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Inside the Pocket: Surprise QBs making up for stars' setbacks

In almost every college football season, there is often a surprising theme that runs from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.

While the emergence of the running back position has certainly been one such theme, I found myself drawn once again to the quarterback position Saturday night as rivalry week was winding down.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was seemingly perfect as ever. He appeared off on his first series passing the ball but wound up with as many incompletions as touchdowns against an Oregon State team that had knocked off Arizona State two weeks prior. The performance, however, could best be described as ho-hum. It was so effortless, but that's seemingly the exception to the rule in 2014 for highly touted signal-callers.

If you want to know why Mariota will be holding up the Heisman Trophy from New York City in a few weeks, look no further than the fact that he's lived up to the advanced billing we gave him.

After all, Mariota's counterpart Saturday night in Corvallis was somebody who was also praised coming into this season, labeled by some as one of the top senior prospects at the position. Sean Mannion, however, has fallen well short of the expectations he generated last year with a pass-happy attack that featured Brandin Cooks. Mannion isn't wholly to blame for the Beavers sitting out bowl season, but his laborious effort Saturday underscored the fact that some of the big names we thought would do well this year haven't.

That could certainly also be said for Jameis Winston, and his efforts against Florida, in which he threw four interceptions for the first time in his career, magnified that. The Seminoles won, of course, and Winston kept his record as a starter perfect for another week. It just wasn't pretty.

Winston has gone from top five in the country in touchdowns a year ago to top five in interceptions in the blink -- or in Winston's case, a squint -- of an eye. His Heisman predecessor, Johnny Manziel, got better as a quarterback in his second season at Texas A&M, both in his statistics and in his approach. Winston has not in many respects.

It's hard not to notice that the signal-callers who entered the season with the biggest expectations have been surpassed in many respects by the play of the fresh faces at the position. Unless you read through copious amounts of preseason magazines, you would have been hard-pressed to pick out a number of these quarterbacks before they became household names with their play this season.

Alabama's Blake Sims bounced back from a rough first half to lead the Tide to a remarkable win in the Iron Bowl over Auburn. A redshirt senior, Sims was viewed as a mediocre backup, at best, for 4 1/2 years in Tuscaloosa and was considered a long shot to win the starting job over hot-shot transfer Jacob Coker. Sims probably should have transferred long ago -- and most quarterbacks nowadays would have -- but there he was, a dual-threat QB in a pro-style system who was hitting stud receiver Amari Cooper in stride to lead to one of the most thrilling victories of Nick Saban's illustrious career.

Out west, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon has Arizona on the cusp of a Pac-12 title. Great expectations were placed on him when he committed to Rich Rodriguez in high school, but Solomon wasn't supposed to be this good -- ninth in the FBS in passing yards, with 27 touchdowns -- this early. His team, likewise, was supposed to be a few years away, not preparing to go to the Pac-12 Championship Game at the home of the 49ers this week.

Yet here we find them.

Mariota has been terrific and will probably win the Heisman Trophy in a few weeks. He's been that outstanding behind center for the Ducks, and you'd be hard-pressed to give your vote to anybody else. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Alabama's Cooper have been great in their own right, but nobody has played at a consistently high level better than Mariota has in the team's fast-paced offense. He's covered up Oregon's flaws, gelled with fresh faces, and has the team right where it wants to be: in the playoff hunt.

Still, one can't help but note the surprises and disappointments at his position. We had high hopes for Baylor's Bryce Petty, Notre Dame's Everett Golson, Marshall's Rakeem Cato and others, only to be let down by poor play or upset performances. As the sun rises on championship weekend, we'll be discussing matchup issues for Sims and Maty Mauk, whether Trevone Boykin has done enough for TCU's postseason hopes, and if Ohio State is still a good team without freshman superstar J.T. Barrett.

Let it all serve as a reminder that even at the most important position on the field, players will disappoint, but the great thing about college football is that we will have plenty of surprises that will leave us talking for months.

Check out the top images from the final regular-season weekend of college football play.

Stat of the week

Pac-12 road teams will finish the season 33-21 in conference games. The five ranked teams in the league went 23-4 on the road.

Stats to chew on

» The SEC West went 10-4 vs. the SEC East this season, and the Pac-12 South went 15-9 vs. the Pac-12 North. The two ACC and two Big Ten divisions split their head-to-head meetings.

» Rutgers overcame a 25-point deficit in the second quarter (35-10) to beat Maryland 41-38, the largest comeback in school history. It was also the program's first-ever Big Ten road win.

» Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes broke a Big 12 freshman record with 598 passing yards against Baylor, a record that was set just last season by teammate and former starter Davis Webb. Both are set to have offseason surgery. Mahomes's mark was the fourth-best single-game mark in Red Raiders' history and gave him a final stat line vs. Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor of 80-of-150 for 1,304 yards with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

» Wisconsin's defense finished in the top five in seven major statistical categories during the regular season after its game against Minnesota. The Gophers were the ninth of 12 opponents to be held to under 300 yards of offense by the Badgers.

» Melvin Gordon broke the Big Ten and school rushing record of 2,109 yards, set by Ron Dayne in 1996. Gordon has 2,260 this year, good for fourth-best in FBS history and within striking distance of Barry Sanders (2,628), UCF's Kevin Smith (2,567) and USC's Marcus Allen (2,427).

» Urban Meyer is the first coach in Big Ten history to go undefeated in regular-season conference play three seasons in a row.

» Washington's Chris Petersen is tied for the fifth-fastest coach in college football history to reach 100 wins. It took him 117 games, tying him with some guy named Knute Rockne. The Huskies, meanwhile, recorded back-to-back seasons of eight wins for just the second time in two decades.

» Only two teams in the last three years -- a span of 40 games -- have scored more than 30 points against Stanford's defense: Rich Rodriguez's Arizona team in 2012 and this year's Oregon squad. Either the Wildcats or Ducks will end the Cardinal's reign as Pac-12 Champions on Friday after back-to-back titles.

» Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright has 139 tackles this season to go along with 27 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles. His five tackles for loss against rival Arizona State were the most in a game for the Wildcats in 16 years.

» Minnesota coach Jerry Kill suffered just his second loss as a head coach after leading at halftime. He has 40 wins when going into the locker room on top of the scoreboard.

» Boise State has won eight games or more for 16 straight years, the longest active streak in the nation. LSU and Oklahoma are right behind at 15 straight years.

» Baylor recorded back-to-back seasons of 10 or more wins for the first time ever.

» Texas suffered its worst lost ever on Thanksgiving -- 48-10 to TCU -- and for the first time, Texas and Texas A&M lost on turkey day.

Sound from Saturday

Check out the postgame locker room from Rutgers as offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen speaks to the team after beating the school that fired him.

Tweet of the Week

Sideline standouts

Gold medal:*David Shaw*. Stanford's coach broke out the extended play sheet in a huge upset of UCLA in which the offense came to life to help complement a terrific defense.

Silver medal:*Bryan Harsin*. The Boise State coach put in a great game plan that ran circles around a very good nine-win Utah State team to likely clinch the Group of Five bowl bid and a Mountain West title.

Bronze medal:*Steve Sarkisian*. A week after getting embarrassed by his crosstown rival, the USC coach outworked Notre Dame in a Coliseum blowout that made the Trojans look like they used to back in the Pete Carroll dynasty.

Pre-snap read

Arizona vs. Oregon: A rematch of the Ducks' only loss of the year and you can bet Marcus Mariota and company will be looking to avenge it. Their offensive line is in much better shape this go around, but that might not mean much with Wildcats star linebacker Scooby Wright III running around. Whoever wins the turnover battle will probably win the game.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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