Play a word-association game with the average college football fan, and if you start talking Big 12, "quarterbacks" will be making an appearance before too long. Talk quarterbacks, and "Big 12" will get a mention in minutes. The two have become synonymous, setting the standard for quarterback play. Just go back to 2007 and 2008 when Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Graham Harrell, Zac Robinson and Todd Reesing cemented the league's reputation as the conference of quarterbacks.
Half a decade later, the Big 12 is still crazy for quarterbacks, but the feel will be much different this spring. For almost everyone in the conference, developing (or for some, finding) their new quarterback in the spring will decide how the fall looks.
Only three Big 12 teams bring back their starting quarterback from the end of the season, and don't be at all surprised if Wes Lunt at Oklahoma State and Casey Pachall at TCU make Texas' David Ash the league's only returning starting quarterback in 2013.
There's not a Big 12 team likely to start the fall in the top 10, so the conference is within reach for a whole lot of teams. Talent alone won't carry any Big 12 team to a title, or eliminate any others.
This fall, it's about the quarterbacks again, but this time, it's all about development. That begins when they get on campus but takes center stage this spring with big talents like West Virginia's Geno Smith, Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Baylor's Nick Florence leaving their team's quarterback spot unoccupied. Finding and developing replacements might have never been more important on such a large scale. Watching those races during the spring will decide who totes the league trophy back to campus in December. Just ask Nebraska from 2009 and 2010 and check the list of Big 12 title winners over the better part of the decade. If you don't have excellent quarterback play, you can safely consider yourself a championship afterthought.
Junior Bryce Petty will try to be the third consecutive Baylor quarterback to break the school record for passing yards, and Art Briles' track record with quarterbacks suggests that even if Petty doesn't break it, he'll be solid. Kevin Kolb, Case Keenum and Robert Griffin III can attest to that. Iowa State hasn't had any true consistency at quarterback under Paul Rhoads, but sophomore Floridian Sam B. Richardson would like to change that, and there's no Plan B after Jared Barnett transferred.
The Dayne Crist experiment met an early end at Kansas when he was benched for freshman Michael Cummings last season, but BYU transfer Jake Heaps is up off the bench and will try to end KU's 21-game Big 12 losing streak this fall. Collin Klein wasn't a traditional quarterback. Neither is his possible heir, Daniel Sams. Junior college transfer Jake Waters is a traditional passer who broke Cam Newton's completion percentage record last season, and will face off against Sams to help K-State find some more magic next fall after winning the Big 12 title.
The Belldozer, Blake Bell, looks like a suitable replacement for four-year starter Jones, but he'll have to prove it in Norman this spring. Oklahoma's hopes for a third Big 12 title in four years depend on it, and if he's not ready, Trevor Knight may be there to provide the Sooners a second option.
One quarterback cliche says if you've got two passers, you don't have one. Oklahoma State has three. What does that mean? It'll find out for sure this fall, but J.W. Walsh, Clint Chelf and Lunt all won games, lost games and started about a third of the season for the Pokes. New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has to sort out that mess first, but anyone at Oklahoma State will tell you that having those three is a problem plenty of other OCs would love to have.
Can Michael Brewer mature into the star his high school career and spot duty behind Seth Doege last season suggest he'll be? There might be a comparison or two to that Johnny guy in College Station, Texas, this spring, but can new coach Kliff Kingsbury mature Brewer into a star? Dana Holgorsen has to find Smith's replacement at West Virginia among a pair of Texans -- the more experienced Paul Millard versus understudy Ford Childress.
There will be plenty of intrigue at quarterback this spring to go around the Big 12. The circumstances and challenges have changed. The bar's height and the importance of developing the position has not.
Let the games begin.