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Passing Efficiency: Tebow, McCoy, or Bradford—Who Is Really Performing Better?

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Passing Efficiency: Tebow, McCoy, or Bradford—Who Is Really Performing Better?

Give Bob Stoops credit: He has the PR game down pat. Not a 60-point Oklahoma Sooner victory passed this season without Coach highlighting the "precision" of his quarterback, Sam Bradford.

We've unfortunately reached a point that has everyone parroting the latest buzz phrase as soon as it is launched, from ESPN on down the sports media food chain to you and me. Short, snappy word pictures that are easy to digest and remember.

"Big and tough Alabama versus flashy Florida" makes for a better storyline than "big and tough Alabama versus also big and tough and faster Florida."   

Coach Stoops knows that anyone who gets out in front on national TV can frame the discussion. The more he mentions Bradford's allegedly stellar accuracy, the more likely Heisman voters will think, "Boy, that Bradford sure is accurate."

I was curious.

Presumably, passing "precision" and passing "accuracy" are reflected in completion percentage. It turns out, according to NCAA Division I passing statistics, that the Oklahoma Sooners are not first, not second...not even third in Big 12 passing completion percentage.

Amazingly, the Sooners (68.1 percent) rank fifth in the Big 12 in passing completion percentage behind, respectively, Texas (77.6 percent), Missouri (72.4 percent), Texas Tech (71 percent), and Nebraska (69.5 percent).

Clearly, Colt McCoy is a more accurate passer than Sam Bradford.

But Nebraska? Are the Sooners—and by extension, Mr. Bradford—really ranked behind Nebraska in completion percentage?

Yup.

Incidentally, for those of you who argue that the Sooners on average toss the ball farther down the field, they do—an average of about two yards farther per attempt.

Of course, the Sooners do lead the conference and the nation in touchdown passes and touchdown passes as a percentage of passes attempted, and points do matter more than anything else.

But this raises a question.

If Oklahoma and the amazing Mr. Bradford rank fifth in Big 12 passing completion percentage, just how tough is it to throw in the Big 12? Are the quarterbacks that good, or are the defenses that bad?

This is not about whether the Big 12 quarterbacks are good. We're talking about Heisman numbers here, or the lack thereof. The question is: Are they great?

The D-I average completion percentage for this season was 58.4 percent. The Big 12 average was 65.4 percent. In a 12-team conference, only one team (Colorado) did not exceed the D-I average. Eight Big 12 teams exceeded 60 percent. These numbers are all just a bit odd when you look at every other conference in the country.

The consensus top NFL draft pick at quarterback, Matthew Stafford, plays for the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia's completion percentage was 61.3 percent. Seven Big 12 teams had higher completion percentages.

And the mighty Florida Gators? The Gators turned in a 64.6 percent completion percentage, which is pretty good by any standard.

What makes the Gators' (and by extension, Tim Tebow's) performance so remarkable is that the SEC's average completion percentage was only 55.4 percent—three points below the D-I average.

Now, I know what you're thinking. The SEC just had lousy offenses this year, right?

Well, maybe not.

SEC defenses on average intercepted the ball 3.8 percent of the time. That compares with 3.3 percent nationally and a meager 2.4 percent in the Big 12. Other things being equal, interception percentage should remain more or less constant, regardless of the number of pass attempts. 

In other words, Big 12 defenses underperformed the national average in interceptions, and the SEC overperformed.

While any number of critics have instinctively questioned the quality of Big 12 defenses, these hard numbers put to bed the idea that the Big 12 just happens, by some stroke of cosmic good fortune, to be blessed with several very good quarterbacks all playing in the same conference at the same time.

So as we find our way back to the subject of Heisman nominees, Tebow's completion percentage starts to look more impressive. Bradford's completion percentage is just 2.7 percent better than his conference average.

McCoy's is over 12 percent better. Tebow's is over nine percent better than the SEC average.

Tebow also has a lower interception percentage than McCoy or Bradford, playing against arguably tougher defenses.

As the late great U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to say, "You're entitled to your own opinions. But you're not entitled to your own facts."

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