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The BCS Era As Seen Through Its Quarterbacks

As everyone knows, college football is stepping through a threshold this season, leaving the Bowl Championship Series behind and entering the world of the College Football Playoff. With the sport embarking upon a new journey, it is caught between two worlds. The new system, such as it is (it’s really just 13 people deciding based on their own views, without any precise criteria), could very well fail to address (and eliminate) the headaches that persisted under the BCS. However, there is one clear difference between the BCS and (in acronym-based form) the CFBP: The CFBP requires teams to win their way into the championship game.

There are dozens if not hundreds of questions one can ask about how the CFBP will maintain or change the dynamics of a college football season, relative to the just-concluded BCS era. One of these questions is the following: Will teams be more or less able to win College Football Playoff championships with the likes of Craig Krenzel, Chris Leak, and Tee Martin at quarterback?

Today at The Student Section, we take a look at the quarterbacks who won BCS championships (as opposed to Associated Press national championships, such as 2003 USC). How do the identities of these quarterbacks point the way forward — if at all — for the 2014 season and beyond?

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GROUND RULES: DEFINING THE DISCUSSION

Part of the charm of college football is that teams don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. The same applies to quarterbacks.

In the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Miami took the field with Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde under center. Penn State won the game despite the unremarkable presence (and performance) of no-name quarterback John Shaffer.

In the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Miami again played for a national title with a Heisman quarterback, Gino Torretta. Alabama won the game and the crown, though, with Jay Barker, a young man capable of brilliance at any moment but someone who was largely great only when he had to be. Several kinds of quarterbacks exist in college football. Some are asked to run triple-option offenses while others preside over pro-style offenses. Still others, such as 1989 Heisman winner Andre Ware of Houston, commanded run-and-shoot offenses that shattered normal conventions and common perceptions of what quarterbacks could achieve.

Reasonable people can and will find many different labels to describe college football’s different quarterbacks, the players you can spot from a distance but might need time to put in perspective. Your labels (and mileage) may vary, but for this article, let’s use two basic groups to cover the scope of the topic: Some BCS champion quarterbacks were moment-owners (in the Jay Barker mold), while others were producers, the players who — like Testaverde and Ware — either won the Heisman or came close to doing so, on the basis of constant and substantial statistical output.

It does not seem fair to lump the moment-owners and the producers together, so we’ll rate the members of each group instead of ranking them 1-15.

NOTE: The hyperlinks you see below pertain to the career stats of each quarterback or the stats of national championship teams during the BCS era. The links all come from Sports-Reference.com’s college football site.

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GROUP I: THE MOMENT-OWNERS

When using the term “moment-owner,” it is important to stress a few ideas:

First, the standards used to evaluate quarterbacks on a purely statistical basis are evolving relative to when the Bowl Championship Series era began in 1998. Offensive innovations, style of play, and pace of play all have roles in shaping whether a quarterback is more of a moment-owner — a player who built his reputation and his team’s success by being great in certain moments — or a producer, the kind of player who lifted his team by being great as a matter of course.

It is obvious that great teammates help quarterbacks to become champions. In considering whether to place a quarterback in one camp or the other, a decisive — but not exclusive — factor is the centrality of a team’s defense in winning games. Jay Barker — to once again reference Alabama’s 1992 national championship-winning quarterback from pre-BCS-era times — became a much better and more productive quarterback in the two seasons after he captured the brass ring. Yet, the role of Alabama’s defense in winning games for the Crimson Tide during his career would still stamp Barker as a moment-owner rather than a producer.

It’s not that Barker didn’t or couldn’t produce; he did when he needed to. Every BCS champion quarterback produced to a noticeable degree over the course of his championship season. However, the act of placing one player in one group and not the other is a matter of asking (and then determining), “Which group more centrally defines this quarterback, especially in his national championship season?”

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Here are the seven moment-owners on the list of BCS champion signal callers:

Craig Krenzel wasn't the best, most talented, most physically imposing, most statistically overwhelming quarterback you've ever seen... but in college football, players like him can and do win national championships. It's why this sport is special, and it's why players such as Krenzel occupy a large, warm and eternal place in many human hearts, decades after their playing days are done.

Craig Krenzel wasn’t the best, most talented, most physically imposing, most statistically overwhelming quarterback you’ve ever seen… but in college football, players like him can and do win national championships. It’s why this sport is special, and it’s why players such as Krenzel occupy a large, warm and eternal place in many human hearts, decades after their playing days are done.

7) Craig Krenzel, Ohio State. Krenzel remains a thoroughly fascinating and compelling figure in college football history, more than a decade after his career as a Buckeye ended. His stat line in 2002 doesn’t pack much of a wallop — he really was the Jay Barker of the subsequent decade (and century). That’s meant as a rich compliment, but it is also a reflection of how little the numbers mattered relative to some of the game results in Ohio State’s 2002 season, which featured some low-scoring grinders (Purdue and Michigan). Krenzel is special, though: He, not the other “moment-owners” on this list, walked over the hot coals of an endgame situation and then overtime in a BCS title game, and he did so against one of the great period-teams of all time, “early 21st-century Miami.”

6) Greg McElroy, Alabama. In 2009, the  Tide allowed more than 21 points only once. McElroy personally struggled in a four-game midseason stretch when Alabama never scored more than 24 points in a game. However, McElroy played well early and late in the season. Even in the Tide’s biggest wins, though, McElroy didn’t provide big numbers. He threw for 239 yards in a 32-13 win over Florida in the SEC title game. He threw for only 218 yards in a 26-21 win at Auburn, but he definitely owned a major moment in that game, throwing the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown pass in the final 90 seconds of regulation.

Running back Mark Ingram was the offensive centerpiece for the Crimson Tide in 2009. McElroy benefited from Ingram’s presence and an offensive line that was able to establish a strong rushing attack.

5) A.J. McCarron, 2011 Alabama. Two different A.J. McCarrons led Alabama to national titles. The one in 2011 was a moment-owning quarterback. In 2011, McCarron rode Trent Richardson in a manner similar to what Greg McElroy experienced with Ingram two years earlier. McCarron threw for only 16 touchdown passes that season and did not have to do much of anything to win games by comfortable margins. An example came in a 38-10 win at Florida. McCarron’s stat line that night: 12-of-25 for 140 yards, no touchdowns, and no picks. Alabama was sluggish in the first halves of wins against Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The point totals on this schedule look glossy, but the Tide’s offensive performances were often incomplete.

4) Tee Martin, Tennessee. In 1998, the Volunteers did pull out a 34-33 win in the season opener at Syracuse, but that game against the Orange was and is conspicuous as a high-scoring contest. The Vols used their defense and timely breaks to forge most of their close-shave wins: at Auburn (17-9); against Florida (20-17); against Arkansas in the “Clint Stoerner Fumble Game” (28-24); versus Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game (24-14); and against a Florida State team with its backup quarterback, Marcus Outzen, in the first BCS title game, the 1999 Fiesta Bowl (23-16). Martin didn’t make pivotal mistakes, but he didn’t overhwhelm opponents with his skill set, either. His touchdown pass to Peerless Price in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Mississippi State represented Martin’s foremost contribution to the Volunteers on the road to the national title.

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In terms of a four-year journey from trials and tribulations to triumph and the sweet taste of redemption, few college football careers can match Chris Leak's remarkable story at the University of Florida.

In terms of a four-year journey from trials and tribulations to triumph and the sweet taste of redemption, few college football careers can match Chris Leak’s remarkable story at the University of Florida.

3) Chris Leak, Florida. You’ll note when looking at his stat line that Leak was more productive as a raw extension of numbers in 2004. His career in full comes across as that of a producer, and if you wanted to make that argument, you could marshal various facts to make a convincing case. However, the verdict here is that Leak was more of a moment-owner. “Cool Hand Leak” used that steady hand to steer Florida past the likes of Tennessee and Georgia away from Gainesville, but it’s not as though the Gators’ offense was particularly prolific in 2006, when Urban Meyer won the first of his two national titles at Florida. Leak won that season because he received the help that had been missing under Ron Zook. His defense allowed more than 20 points only twice all season. The numbers tell you that Florida’s offense consistently scored in the 20s; only rarely did the Gators hit the 30-point mark or anywhere beyond it.

You might recall that Florida beat Arkansas, 38-28, in that season’s SEC Championship Game, punching a ticket to the BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State. Florida scored 38 — must have been Leak’s doing, right?

Not quite. Leak threw for a modest 189 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Florida scored two special-teams touchdowns in that game, and Percy Harvin scored on a 67-yard run. This was a season in which Leak was asked to throw a little less often and for shorter distances. The approach, rooted in safety, still didn’t eliminate interceptions, but in most of the Gators’ biggest games, it paid off. Leak generally enabled his defense to win, as Meyer properly calibrated how much he did (and didn’t) need to risk on offense.

2) Matt Flynn, LSU. If you recall the crazy 2007 college football campaign, when just about everyone but Kansas and Ohio State lost at least twice in the regular season, LSU lost two wild and high-scoring overtime games. Quarterback Matt Flynn must have been some kind of producer…

Well… the numbers don’t hold up. In a season with a 56.3-percent completion rate and 2,407 passing yards, Flynn flew under the radar in those overtime encounters. He was 17-of-35 for 130 yards with one touchdown and a pick in a 43-37 overtime loss to Kentucky. He was 22-of-47 for 209 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 50-48 overtime loss to Arkansas. Jacob Hester, against Florida and in other situations, was often the heartbeat of that year’s LSU offense. Flynn made timely interventions, overcoming three interceptions to beat a not-yet-great Alabama team by a 41-34 score, but he was not the unquestioned cornerstone of the group.

1) Matt Mauck, LSU. In 2003, the Tigers’ defense allowed more than 19 points only once (24 to Arkansas, in a game when LSU scored 55). In that 55-24 win over Arkansas, Mauck completed 12-of-19 passes for 186 yards and four touchdowns. LSU’s bigger point totals came mostly against the weaker teams on its schedule. Mauck did throw for 28 touchdowns, but many of them were bundled in the Bayou Bengals’ less imposing games. Yet, those 28 touchdowns certainly mark Mauck as the most productive of the moment-owning quarterbacks. He narrowly fell on the moment-owner side of this divide, while — as you’ll soon see — Ken Dorsey of Miami rates as the lowest-ranked producer. Mauck and Dorsey are the two quarterbacks who are close in terms of overall standing, yet placed on opposite sides of the barrier between these two categories.

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GROUP II: THE PRODUCERS

If "The devil be messin'," it sure didn't mess with Cam Newton's skill set in 2010. Newton unleashed pure hell on  Auburn's opponents in a season for the ages.

If “The devil be messin’,” it sure didn’t mess with Cam Newton’s skill set in 2010. Newton unleashed pure hell on Auburn’s opponents in a college football season for the ages.

Here are the nine so-called “producer quarterbacks” on the list of BCS champions under center, keeping in mind that these are evaluations of the various quarterbacks in their championship seasons, not their full careers:

9) Ken Dorsey, Miami. Dorsey threw for nearly 3,400 yards in his senior season (2002), but it was in 2001 when Miami went all the way and lifted the crystal ball at the end of the journey. Dorsey was not spectacular in the way the other producers on this list managed to become in their respective national title seasons. Still, by throwing for 23 touchdowns against only nine interceptions while eclipsing 2,600 yards, Dorsey — distributing the ball to the immensely talented skill people surrounding him — established a track record of consistent production.

8) Chris Weinke, Florida State. Weinke definitely needed time to grow into his role as the leader of Florida State’s offense. You can see the steady upward progression each season in Tallahassee. Yet, in the Seminoles’ 1999 national title season, Weinke threw for over 3,100 yards and connected on 25 touchdown passes. FSU also scored at least 30 points in every game but one in 1999, and in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, the Noles rang up 46 on Virginia Tech in a pyrotechnic display faciliated by Weinke (but completed by Florida State receiver Peter Warrick). Weinke was an unquestioned producer in his 2000 Heisman Trophy season, but in 1999, calling him a “moment-owner” in the Craig Krenzel mold would have sold him short. He was a producer the year before he produced at his highest level in college football.

7) A.J. McCarron, 2012 Alabama. In the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined, McCarron attained a (roughly) 67-percent completion rate and a 46-8 TD-INT ratio. However, nearly two-thirds of that “46” flowed from one season. It was in 2012 when McCarron stepped forward as a passer, throwing for 30 touchdowns against only three interceptions while totaling more than 2,900 passing yards. That’s a producer, not the younger man who was much more tentative when feeling his way through the 2011 season and that 9-6 loss to LSU in Tuscaloosa.

6) Josh Heupel, Oklahoma. If you look at Oklahoma’s 2000 title season, it is not identical to the Sooners’ 2004 runner-up season, but it sure is similar. Heupel’s body of work doesn’t look bad at all when compared to what another great OU quarterback, Jason White, managed to achieve in 2004. Notice the similarities of some results: 28-13 over Texas Tech for White, 27-13 for Heupel. Oklahoma won by 10 over Kansas State in each regular season. The Sooners won by one score at Oklahoma State, though White scored 38 and Heupel only 12. Heupel, though, beat a really good Nebraska team, while White faced a greatly diminished version of the Huskers, who had descended from the mountaintop they had occupied for quite some time.

For the next five quarterbacks, click on the link to see the stat line. An explanation of the rankings will follow Cam Newton’s entry:

5) Tim Tebow, Florida (2008). 

4) Matt Leinart, USC (2004).

3) Jameis Winston, Florida State (2013). 

2) Vince Young, Texas (2005).

1) Cam Newton, Auburn (2010).

For most of the 16 entries on this list, at least a little bit of pure thought had to be devoted to the process of slotting quarterbacks into one category or the other. For these last five producers, however, no thought was involved at all. These were and are the no-brainers on the producer list, with Craig Krenzel being the automatic moment-owner selection. Almost everyone else had to have his championship season weighed and compared a little bit before the final selection was made.

Now, why rate Newton first, Tebow fifth, and everyone else in between? An explanation:

Tebow lost at home in his title season. He did account for 42 touchdowns (30 passing, 12 rushing), but he lost at home, and not to a great opponent, either. That makes him fifth.

Matt Leinart and Jameis Winston both took the keys to loaded offenses and got the ball to the right man in the right place at the right time. Leinart had Reggie Bush, though, so what Winston did stands on its own a little more than what Leinart managed to achieve.

As great as Winston’s 2013 season was, Young and Newton stand above the rest as the two players who could turn a football game into a video game, singlehandedly making defenses look silly without having to give the ball to anyone else on their respective teams. What Young did to USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, and what Newton did to Arkansas in a not-your-father’s SEC game with a 65-43 score from the 2010 season, magnified just how much those two quarterbacks dominated their sport. Young’s season is in many ways more memorable because it was punctuated in and by a historic performance in a championship game against a tremendous opponent in the sport’s most revered setting. However, from start to finish, Newton — for all that Vince Young produced — managed to eclipse the Texas legend. The 51 touchdowns are staggering; the 21 rushing touchdowns might be the even more remarkable feat forged by Newton. His season is the best of all the producer quarterbacks who lifted BCS crystal in the now-concluded 16-year piece of college football history.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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