NOTE: This is the ninth (and final) installment of our weekly series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2013 Big Sky Conference football season.
Gotta save the best for last. There are so many good quarterbacks this year in the Big Sky Conference. A two-time offensive league MVP (DeNarius McGhee), a sophomore who showed flashes of brilliance last year (Vernon Adams), an embattled star looking to regain his exceptional form after a year away from the field (Jordan Johnson) ... and that's just the beginning.
The most intriguing story is Johnson, whose return to the Grizzlies makes them a much better team than the one that went 5-6 and missed the playoffs last year. But can he become the best overall QB in the Big Sky, which was the way he was trending at the end of 2011? Several teams will go only as far as their quarterback will take them. Judging by my list of the best in the league for this season, a number of squads will have a chance to contend:
TOP 10 QUARTERBACKS FOR 2013
1. DENARIUS MCGEE, SR., MONTANA STATE 2012: 66.0%, 3,154 yds, 24 TD, 11 INT, 141.0 efficiency, 364 rush yds, 5 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Entering his fourth year as the Bobcats' starter, the numbers have really added up for McGhee. The 30 victories, the 9,000-plus passing yards, the 71 TD passes, etc. And a new offense under first-year coordinator Tim Cramsey will give McGhee every opportunity to keep it going. But in the end, the statistics won't define McGhee. He'll probably go down as the best QB in school history, but McGhee is only focused on team achievements. What matters most are the wins, and that's all he's done for three years.
2. VERNON ADAMS, SO., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2012: 60.9%, 1,956 yds, 20 TD, 8 INT, 160.6 efficiency, 342 rush yds, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: EWU coach Beau Baldwin had a really good QB last year in SMU transfer Kyle Padron. But Baldwin couldn't keep Adams off the field. As the season went on Adams morphed into an elite dual-threat player with amazing zip on his ball. Sure, he had some great receivers to throw to, but Adams was the one running the offense, and he did it with surprising success. Adams made nine starts and was named the Freshman of the Year on College Sporting News' “Fabulous 50” All-America team. Similar results in 2013? Why not?
3. JORDAN JOHNSON, JR., MONTANA 2012: DNP. 2011: 59.8%, 2,400 yds, 21 TD, 9 INT, 133.5 efficiency, 506 rush yds, 4 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: After a highly publicized year off, Johnson is back. And that makes the Grizzlies much more formidable on offense. Johnson's ability to both run and throw make him one of the most dynamic players in the Big Sky. It's just a matter of how it will all come together in a new-look offense that will incorporate traditional, pro-style elements. But remember, in his last seven games of 2011, Johnson threw for 1,390 yards, rushed for 273 more and accounted for 17 total TDs. Johnson's upside is through the roof.
4. SETH LOBATO, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2012: 58.3%, 2,797 yds, 19 TD, 10 INT, 128.4 efficiency, 3 rush TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: A one-time Colorado Buffalo, Lobato came of age last year to help UNC to its best season as a Division I program. There's still work to be done, but Lobato is a great guy for the Bears to rely on. Lobato's passing yards in 2012 were the third-most in school history, and his 5,365 career yards are fourth all-time. He has top wideout Jace Davis to throw to again this season, which will make for a solid connection. The numbers will be there, but the true test will be whether Lobato can make UNC competitive again in a tough league.
5. GARRETT SAFRON, JR., SACRAMENTO STATE 2012: 64.2%, 2,540 yds, 22 TD, 12 INT, 132.6 efficiency, 377 rush yds, 2 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Sacramento State faced questions at quarterback entering last season, but Safron erased them quickly. Safron set numerous team records and was named the Hornets' offensive MVP. He threw at least one touchdown in every game and had more than one scoring pass in eight of 11 games. The Hornets have been on the verge of breaking out and challenging for a postseason berth under coach Marshall Sperbeck. Will they this year? Either way, Safron will be a major cog in what will be a productive offense.
6. KIERAN MCDONAGH, SO., PORTLAND STATE 2012: 54.5%, 2,187 yds, 14 TD, 13 INT, 119.4 efficiency, 406 rush yds, 6 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Portland State's Pistol offense requires a solid trigger man, and McDonagh burst on the scene as a true freshman last year to give the Vikings all they needed at QB. McDonagh accounted for 23 touchdowns, and finished with the most passing yards and TDs by a Vikings quarterback in five seasons. Will it continue in 2013? It should, especially with star running back D.J. Adams anchoring the ground game. Portland State has long been a darkhorse team in the Big Sky, and McDonagh could lead them to bigger things.
7. AARON CANTU, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2012 (at East L.A. College): 62.3%, 3,358 yds, 32 TDs, 147.7 efficiency, 8 INT, 3 rush TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Brad Sorensen who? OK, let's not get carried away. Cantu can really throw the ball, but Sorensen was Southern Utah football for three whole years. Still, Cantu has what it takes to fill the void. If you're going to replace a star QB, you might as well do it with the guy who led the National Junior College Athletic Association in passing. I'm not sure Cantu will match his numbers from last season at East Los Angeles College, but he could come close, and that'd be excellent news for the talented Thunderbirds.
8. JUSTIN ARIAS, JR., IDAHO STATE 2012: Redshirted. 2011: 52.2%, 348 yds, 2 TD, 5 INT, 89.6 efficiency. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Idaho State coach Mike Kramer tweeted earlier this summer that Arias "is going to be something" to behold this year. In the Bengals' throw-at-all-costs offense, he should be able to put up some big numbers. Arias' predecessor, Kevin Yost, amassed 6,663 yards and 39 touchdowns in the past two seasons alone (11 games). So don't be surprised if Arias makes a similar impact. Still, they will only be numbers if ISU continues to flounder. It'd be great if the Bengals started winning games again and became relevant in the Big Sky.
9. RANDY WRIGHT, SR., UC DAVIS 2012: 56.7%, 2,234 yds, 12 TD, 12 INT, 115.6 efficiency, 1 rush TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Like DeNarius McGhee, only with much less fanfare, Wright is entering his fourth season as the starter at UC Davis. Quietly, he sits fourth in school history in passing yards with 7,092. Wright has been solid throughout his career, and figures to be again in 2013. One key will be to reduce his interceptions. After combining to throw 14 picks in 2010 and '11, he served up 14 last year alone. If Wright brings those down the Aggies' offense will be that much more efficient, and that'll give them a better chance.
10. VINCE MORAGA, JR., CAL POLY 2012: 50.0%, 16 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT, 76 rush yds, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: The battle for the Mustangs' starting quarterback job wasn't settled until Aug. 19 when Moraga emerged from a group of four challengers. The competition was close, but coach Tim Walsh said the job is Moraga's to keep. The next challenge is filling the void left by former QB Andre Broadous, a dual-threat talent that rarely turned the ball over. But Moraga doesn't have to be Broadus, he just has to keep the Mustangs' triple-option offense running at a high level. After winning a share of the league crown last year, expectations are again high in SLO.
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: McGHEE. Walter Payton Award winner Taylor Heinicke was the no-brainer pick here, but Old Dominion went all Appalachian State and left the FCS. Bummer. So that leaves MSU's McGhee. You disagree? Let’s see. Is it Cornell's Jeff Mathews? No. Is it Davidson's Jonathan Carkhuff? Sorry. How about North Dakota State's Brock Jensen? He's a winner, but, eh ... McGhee is the nation's active career-leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, and he's helped the Bobcats win consistently for the first time in decades. He's smart, he has a flair for the dramatic, and he's a fantastic individual. That’s good enough for me.
LAST WEEK: 2013 running back rankings
LAST YEAR: 2012 quarterback rankings
NEXT WEEK: The season begins!