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The Greatest QB Seasons in PAC History

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Ranking the best single-season performances the conference has ever seen

NCAA Football: Texas at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Comparisons across generations in sports are inherently difficult. Styles, rules, and expectations evolve over time, and we automatically evaluate every player through the lens of our own period. In order to compare the greatest single-seasons by QBs in the history of the Pac, I devised a method to compare across multiple eras. The basic idea is to give significant weight to individual success as measured against one’s peers, as well as team success.

First, I decided to start the rankings with the 1978 addition of the Arizona schools to the historical Pac-8 to reach the more modern 10 team size. I made this decision for a few reasons. First, the role of the QB has changed substantially such that very few seasons from before that time would compare favorably to modern QB production. QBs simply weren’t as important to a team’s success as they are now. Additionally, since some of the metrics used involve conference awards, standings, and ranks, it would give historical players an advantage to have to beat out seven other teams rather than nine or 11. Lastly, the older the player, the more difficult it is to make any subjective adjustments to the score.

With that in mind, here is the scoring method used to compare seasons:

· 3 points for leading the conference in passing yards, 2 points for second, one point for third.

· 3 points for leading the conference in passing TDs, 2 points for second, one point for third.

· 1 bonus point for every 500 rushing yards.

· 1 bonus point for every 5 rushing TDs.

· 3 points for 0-1 team losses on the full season, 2 points for 2 losses, 1 point for 3 losses. Most undefeated teams receive additional bonuses, so I assigned the same points for 0 and 1 loss to avoid double counting.

· 2 points for conference player of the year award, or equivalent.

· 3 points for winning the Heisman Trophy.

· 3 points for winning the conference title. For consistency, I used the historical precedent of giving credit for a conference title to team that finished with the best regular season record in the conference (or tied).

· 2 points for winning the national title. Every national title winner from the Pac has also won the conference, so these points are essentially bonus points.

· 1 point for finishing ranked in the top 5 in the country.

· Subjective adjustments ranging from -2 to 2 points for events not covered in these rankings.

Altogether, it is difficult for any QB to rank highly without a combination of individual and team success. Some memorable seasons fall lower in the rankings because the player’s team finished with a sub-par record. That outcome is as I intended it- a great statistical season on a losing team is not a great QB season any more than a poor statistical season on a team carried by its defense or running game.

Honorable Mention

9 points

John Elway, Stanford, ‘82

Jeff Van Raaphorst, Arizona St, ‘86

Others unlisted

Elway had some of the best statistical seasons in conference history, but in his four years as the team’s primary starter, Stanford went 20-23-1. This season was his best one, but without any team success to speak of, he does not score particularly well in this system. If I was ranking Pac QBs with the greatest NFL careers, Elway would certainly top the list. But his college career is not on that level. Interestingly, Aaron Rodgers, who is probably the #2 NFL QB from the Pac, also missed the cut.

10 points

Mike Pagel, Arizona St, ‘81

Troy Aikman, UCLA, ‘87

Jonathan Smith, Oregon St, ‘00

Husky fans remember him for other reasons, but Smith had an impressive season in ‘00. He led the Beavers to a national top 5 finish by leading the conference passing yards and TDs. It’s no wonder that his school remembers him fondly and gave him a chance as its head coach.

Aikman split a successful career between Oklahoma and UCLA and this junior season was his most successful. He was a leading Heisman candidate for ‘88, but had an inferior season overall before he was drafted #1.

11 points

Tom Ramsey, UCLA, ‘82

Rodney Peete, USC, ‘88

Drew Bledsoe, Washington St, ‘92

Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington, ‘00

John David Booty, USC, ‘06

Darron Thomas, Oregon, ‘10

Marcus Mariota, Oregon, ‘12

Sam Darnold, USC, ‘17

Peete’s best season followed Aikman’s when they went head-to-head to rule LA and the conference. They were considered Heisman front-runners going into the year, but Barry Sanders put up one of the greatest college seasons of all time.

Booty’s 06 was better than you might recall. He led a top-5 Trojan team to the conference title while leading in passing yards and TDs. Sandwiched between even better performances by Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez, he has become something of a forgotten man.

Some Husky fans might be disappointed to see Tui this low for a memorable Husky season. He didn’t put up eye-popping passing numbers, the conference was full of very good QBs at the time (the aforementioned Smith, Carson Palmer, plus a progressing Joey Harrington), and he just missed out on even more running bonus points.

12 points

Paul MacDonald, USC, ‘79

Billy Joe Hobert, Washington, ‘91

Jake Plummer, Arizona St, ‘96

Cade McNown, UCLA, ‘98

Joey Harrington, Oregon, ‘00

By this point, you may have noticed the concentration of more recent seasons on this list. Theoretically, the pass-heavy modern game would not skew this ranking because players are compared to their peers. In reality, the QBs from the ‘70s and ‘80s still had a harder time sneaking onto the list for several reasons. One reason is that the best teams in the conference tended to run more often in those decades. Whether that was a coincidence or a strategic decision, USC is much more famous for the likes of OJ Simpson, Charles White, and Marcus Allen than it is fore Paul MacDonald.

Of course, good teams still need to be able to run the football, but there’s no doubt that the top teams today are more likely to have a dominant passing game than they were 30 years ago. A related reason is the fact that QBs got much less award love in those early years, both nationally and within the conference. Adding up all of these factors, you will find many more seasons from the early 00s to present high on this list, and from my own observation, I would agree that QB play is generally better now than it was in the earlier years.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get to the top 10.

10. Jake Browning, Washington, ‘16- 13 points

Full Stats

One of the questions that led me to this project was how to contextualize this Browning season. How unique is it for a QB to lead the conference in passing TDs (2nd in all of NCAA), win the conference, and take home the offensive player of the year award for the Pac? The answer is that it’s quite rare- good enough for one of the 10 best QB seasons in conference history. We can debate about his regression and how much his supporting cast had to do with his output, but the results of ‘16 speak for themselves.

9. Matt Leinart, USC, ‘05- 13 points

Full Stats

Leinart surprised many when he came back to school after his ‘04 Heisman campaign. Not only did it likely cost him several draft slots the following season, he lost the national title, and put up his worst score by this metric in the previous three. Of course, that might look different if Vince Young hadn’t played one of the best games of the century in the championship game.

8. Andrew Luck, Stanford, ‘10- 13 points

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Luck often drew comparisons to Elway during his time at Stanford. Luck’s results, though, do not parallel Elway’s. Luck led the team to a 12-1 record and was runner-up in Heisman voting. Perhaps more surprising, he took a traditionally poor Stanford team into the national top 5. He was rewarded with the #1 pick in the NFL draft and had the type of early success that could put him among the best NFL QBs to emerge from the conference if he recovers his health.

7. Mark Sanchez, USC, ‘08- 14 points

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In many ways, Sanchez’s season was the dying gasp of USC’s ‘00s dynasty. In his only full season as the starter, Sanchez led the Trojans to a #3 ranking with outstanding individual stats. He led the Pac in every imaginable passing stat and made top 10 leader boards for the entire NCAA in many of them. Moreover, while other USC QBs on this list had the support of multiple skill position stars, Sanchez didn’t have a Reggie Bush or a Marquise Lee. His best skill position player was probably Joe McKnight as an all-purpose back, so Sanchez deserves a good share of the credit.

6. Ryan Leaf, Washington St, ‘97- 15 points

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As much as Husky fans will like to focus on Leaf’s abysmal pro career, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how dominant he was in ‘97. He led the conference in every stat imaginable. In much the same way that Luck deserves extra credit for success at a non-prestige program, Leaf’s accomplishments are even more impressive when considering that he took a lesser supporting cast to 10 wins, multiple road wins over ranked teams, a Pac-12 title, and very nearly a Rose Bowl win over national champion Michigan.

5. Matt Leinart, USC, ‘03- 16 points

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Leinart’s freshman year at USC could not have gone much better. USC ran the table after opening conference play with a loss to Cal. They won the national title with a fairly easy win over #4 Michigan, which was the team’s third win of the year over a top-10 opponent (and second away from home). Opposed to Sanchez’s one-man show, Leinart had a murderer’s row of a supporting cast- Reggie Bush, Lendale White, Mike Williams, Keary Colbert, Steve Smith, and others. Great as it was, it would not be Leinart’s best season.

4. Joey Harrington, Oregon, ‘01- 16 points

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Harrington took a step forward from his honorable mention season to crack the top-5. He finished fourth in Heisman voting and went 3rd in the following NFL draft. He led the Ducks to a Pac title and finished the season ranked in the top five. While Oregon has established itself as a national power more recently, Harrington was instrumental in helping them initially reach that status. In fact, with a Fiesta Bowl win over #3 Colorado, all that separated the Ducks from a national title was a Miami team that was perhaps the best of the last 30 years.

3. Carson Palmer, USC, ‘02- 17 points

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USC’s return to dominance happened very suddenly. Palmer entered his fifth season as USC’s starter (including a medical redshirt three games into his sophomore year). The team won between 5-8 games in each of the previous four years. Pete Carroll took over in ‘01 and managed only six wins. They started this season 3-2 with close road losses to Kansas State and Washington State. From there, they won eight in a row, including five over ranked teams (all by double digits), and the final two over top 10 Notre Dame and Iowa teams. Palmer’s 4 TD dismantling of the Fighting Irish keyed his Heisman campaign and left the program in a great spot for Leinart.

2. Matt Leinart, USC, ‘04- 19 points

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If you’re tired of reading about Leinart by now, I don’t blame you. Two elements separate his ‘04 season from his other exceptional outputs- he won the Heisman and led USC to a wire-to-wire #1 National Championship. The Orange Bowl pitted Leinart’s USC against previous Heisman winner Jason White’s OU (also featuring a decent RB named Adrian Peterson). Oklahoma scored first, but by the next time they found the end zone, they had given up 55 points and Leinart had thrown 5 TDs. Game. Set. Match.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon, ‘14- 22 points

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While Mariota did not lead the Ducks to the national title, the thing that differentiates him from the other top performers near the top of this list is his versatility. He had the most rushing yards and TDs of any QB who made this list, the latter by a factor of three. That’s not to mention that he still led the conference in passing yards and TDs. All told, he was responsible for 58 TDs on the year, which is the third most in NCAA history and most by anyone in a Power 5 conference.

At the time, it felt like Oregon was putting up video game numbers on offense every season under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. In retrospect, nobody did it quite like Mariota. He averaged 10 yards per passing attempt with a TD/INT ratio of 42/4, not to mention 770 rushing yards and 15 TDs. Not a single member of his supporting cast has made any noise in the NFL (though Royce Freeman still could), which only amplifies how impressive his accomplishments were.

That Oregon team is likely most remembered for failing to control the line of scrimmage against Ohio St in the National Championship Game to the tune of 246 yards and 4 TDs for Ezekiel Elliott and shockingly little offense for the Ducks. If that individual performance devalues his performance enough that you would rank Leinart ahead of him, I can see that argument. For me, the overall performance is so stunning that I believe that Mariota’s ‘14 season is the greatest in Pac history by a QB.

Top 10 Point Breakdown

Player Year School Pass YD Pass TD Rush yd Rush TD Losses Conf award Heisman Conf title Natl Title top 5 Subj total
Player Year School Pass YD Pass TD Rush yd Rush TD Losses Conf award Heisman Conf title Natl Title top 5 Subj total
Marcus Mariota 2014 Ore 3 3 1 3 2 2 3 3 0 1 1 22
Matt Leinart 2004 USC 2 3 0 0 3 2 3 3 2 1 0 19
Carson Palmer 2002 USC 2 3 0 0 2 2 3 3 0 1 1 17
Joey Harrington 2001 Ore 2 3 0 1 3 2 0 3 0 1 1 16
Matt Leinart 2003 USC 2 3 0 0 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 16
Ryan Leaf 1997 WSU 3 3 0 1 2 2 0 3 0 0 1 15
Matt Leinart 2005 USC 3 2 0 1 3 0 0 3 0 1 0 13
Mark Sanchez 2008 USC 3 3 0 0 3 0 0 3 0 1 1 14
Andrew Luck 2010 Stan 3 3 0 0 3 2 0 0 0 1 1 13
Jake Browning 2016 UW 1 3 0 0 2 2 0 3 0 1 1 13