Ranking the Pac-12 QBs on Davey O'Brien Award watch list
Ranking the Pac-12 contenders for the Davey O’Brien Award is almost a futile exercise.
After all, the last quarterback west of Texas to take home the trophy was Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014. Before then? You have to go back to Troy Aikman in 1988.
Originally named the Davey O’Brien Memorial Trophy and given to the most outstanding player in the Southwest regardless of position from 1977-1980—legendary linebacker Mike Singletary won it in back-to-back years in 1979-80—the award has been given to quarterbacks for the past 41 years.
And it’s not that the Pac-12 hasn’t boasted prime quarterbacks during that period: John Elway and Matt Leinart, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, among others.
But the honor has lived in the SEC—and at Oklahoma—in recent years. The SEC has claimed the past three trophies in LSU’s Joe Burrow in 2019 and Alabama’s Mac Jones and Bryce Young the past two years. Before that, the Sooners had claimed two straight and five since 2003.
If the Pac-12 is going to wrestle the award back from the clutches of its Power Five rivals, it’s going to take one mammoth season.
Here’s a list of the league’s top candidates, including one longshot who did not make the watch list.
Cameron Rising, Utah
Before we automatically crown Caleb Williams as the Next Great Pac-12 QB, let’s give it up for Utah’s Cameron Rising.
A semifinalist for the trophy last season as a sophomore, Rising was named first-team All-Pac-12 in 2021 after completing 204-of-320 passes for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns with five interceptions for the conference champions.
It’s hard to call Rising an underdog for the honor after he ranked sixth overall in ESPN’s QBR rating—and best in the conference—as well as second in passing yards per completion (12.76), third in passing efficiency (145.74), third in passing yards per game (214.1) and fourth in total offensive touchdowns (18).
After coming within three points of leading Utah to its first Rose Bowl win in program history, Rising returns with an impressive roster and some of the best coaching in the sport. If he shows just a bit more big-play ability in 2022, he’ll be a finalist for the award. He had seven games with multiple touchdowns last year, but six with one or fewer touchdowns. Turn that six into three, and he’s a Heisman contender.
Caleb Williams, USC
Williams’ laundry list of honors last year at Oklahoma could paper a wall.
- True Freshman All-American by multiple outlets.
- Semifinalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Davey O’Brien National Quarterback, and FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year awards.
- AP All-Big 12 second team and All-Big 12 honorable mention by the league’s coaches.
And all this happened after Williams took over the Sooners’ starting quarterback mid-season. In 11 games and seven starts, Williams completed 136-of-211 passes (64.5%) for 1,912 yards and 21 TDs with four interceptions and he ran for 442 yards on 79 carries (5.6 avg) with six TDs.
Extrapolated over a full season, those are outstanding numbers, and he should put up similar stats with USC this season.
He has perhaps the biggest profile in college football this year. If he delivers, he’s taking home plenty of hardware.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA
Thompson-Robinson closed out the 2021 campaign in spectacular fashion, leading UCLA to big wins over USC and Cal in the final two weeks of the regular season. He had seven touchdowns and two interceptions in the wins, while adding 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
It is that versatility that has proven to be DTR’s trademark, but his improved passing prowess is what gives him a legitimate shot at the Davey O’Brien Award.
Thompson-Robinson has made massive strides the past two years, growing into a true NFL quarterback prospect.
After completing less than 60% of his passes as a freshman and sophomore, he has completed 63% of his throws in the past two years. His yards-per-completion has grown in linear fashion, as well, from 6.8 as a freshman to 8.5 last year.
Bo Nix, Oregon
Alabama’s Mr. Football and a USA Today All-American as a senior at Pinson Valley High, Nix got off to a terrific start at Auburn in 2019, leading the Tigers to a 9-4 record, including a 48–45 win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Ducks fans certainly remember him. He beat Oregon in his college debut, throwing two TD passes in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner with nine seconds left in the season-opener. The SEC Freshman of the Year after throwing 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, Nix had sky-high expectations.
Nix had above-average statistics but failed to live up to the lofty outlook during his last two years at Auburn, throwing a combined 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while adding 11 rushing touchdowns. After going 6-3 in nine starts in 2021 Nix suffered an ankle injury, drawing intense criticism from Tigers fans.
That led Nix to Eugene, where he joins his former Auburn position coach and offensive coordinator, Kenny Dillingham, who left the Tigers after Nix’s freshman season to take the offensive coordinator role at Florida State. Dillingham joined the Ducks as offensive coordinator, tasked with helping turn Nix into the pro prospect that many expected him to be.
But does Nix have the skill position talent around him to emerge as the nation’s best quarterback? The Ducks lost starting running back Travis Dye to USC in the transfer portal, though running back Byron Cardwell had a standout freshman season and is in line for a splendid sophomore campaign. He is the only Oregon skill position starter listed on Athlon Sports’ first-, second- and third-team all-conference projections. Oregon wideout Dont’e Thornton earned a nod on the fourth team.
Tanner McKee, Stanford
After throwing 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games (nine starts) last year, McKee has drawn extensive hype nationally, including his placement as Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft class.
But McKee’s season-long numbers obscure a brutal second half, as he threw just four touchdowns—to go along with all seven interceptions—in the Cardinal’s final five games of the season, all losses. It almost feels like PFF turned off the tape following the fifth game of the season, by which point McKee had led the Cardinal to victories over then-No. 14 USC and then-No. 3 Oregon.
Can McKee recapture his early season magic from a season ago? Like Nix, he might not have the skill position talent to really break through.
Cameron Ward, Washington State*
Some are calling the former FCS Incarnate Word quarterback the breakout player of the year.
And for good reason.
A sturdy 6-foot-3, 223-pounder, Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns last season with 10 interceptions, one year after winning the Walter Payton Award as the top freshman at the FCS level. That came throwing for 2,260 yards and 24 scores with four interceptions in just six games.
The Cougars are a long way from the pass-happy Mike Leach era, but Ward could capture some of the Minshew Magic up in Pullman.
Granted, Ward did not make the Davey O’Brien Award watch list (hence the asterisk). But he’s got the talent to end up there by midseason.