For two players so inextricably linked in preseason magazines, AJ McCarron and Braxton Miller couldn't be much more different on the field.
McCarron, a two-time national champion at Alabama, has been branded with the dreaded label of "game manager." You won't win because of his efforts, but he's accurate, safe and good enough to keep you in any game. Miller, the signal-caller at Ohio State, is essentially the opposite. He can win a game single-handedly, but his inconsistent accuracy can also throw you out of one.
McCarron and Miller do have one thing in common, though. Heading into 2013, it's the reason they're so frequently compared in the first place: they're both high-volume winners.
Combined, the pair went 25-1 last year, McCarron winning his second BCS National Championship while Miller and his undefeated Buckeyes were forced (per NCAA penalties) to abstain from postseason play. However, they're overwhelmingly favored to meet each other in Pasadena this coming year, and if/when they do, their performance under center could well decide the victor.
Which begs a salient question: Who will be better in 2013, Miller or McCarron?
As with any comparison between SEC and non-SEC players, the discussion must start with strength of schedule. There have been rumblings about Ohio State's historically easy road through the Big Ten, and in this particular case—that is, as it pertains to Braxton Miller—those reports are not exaggerated.
Per Phil Steele's College Football Preview, the Buckeyes don't play any of the top-40 projected secondaries in America. Not a single one. By stark contrast, Alabama is scheduled to play six of the top-40 projected secondaries, including five of the top 25 (Virginia Tech, LSU, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas A&M).
How will that affect their performances going forward? Well, obviously, it means McCarron will need to work harder for equal stats. Two hundred yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee is far more impressive than the same against Purdue.
Playing against soft defenses will allow Miller to mask some of his throwing deficiencies (if they still exist). His receivers aren't great, but they're good enough to get separation from a spate of below-average defensive backs.
That being said, it's not exactly like McCarron will have to force every pass he makes; yes, he is playing better secondaries, but according to Phil Steele, he also has the nation's third-best receivers. Miller's targets are ranked way down at No. 22.
What really matters isn't whom the quarterbacks play against, but how they handle that opposition. Here are Miller's and McCarron's per-game stats (against FBS teams) from 2012:
McCarron has the better passing numbers—not included above is his superior completion percentage—but Miller's diametric advantage on the ground gives him better stats overall. He accounts for more yards and touchdowns per game than McCarron, though not by a considerable amount.
On face value, that probably means Miller was better in 2012. But these numbers were not adjusted for opponents. They can't be taken seriously until we analyze the defenses each QB played against.
F/+ is a combined metric at Football Outsiders that measures the opponent-adjusted efficiency of each non-garbage time play during a college football season. These were the average defensive F/+ ratings of Alabama and Ohio State's FBS opponents last season:
Ohio State: +2.3%
To put that in context, the average defense on Alabama's 2012 schedule would have ranked 45th in the country, right between Pittsburgh and San Jose State. The average defense on Ohio State's schedule would have tied for 50th in the nation with Maryland.
That discrepancy explains the difference between the two quarterbacks' stats. All in all, when you take defenses into account, Miller and McCarron played about even in 2012.
In 2013, though, their schedules aren't supposed to stay as even; that variance from last year is supposed to turn into a massive chasm. Ohio State gets to avoid some of its toughest teams from 2012—most notably Nebraska and Michigan State, who have been replaced by Iowa and Northwestern.
Had the Buckeyes swapped those four teams last year, their average opponent's defensive F/+ rating would have plummeted to +.18%. That's a palpable decline in defensive efficiency—a decline Miller's stats would have reflected. His numbers would have been considerably, not slightly, better than McCarron's.
So this upcoming season, where Alabama is indeed projected to play a significantly harder defensive schedule than Ohio State, one would have to figure Miller as likely to outperform McCarron. Especially when one considers the losses in front of McCarron—now-NFL linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker—compared to just one lost starter on Miller's offensive line.
It's hard to say which quarterback is actually "better." That's too subjective of an argument, especially for two players with a proven ability to lead late drives and win close, meaningful games. They're both highly talented and both capable of leading their teams to the BCS National Championship.
But based on the schedule and how they performed last year, Miller is a decent bet to have the bigger overall season.
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