While the Big 12 has gained a reputation as the conference where it's almost impossible for quarterbacks not to thrive, the league's hit rate on producing star signal callers in the NFL leaves a lot to be desired. Undeterred, NFL general managers and draftniks have pegged Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill as three of the top QB prospects in this year's draft, with RG3 and Tannehill likely to be selected within the first 10 picks.
The questionable history of the league's quarterbacks on the pro level is pretty much indisputable. Why, on the other hand, presents a far more nebulous problem.
Last week, Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead raised the issue of the dearth of Big 12 QBs in the pro ranks, suggesting that teams think long and hard about using a high pick on one in this year's draft. McIntyre doesn't really offer an explicit argument as to the "why" part of the story, but his note at the article's conclusion indicates that he views Big 12 QBs as products of a league in which wide-open offenses run roughshod over tissue paper defenses.
Looking at this year's crop of Big 12 QBs, McIntyre points out that no team from the conference finished in the top 30 in the country in scoring defense in 2011. Ergo, Big 12 Ds blow. Plenty of salient examples stick out from a year ago, too – Baylor allowing 56 to Washington in the Alamo Bowl, Georgia Tech putting up almost 70 on Kansas, etc.
It's not exactly a new theory, and it's still deeply flawed.
As Paul Myerberg at Pre-Snap Read notes, McIntyre's conclusion rests on the idea that raw statistics, such as scoring and passing yards allowed, provide an appropriate measure of quality in college football. However, unlike the NFL, where there is far greater parity across the league, teams on the collegiate level vary significantly in talent, coaching and even style of play. A team that faces an abundance of poor offenses – or even just conservative ones – could have far gaudier statistics than a superior defense that has better opponents on the schedule. In the end, that makes achieving a true apples-to-apples comparison between two teams difficult, especially when they lack common opponents.
(And if you're looking for a raw stat that best sums up the quality of pass defenses in college football, it would be passer rating. Three Big 12 squads ranked in the top 30 nationally there.)
Our friends Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau have attempted to put everyone on a more even statistical playing field. According to their F+ statistics, which try to account for all of the contextual factors so sorely lacking in the basic data, four of the top 30 overall defenses in the country in 2011 called the Big 12 home: Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Not coincidentally, those same four also rank among the best passing defenses as measured by Connelly's S&P system.
However, using the raw stats, let's examine how Big 12 defenses held up against teams outside the league. It stands to reason that if they're that bad, teams from outside the conference should have a field day moving the ball against them, right? For expediency's sake, I limited this to the 17 games played between the Big 12 and other teams from BCS leagues. (All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.)
Definitely didn't play out the way you'd expect. In 11 of the 17 matchups, the opponents averaged fewer yards per play than their season averages. In 12 of 17 games, they scored fewer points than their season averages. Although it's not reflected in the chart above, in nine of 17 games, they averaged fewer yards per completion than they did for the season and had a worse passer rating than their season average.
What does all of this mean?
Who's really to say? We're talking about the dark arts of drafting a quarterback. There are no hard-and-fast rules.
But if you're writing off Big 12 quarterbacks because you think the defenses don't rate, the evidence doesn't seem to track.
(For the record: I really like RG3, I like Weeden and I just don't see what all the fuss is about with Tannehill.)