The Pac-12 has long been known as the "conference of quarterbacks," and after a few key announcements in the past month, it appears as though the conference will remain at the top when it comes to quarterback play in 2014.
As many key Pac-12 players complete the exodus from college football and venture into the professional ranks, it's the conference's quarterbacks doing the exact opposite.
On Dec. 3, Oregon quarterback and 2014 Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota started the trend of staying in school for an extra year when he announced he'll be back with the Ducks for his redshirt junior season.
Mariota threw for 3,412 yards and 30 touchdowns this season, and set a single-season school record with 3,994 total yards this season. The Hawaii native was a Heisman front-runner throughout the season, but a two-interception performance in a 42-16 drubbing at Arizona set him back and ultimately knocked him out of the top 10 Heisman vote-getters.
With Mariota returning, the Pac-12's First-Team All-Conference quarterback has the Oregon Ducks in position to begin the 2014 season in the top five of the AP poll. The Ducks won't be alone at the top, though, as they'll have a handful of Pac-12 teams right on their heels.
As expected, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan will be back for his senior season after throwing for 2,630 yards including a 143-yard effort in the Rose Bowl.
After Oregon and Stanford, the early favorite for the Pac-12 South will likely be the UCLA Bruins. Even though the Sun Devils invaded Pasadena and earned a victory this season and will return quarterback Taylor Kelly, talent evaluators have fallen in love with Bruins' quarterback Brett Hundley.
Hundley might have been a first-round draft choice had he elected to declare, but the redshirt sophomore announced he is coming back for a third season under Jim Mora.
"We're going to do big things around here so let's have some fun and do it!" - Brett Hundley announcing he is returning for 2014 #8Clap— UCLA Athletics (@UCLAAthletics) January 6, 2014
Hundley racked up more than 3,000 yards through the air and an additional 700 yards on the ground, despite taking a hit to his rushing totals when the Sun Devils sacked him nine times in Pasadena. Hundley's mobility, size, and arm strength are all plusses in the minds of NFL scouts and he managed his numbers this year despite playing behind three freshmen on his offensive line.
Another quarterback who decided to continue his tenure in the Pac-12 is Oregon State's Sean Mannion. Mannion led the conference in touchdown passes and passing yards while throwing for 37 touchdowns and 4,662 yards and has put together quite a career in Corvallis.
Aside from two horrendous four-interception games in Tempe during his time at Oregon State, Mannion has kept his opponents off balance with an ability to run a quick-strike offense and a quick release in his throwing motion. The 6-foot-5 junior received a third-round grade from the NFL and will lose Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks to the pros, but even that wasn't enough to persuade him to leave school early.
Even with Mannion returning, the Beavers are unlikely to be ranked heading into the 2014 season. Aside from Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State, two other Pac-12 teams should make an appearance in preseason top 25 polls.
Both the USC Trojans and Washington Huskies will enter the season as highly touted teams and both will have interesting quarterback situations. After Lane Kiffin severely mismanaged the Trojans' offense this year, Cody Kessler finally emerged as the starter and put together a fine season in his first-year under center.
Kessler threw for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns, while tossing just seven interceptions. In the Trojans' bowl game against Fresno State, Kessler amassed 345 yards and four touchdowns through the air and staked his claim to the Trojans' first-team reps for spring practices. USC does have Max Wittek and top 2013 recruit Max Browne waiting in the wings, so new coach Steve Sarkisian will probably test the waters before announcing a starter for next season.
When Sarkisian took the job at USC, he left behind a talented up-and-comer at Washington in Cyler Miles. Miles played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, but in his brief appearances, he flashed signs of future brilliance with superb mobility even though he will need to work on tightening up his throwing motion.
If Taylor Kelly is to earn All-Conference honors as a senior next year, he'll have to play his tail off and likely lead the Sun Devils to at least nine wins. The Pac-12 returns a bevy of strong, mobile quarterbacks who project as future NFL talents and Kelly cannot afford to remain content.
In all likelihood, Kelly will continue to progress as he did from 2012 to 2013 and help make the Pac-12 the nation's most exciting conference to watch in 2014. All of the pieces are in place, now it's up for the quarterbacks to deliver and make the upcoming season one to remember.