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Does the nickname Quarterback U still fit BYU football? Why it could be making a comeback

FiveThirtyEight takes a look at BYU’s rich quarterback history over the past 50-plus years

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BYU quarterback Jim McMahon raises his arms in celebration as BYU defeated Washington State 38-36 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1981.

BYU quarterback Jim McMahon raises his arms in celebration as BYU defeated Washington State 38-36 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1981.

Associated Press

BYU’s quarterback history is in the spotlight during this week’s episode of “Eli’s Places,” in which former Super Bowl champion Eli Manning sits down with Cougar greats Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer to talk about the QB legacy at the school.

BYU’s reputation of churning out elite quarterbacks began in earnest with the LaVell Edwards era, and in collaboration with the latest episode of “Eli’s Places” — which can be streamed on ESPN+ starting Wednesday — FiveThirtyEight took a look at the past 50 years of college football (Edwards’ tenure at BYU began 50 years ago in 1972) and how Cougar quarterbacks stack up nationally during that time frame.  

The determination? 

Not only does the nickname Quarterback U fit BYU, but perhaps it could be making a comeback.

How do BYU passing statistics compare to other major programs since 1970?

FiveThirtyEight’s Maya Sweedler explained the process of how the organization compared BYU starting quarterbacks to other major Division I programs over the past half decade. 

One determination was the overall aggregate passing statistics BYU quarterbacks have posted since 1970.

“Cougar starting quarterbacks have compiled more yards per game than the average Division I starter in all but 11 of the past 50 seasons,” Sweedler wrote. “They’ve also dominated in terms of statistical totals.”

By FiveThiryEight’s data, BYU quarterbacks lead all major Division I programs in a variety of aggregated starting QB statistics since 1970, including completions (10,029), attempts (16,206), passing yards (134,762) and passing touchdowns (1,018). 

That doesn’t count seasons that didn’t meet FiveThirtyEight’s parameters that required starting quarterbacks to attempt a minimum of 14 passes per game and appear in at least 75% of their school’s games played. If schools failed to meet that mark, their statistics were not counted that year.

BYU was also the best in the advanced metric adjusted PAR

Another calculation Sweedler and FiveThirtyEight used to illustrate how BYU quarterbacks stacked up against their national competition was by looking at their schedule-adjusted points above replacement (PAR) metric for college passers since 1970.

What is adjusted points above replacement? 

“Adjusted PAR regresses ESPN’s Total QBR points above replacement for college passers against box score passing and rushing stats, then uses Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating system to upgrade or downgrade a QB’s value in a given season based on the quality of his competition,” the article reads.

BYU “lapped the competition” in that metric, Sweedler wrote, as BYU’s adjusted PAR aggregate total was 3,404.3, nearly 700 points ahead of No. 2 USC.

Sweedler explains that BYU was consistently able to produce one of the nation’s top passers in adjusted PAR, particularly during the late 1970s through the early 1990s when players such as Gary Sheide, Gifford Neilsen, Marc Wilson, McMahon, Steve Young and Detmer were quarterbacks at BYU.

For example, Young produced the best adjusted PAR rating of 175.1 in 1983, the best single-season score by a BYU quarterback during that 50-year span.

McMahon twice led the country in adjusted PAR, FiveThirtyEight determined, and of the top 10 single-season adjusted PAR numbers for BYU quarterbacks, those QBs finished fourth or higher nationally in that category in those respective seasons.

How do BYU quarterbacks in recent years perform on the adjusted PAR metric?

Sweedler wrote that “since settling in as an independent school for the 2011 season, the team hasn’t yet put together a string of premier quarterbacks comparable to those of the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. … Before 2020, BYU hadn’t landed a starter in the top five by adjusted PAR since (John) Beck’s 2006 season.”

In 2020, though, Zach Wilson posted an adjusted PAR rating of 126.6, the fourth-highest single-season total for BYU since 1970.

Wilson is now in the NFL with the New York Jets, while junior quarterback Jaren Hall is back for a second season as the program’s starter.

“Perhaps Wilson … was an outlier in a recent streak of middle-of-the-road quarterbacking seasons in Provo. But maybe he represented a return to form,” Sweedler wrote. 

“His successor under center, Jaren Hall, was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers last season. Hall’s first game of the season was a quiet — but still efficient — 25-of-32 showing for 261 yards and two scores in BYU’s 29-point drubbing of South Florida over the weekend, and he could be primed for a monster fall with both of his top receivers returning in 2022.”