by Jimmy Burch
Special to the Big 12
In recent seasons, no college football conference has produced more eye-popping offensive numbers than the Big 12. That is because of the proliferation of elite quarterbacks at league schools, a steady stream that has shattered multiple college passing records and seems poised to do likewise in the NFL.
For the past decade, the record for highest single-season completion percentage by any FBS quarterback has belonged to Texas’ Colt McCoy (76.7 pct.), set in 2008. Among the 49 quarterbacks who have completed at least 70 percent of their passes throughout an entire season at college football’s highest level, 11 of them played in the Big 12. The list includes two Heisman Trophy winners: Baylor’s Robert Griffin III (2011 Heisman, 72.4 pct.) and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (2017 Heisman, 70.5 pct.).
Mayfield, the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, posted the highest single-season passer rating in FBS history as a junior (196.4), then topped it last year as a senior (198.9). Eight of the top 34 single-season passer ratings in FBS history belong to Big 12 quarterbacks, with another Heisman winner in that mix: Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford (2008 Heisman, 180.8 rating).
In addition, Big 12 quarterbacks have led the nation in passing yards the past two seasons: Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes (5,052 yards in 2016) and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph (4,904 yards last season). Both players are among 11 quarterbacks from Big 12 schools who began the season on NFL rosters, with four of them making starts thus far in Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Arizona.
Clearly, the Big 12 has emerged as college football’s conference of quarterbacks. Three current league quarterbacks were ranked among the nation’s top eight passers through games of November 10, with Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (216.6) and West Virginia’s Will Grier (184.0) ranked first and third, respectively, in passing efficiency among all FBS players. Both players also had a chance to lead their Top 10 teams into today’s 2018 Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Appropriately, the Big 12 also was front-and-center in one of the most-anticipated NFL telecasts of the season on Nov. 4: a Kansas City-Cleveland matchup featuring two young, dynamic, franchise quarterbacks from Big 12 schools.
Mahomes, a midseason frontrunner for NFL MVP honors, led the Chiefs to a 37-21 victory over the Browns, with top-pick Mayfield at the helm. The contest included 672 passing yards and five touchdown passes (three by Mahomes, two by Mayfield). In Mayfield’s estimation, the effort reinforced the reputation of Big 12 football and Big 12 quarterbacks to doubters who focus on the fact that the league has not produced a national champion since Texas won it all in 2005.
“People always want to hate on the Big 12. They say that we don’t play defense,” said Mayfield, who began his college career at Texas Tech. “But what they don’t realize is we have the best offenses in the country. That shows in bowl games. It shows at the next level … It’s good for the conference.”
These days, there is no better ambassador for Big 12 football, especially Big 12 quarterbacks, than Mahomes. His 375-yard passing performance against Cleveland marked his eighth consecutive 300-yard passing game, one short of Drew Brees’ NFL record, and his 29 TD passes in Mahomes’ first 10 starts of his career represents the most by any quarterback in his first 10 games since 1950.
Mahomes, like Mayfield, seeks to boost the reputation the Big 12 as a prime breeding ground for future NFL quarterbacks. The opportunity to hone NFL-caliber skills played a role in his decision to attend Tech and play for coach Kliff Kingsbury, whose list of pupils with professional football credentials also include Davis Webb, Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel.
In an interview earlier this season, Mahomes said playing at Tech for Kingsbury allowed him to step comfortably into the Chiefs’ starting job in his second NFL season.
“I got to learn under some pros,” Mahomes said, reflecting on NFL-bound college teammates as well as Tech coaches with NFL pedigrees like Kingsbury, defensive coordinator David Gibbs and former running backs coach Deshaun Foster. “Everything that they taught me, I feel like it’s been a smooth transition so far. Coach Kingsbury helped me by putting a lot of the game plan and pressure on me. As an NFL quarterback, you have to run a lot of different things, and coach … helped me become prepared for this moment.”
Kingsbury, in turn, said Mahomes benefits from a strong arm, uncanny athleticism and a “photographic memory” that serves him well during film study sessions.
“The first time we’d teach stuff, he’d walk it through and nail it,” Kingsbury said. “It’s about the work ethic, the preparation and making that a lifestyle … He’s the most talented quarterback I’ve ever seen. There’s only a handful of guys who can do what he can do.”
In recent seasons, the increased acceptance of spread-offense principles by successful NFL coaches has the league on pace to post its highest-scoring season in league history. Since Baylor’s RG3 was selected as the NFL Rookie of the Year in 20102, the value of Big 12 quarterbacks has steadily increased in the minds of NFL scouts. That became a selling point for Grier, a projected first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, when he chose to transfer from Florida after the 2015 season.
Grier said he felt an immediate kinship with West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, a noted spread-offense guru, from the moment the two met.
“He believed in me, and I believed in him,” Grier said. “And here we are.”
In a similar vein, Baylor receiver Jalen Hurd sought out his current Big 12 school when he transferred from Tennessee after the 2016 season to make the transition from running back to receiver. Hurd said he “saw a great opportunity” in Waco to learn the skills needed for a long NFL career.
As of Nov. 10, Hurd led the Bears in receptions (62), with 19 more than his closest pursuer, and was steadily climbing the projected draft boards of NFL scouts. He’s also helped boost the NFL stock of Bears’ quarterback Charlie Brewer, a sophomore who projects to be in the 2021 draft class.
As things stand, a total of 33 different quarterbacks from the 10 current league schools have started at least one NFL game, with more talent in the present pipeline. Defensive coordinators who have spent years struggling to contain Big 12 quarterbacks are not surprised by their emerging success at the next level.
Charlotte defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, a former Oklahoma State DC who was part of coach Mike Gundy’s staff from 2008-2017, described his typical game-day experience in the Big 12 as “a mix of nausea, grief and anger.” Mike Stoops, a part of six league championship teams as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator in two separate stints at the school (1999-2003; 2012-2018), told Oklahoma City radio station WWLS (98.1 FM) that slowing down Big 12 quarterbacks provided the biggest challenge of his coaching career.
“It’s taken probably five years off my life, that’s for sure,” Stoops told the station after leaving the program following a 48-45 loss to Texas on Oct. 6. “Not sure if everybody (across the country) sees it like we see it, week in and week out. You’ve got to be so spot-on … It’s extremely difficult to coach defense in this league.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson, who shared a league title in 2014 and led the Horned Frogs to a berth in last year’s Big 12 championship game, adjusted his statistical expectations after TCU joined the Big 12. These days, yards are secondary concerns and the Frogs focus on three-and-outs, takeaways, third-down defense and red-zone defense.
“That’s how you get people off the field,” said Patterson, who still calls the Frogs’ defensive signals. “You can’t let these quarterbacks get into a rhythm because, with all the tempo offenses, they’re going to run a play every six seconds. As a defensive coordinator, … the question is, ‘How can I get it fixed in six seconds?’ The guys that are great are the ones who can fix it. But, man, that’s stressful. Nobody else does their job like that. Not even Wall Street.”