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Passing Efficiency 160: Why Andrew Luck Might Have Trouble Winning the Heisman

On Monday, I saw this article from Heisman Pundit about Andrew Luck's chances at winning the bronze statuette this fall. The gist of it is that returning to school after being the Heisman runner up is no guarantee of winning it the following year.

It got me thinking about how regression to the mean might play into that. After all, Luck had an outstanding 2010 season on an outstanding team, putting up a passing efficiency of 170.16. It's not easy to post that high a number, much less to do it twice in a row. That's also why, despite the criticism of his game, Cam Newton made the right move to take his talents (and 182.05 passing efficiency) to the NFL. There really is only one way to go once you reach that high.

To wit, I looked at all of the quarterbacks who posted a passing efficiency of at least 160 since 2000 who also came back to school the next season. I figured 160 was a good number because it's difficult to attain. After all, no one managed to hit that mark in the entire 2002 season. Here is everyone, sorted by class, then season, then name:

Season Class QB School Pass Eff. Next Yr. PE Difference
2000 FR Rex Grossman Florida 161.8 170.8 +9.0
2005 FR Rudy Carpenter Arizona St. 175 133.7 -41.3
2006 FR Colt McCoy Texas 161.8 139.2 -22.6
2007 FR Sam Bradford Oklahoma 176.5 180.84 +4.34
2001 SO Jeff Smoker* Michigan St. 162.8 133.36 -29.44
2001 SO Rex Grossman Florida 170.8 121.5 -49.3
2001 SO Ryan Dinwiddie** Boise St. 164.7 188.2 +23.5
2003 SO Bruce Gradkowski Toledo 161.5 162.6 +1.1
2003 SO Matt Leinart USC 164.5 156.5 -8
2005 SO Brian Brohm Louisville 166.7 159.1 -7.6
2007 SO Tim Tebow Florida 172.5 172.37 -0.13
2008 SO Sam Bradford*** Oklahoma 180.84 - -
2009 SO Kellen Moore Boise St. 161.65 182.63 +20.98
2010 SO Andrew Luck Stanford 170.16 ? ?
2001 JR Byron Leftwich Marshall 164.6 156.5 -8.1
2004 JR Bruce Gradkowski Toledo 162.6 146.4 -16.2
2006 JR Colt Brennan Hawaii 186 159.8 -26.2
2008 JR Colt McCoy Texas 173.75 147.42 -26.33
2008 JR Tim Tebow Florida 172.37 164.17 -8.2
2008 JR Zac Robinson Oklahoma St. 166.84 126.43 -40.41
2010 JR Kellen Moore Boise St. 182.63 ? ?


*Smoker missed three games in 2002, keeping him off of the official NCAA national standings.

**Dinwiddie missed three games in 2002, keeping him off of the official NCAA national standings.

***Bradford appeared in just three games in 2009, missing significant action in two of them. His '09 passing efficiency isn't worth calculating as it makes no sense.

Not including the guys who were injured enough not to count in the standings the next season, three players improved their PE, two were about the same, and 11 posted worse PEs.

The three who improved were Rex Grossman from his freshman to sophomore season, Sam Bradford from his freshman to sophomore season, and Kellen Moore from his sophomore to junior season. Not coincidentally I think, both Grossman and Bradford were redshirt freshmen when they posted their high numbers. Dinwiddie probably should count here, as he played in nine of his team's 12 regular season games.

The two who stayed mostly the same were Tim Tebow from his sophomore to junior season and Bruce Gradkowski from his sophomore to junior season. If you're counting along, you'll note that all of these guys who improved or stayed the same were not yet juniors. Also, if you plan on staying the same or improving after posting a 160+ passing efficiency, you had better A) play against WAC or MAC competition, B) play for Florida, or C) be Sam Bradford. Glad we cleared that up.

The guys who didn't improve or stay the same make up most of the list. Some of the crashes were spectacular. Grossman suffered when Steve Spurrier left and was replaced by Ron Zook on top of losing his top two receivers. Zac Robinson's big decline from 2008-09 is probably a byproduct of Dez Bryant's suspension as much as anything.

The regime change angle is notable for both of last year's returning 160+ men. Luck saw his head coach Jim Harbaugh leave for the NFL. What helps ease that transition is that offensive coordinator David Shaw was promoted to Harbaugh's old job, but his effectiveness as a head coach (which is as of yet unknown) will impact Luck's ability to be as effective in 2011 as he was in 2010.

Moore, meanwhile, lost his offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Texas, so he has that to contend with. He runs into the player attrition issue too as his top receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis are gone. Also working against him is that every junior that posted a 160+ passing efficiency put up a worse score the next year. I'm not suggesting that we'll see Moore's passing efficiency drop 40+ points as Grossman's and Robinson's did. It very well could fall in the neighborhood of 23 points though, which is the average decline (not including Smoker) of those who saw their passing efficiencies fall in the table above.

In short, it's a good bet that a player who posts a 160+ passing efficiency will decline the next year, and it's even better to bet against improvement specifically. The list of quarterbacks since 2000 who have officially put up 160+ in consecutive years reads like this: Grossman, Gradkowski, Tebow, Bradford, and Moore. The list of those who have done it in three straight seasons has one name: Tebow. And he needed a ridiculous 31/35, 482 yard, 3 TD, 0 INT (232.54) demolition of Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl to end up above the 160 threshold the third year.

I wish Andrew all the (hurr) luck in the world at winning the Heisman Trophy this year, but he's almost certainly going to have to do it with a worse passing efficiency than he put up last year.