Ohio State's embarrassment of riches at quarterback scintillates as the big story of the college football offseason, but that's a false cue for the national theme concerning sports' most celebrated position heading into the 2015 season. While the Buckeyes might be approaching a Year of the Quarterback(s), a notable number of teams with realistic hopes to dethrone the defending national champions are uncertain behind center.
Just six of the top 15 teams from Mark Schlabach's "Way-too-early top 25" welcome back their starting quarterback. Last year, nine of the top 11 teams and 11 of the top 15 from the preseason AP poll featured a returning starter.
Perhaps, at least from a preseason perspective, 2015 looks like "Not the Year of Quarterbacks."
While Ohio State with Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, TCU with Trevone Boykin, USC with Cody Kessler, Michigan State with Connor Cook and Clemson with Deshaun Watson, provide a solid crew of headliners, the list of perennial powers with questions at the position is curiously long, spanning the college football nation from Florida and Florida State, to Alabama and Auburn, to LSU, to Texas, to Oklahoma, to UCLA, to Oregon, to Michigan and back down to Georgia.
This isn't a case of a massive attrition of talent toward the NFL either. While Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota went 1-2 in the draft this past April, another QB wasn't selected until 73 picks later. In total, just seven QBs were picked this spring, the fewest since 1955 and the first time since 1998 that fewer than 10 QBs were selected. In the 2014 draft, 14 QBs were picked.
It would seem, at least according to conventional wisdom, that contenders with quality experience at quarterback will have a, well, arm up this fall.
"For us, it's a huge factor because we're still a youthful offense," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said of third-year starter Kessler. "When you have a veteran at that position it helps when you are dealing with younger receivers, offensive linemen, some running backs who might be inexperienced."
These QB quandaries are hitting the Power 5 elite at a higher rate than the FBS hoi polloi: 89 of 127 FBS teams -- 70 percent -- welcome back their starting quarterback, according to returning starter figures compiled by Phil Steele. Among the Power 5, 43 of 65 starters are back, though many of those returning starters at places such as Florida, Texas, LSU and Oklahoma are facing significant competition to hold on to their jobs.
In fact, one controversy this offseason -- at least among some coaches and administrators -- has been the QB transfer roulette as teams unhappy with their situations look for a veteran solution. It started with Vernon Adams, an FCS standout at Eastern Washington, transferring to Oregon to thicken the plot to replace Mariota. Then Notre Dame's Everett Golson, who started for the Fighting Irish in the 2013 BCS national title game against Alabama, transferred to Florida State to challenge to fill the void left by Winston. The latest is Virginia's Greyson Lambert bolting to Georgia.
Teams that aren't taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule are increasingly willing to go young at the position. UCLA, for example, leads the Pac-12 with 18 returning position player starters, but it seems increasingly likely the Bruins will start touted true freshman Josh Rosen this fall, potentially one of three freshman starters in the Pac-12.
The past four Heisman Trophy winners were quarterbacks who started as freshmen, and two of them won the award as redshirt freshmen. So while no freshman at any position had won the Heisman before Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel did in 2012, it's no longer taboo to start a freshman behind center. Winston won a national title as a redshirt freshman, and Mariota won the Fiesta Bowl and led the Ducks to a final No. 2 ranking in 2012, so it's not as though youth at QB should cast a team out of preseason CFP speculation.
Further, five of the past six national titles have been won by first-year starters.
Most are familiar with the reasons why more young quarterbacks are starting and playing well, beginning with freshmen arriving at college, often in the spring of what should be their senior year of high school, with far more advanced skills and understanding of schemes due to year-round tutelage. What gets less attention perhaps is why returning starters falter and don't provide the advantage perceived in the preseason.
For one, they aren't truly "veteran," as in an eighth-year pro. They are a second- or third-year starter. They have experience but they haven't seen everything. Their job is different, too. They are asked to do more, both in terms of scheme and team leadership. Further, emboldened by past success playing within the system, they often try to freelance, to make their own mark outside of what their coaches are asking them to do. Sometimes it's a beautiful and instinctual improvisation. Other times it's a mess that inspires a coach's sideline tirade. There's a reason "sophomore slump" is a sporting cliché.
"One of the challenges for a fifth-year senior like [Cody Kessler] is to keep being in the system," Sarkisian said. "Young players play within the system. They allow the system to work. An older player can venture off, which can be positive that they can do that, but there are other times when they venture off too far and that's one of the challenges when you have a veteran quarterback."
So does the general lack of experience behind center among the putative national title contenders really matter that much? Maybe not. With a couple of notable exceptions, such as Florida's Tim Tebow and Auburn's Cam Newton, the SEC's run of seven BCS national titles didn't feature elite play at quarterback. And Newton, you might recall, was a first-year starter who'd followed a curlicue route to stardom.
Still, it doesn't feel terribly coincidental that six of the eight 2014 preseason top-10 teams with returning QBs also finished in the final top 10, including three of four participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff, even if including Ohio State in that count is a bit of a stretch.
Experience at quarterback is surely a good thing. It's just not the only thing.
The general lack of experience at the position among expected top contenders heading into 2015, however, might be the straw that stirs the drink this fall and makes the CFP race a bit less predictable than it was in 2014.