Sanity Check: Will having a first year quarterback prevent Michigan from competing for a national title?

Submitted by unWavering on June 15th, 2016 at 9:47 PM

Edit: this diary is not meant to be taken as a homer-rific prognostication of making or winning the playoffs, but only looks to dissuade the notion that Michigan cannot reach or win the playoffs solely because of the QB situation.

As many of you may have noticed, Michigan has been ranked inside the top 4 in quite a few national “way too early” Top 25 polls.  Of course, if Michigan were to finish in the top 4, that would mean that we would be competing in the 3rd edition of the NCAA football playoffs. 

Many jimmies across the land have been rustled (and many revenue-friendly clicks generated) because of this lofty ranking bestowed upon Michigan football in these meaningless pre-preseason polls.  This playoff prognostication has driven any or all of the following reactions in the Michigan community, in no particular order:


Meanwhile, other fanbases be like


One of the reasons that I see cited  most frequently that Michigan should not be ranked so highly is because we will be breaking a new quarterback (and we don't even know who that quarterback will be).  Admittedly, this does feel like a pretty valid reason to expect that Michigan will not reach the very top of the football post-season.  Because of this, I've decided to investigate a simple question:  ignoring other factors, has having a first year QB historically prevented teams from making the national title game?

I’ve compiled a list of the national champions and runner-ups from each of the past seasons from 2000-2015.  The list includes starting quarterback, whether or not the quarterback was a first year starter, and if so, what year the quarterback was at in that point in their career. Behold:

  Champion Runner up
Year Name QB 1st yr starter? Year Name QB 1st yr starter? Year
2000 Oklahoma J. Heupel N   FSU C. Weinke N  
2001 Miami K. Dorsey N   Nebraska E. Crouch N  
2002 Ohio State C. Krenzel Y RS JR Miami K. Dorsey N  
2003 LSU M. Mauck Y RS JR Oklahoma J. White Y JR
2004 USC M. Leinart Y JR Oklahoma J. White N  
2005 Texas V. Young N   USC M. Leinart N  
2006 Florida C. Leak N   Ohio State T. Smith N  
2007 LSU M. Flynn Y RS SR Ohio State T. Boeckman Y RS SR
2008 Florida T. Tebow N   Oklahoma S. Bradford N  
2009 Alabama G. McElroy Y JR Texas C. McCoy N  
2010 Auburn C. Newton Y JR Oregon D. Thomas Y RS FR
2011 Alabama A. McCarron Y SO LSU J. Jefferson N  
2012 Alabama A. McCarron N   Notre Dame E. Golson Y RS FR
2013 FSU J. Winston Y FR Auburn N. Marshall Y JR
2014 Ohio State C. Jones Y* SO Oregon M. Mariota N  
2015 Alabama J. Coker Y SR Clemson D. Watson Y SO


Huh.  Exactly half of the teams competing in the National Title game over the last 16 years were using first year starting QBs.  Interestingly, 10 first year QBs won the national title, while only 6 lost (and 5 of those were facing other first year starters!)

Also interestingly, many or most of the guys on the list were not perceived as "big-time" quarterbacks.  The data seems to indicate that even younger first year QBs can, in fact, play in, and win the national title, but will probably be an athletic QB in a high-powered spread offense, so that will not apply to us.

Michigan seems to have most other pieces in place going into the year - we have what looks like a dominating defense (LB questions notwithstanding), solid-to-great skill position players on offense (Chesson, Butt, Darboh, PEPPERS), and a pretty solid, if not overly deep or dominating offensive line. Our QB options do not look like absolute stars, but they don't need to be, if the above data is taken into account. 

In conclusion, yes, it is entirely possible for a team to not only make, but win the national title with a first year starting quarterback, and not necessarily a star quarterback.  There is a lot of historical precedent that bodes well for Michigan in 2016 in terms of the quarterback situation. 

This is an admittedly over-simplified analysis, only intended to disprove the notion I've seen across the web that our QB situation will prevent us from making the playoffs or winning it all this year.

That's all I got, but for those of you who read this far, here's an unrelated bonus gif (one of my absolute favorites of all time):





June 15th, 2016 at 10:59 PM ^

Entertaining.  Straightforward.  Data backed.  And a conclusion that pleases me.

Thumbs up!

Also, I think O'Korn has the scramble ability that can make us a playoff contender.


June 15th, 2016 at 11:39 PM ^

Nice post. I don't get why everyone is down on the qb position when Alabama is preseason #1 also without a qb. Harbaugh has never not had at least a decent qb except for his first year at one win Stanford. I'm more worried about the LBs or OL depth.


June 21st, 2016 at 12:43 AM ^

in order of impact:

1) Oversigning. Been well-documented around here but Saban's oversigning at LSU and Alabama essentially give him a look at a lot more guys per class on average than anyone else.…. This is the number one reason for his success, relative to other good coaches.  And it's why when he wasn't doing this, he was either just decent (MSU) or not so good (NFL). Saban quite simply isn't (or certainly wasn't then) a great football coach.

2) Dantonio is actually, by all evidence, a pretty good football coach.  Give him the same roster as Saban and I wouldn't be surprised if Dantonio actually wins.

3) Dantonio did benefit from down years at Michigan directly on the football field and in recruiting.

4) I would argue that the playing field has leveled significantly in college football such that the MSU's of the world have an easier time than they did in the 90s.  With an endless news cycle, tons of games televised, and NFL scouting becoming more sophisticated, among other reasons, it matters a lot less (to the player) which school a player plays for and it matters a lot more which coach a player plays for.  Big time programs aren't needed for exposure as much.

That's why Michigan, Texas, USC, Alabama and so many of the "tradition" rich schools have been bad with bad coaches in the past two decades.  Not much matters other than having a good coach at a Power 5 program these days.  The bigger programs can attract and pay better coaches, yes, but as long as you have a good coach, you can be a good team, whether it be Boise St., Baylor, TCU, wherever.  I don't think programs were as level when Saban was at MSU.

5) Success begets success for both. The oversigning is such a huge advantage for Saban that it creates success and that success makes players want to play there, and the loop goes round. The aforementioned good fotune for Dantonio likewise had an effect on the perception of his coaching ability.


June 15th, 2016 at 11:53 PM ^

Exactly half of the teams competing in the National Title game over the last 16 years were using first year starting QBs.

Nice work.  That's an amazing stat.  I would not have thought it was even 20%.

They seem to break down into two categories:

- Role-player QBs on teams with dominating running games and defenses -  Examples: 2002 OSU, 2003 LSU, 2007 LSU, Alabama - all years.

- Spread guru / star running QBs - 2010 Auburn, 2013 FSU, 2014 OSU, 2015 Clemson.

We won't be in the second category, but we can easily be in the first.

Also, if it is O'Korn he is not a pure "first year" QB given that he did start previously at Houston.  Even Speight saw some game action under fire.  Neither is a raw rookie QB.

If we can get the running game going and complement it with some safety-net TE and WR play to help the QB out, we can do this.  We have the D to handle the heavy lifting.



June 16th, 2016 at 8:58 AM ^

A few of the guys that I marked in the table as first year starters fit into the same category as O'Korn or Speight - they may have had previous starting experience at a JUCO /mid-major or filled in a couple games for injured starters in previous years.

For simplicity's sake, I wanted qualify first year starters as guys who did not start the majority of the previous year for their team. It did not come up, but I would not have included 5th year senior transfers as a first year starter.


June 17th, 2016 at 9:23 PM ^

wasn't aware they had one.

In all seriousness though, I agree with your two general categories plus another one: "Known entity, top 100 recruit and likely future NFL QB" for which FSUs 2013 QB would qualify along with McCarron, Lienert, etc.

We, of course, don't have that category of QB so you're right that it'll have to come from the first category of QB.  The defense could (should) be dominant, but the running game has a big leap to get to dominant. We were awful in 2013 and 2014 and decent in 2015 but with essentially the same line and RBs, not sure we can make the leap to dominant.

That's probably why the QB position is such a wildcard for this team.  The defense is highly likely to be dominant, the running game highly likely to be just decent.  So our hopes probably do depend on a QB being more than a just game manager. As the data suggests, it can happen but there's also a lot of variance around that position.


June 21st, 2016 at 12:26 PM ^

three quarters thing, mostly because the schedule is very top heavy.  We play 7-8 horrible teams that we should crush.  I would love the run game to be better than decent against MSU and OSU but hooo boy is there a long way to do.  

Last year we were AWFUL against both MSU and OSU.

MSU: 1.9 ypc for 62 yards with only one run of more than 8 yards and that was a FB dive!!. Yes, they lost a lot but the only way we're turning that around to better than decent is if we have a play-making QB.  A game manager isn't going to open things up.  That's not to say the defense can't win this game almost single-handedly, especially if we get special teams contributions like last year.

OSU: 57 yards on 25 carries for 2.3 ypc and that was at home with Jake playing a good first half.  I know they lose a lot on defense, but at their place, I don't think our defense can beat them singlehandedly like they could against MSU.  QB gonna have to step up big time in that one.

Ugh, I went ahead and looked up the PSU game last year and we again didn't rush for 100 yards. De'veon averaged 3.0 with our long coming on a Chesson jet sweep.

I wish I could have more faith that we truly made a leap before the bowl game, but bowl games seem so random and unrepresentative that the abysmal running game against decent to good defense lingers so strongly. Damn, I've been so positive about this season!  Why did I just go through that exercise?


June 16th, 2016 at 12:58 AM ^

Wet blanket time. What nags me the most is that we have a long history of meh to decent seasons with a first year QB but nothing close to a national title contender.

I'm excluding the Hoke and RichRod years to when the football program was actually stable....

2004: Chad Henne (9-3)

2001: John Navarre (8-4)

2000: Drew Henson (9-3)

1998: Tom Brady (10-3)

1995: Scott Dreisbach/Brian Griese (9-4)

1993: Todd Collins (8-4)

1990: Elvis Grbac (9-3)

1987: Demetrious Brown/ Michael Taylor (8-4)

1984: Jim Harbaugh (3-1) then he breaks his arm

1981: Steve Smith (9-3)

1979: John Wangler/BJ Dickey (8-4)

Granted, you could look at almost all of those years and pull your hair out over the 'what if' moments. Grbac lost 3 games by a combined 6 points, Henson lost 3 by a combined 7 points, Navarre got screwed by Spartan Bob, Henne lost the Rose Bowl by a point on the final play, etc.

But the fact remains that ever since Rick Leach graduated, we've never lost less than 3 games with a new quarterback. I wish I could block that statistic out of my brain but I can't.


June 17th, 2016 at 10:04 PM ^

It's still a fairly small sample, and it's not like we've had a ton of seasons with fewer than three wins in that time span.  The only ones in my memory were 97, 99, and 06 and in two of those years we were carried by incredible defenses, the calibur of which we might have this year (and in 99 we obviously has the GOAT).

But yikes, let's definitely make an exception to that stat this year.

Blue Durham

June 20th, 2016 at 10:19 AM ^

When your most recent data point is 12 years and 2 coaching staffs removed from the current situation, then you probably don't have a relevant data set.

Looking at what Harbaugh did at Stanford with 1st time starters might be a little more relevant, but probably not by much.

Looking at just the QB position misses so much. I think the season is going to come down to how well the offense "gels" (offensive line, really) and injuries, or the lack thereof. Two games on the schedule are likely going to determine the coming season.


June 16th, 2016 at 1:19 AM ^

Great post. To be honest, I'm not that worried about the QB position. Harbaugh has proven he can develop guys. Even if there are QB issues, the schedule sets up perfectly for a first year starter. The QB will have time to grow and gain confidence before the first true road test at MSU while the defense and run game carry the load. That's pretty much how the 2009, 2011, and 2015 Alabama teams did it.


June 16th, 2016 at 3:03 AM ^

is favorable to get our first year QB some good game experience without having to be the difference maker, before MSU, IA and OSU. Harbaugh is one of those coaches who can win a NC with a first string QB. I just hope our OL and running game gels quicker this season. I would like to see the team build on how they handled UF, which was a decent D against the run.

SoDak Blues

June 16th, 2016 at 12:18 PM ^

This is exactly what I am banking on. Rudock was a completely different quarterback in the second half of the season, and given the realtive ease of our early schedule, our QB should have plenty of time to adjust to the system and his receivers prior to hitting the meat of the schedule. I liked this diary, because I am now 100% positive we will win the NC. 


June 16th, 2016 at 3:37 AM ^

As others have said, nice work and I'm betting, if any, there are but a few who might have even thought about this topic. 

I am real good with the D. I think most are. If the OL play vs. Florida was not an anomaly and was the result of Drevno finally having the time needed to dedicate to the "fixable" issues during the regular season, we should be good there as well but we might need someone to go about 1200 yds at RB to be a viable candidate.

I say might only because of the uncertainty at qb. I know Jim will coach the hell out of whomever we have at QB but whoever that is will have to absolutely maximize the talent of the receivers. If that turns out to be the case, the need for a star RB would, of course, be lessened due to the passing game demanding so much attention.  

Wolverine Historian makes a valid point on a historical basis, but last year was the only year I can remember our starting qb learning bits of the playbook as the season progressed and none of the qbs listed had a mentor by the name of Jim Harbaugh. Could happen. 


June 16th, 2016 at 4:32 AM ^

You should have gone back another 3 years to 1997. It would have made the data better to look at. But otherwise, I think you make some good points. Our early season schedule will really help Harbaugh get a QB up to speed, although IMO we're likely to see more than one QB start.


June 16th, 2016 at 9:16 AM ^

and I admit it's only based on last season.  I got the feeling last season one of his Fall Practice goals is to decide on the leader of the offense and then devote as much time as possible to making him as good as can be. Of course last season Jake, even as a castoff from the Hawkeye program was his only viable choice.

I think we'll have. at minimum, two qbs see a lot of action in preseason, but I am not sure about the starts. Then again, I am sure if one proves measuably better than the other, he will not hesitate to do what's necessary. It's really not a disagreement and I realize that as I type. I think though this is the position he wants to nail early for the reasons stated above.

I think it will get far more exciting next season when he has two of his "very own" in house. 


June 16th, 2016 at 9:31 AM ^

I've been on the Michigan hype train for this year and I usually temper any expectations I have.

The schedule and rest of the roster just sets up so nicely for both the linebackers and the quarterback to get acclimated. They probably won't have to do too much for a while and now that I have seen Harbaugh and this coaching staff work I know that means they will get the players to improve.


turd ferguson

June 16th, 2016 at 9:49 AM ^

I'm comforted by the talk from last year that O'Korn would have started if he were eligible.  That talk came relatively early in the year, so it might have been a comparison to Early Season Rudock and not Citrus Bowl Rudock, but it's pretty clear that the QB options are at least decent.  And our QB depth is excellent this year, which is a nice change from the recent past.


June 16th, 2016 at 10:13 AM ^

Last summer and during the early part of last season O'Korn was probably lights out against everyone else during practice but as the season progressed Rudock improved under Harbaugh's coaching. Also Speight and Morris have improved to the point of actually competing with O'Korn. It should be great watching this QB competition develop through the summer.


June 16th, 2016 at 10:57 AM ^

If he'd named a starter already, I'd say we're looking good. He hasn't.

My assumption is that a new QB costs us 1-3 games.

This post brought to you by the society for people who have absolutely no basis to back up their assumptions.


June 16th, 2016 at 11:21 AM ^

Not worried about QB.  Harbaugh will take care of it.  Much more worried about linebackers and the run game.  Hopefully Brown and Drevno impress mightily this year.


June 17th, 2016 at 7:12 AM ^

I think LB is a bigger area of concern than the run game at this point. The OL was not spectacular last year, but did show massive improvement over 2014. They finished out the year nicely against Florida, who has a pretty good defensive line.

I don't think that there is any reason to think that they plateaued in 2015 - I expect that they will again show improvement in 2016. And it helps that they have one of the best defensive lines in the country to practice against.

Linebackers, on the other hand, is a position group full of unknowns, and not too many exciting options. We shall see how they turn out, but I'm hoping that the rest of the defense can make the linebackers lives that much easier

Michigan Arrogance

June 16th, 2016 at 11:32 AM ^

Good work on this, but the real question imo is, "can we get into the top 4 with one loss?"

I don't see us sweeping the away games, and I really doubt a 2 loss team will have a serious chance (unless the losses are early and to great teams which ours won't be both of those).

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June 16th, 2016 at 7:29 PM ^

Great analysis. I think there's a couple more things in Michigan's favor assuming O'Korn is the guy.

1. He's not a first year starter, he's played in a bunch of games as a freshman and sophomore, and while the record was not as good as a sophomore, he still has excellent experience at the college level.
2. He's relatively senior. He's been in college for 4 years, he knows the drill and off the field he's not learning to be a college student as well. That's probably only an issue for the freshmen on your list, but it won't be an issue for us.
3. Michigan has a phenomenal "first year starter" schedule, with 5 games at home to open, and the first three he is probably tasked with not messing it up. By the time he's going on the road to a difficult opponent he's been the starter for more than half a season and had the by week.
4. The Michigan coaching staff showed an amazing ability to modify their game plans throughout the year to make the game easier for Jake Rudock. This was a favorite subject for one of the color analysts in one of the broadcasts, but they had Jake only focus on one side of the field because that helped him. This coaching staff gets it and knows how to fix the early problems for their QBs. Harbaugh did this at SF too. He'll do it this year.
5. Our run game and defense will win 8-10 games. The QB just needs to not throw picks. The other games he'll need to make plays, but we have a great team this year and the best opponents are weakened. Winning most games this year is up to our guys out executing their opponents.

This should be a great year. If we're not leading for the big ten the entire year, something has gone horribly wrong.


June 17th, 2016 at 12:06 AM ^

I hope that this is all true, however I still recall getting spanked in Columbus.  While the stars are aligned, especially w/ the amount of turnover in Ohio, we've gotta show up there first.  Until then, even if 11-0, we haven't proved anything.


June 17th, 2016 at 2:28 AM ^

This isn't the NFL, if your defense and athletes around your QB are studs then you just need a quarterback that doesn't make mistakes and takes what the defense gives him.  I don't think we're at that level yet where we can win a NC with Fido at QB but we're close.  We don't have to worry about that though because Harbaugh works freakin' magic with quarterbacks.  UGHHH Andrew Luck?  Alex Smith? Colin Kaepernick?  Hell Jake Rudock couldn't hit the broad side of a freakin' barn until the Rutgers game last year now he's competing for a backup job in the NFL.  I liked what I saw from Speight in the Spring Game.  He had poise and a decent arm.  Good enough for me.  Pass protection was studly last year(outside a lategame Bosa sack party) and the run game had truck lanes against UF.  Guys we return 17 starters from a team that won 10 games last year, very well could have won 12.  It's the second year of the Harbaugh regimen so you know the upperclassmen understand completely what Harbaugh is trying to get them to buy into.  I'm just worried about stopping Wisconsin's manball offense with our young and smallish LB's and not shitting the bed in either Iowa City or Columbus.  God forbid East Lansing.


June 17th, 2016 at 10:30 PM ^

My man.... Did you watch the Denver Broncos season en route to a super bowl championship? Peyton couldn't throw the ball more than 15 yards. Any and all football games are primarily won on the defensive line.

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June 17th, 2016 at 3:51 PM ^

I think what this really proves is that the majority of championship teams are not winning due to one player(the star QB), but rather a deeply talented team.