Phil Steele released his preseason All-ACC teams earlier this week, and it might have been noteworthy to some that the player he listed as his second-team quarterback — North Carolina’s Marquise Williams — isn’t currently assured of even keeping his starting job. That, of course, speaks to the quality of Williams’ competition (Mitch Trubisky has a little talent, too), but mostly to the lack of any established experience at the position around the ACC.
Of the ACC’s 14 teams, only Florida State and Virginia return quarterbacks who appeared in every one of their games last season — and Virginia's David Watford isn’t currently listed as the team’s starter this year.
None of this is a new story, of course, and we’ve already touched on what impact the turnover at quarterback might have this season around the league. Looking at last year’s records, the teams that returned quarterbacks saw an aggregate increase of nine wins, while teams with turnover at the position broke even.
Those victory totals only tell us so much, though. Florida State only increased its victory total by two with a new quarterback, but those were two pretty important wins. UNC’s victory total dipped by one game, but its returning quarterback wasn’t the one on the field when the Tar Heels were playing their best.
So we dug a little deeper into the numbers to see what impact, if any, a change at quarterback might have on the offense.
Looking just at 2013, there were five ACC teams that had the same starting quarterback in at least 75 percent of its games as it did the preceding year. Seven had changes at the position. The results were about what you might expect.
Overall, teams replacing a quarterback had a 1 percent dip in total offense and a 4 percent dip in yards per attempt, while the teams with returning experience improved in both areas.
It’s probably worth noting, too, that both Florida State and Maryland represent outliers in this discussion. Florida State had a new QB, but Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy. He’s a unique talent. Maryland, meanwhile, was using a linebacker at quarterback by the end of 2012, so change was inherently a good thing for the Terps. If we take those two teams out of the equation, the numbers change a bit: Teams undergoing change at QB had a 6 percent dip in total offense and a 9 percent decline in yards per attempt.
So, that settles it, right? Change at quarterback means a decline in offensive production, which is bad news for the ACC in 2014.
In 2012, the vast majority of the ACC (9 of 12 teams) returned their starting QBs from 2011, and while those teams did have a slight increase in offensive production (1.75 percent, compared to a 4 percent decline for the three teams with turnover), the actual passing performances told a different story. The nine teams returning QBs actually had a 3 percent dip in yards per attempt, while the teams with turnover (Maryland, Miami,Virginia) had a 6 percent increase.
Look at the numbers in 2011 for teams returning QBs, and the outcome is even more counter-intuitive. Five teams returned quarterbacks and had a 2.25 percent increase in yards per attempt and essentially broke even in total offense. The teams with turnover at QB, however, increased total offense by more than 3 percent and had a whopping 9.5 percent increase in yards per attempt from 2010.
In other words, in 2011 and 2012, change at quarterback didn’t make much of a difference. In fact, during the last three years collectively, teams that made a change at QB saw no discernible change in total offense and enjoyed a 2 percent increase in yards per attempt (better than the 0.67 percent increase for teams returning QBs).
So why did last year’s numbers paint such a scary picture?
The answer is probably that the returning quarterbacks in the league actually played a far smaller role in their respective offenses. Overall, the five teams returning QBs from 2012 had a whopping 15 percent decline in passing attempts per game, with Boston College being a prime example. Chase Rettig returned as QB, but BC’s attempts per game dipped from 39 in 2012 to 20 in 2013, while its yards per attempt jumped from 6.5 in 2012 to 7.5 last season.
In other words, the veteran quarterbacks probably had a little more help surrounding them (such as Andre Williams), while the young QBs were left to figure a lot out on their own (such as Pete Thomas).
As we look to 2014, there will no doubt be major question marks at QB for a lot of teams, but for many, there’s nowhere to go but up. And based on the numbers, there’s no reason a first-time starter can’t engineer those recoveries.