwhelming competition. They don't take a road trip until Oct. 11, but the going gets tougher when Virginia Tech (Sept. 27) and Missouri (Oct. 4) visit Lincoln. Verdict: Jury still out.

Minnesota (27). Wins so far: Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 124th. The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an interesting story recently on the Gophers pushing the academic envelope by recruiting prospects with low test scores; clearly you know why if you saw the Gophers go 1-11 last season and lose to teams from the MAC, Sun Belt and Football Championship Subdivision. Beating Bowling Green a week after the Falcons upset Pitt was a decent win, but this program is a year away from making a breakthrough. Verdict: cold shoulder.

Oklahoma State (28). Wins so far: Washington State, Houston, Missouri State. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 139th. Mauling the Cougars in the opener looked good at first -- until we saw how horrific Wazzu is. The Cowboys are explosive -- especially when receiver Dez Bryant is 100 percent -- but still have some improving to do up front defensively (105th nationally in sacks and 99th in tackles for loss). The Dash sees at least seven wins on the schedule. Verdict: big hug.

[+] EnlargeAir Force
AP Photo/Mike StoneWho needs the spread? Air Force is still getting it done strictly on the ground.
Air Force (29). Wins so far: Southern Utah, Wyoming, Houston. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 128th. Oxymoronic Air Force is the buggy-whip salesman of college football, running the football more than ever here in the Era of the Spread. Air Force has completed 11 passes on the year for 90 yards and failed to complete a single forward pass against the Cougars. (It's been only 95 years since Gus Dorais-to-Knute Rockne, right?) But it's working. For now. Helps that end Jake Paulson is leading the nation in sacks. Verdict: air hug. Falcons will go bowling but have several losses ahead.

Connecticut (30). Wins so far: Hofstra, Temple, Virginia. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 122nd. The Huskies are playing defense and running the ball, and are throwing it only a little better than Air Force (one touchdown pass, four picks on the season). But after last season, The Dash knows better than to discount UConn on style points. Verdict: jury still out until three-game road swing against Louisville, North Carolina and Rutgers from Sept. 26 through Oct. 18.

Tulsa (31). Wins so far: UAB, North Texas. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 151st. You cannot go crazy about beating two teams with a combined 0-6 record. But The Dash loves the offensive firepower of the Golden Hurricane and believes Tulsa might go 12-0 and meet equally unbeaten East Carolina in a Conference USA title game that would put the league back on the football map. Verdict: big hug.

Northwestern (32). Wins so far: Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 117th. Wildcats haven't done anything overly impressive yet, but The Dash suspects winning at Duke will wind up being worth more than the usual nothing by season's end. Winning at Iowa in two weeks would be worth much more. Verdict: jury still out.

Vanderbilt (33). Wins so far: Miami (Ohio), South Carolina, Rice. Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 73rd. In the past 25 years, nobody has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more regularly than the Commodores, but check out this plot twist: They have outscored their opponents 45-10 in the second half. A plus-5 turnover margin and solid running game, combined with actual belief, seem to be paying off. Verdict: big hug. Send the Dores bowling!

Florida State (34). Wins so far: Nobody squared (Western Carolina, Chattanooga). Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 201st. The Dash is intrigued by the quarterback switch from senior Drew Weatherford to sophomore Christian Ponder, but we really know nothing about the Seminoles at this point. Beating Wake Forest on Saturday for the first time since 2005 would be a start back on the road to credibility. Verdict: jury still out.

Game Balls To Unusual Suspects

College football is full of feel-good stories just waiting for a chance to be told. The Dash offers three guys only their parents were talking about before their games who helped their teams win this past weekend:

[+] EnlargeMaikon Bonani
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaHe might have been unknown prior to Friday but Maikon Bonani is a hero in Tampa.
Maikon Bonani (35), South Florida. The Brazilian-born Bulls kicker did not play in either of USF's first two games, but the freshman was tabbed as the guy to handle placements two days before Kansas came to Tampa for a nationally televised Friday game. After shanking his first career field goal attempt, Bonani made two, then faced a 43-yarder to win the game on the final play. He drilled it, spawning this from Tampa Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly: "No, Maikon Bonani is not tonight's special at Bonefish Grill. He's a hero for your time, Bulls fans."

Mike Anello (36), Notre Dame. The former walk-on senior has become a special-teams terror for the Fighting Irish, making four solo tackles on kick coverage in the opening win against San Diego State and adding a forced fumble and a recovered fumble against Michigan. Anello is listed as 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, but admitted to being more like 5-9, 175. Pressed further, he copped to 5-8¾. "Don't tell the girls," he said.

Robbie McAtee (37), Kentucky. Another former walk-on senior who was absolutely in the right place at the crucial time. It was McAtee, a defensive back making his first career start, who clamped down on the left ankle of Middle Tennessee receiver Eldred King and pulled him down a yard short of the winning Hail Mary touchdown on the final play in Lexington.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin (38). This being Florida-Tennessee week, it's easy to think back 10 years to when Martin led the Volunteers past their nemesis Gators in Neyland Stadium and on to a surprise national championship. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Peyton Manning's successor at QB for the Vols, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, 1970s Ohio State offensive lineman John Hicks (39) is alive and well and living in Columbus. In his own words, Hicks is the director of the Columbus Sports Commission and serves on several boards, along with serving as president of The John Hicks Company, a real estate investment firm.

Hicks clearly played in another time and era. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1973 -- as an offensive lineman. And he did it while weighing 255 pounds.

"I'd be a running back now," Hicks said with a chuckle. "I think Beanie [Wells] almost weighs as much as I did."

He's close. Wells is listed at 237.

Hicks, like every Buckeye from his era, has a favorite Woody Hayes story. Whenever Ohio State played in the Rose Bowl, Hayes would move the team out of its hotel the night before the game to stay in the seclusion of a monastery in the surrounding L.A. foothills.

"Around bedtime, the coyotes would start start howling," Hicks said. "You'd think Dracula was after you."

By his senior year, Hicks and his fellow seniors prevailed on Hayes to let them stay in the hotel. Hayes could not understand why the players didn't love the monastery as much as he did, but he relented. However, he told the married players, including Hicks, "You're not sleeping with your wives."

Ohio State smashed USC the next day, justifying the seniors.

Since he still lives in Columbus, Hicks keeps close tabs on the Buckeyes and goes to all the home games. (His 1973 team -- and OSU's 1968 national champs -- will be honored at halftime this Saturday.) His advice to the current group?

"Don't give up on yourself and keep playing," he said.

Point After

When searching for sports on TV, pretty fair food and tons of good beer in suburban Indianapolis, The Dash recommends the Brockway Public House (40) in Carmel. It's off U.S. 31, the road that connects the state capital with South Bend -- but as dreary as that drive might be, this place is a joy. Order a Chimay with the salmon and asparagus, talk football with the locals and thank The Dash later.

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