Experience is roundly viewed as a positive trait in college football, and that’s certainly demonstrated at this time of the offseason, as preseason rankings and predictions flood fan bases. Last year, I wrote about how head coach Jimbo Fisher began adjusting expectations early— a move reflective of the Seminoles’ youth. This season, on the other hand, the ‘Noles return 17 of 22 starters, enough for respected analyst Phil Steele to pick Florida State to win the 2016 national title.
One of those returning starters, of course, is redshirt-senior quarterback Sean Maguire. But is that really a good thing? Regardless of your thoughts on the QB battle between Maguire and redshirt-freshman Deondre Francois, recent history says no. As explored previously by Brent Yarina to illuminate Big Ten teams’ chances, six of the last seven teams to win the national championship have been led by first-year starting signal-callers:
- 2015: Jacob Coker, Alabama
- 2014: Cardale Jones, Ohio State
- 2013: Jameis Winston, Florida State
- 2011: A.J. McCarron, Alabama
- 2010: Cam Newton, Auburn
- 2009: Greg McElroy, Alabama
And the one year the trend didn’t hold, 2012, is only because McCarron returned to start for the Crimson Tide in a year that saw them repeat as champs. Other than that, not one player listed above started a game prior to his title season. One reason those relatively lacking in experience may be seeing such success: a dearth of scouting material available to those facing new quarterbacks.
Consider the past, specifically Winston’s two seasons playing at FSU— although there are certainly myriad reasons for the difference between 2013 and 2014. In 2013, Winston had a passer rating better than 185 seven times, and actually averaged about that on the season, at 184.85, while throwing 40 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. Opposing defenses often looked as though they’d never seen anyone like Winston. Because, on two fronts, they hadn’t. First, he was a once-in-a-generation talent; and second, that was probably compounded by the fact that there was only so much film to watch on Winston. It stands to reason that out of Winston’s five games with a 200+ rating in 2013, four came within the first five games of the season.
In 2014, when footage of Winston was much more comprehensive, he went north of 185 just twice all season, averaging 145.53 in tossing 25 scores and 18 picks. Opponents’ defenses looked far better prepared. Because they were.
But let’s look ahead, and think about the differing ways this could affect 2016— specifically, the biggest game on the schedule. Florida State’s home showdown with Clemson is already circled on every college football fan’s calendar, and for good reason. If Maguire gets the start, Clemson will have footage of Maguire playing in 20 career games at FSU, including six starts, two of which came against the Tigers. If Francois gets the job, Dabo and company will have, at most, seven games worth of material. Beyond that? High school film.
Big-game experience is usually treated as an overwhelming advantage. But when it comes to the most important position on he field in the biggest games, the recent past may suggest otherwise.