Is the Mountain West the Premier Quarterback Conference in College Football?


Aug 31, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Brett Smith (16) throws agains the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

While watching Jameis Winston eviscerate Pitt in his coming out party for the Florida State Seminoles, the thought arouse that the ACC has another great quarterback.  The ACC has a lot of talented quarterback prospects.  Tajh Boyd at Clemson, Stephen Morris at Miami, Bryn Renner at North Carolina and even Logan Thomas at Virginia Tech, who might be struggling to find his way right now but he will still figure early in the NFL Draft because of his measurables.  The PAC-12 might be even better at the quarterback position with Marcus Mariota at Oregon, Brett Hundley at UCLA and Kevin Hogan at Stanford who all have incredibly bright futures.  Is there a better conference than either of these in college football right now?  A non-AQ conference perhaps?  Derek Carr at Fresno State, David Fales at San Jose State, Brett Smith at Wyoming and Chuckie Keeton at Utah State are all extremely talented passers and all in the Mountain West Conference.  They may not be the best in the country but they are quickly entering the conversation and appear to be ready to make a big statement in college football as well as in the NFL Draft.

It is easy for some to dismiss the Mountain West but they pushed the bigger conferences to the limit.  Keeton gave Utah all they could handle before falling 30-26 on the road.  Smith and the Cowboys gave the Texas Longhorns a scare last year and went into Lincoln, Nebraska where they took the Cornhuskers to the limit before losing 37-34.  Carr was able to lead the Bulldogs in a victory over Rutgers at home in back and forth game that went to overtime and came down to a 2-point conversion to decide the game.

The offense output by those three players in their games was remarkable in large part because they are so athletic and able to extend plays with their legs as well as create them.  Smith was 29/43 for 383 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception while also running 8 times for 92 yards.  Keeton was 31/40 for 314 yards with 2 touchdowns while he had 85 yards on the ground with another touchdown on 15 attempts.  Carr threw the ball 73 times against the Scarlet Knights, completing 52 of them for 456 yards and 5 touchdowns against 1 interception while he picking up another 24 yards on the ground on 4 runs with 17 of them coming on one play.

Perhaps the most polished and “NFL Ready” quarterback (always a dangerous term) in the Mountain West is actually Fales, who had a relatively clunky performance against Sacramento State.  Hopefully, that is just a fluke and not an indication that he is not a good match in the new Spartan offense.  This coming week, San Jose State plays Stanford on the road and they will need the absolute best from Fales.  Last year, Fales led the Spartans into Palo Alto and almost came out with a victory as the game came down to one final drive.  Stanford was able to hold on to a 20-17 victory.

The Mountain West has turned into a combination of the MAC and the Big XII.  Spread out offenses with tons of points without a ton of defense being played like in the Big XII but coming from a smaller percentage of players like has been common to the MAC in recent years.  The Mountain West has really become a landscape where the stars come out to shine on a weekly basis.

After they get through the non-conference schedule and try to make a statement against some AQ opponents and the college football landscape in general, they will have the opportunity to test their mettle against each other.  If last year and the first week of this season are any indication, there are going to be some must watch football games not only for what should be some exciting games, but also from a draft perspective.  While these quarterbacks are never going to play each other, they do have to try to match each other shot for shot in these games and the defenses are likely to be the victims.  And to the Mountain West’s credit, they have done a great job of scheduling these games to maximize the number of eyeballs that will see them.

In week four, Friday the 27th at 9pm on ESPN, David Fales and the Spartans travel to Utah State to play Keeton and the Aggies.  This is a huge contrast in styles.  Fales is not a statue but is usually content to stay in the pocket, throws with accuracy and timing with pretty good zip on the football but does not possess a huge arm.  He lets his receivers like the extremely polished Noel Grigsby get the yardage for him.  Keeton, on the other hand, is extremely athletic with a big time arm and while he is not quite as polished in the pocket as Fales, has shown he can be accurate with the football and make good decisions.

On the 26th of October, the Spartans host Brett Smith and the Wyoming Cowboys.  Brett Smith is an incredible talent; great arm, accurate, and a terrific athlete.  Everything Wyoming does revolves around him, so they are often using four and five receiver sets that spread the opponent out, allowing Smith to pick teams apart and also creates running lane for him to pick up additional yardage on the ground.  Smith is the type of quarterback who is never out of game but he can also make some big mistakes that can lose games.  He is a gun slinger in every sense of the word and while he can be a fantastic quarterback, he needs to avoid putting the ball at risk at times.

Wyoming has a bye week before they host Carr and Fresno State on November 9th.  Carr and Smith are the prototype for the quarterback position from a physical standpoint.  Both are extremely athletic, can throw the ball a mile and can be deadly accurate.  Carr’s issues come down to consistency with his mechanics and having a better sense of the pocket.  Like Smith, he is always looking to push the limits of the defense and both can get away with it for the most part, but can make decisions that prove costly.  Carr is so physically gifted that he can throw lasers off of his back foot, which reinforces an awful habit.  By succeeding and being able to do it, he has found himself in a muscle memory habit he needs to continue to work to break.  While throwing off of his back foot may work in college, it is going to be an issue going to the NFL.

This game features two quarterbacks in what should be a terrific shoot out.  In addition to having these two terrific dual threat quarterbacks, both teams have an extremely talented weapon at wide receiver.  Wyoming has the extremely explosive Robert Herron while the Bulldogs bring in their stud redshirt sophomore, Davante Adams.  Adams is huge, physically with remarkable fluidity and body control but needs to be more consistent catching the football.  Herron can get open, catch the football, and has a knack for making huge plays but his bugaboo has been injuries.  When he has been able to stay on the field, he has been a dynamic playmaker, which is what he needs to do for Wyoming to be successful this year.

The last weekend of the regular season is a fantastic setup for the Mountain West and college football fans.  On Friday night, the 29th of November, Fresno State goes on the road to play San Jose State at 3:30pm on CBS Sports Network.  On Saturday, Utah State hosts Wyoming at 2pm in the battle of true juniors in what could be the first of two great games between the two.  The Mountain West has a newly established Conference Championship that started last year (won by Fresno State), so this could be a great warm up before a championship game that could feature two of these teams.

Depending on who is asked, Fales ranges from a first round pick to a third round pick while Carr is a second round pick for some while a day three pick for others.  Both certainly have the potential to end up in the first round in this year’s draft.  Smith and Keeton are both true juniors and while they could opt to go into the NFL Draft, would likely be best served to stay another year in college.  The track record for true juniors is not good and while both have significant potential, this year’s class appears to be loaded with quarterback talent and they might have a better shot at being picked higher next season.  Certainly, the Mountain West is hoping they stay another season.

While it remains to be seen if this will be an anomaly or a longer lasting trend, the quarterbacks making up the Mountain West have a similar feel to the MAC when it sending first round picks to the NFL from 1999 to 2004.  It started with Daunte Culpepper coming out of Central Florida (now in the AAC) in 1999.  Marshall (now in Conference USA) sent Chad Pennington in 2000 and then Byron Leftwich in 2003.  The last and far and away the most successful was Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami(OH) (the only team still in the MAC) in 2004.

Matching that kind of production will be extremely difficult and it is no guarantee that any of their quarterbacks will be first round picks, but they do currently have four quarterbacks with significant talent and it at least appears as though they will send two to the NFL Draft each of the next two years.  It is difficult to say if the conference has the talent somewhere within it to develop quarterbacks after these four are gone, but because of the access to television and being able to offer the ability to play earlier, it is easier to sell quarterback prospects on going to schools in smaller conferences.

The current group had extremely different paths to the conference.  Carr had basically been committed to Fresno State since he was a kid and always wanted to follow his brother, David’s footsteps for the Bulldogs.  Smith had offers to go to other schools but because of the offensive system and the ability to play as a true freshman, he opted to go to Wyoming.  Keeton also came in as a true freshman and played for Utah State before sustaining an injury that ended his season.  Fales started his career at Nevada with Colin Kaepernick and realized it was not a great style fit for him.  He transferred to MontereyPeninsula to play junior college football before taking a summer course at Wyoming with the possibility of playing there.  He took one look at Brett Smith and turned around and ended up going to play for the Spartans under Mike McIntyre.  McIntyre left after this past year to become the head coach of Colorado after really turning around the San Jose State program from a bottom feeder into a top 25 team this past year.

Even if this only ends up being a relative footnote in college football history, this season should be incredibly fun to watch Mountain West football, both from an enjoyment standpoint as well as for scouting in terms of finding talent for the NFL.  Both Fales and Carr could play in big Bowl games but also stand out as players who will be in big All-Star games after the season.  While possible that they could end up in the East-West Shrine Game, both could end up going to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, which would be a huge opportunity to showcase their talent against players from all of the AQ conferences.  Senior Bowl director Phil Savage made it a point to go up to see Carr already and has likely seen a good amount of Fales as well, so both are certainly on his radar.

Maybe the PAC-12 or ACC have more overall talent at the quarterback position than the Mountain West does, but if they do, it is a lot closer than either of those big conferences would like to admit.  Meanwhile, almost every program in conferences like the Big Ten, Big XII, and the juggernaut that is the SEC would kill to get any of those quarterbacks to lead their programs over what they currently have at the position.  They are going to be stuck watching them and likely playing them in the Bowl Season.  The Big Ten has already seen some of what the Mountain West has to offer and they are not done yet.  Minnesota is likely to be a decided underdog when they play San Jose State.  It might only last for this year, but the Mountain West is a premier quarterback power this year and even if the college football community at large refuses to acknowledge them, the NFL Draft community will.