Airing it out in the Pac-12

When discussing quarterbacks in the new- 12 Conference, most people instantly swoon over Stanford's Andrew Luck. The love affair is certainly warranted as the junior has all the makings of the next star signal caller headed to the NFL. He has ideal size, strength, intelligence and intensity, which is why he is one of, if not thee best in the nation coming into the 2011 season.

However, the Pac-12 has much more than just Luck. In fact, some believe the league is dominated by top-notch field generals. The recent surge in quarterback production is not solely due to the change of the game, which is considered "passer-friendly" in the new era.

This conference has always enjoyed a tremendous reputation when looking at the talent lining up center as its member schools, including legends Norm Van Brocklin (Oregon), Terry Baker (Oregon State), Gary Beban (UCLA) and Jim Plunkett (Stanford).

Van Brocklin broke the mold in the late 1940's when he won 16 of the 21 games he started for the Ducks, and even led them to the Cotton Bowl in 1949. In the 1950's, the Cardinal rolled out Bobby Garret, who was a two-way player, but was more known for his abilities at quarterback. Garrett was an All-American in 1953 and the first overall pick by the Cleveland Browns the following season.

As the position blossomed, so did the talent, as Beban, Baker and Plunkett stepped into the west coast limelight. Beban went 24-5-2 in three seasons as UCLA's starter, while Terry Baker is still the only Heisman Trophy winner for the Beavers. Baker accomplished the feat in 1962, the same year he also played in the Final Four for the school's basketball team. Then there is Plunkett, who virtually revolutionized the quarterback position. The 1970 Heisman winner, who was also the top pick in 1971 NFL Draft, finished his college career with 7,887 yards of total offense, which was the most ever in NCAA history at the time.

Later came more recognizable names for the recent era of football, such as Warren Moon, John Elway, Rodney Peete and Troy Aikman.

Elway terrorized opposing defenses during his three seasons at Stanford, racking up over 9,000 passing yards and 77 touchdowns, while setting a number of school and NCAA records. In 1982, he finished second to Herschel Walker in the Heisman race, but finished behind no one in the 1983 NFL Draft as he was the top pick.

As for Aikman, he did not start on the West Coast, but instead began his college career at Oklahoma. Soon after though he transferred to UCLA, where as a junior was the Pac-10's Offensive Player of the Year. Aikman never won the Heisman, but when he finished at UCLA he was the third-rated passer in NCAA history. Those numbers led Dallas to take Aikman first overall in the 1989 NFL Draft, and he rewarded the Cowboys by leading them to three Super Bowl titles.

Warren Moon (Washington) never won professional football's ultimate prize, but he is considered one of the best Canadian Football signal callers ever, raising the league's Grey Cup Trophy on five different occasions. Moon also enjoyed an impressive NFL career, accumulating 291 touchdowns while playing for four different teams.

As for Peete, he threw for 54 touchdowns in 44 games for the USC Trojans, and was the conference's Player of the Year in 1988. However, Peete never amounted to anything more than a serviceable quarterback at the next level.

Peete is not alone in terms of being a bright star in college, while losing some of that luster in the NFL. There was Jake Plummer, who was outstanding for Arizona State, but he was more hype than skill for the Arizona Cardinals. Then you have the likes of Akili Smith (Oregon) and Ryan Leaf (Washington State), two players that excelled on Saturdays, but were terrible on Sundays.

Oddly enough Plummer, Leaf and Smith followed each other as the conference's Offensive Players of the Years from 1996 to 1998.

Smith was the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft and threw just five touchdowns in his career, and that is a far cry from the 43 scores he tallied in 22 college games. As for Leaf, he was drafted behind future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in 1998 after throwing 59 touchdowns passes at Washington State, but the explosive signal caller tossed just 14 as a pro, and is considered by many to be the biggest bust in NFL history.

Following that crop were the quarterbacks that excelled in the new millennium, such as Joey Harrington (Oregon), Carson Palmer (USC), Matt Leinart (USC) and Aaron Rodgers (California). If looking strictly at college numbers, the best of the bunch was by Leinart, who went an astounding 37-2 for the Trojans. However, when peering into their pro prospects, it looks like Rodgers will be the big winner after leading the Green Bay Packers to their fourth Super Bowl last year.

Now in present time, the Pac-12 is loaded with heavy arms again with Luck leading the charge.

USC has yet another pro quality quarterback in Matt Barkley, a highly-touted arm coming out of high school and even though USC is currently under sanctions by the NCAA, he is likely to have another outstanding season, and should have a chance to shine at the next level.

Then there is Nick Foles in Arizona. Foles, who transferred from Michigan State, has enjoyed nothing but success in Tucson, throwing 39 touchdowns in two seasons, while completing well over 60 percent of his passes.

The defending conference champion Oregon Ducks are known for their speed at running back, but the team also boasts one of the best signal callers in the league in Darron Thomas. Thomas, who led the Ducks to the BCS National Championship Game a year ago, threw for 363 yards and two scores in the loss to Auburn.

There are other talented quarterbacks that have not reached the height of success just yet, such as Oregon State's Ryan Katz and Arizona State's Brock Osweiler.

Also watch out for talented newcomers such as Washington's Keith Price, Nick Montana (Yes, Joe Cool's son), and Cal's likely new starter, Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard.

Over the next few seasons, some of these may develop beyond expectations, while others may falter. Some may head to the NFL and enjoy tremendous careers, while others may flop. Regardless, it is safe to say that the quarterbacks of the Pac-12 will provide more than a few sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators in 2011.