Two years ago, I looked at players who had surpassed a passing efficiency of 160 and how they struggled to stay up that high to demonstrate why Andrew Luck might have trouble winning the Heisman. I did the same thing last summer to make the case against Matt Barkley. The reasoning should make sense: it should be hard for a player to win the bronze statue if he doesn't surpass his performance from the previous year. And why 160? Quite simply, it's a really high level of play that is difficult to replicate.
This offseason doesn't seem to have a strong favorite outside of the reigning winner Johnny Manziel, but he doesn't actually apply for this study. His passing efficiency was a mere 155.32 last year.
Two other SEC quarterbacks did go over 160, though, and they led the nation in the category: A.J. McCarron with 175.28 and Aaron Murray with 174.82. Neither is as strongly favored for the award as Luck and Barkley were, but just about anywhere you look that has a Heisman watch list (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), they're on it somewhere.
Since 2000, 31 quarterbacks have had a season passing efficiency above 160 and returned to school the following year. Seven of them, a new high in the span, hit 160 last year. Three of them missed too many games due to injury the following season to count. Of the 21 remaining players, three managed to improve their PE scores, three had roughly the same PE as the prior year, and 15 saw their PEs decline.
Of the three who improved their marks, two were freshmen and one was a sophomore. Of the three who stayed the same, one was a freshman and two were sophomores. That then means, of course, that every junior who went above 160 and came back to school had his PE decline. The average decline was right about 19 with a median of about 16.
McCarron and Murray, of course, were juniors last season. That means that their passing efficiency marks are likely to drop this coming fall based on this history. That doesn't mean they won't stay above 160; Tim Tebow and Kellen Moore managed to remain above that mark as seniors despite declining in efficiency from their junior performances. Moore played mostly overmatched teams at Boise State, however, and Tebow needed an absurd closing performance against a disinterested Cincinnati team in the Sugar Bowl to crawl back above 160 right at the end.
It's not impossible for McCarron or Murray to win the Heisman this fall with a diminished passing efficiency score; Matt Leinart won the thing in 2004 despite his passing efficiency being nine points lower than in 2003. That win had as much to do with team success and the underclassman barrier still being up (freshman Adrian Petersen probably should've won it), and that does bode well for McCarron. If Alabama has another outstanding year and ends up in the BCS title game again, he'll probably at least end up in New York. It's hard to imagine a quarterback leading a team to three consecutive national title games without at least getting an invitation to the Heisman ceremony.
With that said, the Heisman is a different kind of award these days than it was even in '04. That's another post for another time, but to actually win the thing, you almost certainly need to be on an upswing versus the past. It will be awfully hard for either McCarron or Murray to go above 160 again as seniors, and while that might not keep them out of the Big Apple, it is likely to be enough to keep them from taking the trophy home.
The other five quarterbacks who went above 160 last year and return include other common purported Heisman candidates in SR Tajh Boyd (165.58), JR Teddy Bridgewater (160.49), and SO Marcus Mariota (163.23). The other two are SO J.W. Walsh of Oklahoma State (170.11) and SR David Fales of San Jose State (170.76). Each of 2011's three players who went above 160 (Barkley, Washington's Keith Price, and Toledo's Terrance Owens) saw their passing efficiencies decline in 2012.