Go right now to this list of the best single-season passer-rating seasons ever recorded in college football, and you will quickly notice some amazing details.
Ten of the top 20 passing efficiency seasons ever recorded are happening as we speak, by quarterbacks preparing for their next game on Saturday. And you have to get all the way to No. 29 all time — Shaun King’s 1998 season at Tulsa — to find a season that happened prior to 2004.
When it comes to passing efficiency, there simply is no comparison between what we’ve seen in the 21st century and anything that came before it. And the way Will Grier, Tua Tagovailoa and a good half-dozen other current quarterbacks are making it look, we’re on the cusp of another giant leap forward in passing efficiency.
For years now the conventional wisdom was that, while spread offenses had come to dominate high school and college football, the nature of these things was cyclical, and defenses would eventually catch up.
That might still be the case, but a month into the 2018 college football season, there are 10 quarterbacks putting up passing numbers better than the best college football players we’ve ever seen.
The leaders are West Virginia’s Grier and Alabama’s Tagovailoa.
- Grier: 74.7 percent completions, 11.8 yards per attempt, 215.8 quarterback rating.
- Tagovailoa: 72.5 percent completions, 12.91 yards per attempt, 230.5 quarterback rating.
These numbers are preposterous.
And both of these guys have played at least two of their games against major-conference competition. Grier has played Tennessee and Kansas State, while Tagovailoa has faced Louisville, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Both players were just as efficient against those teams as they were against lesser competition, so there’s no reason to think these numbers will drop off dramatically as the season goes on.
To put this in perspective, think about the greatest passing seasons you can remember — Ty Detmer in 1989, David Klingler in 1990, B.J. Symons in 2003, Colt Brennan in 2006, Graham Harrell in 2008, Cam Newton in 2010, Case Keenum in 2011, Johnny Manziel in 2013, Baker Mayfield in 2017.
The only one on that list that is even in the neighborhood of a 200 quarterback rating with a per-attempt average of more than 10 yards and better than 70 percent completions was Mayfield’s 2017 season, when he got 11.5 yards per attempt, completed 70.8 percent of his throws and had a rating of 198.9.
The next best season before that?
Baker Mayfield in 2016 (196.4 rating, 11.1 YPA, 70.9 completion percentage).
Various factors have played a role in this. Almost every recent rule change in college football has favored offenses, especially the passing game. Going over the middle isn’t as risky as it once was, contact by defensive backs has been reduced all around, and quarterbacks don’t have to fear the same level of contact they once did, either. Another big change over the last 15 or so years has been 7-on-7 football, a passing-only version of the game that is producing young quarterbacks and receivers with levels of skill not previously seen in non-prodigies. Throw in that the shotgun spread is the scheme of choice for today’s high school and college football coaches, and it can’t be considered too big of a surprise that we now have a college football landscape utterly littered with teams throwing it at never-before-seen levels of ease.
Take Memphis’ Brady White. His quarterback rating is 189.9, he’s averaging 9.9 yards per attempt, and completing 72.2 percent of his passes. If he stays on his current pace, he’ll finish the regular season 3,192 yards, 36 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
When Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007, he had 3,286 yards, 32 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, with a YPA of 9.4 and a passer rating of 172.5. Granted, Tebow also ran for 895 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2007. This is not an argument that Brady White is as good as Tim Tebow, but it is an illustration of how good quarterback play has gotten, even over the last 10 years. Memphis took a guy who rode the bench at Arizona State, and not only is he putting up numbers that would have made him a Heisman candidate 20 years ago, so are like 12 other guys.
As a matter of personal preference, I’d like to see defenses make some inroads on all this, but I’m not sure it’s possible anymore. For better or for worse, defensive players can’t play as aggressively and as physically as they once did, and that freedom is never coming back. Defensive players are, by nature of being on defense, already at a disadvantage, and the unending rules changes only make that disadvantage more severe with each passing year.
Offensive players have an elevated position over defensive players. Their attempts to do their job are given more protection while good defensive play is increasingly punished.
This noticeable unfairness is making the game seem goofier and phonier by the week. If this trend isn’t stopped, it’s going to eat football alive from the inside.
Now that even Nick Saban has embraced and perfected the offense that 10 years ago was leveling the playing field for less talented teams, there is no schematic advantage to be had in playing this style. This is just the way college football is played now, for better or for worse.