By this point, Missouri fans know all the questions around the conference. Is Kansas the most talented team in the North and, if so, will the schedule still prevent them from winning the division? Is Nebraska officially "back" enough to take the division despite trips to Columbia and Lawrence? Is this the year Colorado finally justifies a slew of "sleeper picks" from assorted media?
Within the confines of the Missouri program, there are multiple questions, to be sure. How will the offense and defense perform under new coordinators? What kind of depth can Missouri develop on the defensive line? Does the pass defense have anywhere to go but up?
But there's simply no avoiding THE question, and that question comes in the form of the 6-5, 240-pound righty wearing No. 11 behind center: How exactly will Blaine Gabbert perform for the Missouri Tigers in 2009? That question spawns another question, however. What is a fair expectation for Gabbert in 2009?
And, thus, the impossibility of determining the parameters of statistical success begins.
Now, I don't aim to (nor could I) infringe upon the statistical sovereignty of The Boy Bill C., but for months, I'd been wanting to look at the first year numbers of quarterbacks in similar situations. What follows the jump is a year-by-year breakdown of the last four seasons, looking at underclassmen in their first years of starting for teams coming off of a season in which they were ranked OR at least received votes in the final AP poll, as well as what their performances may mean for Gabbert in 2009.
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2008 fails to provide a compelling comparative paradigm for Gabbert. It's somewhat hard to believe, but Marc Verica ends up as the gunslinger of the group in terms of attempts, finishing with the highest completion percentage but also an unsightly 1:2 TD:INT ratio. The two crown jewels of this group, Terrelle Pryor and Jeremiah Masoli, can attribute a decent portion of their successes to unique skill sets, skill sets not likely to be seen from Gabbert unless Yost begins calling the zone read 35 times a game. It's here where we begin to see why style of play is the lurking variable in this equation. This exception also applies to Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, whom I lumped into a collective vortex of mediocrity in the first year of the Rich Rod regime. The interesting cases here are Jarrett Lee and Mike Hartline. They had the collective misfortune of stepping under center following two extremely successful predecessors in Matt Flynn and Andre Woodson. Lee, in addition to throwing six pick-sixes amongst his 16 INTs, accounted for 22 percent less yardage than Flynn. Hartline's struggles to replace Woodson's 3700+ yards and 40 TDs resulted in more playing time for Randall Cobb.
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Talk about a small sample size. Raise your hand if you were expecting comparisons between Gabbert and Chris Turner and Sean Canfield. As a sophomore, Turner (and his awesome blond afro) supplanted Jordan Steffy as the starter for the Terps for the last eight games of the season. Yes, Gabbert is expected to lean heavily upon Derrick Washington and DeVion Moore, but in 2007, Turner's job was to defer to seniors Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball to the tune of 32 carries a game. Canfield's numbers are slightly skewed by a late-season injury, as well as Oregon State's 55-45 run-pass numbers in 2007. Yost has indicated throughout the offseason that he'd love to get Missouri closer to a 50-50 split, but it's hard to imagine MU keeping the ball on the ground 55 percent of the time. And then there's Sam Bradford, the football equivalent of the guy who always ruined the curve in all your classes. Don't get me wrong, I'd love nothing more than to have Gabbert put up Bradford-esque numbers, but placing an expectation of a 4:1 TD:INT ratio and a Big 12 title is almost the QB equivalent of Coulter-level hype.
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OK, remember what I said about Bradford ruining the curve? I take it back. Look at the yearly comparison. Graham Harrell alone might have been enough skew the numbers (after all, the attempts -- usually in the 280 range -- spiked to 373), but throw in great debuts for Chase Daniel and Colt McCoy and an under-appreciated season from Nate Longshore and the numbers jump. Instead of settling near the 3:2 TD:INT ratio for the four-year average, this rather prodigious group edged closer to 2:1. Here is where we start to get a better window for comparison. Gabbert is indelibly linked to Daniel, but is the average Missouri fan expecting him to approach the numbers reached by Daniel in 2006? It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility, but he also inherits a cupboard that (although not bare) isn't nearly as stacked as Daniel's was. With the Big 12 skewing the averages, the completion percentage, yards/attempt, and TD:INT ratio start to seem fair given Gabbert's situation in 2009.
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If you bow at the throne of Rivals rankings, allow me to cite chapter 2005. In the previous three years covered, only one five-star underclassman (Matthew Stafford in 2006) had seen significant starting time for a team coming off of a season in which the program received Top 25 votes. The 2005 sample includes two five-stars in Kyle Wright and Rhett Bomar. For all the grief Wright got during his tenure at Miami, it all started relatively well in 2005. The 18 TDs would be a career high for Wright. Meanwhile, Bomar used his time off from Big Red Sports/Imports to put together a slightly less impressive debut. Granted, Oklahoma ran the ball on 59 percent of plays in 2005 thanks to the tandem of Adrian Peterson and Kejuan Jones, keeping his numbers (and his importance to that offense) relatively low.
What does it all mean?
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So, what does it all mean? Very little. The numbers show that the majority of underclassman starters even at recently successful programs A) are going to be relatively protected, B) will be hard pressed to have the astronomical TD:INT ratios we're used to, and C) can't really provide us with a perfect mold to place around Gabbert. According to the numbers, the average line of the first-year underclassman starter ends up being 15-for-25 for 182 yards with a touchdown and a pick. More Derrick Washington or less Derrick Washington, it's difficult to envision Gabbert only putting the ball up 25 times a game. In the 2006 analysis, I said those numbers start to look fair for Gabbert: 60 percent completion, 7.3 yards per attempt, and a 2:1 TD:INT ratio. Presuming Gabbert hovers around the 35 attempt average, that puts his nightly projections around 21-for-35 for 255 yards, and hopefully not worse than 2 TDs/1 INT.
Of course, in the end, gaudy stats don't necessarily mean success (see: Juice Williams' 451 yards and 4 TD against Missouri last season). But as much as I can dance around applying finite expectations to Gabbert (and trust me, NO ONE loves ignoring stats for gut feelings more than me), if it's time to start applying digits to Gabbert's debut season as starter, this seems like as good a launching point for discussion as any.