Kentucky Football: Successful Quarterbacks Don't Translate To Wins

Andy Lyons

There is not a strong correlation between having a successful quarterback and total victories at UK since the 2007 campaign.

In today's SEC teleconference Mark Stoops once again declined to name a starting quarterback. Instead, Stoops reiterated the three main candidates - Drew Barker, Patrick Towles, and Reese Phillips - all had improved since the fall. This decision is somewhat surprising as Towles clearly had the best spring scrimmage performance, and the coaches had previously stated that scrimmages weigh heavy in their decision-making process. Much of the media and fan interest towards Kentucky football is presently being sucked up by the quarterback race but that focus is misguided.

Some of us get conditioned to believe successful quarterback play translates to a successful season. That platitude usually seems to originate with ESPN talking heads and then reverberates through office water coolers conversations, message boards, and taverns of choice. Yet, previous seasons' data suggests there is not a strong correlation between having a successful quarterback and victories at the University of Kentucky. Behold the data:

Year Primary QB (s) Total Passing Rating Total Passing Yards Record
2013 Smith; Whitlow 126.2 2321 2-10
2012 Smith; Whitlow 108.67 2115 2-10
2011 Smith; Newton 96.2 1627 5-7
2010 Hartline 144.08 3501 6-7
2009 Hartline; Newton 108.6 1824 7-6
2008 Hartline; Cobb 102.4 2234 7-6
2007 Woodson 142.7 3743 8-5

From the last seven seasons the most successful seasons statistically for Kentucky quarterbacks were Andre Woodson's 2007 season and Mike Hartline's 2010 season. Their stats are virtually indistinguishable, but yet Woodson's team won two more games. Two more victories is a big difference. Hartline missed the bowl game that season, but even assuming he threw for 250 yards and won the game - thereby matching Woodson's output - that team would have still earned one less victory. Additionally, the 2013 and 2012 seasons had better quarterback play than the 2011, 2009, and 2008 seasons but the those earlier seasons produced far better teams.

Under the Air Raid offense we may see quarterbacks numbers increase even more. Actually, I'm sure we will, but that could further serve to inflate the numbers.

There are better, but not perfect, candidates for success determinants in the last seven seasons for UK.  Defensively, there is a stronger correlation for pass yards given up per game, yards given up per game, and punts forced per game. Yet, the public glare of the quarterback race far outshines the development of the defense. Offensively, there is a stronger correlation for total first downs and rush yards per game suggesting more scrutiny should be paid to UK's skill positions than the player delivering them the ball. Even special teams play probably has a stronger correlation. The 2007-2009 teams were far more superior in average punt return per game than the 2010-2013 teams, while other special teams variables remained fairly consistent.

I went down this rabbit hole originally believing quarterback play was a main, if not determining, factor in a program's success. The data subsequently didn't support my preconceived narrative. Quarterback success may be vital at other programs but not at UK in recent years. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it probably doesn't matter who the coaches name as the starter. It's much more important that UK's skill players perform, and UK's defense keeps opposing offenses off the field.

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