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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Big 12 Quarterbacks and the N.F.L. Draft

   Here’s the theory floated by The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre: Pull back the throttle on the Robert Griffin III hype machine, because while he had a superb junior season, his numbers were inflated significantly by the poor brand of pass defense played in the Big 12. The same could be said of former Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has rocketed up N.F.L. draft charts, as well as former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, wrote Jason. As evidence, he points to the fact that not one Big 12 team ranked in the top 30 nationally in pass defense.

Jason also notes how the Big 12 has largely failed to put a top-tier quarterback into the N.F.L. since the league was formed in 1996. There’s no debating that point: Brad Smith and Chase Daniel were all-timers at Missouri, but neither has made their mark as a quarterback on the next level — though Smith has carved out a niche as a do-everything wide receiver. Jason White, Zac Robinson, Chris Simms and so on down the line: it’s a long list.

The argument holds water, but it’s not because pass defenses in the Big 12 aren’t as stout as those found in the SEC. In a good number of instances, Big 12 quarterbacks struggle on the next level because few spent their college years in a pro-style system; as a result, many find it hard — if not impossible — to relearn on the fly, under pressure and scrutiny, even the basic skills needed to be an N.F.L. quarterback.

Vince Young is a great example. The physical gifts were nearly unparalleled. As a runner, he moved the chains as well as any quarterback in recent N.F.L. history. But in a pro-style system, even one tweaked to fit his skill set, Young was a round peg in a square hole. A perfect fit for the spread offense at Texas, he’s not a pro-style N.F.L. quarterback.

Where I think Jason’s argument hits a slight snag is in his belief that Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden are overvalued as draft prospects because of the weak pass defenses in the Big 12. You need to ask the question: Were Big 12 quarterbacks good because Big 12 pass defenses were bad, or were pass defenses bad because the quarterback play was so good?

A little from both columns, to be honest. It’s true that only one team, Texas, at 41st, ranked among the top 50 teams in the F.B.S. against the pass. Only two, Texas and Texas Tech, ranked among the top 70. Four teams ranked among the bottom 20: Baylor, Kansas, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. This does point to the idea that Big 12 quarterbacks feasted on opposing defensive backs during conference play.

One potential issue with Jason’s argument is that of the top 30 pass defenses in college football last fall, only three played against a Big 12 offense: Rutgers played Iowa State, Florida State played Oklahoma and Miami (Fla.) played Kansas State. Holding up Iowa State and Kansas State as examples of the Big 12 as a whole doesn’t work; the Cyclones finished 73rd nationally in passing, the Wildcats 108th.

But Oklahoma did finish fifth, averaging a hair less than 350 passing yards per game, but was held to 199 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions in a win over the Seminoles in Tallahassee. So we have that evidence at our disposal. Is it enough to back up Jason’s claim?

No, but neither is the lack of evidence enough to put holes in his theory. We’re stuck in the middle, though the fact that Big 12 quarterbacks have historically not translated well to the N.F.L. might lead some to slow down their praise of the conference’s three top draft prospects.

Another thing we know: the N.F.L. doesn’t fool around. Daniel and former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell put up serious numbers in the Big 12, but neither was drafted. N.F.L. front offices do more leg work when evaluating a prospect — on the field and off — than you can possibly imagine. On a team’s checklist, college production comes farther down the list than you’d think. So if teams love Griffin, it’s not because he tore up the Big 12; it’s because they think he can do the same in the N.F.L.

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  1. Bill condon says:

    There’s another post in here, Paul. Lots of great college QBs never pan out in the pros. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it takes to be a good college QB vs a good pro QB. And not just the obvious examples! Like Tebow or Young. Most folks seem to think Aaron Murday won’t make a good pro QB. Why not? Jason Gesser was a very good college QB. Not so much in the pros. What do you do with a Doug Flutie? Most thought he wouldn’t do anything as a pro, yet he did pretty well.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    While I agree that the Big 12 fire wagon brand of football is not a good proving ground for pro quarterbacks, you need to be careful anytime you consider NCAA pass defense rankings – they are typically based on passing yards allowed a game. Last year UTSA ranked 11th nationally and Colo. St. 14th. Sometimes, teams have higher rankings because their run defense is so poor that teams do not have to throw the ball against them.

    Also, they throw the ball a ton in the Big 12 which also skews the stats. Texas and OU faced 35 passes a game. Bama and the other top ranked SEC pass defense – S. Carolina – faced 26-27 passes a game.

    For years, I could pick up a newspaper, on any Saturday, Sunday, or Monday morning, and look at one stat – total rushing yards and know with 98% certainty which team won the game – the team that out rushed the other. Things sure have changed especially in this part of the country.

  3. DMK says:

    And having a great defense compounds itself statistically: Bama, for example, had an absurd number of 3-and-outs last season and it’s ball-control offense meant that the D faced way fewer plays than most teams. Per play their stats were great; per game the stats were absurd.

    Turning the relationship between hurry-up and ball-control offenses on good and bad defenses into useful stats is way beyond my ability.

    I suspect anecdotal evidence is as good as we can do (i.e., cliches): Hurry-up spreads that throw the ball all over the place have a huge advantage over 98% of defenses but when they face pro-style groups with NFL caliber talent (and ball-control offenses on the other side) they don’t do so well. They’re built to finish high in the rankings but not to win championships. This is what we’ve seen in the last decade or so.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Upon reflection, I believe the best metric to measure pass defense is average yards per attempt. On that basis, here is last year’s top ten:
    1. Bama – 4.4 yds per attempt, best in last ten years, easily.
    2. S. Carolina
    3. LSU
    4. WVU
    5. Penn State
    6. S. Miss
    7. Miss State
    8. Georgia
    9. Texas
    10. Vandy

    Okla. St. In at 25, and OU # 30.

  5. Hokieshibe says:

    Burnt – do those rankings include sack yardage? Just curious.

  6. NTXCoog says:

    @Burnt Orange: Penn State was #5, but was that because they played Big 10 teams than can’t throw the ball to save their lives?

    The University of Houston put up 532 yards passing, 3 passing TDs, 0 INTs, 65% completion ratio, and 7.7 yards per attempt against PSU. That tells me that UH’s offense was pretty amazing AND PSU’s pass defense was overrated.

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    @Hokieshibe – unlike the NFL, the NCAA counts sacks against rushing totals so sacks are not part of the equation though obviously pressures and hurries where a pass is attempted have an impact. If you look at percentage of pass plays resulting in a sack, the Hokies were third nationally and 10th nationally in sacks per game.

    @NTX – yes that ranking surprised me as well. I actually attended that game. Hard to know what to make of PSU late in the season. I would argue that the Big 10 is not without good passing teams. I think NW, MSU, and UM throw the ball pretty well. Wisconsin was very effective when they did throw last year. UH has embarrassed a lot of decent defenses is as good an answer as I can come up with.

  8. Hokieshibe says:

    @Burnt Orange – Thanks. I wasn’t asking because I wanted to shout-out to the Hokies or anything, I was actually just curious. Nice to hear that, though :)

  9. I am not sure that RG3 was worth the move up for Washington. Isn’t Washington basically a QB graveyard anyway? I mean, even superman has to have some help and Washington has basically no one to help him.

  10. Hokieshibe says:

    @TheValleyWatch – I don’t think you can really say that, because it’s not like the Redskins have exactly had the Manning brothers playing for them in the last two decades. Washington has been a qb graveyard for 20 years, because Gus Ferrote was probably the top quarterback playing for them in that time period.

  11. @Hokieshibe-No, the Skins haven’t had the Manning brothers playing for them, but only two teams have so far… I think it has been a combination as you say, that the talent level has been down, but also that the coaching staff has made some stupid choices in drafting QBs… my point with RG3-if an experienced QB like McNabb had problems last year without the talent surrounding him, how is an inexperienced rookie going to do any better? He may be a Cam Newton, but RG3 doesn’t look like Cam to me… but that just my humble opinion. twiw

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