Best quarterback in the Big 12.
The designation, based on recent history, requires outrageous statistics and comes with huge expectations. But it includes national accolades and, once again, there is no shortage of candidates as we reach the stretch run of the 2011 football season.
Heading into today's games, half of the starting quarterbacks from the 10-member league are among the 16 semifinalists for the 2011 Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. No other FBS league can match the Big 12's five-deep collection of O'Brien candidates: Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Texas Tech's Seth Doege.
Among that group, Griffin leads the nation in passing efficiency (205.7 rating), completion percentage (78.0) and points responsible for (24 per game). Doege leads the nation in completions (34 per game) and ranks second in passing yards (372.6 per game).
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Weeden oversees the league's most prolific offense, at 548.6 yards and 48.6 points per game, and was the first-team quarterback on the 2010 All-Big 12 squad selected by league coaches. No. 3 OSU (7-0, 4-0 in Big 12) also is the league's top-ranked team in the latest BCS standings, holding down the highest spot in school history.
Jones, who led OU to last year's Big 12 title, ranks among the nation's top five in passing yards (third), total offense (fourth) and completions per game (fifth). Tannehill, a dual threat who has posted a 10-3 career mark as A&M's starter, ranks 11th nationally in total offense (317.1) and 16th in passing yards (286.4 per game).
How good are these guys?
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said it reminds him of 2007 and 2008, when three Big 12 quarterbacks were Heisman Trophy finalists and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford captured the nation's most coveted individual prize in 2008. His runner-up that season? Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who won the 2008 Walter Camp Award.
Understandably, Bradford and McCoy held down the first- and second-team honors on the 2008 All-Big 12 squad.
The honorable mention quarterbacks that year? Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, who won the 2008 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and Missouri's Chase Daniel, a 2007 Heisman finalist from Southlake Carroll. All four are earning NFL paychecks today.
"The quarterbacks in this league are incredible," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "You could have four guys in the Heisman race or being named an All-American. What's hurting us is we're young and inexperienced at quarterback. We're scoring 30 points a game and that is not enough in this league."
Not with each of the offenses led by the five O'Brien semifinalists averaging at least 522.6 yards and 40.4 points per game. The team ranked fifth among Big 12 schools in both of those categories, A&M, checks in at seventh nationally in total offense and 13th in scoring -- far from slacker numbers in a 120-team statistical pool.
Asked the best way to stop one of the league's top quarterbacks, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder offered a unique defensive strategy.
"You'd probably have to kidnap him when he gets off the bus," said Snyder, whose eighth-ranked Wildcats (7-0, 4-0 in Big 12) meet No. 9 Oklahoma (6-1, 3-1) in today's top 10 matchup in Manhattan, Kan. "There's an amazing amount of talent we have in this league at the quarterback position. Our conference is really blessed at that position."
How blessed? Snyder's starting quarterback, Collin Klein, leads the Big 12 in rushing touchdowns (14) and ranks 10th nationally in points responsible for, at 18.9 per game. But he's not even in the discussion as an all-conference player.
Among those who are, Snyder said OU's Jones brings the whole package to the table because he makes good choices and can make every throw that turns the heads of NFL scouts.
So can Baylor's Griffin, who has an eye-popping ratio of touchdown passes-to-interceptions (22-2) and has been the only Big 12 quarterback to surface on a weekly basis in the Scripps Howard News Service Heisman Trophy poll.
Baylor coach Art Briles said Griffin (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) is the best combination of athlete and leader he has coached at the position at the college level. Griffin finished third at the 2008 NCAA track meet in the 400-meter hurdles (49.55 seconds).
What does Griffin, a junior, mean to Baylor?
"He's kind of like the spine of this team," running back Terrance Ganaway said. "He's attached to everybody. He can make everyone go, from the cornerbacks to the linebackers. He gets everyone juiced up and ready to play some football. When you've got a leader like that ...you know he's going to take you to the promised land."
But rival coaches will differ about whether that makes Griffin the league's top quarterback. Tech coach Tommy Tuberville casts his lot with Doege, who threw for 441 yards and four touchdowns -- with no interceptions -- in leading the Red Raiders to last week's 41-38 upset of Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll.
"He's a battler," Tuberville said of Doege. "There's nobody else I'd rather have at quarterback than him."
OSU coach Mike Gundy expressed similar sentiments about Weeden, a 28-year-old former pitcher in the New York Yankees' system who has an 18-2 career mark as the Cowboys' starter (9-0 in road games).
"There are throws he makes that 99.9 percent of people who play the position can't make," Gundy said. "And our team really follows his lead. His maturity and composure definitely have been a big factor. He's just taken it to another level this year."
But the early returns seem to favor Griffin, a fourth-year junior who readily embraces his position as the face of the Baylor program.
"As the quarterback of a football team in Texas, that's what it is," Griffin said. "You're either the face of the program or the one that everybody's throwing darts at on the dart board."
Griffin bypassed early entry in the 2011 NFL Draft when his projection showed he would be no better than a second-round pick. Griffin said he'll check again in January before deciding if he returns to Baylor for his senior season.
"I'm not against coming back. If I come back for my final season, it'll be a happy thing," Griffin said. "It won't be a last resort. College is fun and you've got to enjoy it."
For now, Griffin is battling four of his peers to emerge as the best quarterback in the Big 12. No other FBS league has more competition for its league's most coveted title.
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760