Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Quarterback experience and LSU's title hopes

Somebody at ESPN sent out a tweet (I can no longer find it) back when the coaches' poll came out that stuck in my head briefly and then drifted away because I was doped up on muscle relaxers during The Legendary Plague of 2012. It went something like this: "LSU gets nod in coaches poll despite not having a returning starter at QB."

To clarify, the last eight words were the ones of interest -- and they're of even more interest now that I'm looking at all these various preview-type things with the season two days away and wondering who (realistically) can/will win it all. LSU is almost unquestionably a championship-caliber team but, as mentioned above, does not have a returning starting quarterback, which seems a little surprising in a sense that, ya know, quarterbacks are kinda important and seem to be a lot better once they know what they're doing.

So here are the appropriate questions I'd like to answer before deciding whether I'm gonna actually pick LSU to be this year's Best Team Ever when I have to pick that stuff: (a) How important/beneficial are experienced quarterbacks and (b) how hard is it to win a national title without an experienced quarterback?

The first of those questions isn't particularly easy to quantify since it's a team game. The Mathlete over at MGoBlog ran some numbers a couple years ago compiled from five years' worth of NCAA data and got some information that will be relatively useful here; it's far from perfect but is still useful.

Here's the relevant portion (a bit of explanation: the 120 teams were split into 12 deciles based on number of returning starts at each position):
Bottom two deciles = death!

Teams in the bottom two deciles, on average, were 4.1 points per game (3 points per game = about 1 win over the course of a season) worse (than the year before). ...

Overall, the impact of a returning QB starts goes beyond the passing game.  Each decile of experience is worth about a quarter of a point per game passing but about a third of a point a game per decile on total offense.
So the correlation between offensive productivity and quarterback experience is fairly linear until the bottom 15-ish percent, at which point there's a cliff that ideally would never be approached but sometimes must be.

Zach Mettenberger has zero career stats, which means LSU will be at the bottom-est bottom of the bottom of whatever the bottom decile of experience is called. That's not a good starting point but might not equal death; more on that momentarily. Just keep in mind that the numbers above are based on five-year averages across all of college football and thus will include some exceptions among the rule-proving data.

Going back to the questions toward the top of this post, the second one is much easier to answer than the first. In the BCS era (that's where I'm cutting it off because I said so), nine quarterbacks have entered a season with zero or negligible starting experience and ended said season with a national title. That's, like, a lot, especially considering what was just established about the importance of returning quarterbacks. And this isn't a going-away trend since it includes four of the last six (!!!) championship-winning QBs.

That would seem to indicate that a lot of the exceptions to the bottom-deciles-equals-death rule are the ones that win everything. Why is that the case? I dunno for sure, but I have an idea.

A glance at the numbers for those 10 teams shows the following rankings in scoring defense ...

'97 Michigan: first
'98 Tennessee: ninth
'00 Oklahoma: seventh
'02 Ohio State: second
'03 USC: 17th
'07 LSU: 17th
'09 Alabama: second
'10 Auburn: 53rd
'11 Alabama: first

... and the following rankings in passing yards:

'97 Michigan: N/A (the NCAA database doesn't go back far enough, unfortunately)
'98 Tennessee: 73rd
'00 Oklahoma: fifth
'02 Ohio State: 62nd
'03 USC: 14th
'07 LSU: 59th
'09 Alabama: 52nd
'10 Auburn: 36th*
'11 Alabama: 53rd

2010 is starred because Cam Newton had a bajillion total yards and a trillion touchdowns; he just did more of his damage on the ground. Other than that, the only quarterback who really had a significant role in his team actually being awesome was the 2000 version of Josh Huepel, who came from a juco, sat for a year and then was the Heisman runner-up in his one year as the starter. Matt Leinart was pretty good in 2003, too. Everybody else won not because of the quarterback but largely because of an awesome defense that finished somewhere between first and 17th in the country in points allowed.

Upshot: It is definitely possible to win with a mediocre/not-heavily-relied-upon quarterback -- it's actually been relatively common over the past 15 years -- but only with a really good defense that can remove a lot of that guy's importance. An excellent running game also helps since every one of the above-listed teams except Oklahoma and USC finished in the top 20 in the country in rushing.

So ... LSU. When I said a bunch of grafs ago that Mettenberger's lack of experience "might not equal death," I was referring to two things. The first: The amount of win-us-games-plz pressure that will be placed on him, which won't be much. LSU returns four of five starting offensive linemen and all of the top four running backs from last year, when the rushing offense was 22nd nationally; they'll be very good in that regard. They'll also be very good on defense (even without Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne) due to a hilariously talented front seven, a couple still-pretty-good players in the secondary and the best punter in the country. Mettenberger won't be asked to account for 65 percent of the offense like Cam Newton was at Auburn.

The second: The guys he's replacing weren't particularly good last year (at least not against real teams), when LSU was still easily the best team in the country until a thoroughly uninspiring performance in the title game. LSU was an awful 106th in passing yards per game (152.6) but a decent 24th in pass efficiency because of the aforementioned running game. Being able to just pulverize people at about 5.5 yards per carry makes things waaaaay easier on whoever's taking snaps since everybody has to put nine guys in the box to mitigate that productivity and thus leave receivers running wide open.

BTW, that Mathlete data set found that returning starts on the O-line are a lot like returning starts at quarterback: There's not a huge difference between having a ton of starts and having just a good amount, but having none or almost none is devastating. LSU definitely doesn't have the latter problem. And while Mettenberger does have the former problem, it's worth noting that he did have a full year of playing time at a juco and a full year of sitting/learning at LSU before getting thrown onto the field this season, which puts him in a pretty comparable position to the ones Huepel and Newton were in heading into their respective years of awesomeness. He was also a borderline five-star recruit and isn't lacking for talent, FWIW.

To that end, I don't have any idea whether Mettenberger will be "better" (a somewhat-subjective term) this year than the bleh Zach Lee/Jordan Jefferson combo was last year, but I'm pretty sure (a) he'll be at least decent and (b) it won't matter a whole lot given the LSU running game, defense and schedule, which doesn't feature a really plausible loss until November and includes Alabama at home.

This is where I make a conclusion-type thing. It's this: As far as LSU is concerned, the trend of teams with good defenses and good running games winning titles, IMO, offsets the trend that shows teams without any returning experience at quarterback falling off the proverbial cliff offensively. I just don't see any reason to think that happens with LSU, and with the other stuff being somewhere in the range of "pretty good" to "awesome," a comparably meh quarterback performance this year shouldn't be the thing that stops LSU from winning it all unless "meh" becomes "ugh" at an inopportune time, which is definitely possible.

As for whether that happens, I'm reserving the Forever Saturday Official Prediction for the Forever Saturday Official Prediction post that will be available for viewing/laughter at some point in the next 48 hours.


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