Freshman quarterbacks at BCS programs

Andrew Luck will be joining a rarified club come Saturday: freshman quarterbacks starting the season opener for major college programs. With just two days until the season kicks off in Pullman, Wash., let's take a look at how freshman quarterbacks have done leading major BCS programs in recent college football history.

Not to channel my inner "Emeritus," but I remember well one of the last times a freshman started at quarterback for a big-time football school. Just before shipping out to Stanford, my best friend Jim and I are trying to sneak into the Michigan student section when word trickles down crotchety Lloyd Carr made a game-day decision (his hand was largely forced by injuries, we would later learn) and is going to give the reins to some true freshman named Chad Henne. Henne had a receiver named Braylon Edwards and the pairing worked pretty well – Henne completed more than 60 percent of his passes as Michigan finished 9-2 and with a share of the Big Ten title, only to get beat in the Rose Bowl on a last-second Texas field goal. Unlike Luck, Henne was a true freshman, which made his success all the more incredible. He would become the No. 33 overall draft pick of Miami (and Edwards a first-round pick to Cleveland), and though Henne never quite recaptured the magic of his freshman season, his 2004 year is the model for Andrew Luck and the Stanford faithful to aspire to.

That's because, outside of Henne, there isn't that much good news, there isn't that much bad news, really, there isn't that much news at all, as freshman quarterbacks simply don't start that much. Now USC will surely make good news that this season with true frosh Matt Barkley under center, because even a "down" year for the Trojans is 9-3 with a likely Rose Bowl berth, and it's quite possible I'm forgetting someone. (Try yourself: Googling for freshman quarterbacks' season statistics is way harder than you would think.) Really though, we can count recent high-profile freshman starting quarterbacks on one hand.

True, if we get liberal with the rules, we can find no shortage of successful freshman quarterbacks. When he wasn't busy saving the world, Tim Tebow won a national title as a freshman, though he spent most of the season holding Chris Leak's clipboard and was used primarily as a change-of-pace guy. Terrelle Pryor led Ohio State most of last season to its usual level of success (a share of the Big Ten title and subsequent loss in the BCS), but he didn't take over for Todd Boeckman until Week 4. Similarly, Matthew Stafford, future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and Jimmy Clausen played extensively their freshman seasons, but neither started the season the clear-cut starter.

Our two strongest role models for Luck then come out of the Big 12. You might have heard of them: their names are Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy. In 2007, Bradford threw for over 3,100 on 70 percent accuracy, with 36 touchdowns to eight interceptions, to lead the FBS (Division I-A) in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman. In 2008, Bradford won the Heisman. McCoy set school records with six touchdown passes in a game and 29 on the season (to just seven picks) as a redshirt freshman in 2006. McCoy completed 68 percent of his passes as the Longhorns went 10-3. They have gone 22-4 since, and McCoy's a frontrunner, alongside Bradford and Tebow, in this year's Heisman (and national title) chase.

On the other hand, however, is a school more similar to Stanford – Georgia Tech. Alongside Wake Forest and Duke, Tech is one of the smaller and more academically-inclined schools in its conference, and unlike Oklahoma or Texas and Florida, the Yellowjackets aren't a perennial top-five team. If Bradford or McCoy or Tebow hadn't signed with their respective schools, it's quite likely the programs would still lay claim to the vast majority of their victories over the past few seasons, whereas at Tech, in the absence of an overwhelming talent advantage, a stud or dud quarterback truly does impact the win-loss record. Say what you will about Stanford's talent, but I don't think many would argue it puts the Cardinal at an overwhelming advantage compared to the rest of the Pac-10, and so perhaps the best comparison for Luck is Reggie Ball.

To be fair, Ball never panned out as a quarterback (to put it kindly, his name in these parts is pretty much synonymous with "fail"), with his 53 percent completion rate his freshman year actually besting the sub-50 percent performances Tech managed in four of the next five seasons. So take the decidedly mediocre stats with a grain of salt, but Tech averaged 170 passing yards that season on just 53 percent accuracy, with 13 touchdowns to 13 picks. The 5.8 yards per pass was also a poor showing in one of the statistics most predictive of team success in college football.

It wasn't all bad though. True, Tech started slow, with losses to Clemson, Florida State and BYU contributing to a 1-3 start, but then the Yellowjackets came on strong just in time for ACC season. They won four straight games, three by a score or less, and a 41-24 win over North Carolina gave them their magical sixth win. Tech dropped the last two to strong opponents, including a top-15 in-state rival (sound familiar, anyone?), but 6-6 was good enough to make the Humanitarian Bowl, in which Tech routed Tulsa 52-10.

7-6 with a bowl victory, on the back of several close wins and a freshman quarterback thrown into the fire. Sounds like a reasonable scenario for the upcoming season, and after an eight-year bowl drought, one Stanford fans should be mighty happy with, should it come to fruition.


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