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Comparing QB play across the power five conferences

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BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Notre Dame Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Everyone intuitively understands that quarterback play is the most impactful factor any individual player can bring to a football game. Watching the same top quarterbacks lead their teams through the playoffs year after year in the NFL tends to cement that notion in the average fan’s mind. In college the quarterback is often more of an equalizer. Top programs like Alabama often aim to churn out deep teams that can run the ball and play defense year after year but few programs seem able to consistently field great quarterbacks.

The ones that ca find a tremendous amount of success since the position can have enough of an impact to often allow a team to overcome other factors against superior teams. The nature of modern rules and tactics are such that a truly great quarterback is nearly indefensible.

So all that said, which conferences are producing the best quarterbacks these days? I pulled up a few key stats from the leader in passing attempts for each 2015 Power Five program and here’s what I found:

The Pac 12’s 2015 quarterback play

The Pac 12’s 2015 crops of quarterbacks went to town on Pac 12 defenses, averaging nearly 400 attempts per starter yet only a 2.11% interception rate. Programs along the West Coast often have a nice pool of quarterbacks to pick from thanks to the presence of innumerable private coaches hired to try and turn wealthy kids into the next Peyton Manning.

The Big 12’s 2015 quarterback play

Big 12 quarterbacks were more aggressive on average than their Pac 12 brethren and perhaps that was why they threw a higher percentage of interceptions. Everything in Big 12 play is largely a reflection of Texas high school football, where the spread offense is flourishing and there are also multiple schools of anti-spread thought.

Despite the huge magnifying glass on Texas signal-callers, the better ones are often not the top-rated kids and the two highest rated passers here consist of a North Carolinian (Mason Rudolph) and an athlete who’s now moving to receiver (Jerrod Heard).

The Big 10’s 2015 quarterback play

It’s telling that the two leading quarterbacks in yards per attempt last year were the guys who operated spread offenses. When you’re regularly throwing to receivers in space who can make your numbers look good by what they do after the catch you’ll tend to look better than the guy fitting a ball into a tight end’s mitts between a pair of linebackers who then immediately tackle him.

You wonder if weather plays a role here as well, both in the development of young midwestern kids as well as in the Big 10 games they’re playing in November and December. Given the number of bigger, burlier players on this list that factor may play into selection as well.

Could smaller Texans like Baker Mayfield thrive operating Big 10 offenses in Midwestern fall weather? What about when operating Big 12 offenses in Midwestern fall weather?

The SEC’s 2015 quarterback play

The SEC is now about half spread and half pro-style, with their lead team Alabama basically splitting the difference with what I call a “pro-style spread.” They have the highest rated recruits at quarterback of all the Power Five conferences but those guys are also facing much better defenses on average. There seems to be little doubt that the spread is as useful for drawing out effective quarterback play in this league as in any other.

As many as four of the top five guys by yards per attempt could be gone this year so it may well be worth tracking these numbers in a year to see what their replacements did.

The ACC’s 2015 quarterback play

The ACC holds up well to their neighbors in the SEC both in securing top-rated quarterbacks and in deploying them effectively on the field. They definitely benefit from my inclusion of Notre Dame as a ACC team since Deshone Kizer had a great 2015 throwing deep balls to Will Fuller.

There’s a great deal of Florida talent in the ACC and that’s definitely evident at this position.

Comparing the averages

There are at least three interesting things to note here.

  1. The Big 12 has the lowest-rated quarterback recruits and the worst INT rate but also the best yards per attempt numbers.
  2. The Big 10 and SEC have the worst performances, each underperforming the average for yards per attempt and INT rate.
  3. The Pac 12 put the greatest emphasis on their QBs of all the leagues and were rewarded for it with the lowest INT rate and the second best yards per attempt totals.

So how do we explain the differences and the performances? We touched on some of the challenges facing Big 10 quarterbacks above. They have to play some cold weather games in inclement weather and are often throwing the ball to bigger, slower targets that don’t pad the numbers with yards after the catch.

With that noted though, it’s interesting that Big 10 quarterbacks averaged so many attempts. It might have been that they were some of the more durable quarterbacks in the country and were able to play full seasons.

The SEC’s fairly pedestrian performance can be partially explained by the fact that their league includes more future professionals on the opposing defenses, but then do Big 12 offenses have a major talent advantage over the defenses they face?

The higher INT rates in the B12 could be a product either of aggressive play by the quarterbacks and/or a league that has to specialize in anti-spread defense that may consequently be ahead of the curve in comparison to some teams in terms of tactics.

It looks like the ACC is here to stay in terms of putting some of the nation’s best quarterbacks on the field. First of all, Deshone Kizer and Lamar Jackson were freshmen in 2015 and other notables like Brad Kaaya and Deshaun Watson both return. Secondly, you now have QB gurus Dino Babers and Justin Fuente in the conference which will likely result in improved play from the Syracuse and Virginia Tech signal callers. Finally there’s Deondre Francois and Mitch Trubisky stepping in now that could be big time names in the not too distant future.

What stands out to you from these comparisons?