GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators won the SEC East in 2015 with average-to-below-average quarterback play.
This was due to a confluence of events: Tennessee’s issues in close games, Georgia starting Faton Bauta at QB against the Gators instead of normal starter Greyson Lambert and all other teams in the East finishing below .500. It was also due to an extraordinary defense.
With the return of linebacker Alex Anzalone from injury and the continued dominance of cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor, the 2016 defense looks to be championship level. The question for Gators fans is whether the offense – and specifically QB Luke Del Rio – can be championship level as well.
Effective quarterback play leads to winning games. Quarterback rating — which incorporates weighted averages of yards, TDs, INTs and completions — is an attempt to quantify how efficient a QB is on a per-attempt basis.
I examined the last 10 years and averaged both the QB ratings and winning percentages of QBs ranked 1-10, 11-20, and 21-30 in QB rating each year in an attempt to understand what a championship-level QB looks like statistically.
The data shows a correlation (R2 = 0.6028) between QB rating and winning percentage. QBs in the top 10 win — on average — 78 percent of their games. QBs ranked between 11 and 20 only win 69 percent of their games. For a 12-game schedule, this equates to a difference of more than one game (9.4 vs. 8.3 wins).
Interestingly, the drop-off from QBs 11 to 20 to QBs 21 to 30 is less pronounced, as the latter group wins 65 percent of their games. This correlates to 7.9 wins for a 12-game schedule.
The key finding here is that a large proportion of national championship-quality teams are likely to have a player ranked in the top 10 in QB rating. Typically, a 10-2 record and a win in a conference championship game is the minimum requirement to get into the four-team College Football Playoff.
This analysis does seem to be instructive, as the chart below shows that five of the previous 10 national champions have had a QB in the top four in QB rating.
There were five years when lower-rated quarterbacks won the championship. However, in these years the championship teams also sported top-flight defenses, as indicated by the defensive efficiency rankings.
Alabama has used this formula of a mid-tier QB and a dominating defense for three of their four national championships this decade. The offensive coordinator for two of those? Jim McElwain.
Last season, the Gators were 6-0 following this very formula before Will Grier was suspended. Grier’s QB rating at the time: 145.6. The Gators had a top-tier defense that allowed Grier to make a few key plays and win close games, where McElwain seems to excel.
While it’s way too early to know whether Del Rio is going to join the ranks of Danny Wuerffel or Tim Tebow in terms of QB rating (170.6 and 172.5, respectively, in their championship seasons), he doesn’t need to. The Gators defense this year looks like it may be even better than last season, giving him more margin for error.
Del Rio’s QB rating thus far is 142.6, on par with Grier last year and in line with Chris Leak, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron and Jacob Coker in their championship seasons. Whether he can maintain, or improve, that level of play is something that Gators fans should watch during the next few weeks.
The statistics say that the most likely path to a national championship is to have an elite QB. Del Rio has not proven to be that yet, and won’t really have a chance until the Tennessee game. But if you look at his QB rating after Sept. 24 and it’s near 145, you’ll know this team has a chance to win the SEC and make a playoff appearance.
And if you look at his rating after that game and it’s creeping up around 165, you’ll know this season has a chance to be really special.