How Good Does a BCS Championship Quarterback Have to Be?

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterMay 2, 2013

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarronKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Every February college football fans stay riveted to their televisions, mobile phone apps or computers while tracking their favorite team's progress on signing day.

And when a 5-star quarterback is within reach, their obsession reaches new heights.  

After all, a quarterback can make or break a team. Championships are dependent on him.

Or are they?

Southeastern Conference teams have won seven consecutive BCS Championships, yet the SEC isn't the No. 1 destination for 5-star quarterbacks. So that begs the question: How important is a quarterback in winning a BCS Championship? 

The answer may surprise you. 

Alabama won the 2012 BCS title behind AJ McCarron, who was the 82nd-best quarterback prospect in the class of 2009.

That ranking appears fairly high until you consider the other quarterbacks ahead of him: Matt Barkley (No. 1, USC), Russell Shepard (No. 3, LSU), Garrett Gilbert (No. 15, Texas and SMU), Aaron Murray (No.19, Georgia), Tajh Boyd (No. 32, Clemson), Logan Thomas (No. 53, Virginia Tech), Bryn Renner (No. 75, North Carolina), and Richard Brehaut (No. 80, UCLA). 

Shepard converted to wide receiver at LSU, and Brehaut lost the starting job to Brett Hundley at UCLA. 

Of the seven remaining quarterbacks, the two with the fewest number of passing attempts—McCarron at 314 and Murray at 386—played on two of the most successful teams in 2012. Alabama finished first in the SEC West, while Georgia finished first in the SEC East.

Alabama's passing offense was a pedestrian No. 76 in yards gained while Georgia's was No. 30; prolific passing was not a priority for either team. What was a priority for Alabama was time of possession, defense and turnover margin.

Among all SEC teams last year, Alabama finished a close second to Florida in time of possession, first in total defense and fourth in turnover margin. Does that lessen the importance of having a big-armed quarterback? 

Frankly, instead, it just may lessen the pressure of having to rely on the passing game. 

Alabama doesn't sign quarterbacks with gaudy numbers simply because its system doesn't demand prolific passing. What Alabama is looking for is someone who can make good decisions and minimal mistakes. But not every SEC team follows that thought process.

Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton (Auburn) led the SEC in total offense and touchdowns, but he was only ranked sixth in the SEC in yards gained passing.

Newton, who led the SEC in rushing, was a gifted athlete, and SEC defenses weren't used to seeing that kind of dual-threat quarterback dominate a game. 

Heisman winner Johnny Manziel led the SEC in total offense and scoring as well last season, but Texas A&M did not play for the BCS Championship—it finished third in the West behind Alabama and LSU. Prolific passing didn't help the Aggies; neither did a ninth-ranked time of possession and 11th-ranked turnover margin in the league.

Could it be that instead of a 5-star quarterback, time of possession, turnover margin and a decent defense are the keys to winning a BCS Championship?

Let's look for the answer in the past few BCS Championship games.

2009: Alabama (Greg McElroy) vs. Texas (Colt McCoy and Garrett Gilbert)

McElroy was ninth in the SEC in passing productivity and cCoy was fifth in the Big 12. Texas was fifth in time of possession and first in turnover margin. Alabama was first in the SEC in time of possession, first in turnover margin and first in total defense.

True, McCoy was hurt early in the game and was replaced by Gilbert, but the Tide defense was a big reason for Alabama's 37-21 victory.

McElroy attempted 11 passes while McCoy and Gilbert combined for 44 attempts. Alabama also had the ball seven-plus minutes longer than Texas. That may not seem like a lot, but it is equivalent to an extra half quarter. Alabama also came away with a +3 turnover margin after turning the ball over two times but making four interceptions and recovering a fumble.

2008: Florida (Tim Tebow) vs. Oklahoma (Sam Bradford) 

Entering this game, Tim Tebow was fourth in the SEC in passing productivity. Sam Bradford was second in the Big 12.

Florida's total defense was third among all SEC teams. The Gators were first in turnover margin and eighth in time of possession. Except for their time of possession standings, the Gators looked like a team that dominated its opponents.  

Oklahoma's total defense was ranked third in the Big 12. Its turnover margin was first and its time of possession seventh. The Sooners' stats looked almost identical to the Gators', so this game should have been close, if you believe in the stats. 

And it was. Florida won 24-14. Bradford attempted 41 passes while Tebow attempted only 30. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over twice (a combined four interceptions), but the Gators did hold the ball nearly 10 minutes longer than the Sooners due to Florida's 231 yards on the ground. 

2007: LSU (Matt Flynn) vs Ohio State (Todd Boeckman) 

LSU's Matt Flynn was fifth in passing productivity in the SEC, but his accuracy (56.3 percent) wasn't that spectacular. Ohio State's Todd Boeckman wasn't a prolific passer—he was ranked 10th in the Big Ten—but he was more accurate, completing 63.8 percent of his passes.

Ohio State was first in total defense, ninth in turnover margin and third in time of possession in the Big Ten. 

LSU was first in total defense, first in turnover margin and first in time of possession in the SEC. 

The Tigers beat the Buckeyes 38-24. Flynn attempted 26 passes while Boeckman attempted 27. The Buckeyes turned the ball over three times compared to the Tigers' one turnover. Moreover, LSU had almost an eight-minute advantage in time of possession.

So what does all this mean?

While it's always an advantage having an accurate passer under center or lined up in shotgun formation, having a prolific passer isn't an advantage in BCS Championship games. Having a quarterback who can command the field and keep the other team's offense off the field through time-consuming drives will put a team in contention for a BCS Championship.

Moreover, turnover margin is a key statistic in high-profile games.

The more a team passes, the more likely an interception.

Another important factor in winning a BCS Championship is total defense. SEC teams have this game plan down to an art form. 

Quarterbacks will always be an integral part of a unit. But a BCS champion neither needs nor wants a quarterback who's going to cock his arm 50-plus times a game. It's certainly exciting, but the room for error is too great. 

Accurate passing, good field-general qualities, efficient use of the clock and good decision-making skills are key to a quarterback having a special season.

But without a great defense and an advantage in time of possession and turnover margin, that 5-star quarterback won't be holding up that crystal football. 

BCS history has shown that gaudy statistics don't define a quarterback's greatness.

It's what's between his ears that separates the men from the boys. 


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