With the college football  season right around the corner, it's time to countdown the best of the best. Athlon continues the countdown to kickoff with a look at the top quarterbacks in college football for 2012. It should be no surprise USC's Matt Barkley tops the rankings as the No. 1 quarterback in the nation. The senior is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and has the Trojans as one of the frontrunners to claim the 2012 national title.
When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential.
College Football's Top 25 Quarterbacks for 2012
1. Matt Barkley, USC
After throwing 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions over his final four games in 2011, the consensus was Barkley was gone to the NFL. Instead, he surprised a lot of folks with his decision to return for one more shot at a national title and has USC poised to play for the championship in January. Barkley enters 2012 with 9,054 yards and 80 touchdowns and is Athlon’s first-team All-American quarterback for 2012. The senior ranks third in school history with 9,013 career yards, and his 80 touchdown passes are fifth in Pac-12 history. The only missing pieces on Barkley’s resume? A Pac-12 title, national championship and Heisman. All three are certainly within reach in 2012.
2. Geno Smith, West Virginia
After throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year working in Dana Holgorsen’s spread attack, Smith is primed for an even bigger 2012 season. He finished 2011 by throwing for 407 yards and six touchdowns in the 70-33 rout over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Smith tied or set 21 career, season or game school records last year and earned first-team All-Big East honors. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning, the senior quarterback should be in for an even bigger statistical season. The Big 12 is known for its offense, and West Virginia should fit in well in 2012, especially with Smith more comfortable in the second year of Holgorsen’s offense.
3. Denard Robinson, Michigan
The man they call Shoelace has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football over the past two seasons. Robinson has struggled at times with consistency in the passing game, but he led the nation last year by averaging 15.3 yards per completion and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Robinson does his best work on the ground, however; he has rushed for 3,229 yards on a 5.9-yard average in his three years in Ann Arbor.
4. Aaron Murray, Georgia
It’s a close call for the No. 1 quarterback spot in the SEC. Murray and Tyler Wilson are both deserving, but with Arkansas losing coach Bobby Petrino and receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright, the edge goes to the Bulldogs’ signal-caller. Through Murray’s first two years in Athens, he has thrown for 6,198 yards and 59 touchdowns. His interception total increased last year (8 as a freshman, 14 as a sophomore), which will be one area the coaching staff wants to see him improve in 2012. The Bulldogs have to replace a couple of key offensive line starters, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell may spend the majority of the first part of the year at cornerback. There are concerns about Murray, but we think he will end up with first-team All-SEC honors at the end of 2012.
5. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Wilson successfully stepped into Ryan Mallett’s shoes as Arkansas’ starting quarterback last season, carrying on the Razorbacks’ best run of passers in program history. Wilson’s 3,638 yards was the second-highest total in school history as he became the program’s first All-SEC first-team quarterback. After the sudden coaching change, Wilson also was a stabilizing presence on the roster. He and Mallett are the only two quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards in school history.
6. Collin Klein, Kansas State
Klein emerged from obscurity last season to account for 40 total touchdowns, leading the Wildcats to 10-3 season and the Cotton Bowl. Kansas State’s emotional leader, Klein rushed for 27 touchdowns, tying the Division I record held by Navy’s Ricky Dobbs, and became the first Big 12 quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards since Missouri’s Brad Smith in 2005. The Wildcats also learned they could rely more on his arm as the season went along.
7. Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Jones wasn’t the same near the end of the season when injuries to Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley took their toll on the Sooners offense. On Nov. 5, Jones had 28 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, but threw one touchdown pass and six picks over the final four games. After passing for 12,379 career yards and 93 touchdowns, Jones could set a number of Big 12 records, but can he lead Oklahoma to a national title.
8. Keith Price, Washington
Replacing Jake Locker was no easy task, but it didn’t take long for Price to emerge as one of the conference’s top quarterbacks last year. The California native threw for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, while adding three scores on the ground. Knee injuries limited Price in the second half of last season, but he will be 100 percent for the season opener. The Huskies still have question marks on defense, but Price’s emergence should allow Washington to push Stanford for second in the Pac-12 North.
9. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
The junior from Hampton, Va., led the ACC in total offense last year (289.0 ypg) and was a key reason why Clemson hoisted the conference championship trophy a year ago. He accounted for an ACC record 38 touchdowns in 2011 and ranks first in Tigers’ history in most every major passing category. His 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame fits Chad Morris’ system perfectly, and with a variety of supremely talented skill players around him, he should post another huge statistical season in Death Valley. The key for Boyd’s long-term legacy, however, will be how his team finishes the season. Cutting back on his interceptions, he threw nine of his 12 during Clemson’s 2-4 finish, will go a long way to repeating as ACC champs.
10. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
Thomas wasted little time in establishing himself as the latest productive and dangerous dual-threat quarterback to wear a Virginia Tech uniform. Last season, the sophomore set a new school single-season mark for total yards with 3,482 and accounted for a total of 30 touchdowns. He was the team’s second-leading rusher (469 yards) and passed for more than 3,013 yards, the second-most by a Hokie quarterback in a season, with all of this coming as a first-year starter.
11. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Based upon his performance in 2011, ranking Miller among the top 15 quarterbacks in the nation. However, that’s where projecting for 2012 comes into play. Urban Meyer’s spread attack should jumpstart Ohio State’s offense, while turning Miller into one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks. The sophomore should have no trouble surpassing last season’s 1,159 passing yards and will top over 500 yards on the ground once again in 2012.
12. Tyler Bray, Tennessee
The 6-foot-6 quarterback has shown a ton of promise over his first two seasons in Knoxville, compiling 3,832 yards and 35 touchdown passes in 16 games. However, Bray must find a way to stay healthy for an entire season. He threw for 17 scores against six interceptions in seven games last year and has an elite receiving crew coming back. If a Vols rushing attack that ranked 116th nationally last year improves, Bray could have a monster 2012 campaign.
13. AJ McCarron, Alabama
McCarron finished the 2011 season by playing some of his best football, throwing for 234 yards on 23 completions in the 21-0 victory over LSU in the national championship. He also threw for 184 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn and has not thrown a pick since the Nov. 12 victory over Mississippi State. With Trent Richardson moving onto the NFL, Alabama will put more on McCarron’s shoulders this season. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier should open up the offense a little more, which will allow McCarron to easily surpass last season’s totals and challenge for All-SEC honors.
14. EJ Manuel, Florida State
Despite a shoulder injury and little help from his offensive line and rushing attack, Manuel finished 2011 with 2,666 yards and 18 passing scores. Even more impressive than his passing yards was his 65.3 completion percentage and eight interceptions over 311 attempts. Manuel had plenty of highlights, throwing for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl and 321 yards against NC State. With a loaded group of receivers, Manuel should have a chance to surpass last season’s totals. However, Florida State’s offense needs the offensive line to give him more protection, and the rushing attack to provide more balance in 2012.
15. Mike Glennon, NC State
In many ways, NC State’s offense didn’t miss a beat in 2011 even with first-year starter Mike Glennon assuming the reigns from All-ACC performer Russell Wilson, who transferred to Wisconsin for his final season. Glennon tossed 31 touchdown passes, which is the second-most in a single season in school history, while passing for more than 3,000 yards and completing nearly 63 percent of his attempts.
16. James Franklin, Missouri
The biggest unknown surrounding Franklin is the status of his throwing shoulder. He was injured during spring practice but had successful surgery and returned in time to participate in the fall. Will Franklin have the same arm strength? How will the timing be with his receivers? Those are two key questions to watch for Missouri in fall practice. If healthy, Franklin should be one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks. He rushed for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, while throwing for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns.
17. Bryn Renner, North Carolina
After sitting behind then-starter and current Houston Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates, Renner took full advantage of his first opportunity to shine. The sophomore set a North Carolina single-season record in 2011 with 26 touchdown passes while becoming only the second player in school history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also led the ACC and was 10th in the nation in passing efficiency as he completed nearly 70 percent of his throws.
18. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
Martinez, who arrived at Nebraska as an athlete, has been one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation over the past two seasons. His efficiency was down a bit in 2011, but his yards passing (2,089) and touchdown passes (13) were up. He continues to be a threat in the running game, with 1,839 yards and 21 touchdowns during his career.
19. James Vandenberg, Iowa
The Big Ten may have the nation’s best collection of athletic quarterbacks, so it may be tempting to overlook the league’s best dropback passer. Vandenberg was the Big Ten’s third-leading passer at 3,022 yards last season and was second only to Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins in attempts and completions. Vandenberg will be even more of a key player for the Iowa offense this season, but he’ll have to improve his play on the road and overcome the loss of clutch receiver Marvin McNutt. The concerns about the offensive line and rushing attack will only add to the pressure on Vandenberg's shoulders in 2012.
20. Casey Pachall, TCU
In filling in for the greatest QB in the history of TCU football, all Pachall did as a sophomore was set single-season school records for yards, completions and completion rate. The burly — 6-5, 226 — passer has above average athletic ability and led the Frogs to a conference championship that featured a brilliant 473-yard, 5-TD road performance against then unbeaten Boise State. Now, he steps into a league known for its quarterback play. Yet, Pachall should have no problem fitting right in. His 2,921 yards, 66.5% and 25:7 TD:INT ratio plays no matter what league he is in.
21. Jeff Tuel, Washington State
The injury bug bit Tuel last season, as he played in only three games and completed 29 of 45 throws for 276 yards and one score. The California native suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener but returned later in the year, only to miss the final five games with a leg injury. Tuel has flown under the radar in his career, as most expected him to emerge as an all-conference candidate last season, especially after throwing for 2,780 yards and 18 scores in 2010. With Mike Leach arriving in Pullman, the Cougars should have one of the nation’s top passing threats. If Tuel can stay healthy, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns is easily within reach.
22. Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
Aplin has quietly been one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks over the last two years and should thrive under the coaching of Gus Malzahn. Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, while adding 588 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Malzahn engineered some of the nation's top offenses at Tulsa and Auburn, and Aplin should easily shatter his previous season high in passing and rushing yards.
23. Seth Doege, Texas Tech
It was easy to overlook Doege with Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, Collin Klein and Robert Griffin all lining up under center in the Big 12. Doege finished 2011 with 4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns, including 441 yards and four scores in the upset win over Oklahoma. The senior should have a chance to push those numbers even higher in 2012, as the Red Raiders bring back receivers Eric Ward, Darrin Moore and Alex Torres, while running back Eric Stephens should be near full strength for the opener in his return from a torn ACL.
24. Tyler Tettleton, Ohio
Tettleton shined in his first season as the starter, throwing for 3,306 yards and 28 touchdowns, while rushing for 666 yards and 10 scores. He led the Bobcats to 10 wins, including a 24-23 victory over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Ohio must replace a couple of key receivers, but Tettleton should be the MAC's top quarterback in 2012.
25. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
As expected, Bridgewater experienced ups and downs as a freshman last season. He threw an interception in his only pass attempt in the opener against Murray State but finished the year with five touchdown tosses over the final two games. Bridgewater’s play was crucial to keeping Louisville in the Big East title hunt last season and will only get better as a sophomore. With plenty of weapons at his disposal and a talented offensive line, Bridgewater should finish 2012 ranked among the top five players in the Big East.
10 Transfers to Watch
1. Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin (from Maryland)
2. Dayne Crist, Kansas (from Notre Dame)
3. Cody Green, Tulsa (from Nebraska)
4. Garrett Gilbert, SMU (from Texas)
5. Phillip Sims, Virginia (from Alabama)
6. Ryan Katz, San Diego State (from Oregon State)
7. Jordan Webb, Colorado (from Kansas)
8. Jacob Karam, Memphis (from Texas Tech)
9. Sean Schroeder, Hawaii (from Duke)
10. Tyler Gabbert, UCF (from Missouri)
15 Freshman Quarterbacks to Watch
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
2. Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State
3. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
4. Brett Hundley, UCLA
5. Everett Golson, Notre Dame
6. Michael Eubank, Arizona State
7. Perry Hills, Maryland
8. Anthony Alford, Southern Miss
9. Patrick Towles, Kentucky
10. Gunner Kiel, Notre Dame
11. Travis Wilson, Utah
12. Nick Patti, Boise State
13. Zach Kline, California
14. Chad Voytik, Pittsburgh
15. Connor Brewer, Texas
Five Junior College Transfers to Watch
1. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
2. Chandler Whitmer, Connecticut
3. David Fales, San Jose State
4. Cameron Coffman, Indiana
5. David Fisher, Kent State
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