July 23, 2024
The Hotline's QBCQ assesses the quality of the starters and the reserves. Because you never know when the backup will become QB1.

The Pac-12 is entering the final season of its existence with perhaps the finest quarterback class in its history.

The conference has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and three of the top nine betting favorites for the 2023 award.

It has three of the top four quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’ early look at the NFL Draft prospects at each position.

It has five former five-star recruits, with two scheduled to start the 2023 season on the bench because of the talent ahead of them.

But there’s more to quarterback play than the quality of the starter, and the Hotline’s quarterback comfort quotient (QBCQ) takes depth into account. After all, the backup quarterback is the least important player on the roster right up until the moment he becomes the most important.

The following ranking is based on a subjective assessment of each team’s ability to navigate the season given existing options within the quarterback room.

(Note: Not all backups are listed, only those we believe relevant for 2023.)

Here we go …

1. Washington
Starter: Michael Penix Jr.
Key backup: Dylan Morris
Comment: The Huskies are one of the few teams nationally that possess both an elite starter and a proven backup. Penix stands as a Heisman contender while Morris owns 489 career attempts and 15 starts. Yes, his efficiency was spotty in the lead role in 2020-21. But we attribute that largely to the prehistoric offense UW ran under the previous regime. With the current coaching and playbook at his disposal, Morris projects as the top backup in the conference.

2. USC
Starter: Caleb Williams
Key backups: Miller Moss, Malachi Nelson
Comment: We gave serious thought to slotting the Trojans in the top spot, largely because Williams is nothing short of phenomenal. But Moss has just 27 career attempts, and Nelson is a true freshman. If Williams misses time due to injury, USC’s situation turns precarious. Put another way: The difference between the USC and Washington starters isn’t as great as the difference between the respective backups.

3. Oregon
Starter: Bo Nix
Key backup: Ty Thompson
Comment: The clear choice for No. 3 given the state of affairs in Salt Lake City (see below). Nix played as well as anyone in the first half of last season but had injury issues down the stretch. That said, he isn’t quite at Williams’ level, and Thompson, who has just 35 career attempts, isn’t nearly as experienced as Washington’s backup. And we cannot ignore the staff change, with Will Stein taking over as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. The playcallers are part of the QB room, after all.

4. Oregon State
Starter: DJ Uiagalelei
Key backups: Ben Gulbranson, Aiden Chiles
Comment: Uiagalelei was named the starter this week, according to Oregonlive, meaning the Clemson transfer played well enough to unseat Gulbranson, the incumbent, and fend off the talented Chiles. That bodes well for OSU’s playmaking at the position and leaves the Beavers with a solid option if Uiagalelei struggles. Gulbranson (204 career attempts) is perfectly capable, especially when compared to other backups across the conference.

5. Utah
Starter: Cameron Rising
Key backups: Bryson Barnes, Nate Johnson
Comment: This is the most difficult situation to assess because of Rising’s recovery from a torn knee ligament and his questionable status for the season opener (Florida) and perhaps Week 2 (at Baylor). Also unknown: When will Rising return to his pre-injury form with regard to rhythm, timing and confidence in his knee? Barnes has 59 career attempts and isn’t a bad option. But the QBCQ is a relative assessment. At this point, we don’t have enough clarity to slot the Utes on the top tier.

Projected starter: Ethan Garbers
Key backups: Dante Moore, Collin Schlee
Comment: It comes as no surprise that UCLA is one of the few Pac-12 teams without a named starter so close to the opener. Yes, Chip Kelly keeps these matters so close to the vest they’re essentially sewn into his abdomen. But he also has several choices with a veteran (Garbers), a heralded recruit (Moore) and a proven transfer (Schlee, from Kent State). Our hunch is Kelly will opt for the safe pick and give himself the option to elevate Moore at the first sign of trouble.

7. Arizona State
Projected starter: Jaden Rashada
Key backups: Drew Pyne, Trenton Bourguet
Comment: Rashada, a former blue-chip recruit who encountered NIL issues at Florida and switched his allegiance to ASU, is expected to be named the starter this week — meaning he has beaten out an incumbent (Bourguet) who completed 71 percent of his passes last season. The move makes loads of sense for rookie coach Kenny Dillingham: Might as well start the multi-year reclamation project with the quarterback who possesses the highest ceiling over time.

8. Arizona
Starter: Jayden de Laura
Key backup: Noah Fifita
Comment: The Hotline remains in wait-and-see mode with de Laura: Does he possess the maturity necessary to handle the inevitable in-game setbacks without letting one mistake turn into multiple mistakes? Meanwhile, the top backup, Fifita, attempted just 19 passes last year as a rookie. All of which means the Wildcats’ quarterback room features a starter who’s as likely to make big mistakes as big plays, plus an unproven second stringer. Not ideal, although the upside potential is substantial if de Laura raises his game.

9. Washington State
Starter: Cam Ward
Key backups: John Mateer
Comment: The Cougars are on the short list of teams capable of making our QBCQ rankings look foolish before the season ends if Ward emerges as one of the Pac-12’s best. We didn’t see enough from him last year, following his transfer from Incarnate Word, to assume significant progress in 2023. (Also, he’s working with a new playcaller in Ben Arbuckle). Meanwhile, Mateer has limited experience. We view WSU as comparable to Arizona, but de Laura has a larger sample size to assess than Ward.

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10. Colorado
Starter: Shedeur Sanders
Key backups: Ryan Staub, Kasen Weisman
Comment: Few quarterbacks are entering the season with more hype than Sanders, the head coach’s son who dazzled last year at Jackson State. The only problem? Sanders dazzled at Jackson State, an FCS program in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. He hasn’t faced maximum resistance (from opposing players or defensive coordinators) on a weekly basis. An uneven season feels inevitable, and it’s not like the Buffaloes have any veteran backups after gutting the quarterback room.

11. Cal
Projected starter: Sam Jackson
Key backups: Ben Finley, Fernando Mendoza
Comment: Jackson arrives from TCU after attempting a whopping six passes for the Horned Frogs over two seasons and will work with new playcaller Jake Spavital in an offense designed for his skill set. If he struggles — and that’s a safe bet — the options are decidedly suboptimal. We give the edge to Finley, who threw 152 passes during his three-year career at N.C. State. Consider Cal’s quarterback room a massive work in progress.

12. Stanford
Projected starter: Ari Patu
Key backups: Ashton Daniels
Comment: The six quarterbacks on Stanford’s official roster have combined to attempt 31 career passes, creating a level of collective inexperience that requires a Stanford degree to comprehend. Patu accounts for 25 of the 31, which makes him the apparent frontrunner. Our advice: Feel free to interchange the Bay Area teams; we have limited clarity on either situation.

*** Previous installments in our season preview series:

My AP preseason top-25 ballot
The best game of every week
Projections for the conference race
Postseason picks: CFP, Pac-12 bowl games
Coaching Hot Seats: Assessing job security 

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to [email protected] or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.