Philadelphia, PA – The 2011 college football season finished with a pair of prolific passers sitting atop the NFL's list of future stars. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III went first and second, respectively, in the recent draft after solidifying themselves as "can't miss" prospects and cornerstones of their NFL teams for the next decade or so.
In addition to Luck and Griffin, other college signal-callers found themselves drafted, including Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Brock Osweiler and Nick Foles, while the NCAA's all-time winningest QB, Kellen Moore, was added to an NFL roster as a free agent.
With so much talent moving on from the collegiate ranks, the question heading into 2012 is, who is going to step into the spotlight and carry the banner for quarterbacks across the nation?
MATT BARKLEY: The obvious choice as the nation's top signal-caller heading into 2012. Barkley (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) decided to forgo the NFL Draft and a possible Top 10 selection, following his junior season at USC where he delivered on nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards, with 39 TDs against just seven interceptions. With Southern California's two-year bowl ban over, the Trojans are poised to be in the thick of the national title race thanks in large part to Barkley's decision to return to finish up his collegiate career. There's a good chance Barkley saved his best for last. The rest of the Pac-12 is in for a long season if that's the case and a huge campaign should he remain healthy will cement Barkley's status as the top quarterback in the country and perhaps the No. 1 overall choice in next year's NFL Draft.
TYLER WILSON: Ryan Mallett moved on to the NFL and star running back Knile Davis was lost for the season prior to the campaign even starting, leaving Arkansas with some serious issues heading into 2011. However, Wilson (6-3, 220) road in on a white horse and saved the day in Fayetteville, leading the Razorbacks to 11 wins, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State. As a junior, Wilson completed 64.3 percent of his throws for 3,638 yards and 24 TDs. With only six interceptions in 438 pass attempts, it was Wilson's ability to limit mistakes that proved to be the difference. The Razorbacks are under new leadership at the top with the dismissal of Bobby Petrino, but with a healthy Davis back in the fold and Wilson continuing to mature under center, the Razorbacks will make a run at the SEC crown.
GENO SMITH: The 6-3 Smith capitalized on Dana Holgorsen's offensive scheme at West Virginia. A gifted athlete, Smith is considered one of the nation's premier passers, completing just over 65 percent of his throws for over 4,800 yards - a whopping 346.8 yards per game - with 31 TDs against just seven picks in 2011. The Mountaineers are in the Big 12 this season and Smith's gunslinging should fit right in. The Sooners, Longhorns, Cowboys and Co. may be thinking it's deja vu after having to deal with RG3 last year.
TYLER BRAY: His place on this list is not based on his 2011 numbers, but more on what he is capable of delivering in 2012. Tennessee's signal-caller threw for just under 2,000 yards as a sophomore, with 17 TDs and just six interception, but the 6-6 Vol also missed five games. The prototype for what the NFL is looking for in a quarterback, Bray possesses great height and above- average mechanics and awareness. With an offense that returns a lot of veterans, look for Bray to put up big numbers in 2012.
LANDRY JONES: The Oklahoma State QB didn't have a great season in 2011 (by his own standards), but that wouldn't have prevented Jones from being a first-round draft pick. He still passed for nearly 4,500 yards, with 29 TDs and 15 INTs as a junior. The 6-4, 230-pound Sooner is back in Norman for one more go-around and would like nothing better than to put Oklahoma back into the national spotlight. The likelihood of that happening depends a lot on Jones' supporting cast. Gone is All-American wideout Ryan Broyles, but the hope is that Jones can stay healthy and spread the ball around a little more, while bouncing back from a inconsistent 2011.
AARON MURRAY: This Georgia Bulldog had a down year in 2011 (compared to his freshman season), but his numbers were still impressive in his second stint in the SEC. He lacks ideal size (6-1, 211), but has shown flashes of absolute brilliant play. Last season, Murray completed just under 60 percent of his throws, but amassed 3,149 yards and 35 TDs. There is every reason to believe that a strong second half of 2011 will carry over into 2012 and it could result in a magical junior season in Athens for Murray. A favorable schedule void of LSU and Alabama won't hurt his stats at all.
CASEY PACHALL: TCU was supposed to suffer a lull with the departure of Andy Dalton to the NFL, but that simply wasn't the case. Enter the 6-5 Pachall, who filled the void nicely, completing over 66 percent of his throws as a sophomore, for just under 3,000 yards. His decision-making is what really got him noticed, as Pachall threw 25 TDs against just seven interceptions in 2011. The Horned Frogs will be competing in a new conference this year - the Big 12 - and Pachall's ability to make the right reads and protect the football will go a long way in determining TCU's initial foray into the conference.
TAHJ BOYD: The 6-1, 230-pound Clemson QB burst on the scene as a sophomore in 2011, leading the Tigers to their first ACC title in 20 years. A gifted athlete, Boyd has the ability to beat teams with his arm and legs. Last season, he completed 298-of-499 passes for 3,828 yards and 33 TDs. Nine of his 12 total interceptions came in the final six games of the season, but that shouldn't detract from Boyd's huge campaign. Clemson returns a slew of talent on the offensive side of the ball in 2012, including All-American wideout Sammy Watkins. The duo should pick up where it left off in 2011 and become one of the nation's premier "pitch-and-catch" combos. With Boyd under center, Clemson certainly has the inside track at another conference crown.
DENARD ROBINSON: A Heisman hopeful a couple of seasons ago, this extremely talented Michigan QB took a step back in his maturation process under center. The nation's top dual-threat, the 6-foot Robinson rushed for a team-high 1,176 yards and 16 TDs, while passing for 2,173 yards and 20 scores. However, it was offset a bit by 15 interceptions and a completion percentage of just .550. Inconsistency has been the biggest problem for Michigan's top playmaker. The Wolverines finished at 11-2 in Brady Hoke's first season at the helm and, of course, Robinson was a big reason for it. If he can limit his mistakes and deliver on a more consistent basis, the Wolverines may find themselves back atop the Big Ten.
JAMES FRANKLIN: The 6-2, 225-pound Missouri QB had a strong sophomore season both as a rusher and passer. The Tigers' top playmaker, Franklin completed just over 63 percent of his throws in his first year as a starter in 2011, for 2,865 yards, with 21 TDs. He also found time to finish second on the team in rushing, amassing 981 yards and half of the team's 30 rushing TDs. Franklin was named the Independence Bowl MVP after throwing for 132 yards and one TD, while rushing for 142 yards and two more scores. It is that kind of diversity that will fuel the Tigers in 2012 and keep them relevant in the new-look Big 12.
HONORABLE MENTION: A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech), Keith Price (Washington), Bryn Renner (North Carolina), Collin Klein (Kansas State), Mike Glennon (North Carolina State).