Talented QBs power Cincinnati

NEW ORLEANS -- Just about everything has to go right for a team to put together an undefeated season.

You have to survive upset bids, get a few breaks, stay sharp every week. You almost certainly cannot lose your starting quarterback in the middle of the season.

That's what makes Cincinnati's run to 12-0 even more impressive. The Bearcats suffered no drop-off when Tony Pike broke his left arm in the sixth game against South Florida. In fact, you could argue that backup Zach Collaros played even better than Pike until he went back to the bench for the last two games.

The other four unbeaten teams in the country -- Alabama, Texas, TCU and Boise State -- all had the same quarterback start every game this season. Look at what happened to Iowa when Ricky Stanzi got hurt.

In fact, in the last five years, every team that has gone undefeated in the regular season has had one quarterback play every game.

The Bearcats, though, have turned quarterback carousel into a new school tradition. They famously went through five signal-callers while reaching last season's Orange Bowl. By comparison, this year was a breeze.

"Last year helped a little bit," Pike said. "We came into this year with the mindset that if something happens, you've got to be ready to go in there. Like I did last year, Zach prepared himself in a way that if I went down, he was going to be the man to take over the team."

Pike was having a Heisman Trophy-caliber senior season before he landed awkwardly on his left arm in the first half of the Oct. 15 South Florida game. That's the same arm he broke last year, requiring the insertion of a metal plate to stabilize the bone. The plate shifted and had to be replaced with a larger one after this year's injury.

Collaros wrapped up the victory in the second half that night and went on to win four more games as a starter. The sophomore completed a whopping 75 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions, and unlike Pike he was a running threat as well. He scored four touchdowns with his feet, including the memorable 75-yarder that broke open the South Florida game.

"When Zach went in there, it was the best situation," Pike said. "There was no rush for me to get back in there and try to save the season."

Many wondered whether coach Brian Kelly would stick with Collaros even when Pike healed because of how well he and the team were playing. It had the potential to cause the kind of quarterback controversy that can doom a team's undefeated hopes.

But that never happened, in part because of the close friendship between Pike and Collaros.

"Tony and I have been good friends since I stepped on campus," Collaros said. "So [a rift] was never going to be a problem. We were always going to support each other. We really never talked much about it. We are always arguing about basketball teams or about the Bengals and Steelers, stuff like that."

Pike started the final two games against Illinois and Pittsburgh, throwing for 701 yards and nine touchdowns combined. Collaros, meanwhile, made only a brief appearance against Illinois.

Cincinnati passing game coordinator Charley Molnar, though, said packages involving Collaros remain in the game plan and that "it would not be a reach" to see him in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Florida.

"At first I thought it would be easy to go back to sidelines, but when the game is going on you always want to be out there," Collaros said. "If something happens to Tony, God forbid, then I'll be prepared to go in. But I hope Tony goes out there and is 30-for-30."

Pike is anxious to have a good performance to erase the memory of last season's Orange Bowl. He had the worst game of his career in the 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech, throwing four interceptions. The bitter feeling from that night drove him throughout all his offseason preparations, and he has thrown only six interceptions all year.

"The biggest thing for me was just understanding why it happened," Pike said. "It was just going outside of your reads, being on the big stage and trying to make too many things happen instead of staying with what got you there. I'm definitely grateful to be back here and have a new slate."

Some fans wondered why Kelly didn't pull Pike as he struggled in the Orange Bowl. Receiver Mardy Gilyard said the criticism of his quarterback upset him and noted how Pike was still dealing with the effects of his arm injury in that game.

"It didn't seem like he was comfortable," Gilyard said. "He felt like he was in a box with no top, no door handle, nothing. He was just boxed in. When Pike is comfortable and he can drop back and throw that ball, it's beautiful, man."

If Pike doesn't have it this time around in a BCS game, Cincinnati won't hesitate to go to Collaros. It's a most unconventional approach by an undefeated team, but it's just business as usual for the Bearcats.

Brian Bennett covers Big East football for ESPN.com.