Big 12 has become best QB conference

The Big 12 Conference is a lot of things. At times dysfunctional. Other times resilient.

But over the last five years, it also has become home to the best collective quarterbacking in college football. And this season is no different.

Oklahoma's Landry Jones projects as first-round NFL draft pick. Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden has arguably become the Heisman frontrunner. Kansas State's Collin Klein leads the nation in rushing touchdowns. And Baylor's Robert Griffin III, whom the Sooners face this weekend, ranks second in the country in total offense and third in passing efficiency.

"This league has developed a lot of quarterbacks," OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "And right now, it's as strong as it's ever been."

Half rank in the top 10 in passing yards nationally. Another two, Klein and Missouri's James Franklin, are top 16 in total offense.

"The Big 12 is as strong as anyone in the country as far as talented quarterbacks, experienced quarterbacks and quarterbacks knowing how to lead your team to victory," said Kansas coach Turner Gill, who watched Griffin throw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally Baylor to a 31-30 overtime win over the Jayhawks last weekend. "The quarterbacks in this league are very good."

After two seasons, OU sophomore safety Tony Jefferson has come away with a similar impression.

"I was just talking about that earlier, how every team we face in this league, their quarterback is just top notch," Jefferson. "They can sling the ball around, and half of them are as fast as running backs. In this league, you face very good quarterbacks almost every week."

How did a league with tradition rooted in the ground game evolve into the preeminent quarterback conference in college football?

Big 12 coaches explain the phenomenon two ways. First, the proliferation of the spread offense in the league via Mike Leach. Second, the rise of 7-on-7 in the Big 12 footprint.

"Style of offense, and maybe some of what high schools are doing in this area," Heupel said. "Those things combined have put the quarterbacks around here in a strong position."

When Bob Stoops hired Leach to run his offense at OU in '99, no Big 12 offense ran the spread. Then, it exploded.

Leach took it from OU to Texas Tech. Mark Mangino took it from OU to Kansas. Art Briles took it from Tech to Baylor. Before long, about everyone from Stillwater to Austin was flinging the ball all over the field.

"Because of Mike Leach at Oklahoma and us at Texas with Vince Young and Mike went to Texas Tech and continued with the spread offenses, a lot of high schools began throwing the ball more than any time in the past," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

As a result, 7-on-7 took off, especially in Texas, and high school quarterbacks began honing their craft by passing year round, stockpiling the Big 12 with capable throwers.

"7-on-7 really made an impact," said Briles, who was a high school coach in Texas before joining Leach's staff at Tech. "That's a big part of it, as well as the style of play in the Big 12 over the last decade, which has been really conducive to allowing quarterbacks to showcase their skills.

"We're at a point now where we really have outstanding players at that position in our league."

That point began in '08. OU's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell placed first, second and fourth in the Heisman voting. Over the next three years, Bradford, Kansas State's Josh Freeman and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert would become first-round picks, then NFL starters. McCoy, drafted in the third round, would become an NFL starter, as well.

More appear to be on the way.

"Over the next two years, there will be at least five or six guys drafted. Two or three guys are up for the Heisman as we speak. … It's just amazing," Brown said.

"This has become the league of the quarterbacks."

Jake Trotter covers University of Oklahoma football for SoonerNation. He can be reached at trotterjake@gmail.com. and look for answers every Friday.

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