When Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter considers the wealth of quarterbacks in the Mountain West Conference, it reminds him of his stint as Ohio's defensive coordinator earlier in his career.
"I think this league probably has as good of a collection of quarterbacks as any conference in the country," said DeRuyter, who worked two stints with the Bobcats, the last from 2002 to 2004. "It reminds of when I was back in the MAC. Byron Leftwich was at Marshall. [Ben] Roethlisberger was at Miami, Ohio, and Charlie Frye was at Akron. There were some NFL guys in the MAC that nobody knew about, and I think there are some NFL guys in this league, too."
The Mountain West isn't the only non-AQ conference with an abundance of prolific quarterbacks this season. Last season, eight of the top 12 passers in college football were from non-AQ leagues, including the top two: Marshall's Rakeem Cato and Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron. Cato is back for the 2013 season, along with Fresno State's Derek Carr, San Jose State's David Fales and Ball State's Keith Wenning.
Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch, who guided the Huskies to the Discover Orange Bowl last season, also returns after finishing fourth among FBS players in total offense last season and accounting for 44 touchdowns, more than 50 FBS teams. Two other non-AQ quarterbacks -- Utah State's Chuckie Keeton and Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning -- led their teams to some of the biggest upsets of the season in 2012. The Aggies upset Utah and then-No. 20 Louisiana Tech in overtime, and the WarHawks stunned Arkansas in overtime and nearly beat Auburn and Baylor.
"In college football at the Division I level, there's going to be talent everywhere," Lynch said. "It doesn't matter where you're at, there's going to be talent. It just goes to show you that some of the smaller schools have great quarterbacks."
Lynch, a senior from Chicago, might be the most recognizable name among the non-AQ quarterbacks. In Lynch's first season as a starter in 2012, he broke four NCAA, two MAC and 14 Northern Illinois records while leading the Huskies to a 12-2 record and improbable berth in a BCS bowl game. He passed for 3,138 yards and ran for 1,815, becoming the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and run for more than 1,500 yards in a single season. He finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting last season, and Northern Illinois has already launched a Heisman campaign for this coming season.
"I think it's good for Northern Illinois and it's good for the Mid-American Conference," Lynch said. "I think it's good to get the Northern Illinois name out there and get us the exposure."
This coming season, Lynch is out to prove that his performance in the Orange Bowl -- he completed 15 of 41 passes for 176 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while running 23 times for 44 yards -- was only a blip on the radar.
"I have a lot to prove," Lynch said. "The last game I played, Florida State shut me down and showed some of my weaknesses. It's a huge motivation. We have a different team and different players. We lost the last game we played and it left a bad taste in our mouths. We have high expectations here. It's not good to just finish short against the Big Ten teams and lose by a point. We want to come away with the victories."
Fales' first season at San Jose State was just as impressive. A senior from Salinas, Calif., Fales was set to play for FCS program Indiana State out of high school, before enrolling at Nevada in 2009. After spending a season behind Colin Kaepernick, he transferred to Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula College, where he started for two seasons. After winning the starting job at San Jose State in preseason camp last year, he completed an FBS-best 72.5 percent of his passes and ranked third among FBS quarterbacks in passing efficiency with a 170.7 rating, trailing only Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray. Fales also guided the Spartans to their first 11-win season since 1940.
In May, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Fales as the sixth-best quarterback available for next spring's NFL draft behind Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and McCarron.
"Coming from where I was a year and a half ago, it gets exciting to see yourself on that list," Fales said. "But as you get closer to the season, you kind of put it aside and choose not to look at it. I understand what I've got to do and not pay attention to it."
Fales will be playing in a different offense this season. Former Spartans coach Mike MacIntyre left for Colorado and was replaced by Ron Caragher, who had previously succeeded Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. The Spartans will run a West Coast offense this season.
"Coming from a no-huddle offense, it's definitely a lot of different terminology," Fales said. "Being in the huddle and sounding off a lot of words and a play is definitely an adjustment."
As good as Fales was last season, Carr led the Mountain West Conference in passing and was named MWC Offensive Player of the Year. Carr, the younger brother of NFL quarterback David Carr, threw for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2012. Even more impressive, he played most of last season with a sports hernia, which severely limited his mobility and led to 27 sacks. He underwent surgery in January to correct the hernia.
"It's like night and day," Carr said. "I feel like a completely different player now. I can do things I want to do and was supposed to do as a football player. Last year, it hurt to sneeze, let alone play football."
DeRuyter said Carr's injury limited his ability on rollouts and running out of the pocket. The Bulldogs still finished 9-4 in DeRuyter's first season as a head coach.
"This year, he's 100 percent," DeRuyter said. "The injury had something to do with the sacks, but he also holds on to the ball a little too long instead of letting that clock go off in his head to get rid of the ball. He's so competitive he wants to complete every pass instead of throwing it away."
Finally healthy, Carr hopes to prove that he's just as good as any quarterback in the country this season.
"I don't get caught up in whether he's an SEC quarterback or a Pac-12 quarterback," Carr said. "I was recruited by the same schools as those guys. I just try to go out and do the best I can. As a conference, we feel like we can play with anyone."
Carr and the rest of the non-AQ quarterbacks are about to find out whether that's a true statement.